Our seminar’s weekend excursions have taken us to centuries-old monasteries, to Mount Olympus, and to the gold and sapphire of Corfu’s beaches. But perhaps the most unique experience I’ve had was our overnight stop in the rather unassuming city of Komotini en route to Edirne, Turkey.
During our all-day bus commute from Thessaloniki to Komotini, Turkey occupied my thoughts. Everything would be different, I knew, once we crossed the border between Greece and Turkey, EU and non-EU, Christianity and Islam. So when our bus rolled into Komotini, my first reaction to the minarets jutting into the sky was: But we’re not in Turkey yet!
The various faces of Thessaloniki, where our seminar is based, include Roman, Byzantine, Balkan, Jewish, and Ottoman features. Today, Greece favors some parts of its history over others, leaving Ottoman spirits to flit through decrepit old mosques and Turkish bath houses (if they still exist) while celebrating its Hellenic and Orthodox Christian pasts. In Komotini, however, Greece’s Ottoman past still lives, with Turkish shop signs and vendors selling Turkish delicacies a common sight in the city’s sizable Muslim quarter. Next to a restaurant where we ate lahmacun (a Turkish wrap with spiced minced meat and vegetables), a dentist advertised his services, with Greek letters spelling out his not-so-Greek name, Yusuf Jihad. At sundown, the boom of a cannon signaled the break of the Ramadan fast, while mosques lit their festive lights.
Reminding myself that I was still on the Greek side of the border, I began to rethink my definition of Greece. My glimpse of Komotini made me realize that minarets have just as much a place on Greece’s historical landscape as do church domes and marble columns. In Komotini, we experienced a juxtaposition of cultures which remains only in Thessaloniki’s history and is almost invisible in other parts of Greece–one which is fascinating and beautiful.