Mon, 06/01/2009 - 14:17
© Anthony Georgieff
Xanthi's architectural and ethnic wealth stems from tons of tobacco

The die of the ban on smoking in public buildings that was cast in San Luis Obispo, California in 1990 has finally rolled into Greece too. In seven months, this country where 45 percent of the adult population buy cigarettes will impose a total ban on the use of tobacco in public places. From 1 July, the government is launching a campaign to restrict smoking in cafés, restaurants and so on ahead of the ban.

However, in the province of Thrace, on the southern slopes of the Rhodope, there exists proof that smoking is not always harmful. Xanthi, known as the city of the thousand colours due to its 19th and early 20th Century houses painted in every possible hue, overcame its economic anonymity only because of tobacco.

At the end of the 17th Century, not only was smoking banned in public places throughout the Ottoman Empire, but it was a felony punishable by decapitation.

In those days, Xanthi was on the verge of extinction. The relative prosperity of ancient Xanthia, where philosophers Democritus (with the hypothesis about the indivisible "atoms") and Protagoras ("Man is the measure of all things") lived for some of their lives, was long gone.

Xanthi was a ghost town. It was inhabited by a few Greeks and Slavs, traumatised by the memory of the atrocities suffered during the Ottoman occupation. In fact, the whole region between the Rhodope and the valleys of the Mesta and the Maritsa was depopulated.

Close by, there were Ottoman Turks from Asia Minor living in the town of Genisea. It had been founded only recently, as a result of the plans of the Sublime Porte to resettle this part of the empire.

Christians and Muslims were equally poor until the Ottoman authorities realised that smoking was a harmful habit that could not be uprooted by even the most skilful executioner, and legalised tobacco at the beginning of the 18th Century. Soon, an enterprising subject of the sultan discovered that the southern slopes of the Rhodope, in particular, produced excellent tobacco.

The discovery was made in an age when all Western Europeans carried in their pouches tobacco imported from the Americas. It entered the Old World through a limited number of ports, which imposed heavy duties on it.

xanthiThe cheap Ottoman tobacco transformed the market. Xanthi and Genisea became the centres of the trade of what was often referred to as "Brown Gold." The towns prospered and their citizens – typically nouveaux riches – built sumptuous houses to show off their wealth.

It seems Fortuna preferred Xanthi's tobacco. In 1870, an earthquake razed Genisea to the ground. Xanthi remained in a relatively good state and so could accommodate the flood of refuges from the nearby settlement, as well as their money. The city's good luck continued in the 1880s. The new railway line from Edirne to Thessaloniki passed through Xanthi, providing convenient transport for its merchants, and bypassed their main competitors in the town of Yenije.

When you pass through the nondescript streets and quarters of new Xanthi and reach the foot of the hill where the old centre stands, you will see the unmistakable traces of the city's tobacco opulence. One after the other, narrow streets full of two and three-storey embodiments of the wealth of their owners meander up the hill.

xanthiThe styles vary. Some houses look as if they were built by the masters of the "Bulgarian Revival Period" Baroque that Plovdiv is so proud of. In fact, one of the buildings was indeed constructed by masters from Philippopolis. Many of the town houses are like those in Edirne. And there are even more cosmopolitan analogies.

Some of Xanthi's houses, built in the early 20th Century, are a Balkanised version of the architectural style of Edwardian London. The town even has its street of terraced houses built for extended families.

The mix of architectural styles reflects the diversity of Xanthi's residents. The city, which is located in the most ethnically varied part of Greece, is also the home of Turks, Pomaks, Gypsies and even a few Bulgarians.

xanthiThe Turks are the easiest to spot, especially in the upper part of the Old City. They sit on benches in front of their houses and there are strings of tobacco leaves drying in their small yards. The muezzin's calls to prayer sometimes mingle with the peal of the Greek church bells. The Sunday market, which is held in a special square at the foot of the old quarter, is the place and time to see the local Pomaks, Muslims of Slavic origin, as well as the Gypsies.

The market is a vast affair, dating back to Xanthi's tobacco heyday, which dictates the pace of life in the city. Tourist guidebooks rank it among the city's landmarks and its fame nearly equals that of the local carnival. Along with the one in Patras, Xanthi's carnival is the most lavish festival in Greece to mark the beginning of Lent.

xanthiThe few Bulgarians in the city and the surrounding region are a remnant of a long period of rivalry between Bulgarians and Greeks over Aegean Thrace.

The Slavs arrived here in the 5th Century AD. Having founded their state, the Bulgarians needed only a century to include the region in their plans for expansion. Until the Ottomans came on the scene, they fought several wars with the Byzantines over Aegean Thrace – with varying success. Hostilities were renewed with mediaeval ferocity in the 19th Century, when Greece won its independence but the Aegean coast remained under the sultan's thumb. The young Bulgarian national movement stated its claims to the region and gained permission to include it in the diocese of the Bulgarian Exarchate.

xanthiIt seceded from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and was promulgated with a sultan's firman, or decree, in 1870, thus becoming the first official organisation of the Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire. Western Thrace was also part of Bulgaria, according to the Preliminary Treaty of San Stefano, signed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Congress of Berlin returned it to the sultan, but the Bulgarians already had a foundation for their claims to the area.

Their aspirations became reality in 1912, during the First Balkan War. However, with Bulgaria's defeat in the Great War and the subsequent redrawing of the borders in Paris in 1919, Aegean Thrace passed to Greece. Soon afterwards, under the population exchange agreements between Sofia and Athens, Bulgarians began to leave the area. This migration was reversed in 1941, when Bulgaria was given the administration of Aegean Thrace and the Vardar region of Macedonia by its ally, Nazi Germany. However, it all came to an end in 1944.

xanthiXanthi could not but be affected by the turbulent events of the first part of the 20th Century. The hues of the façades of the colourful city faded, something obvious to the naked eye. The houses in the Old City bear plaques with extensive information about the merchants who built them but a number of them are empty. Some lucky ones have been bought by foreigners or converted into restaurants or museums, such as the Folklore Museum, which occupies the former homes of two merchant brothers.

Of course, Xanthi and the production and sale of tobacco are still interrelated. However, today the bustle of the city is not due to the trade of a handful of prominent merchants, but to the thousands of students from the Engineering Faculty of the Democritus University of Thrace. Their influence is most marked between the market and the lower parts of the old quarter.

xanthiThe young people have created a notably bohemian atmosphere that can be felt in the mix of old houses and new art galleries, restaurants, bars and cafés, making Xanthi the kind of place that bohemians in Plovdiv, Varna and even Sofia can only dream of.

As for smoking in public places, we have yet to see how the ban will affect Xanthi's carefree atmosphere.

Issue 33

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