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Lesson 4.8: Salonica, A Cosmopolitan City


Lesson 4.8: Salonica, A Cosmopolitan City


Topic 5: Cosmopolitan Port Cities on the Mediterranean


Topic Overview

The port cities of the Mediterranean were hubs in the trade in globalized commodities and political networks of the region, connected both to one another and to their hinterlands, although there were frequently tensions along both of these sets of axes. The society of the port cities was typically characterized by cosmopolitanism, relative openness, cultural diversity, transience, and dynamism compared with cities in the hinterland that had more homogenous populations.  This openness, however, did not necessarily remain stable over the long term, but was affected by changing trends and circumstances far beyond the region.

Salonica was a particularly interesting example of a cosmopolitan port city in these respects. Not only did it have a full complement of traders from around the Mediterranean, but the city itself had a majority Jewish population, having significant populations of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal who were expelled by the Catholic regimes there. For centuries, Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Slavs and others lived and worked together in Ottoman Salonica—not always harmoniously, but usually prosperously.

The story of Salonica’s cosmopolitan past takes several dramatic and tragic turns after the 19th century. While this unit focuses on the period 1450-1800, it is important to know that context because today much of the readily available information on Thessaloniki treats it as a Greek city with an important Byzantine past, while its Muslim and Jewish communities are overlooked. In 1912, the city was taken from the Ottomans by the Greeks in the Balkan War, and much of the Muslim population was deported to Turkey in exchange for Orthodox Christians who came from cities like Smyrna/Izmir. In 1917, the city suffered a terrible fire which decimated most of the Jewish quarter; many Jews chose to leave the city then and start a new life elsewhere. But it was the brutal Nazi occupation of Salonica that truly decimated the “Mother of Israel:” 96% of the remaining Jewish population of the city was killed in labor camps and Auschwitz.

Lesson Overview

Students will define and problematize the concept of “cosmopolitan:” diversity didn’t always mean that communities lived together in harmony. Students will then review a wide variety of primary and secondary sources that each touch on the cosmopolitan nature of Salonica in the early modern period, ranging from maps to legal documents, songs and poems to images.

Students will work in groups to create graphical representations of the cosmopolitan interactions and interrelationships of the people of Salonica, paying attention to issues of ethnicity, class, gender and occupation. Students should work together to decide what aspects of Salonica on which to focus, what materials from the handout will be most useful, and what further questions they have and how they might research them. They will also decide, within the teacher’s guidelines, what form their presentation will take: an annotated map, a website, a video, a Prezi, a play, or some other medium, as long as it allows students to present information in text and image, and perhaps audio and video as well.


Barbara Petzen


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


Four 45-50 minute class periods, plus additional time for extension (may be assigned as homework)


• Students will be able to define and problematize the concept of “cosmopolitan.”

• They will identify the different ethnic and religious groups who made up the city of Salonica in the early modern period, and describe how they came to inhabit the city.

• They will identify the main resources and trading goods of Salonica.

• They will analyze primary and secondary sources from a variety of media, including legal documents, poetry, songs, and images.

• They will analyze primary source documents and identify the point of view, goals, main arguments, and evidence used of the writers.

• They will compare the positions and goals of the authors of different primary source documents on a single issue.


• Student Handout 4.8.1: Salonica

Lesson Plan Text

1. Begin by finding Thessaloniki, Greece, on Google Maps or Google Earth. Ask students to describe its geographical characteristics. Why would you want to settle here? Where can you easily get to from here? Note that it is located at the conjunction of trade routes in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, and that it lies between hills and fertile plains, both of which added to its economic prosperity and strategic location. Discuss with students the importance of each of these geographic features.

2. Divide students into working groups of 4-5. Give students copies of Student Handout 4.8.1: Salonica. Explain that the primary and secondary sources in the handout will be the starting point for a research activity and the creation of a group graphical (or possibly performance) presentation on the following question: What made Salonica a cosmopolitan city in the early modern period?

3. Have students read the primary and secondary documents in the handout, and attempt to answer the questions given with each document. Ask students to highlight the information they think is most significant in the documents, and to write down further questions they have about the issues raised.

4. Students should work together to research answers to the questions they have raised, with the teacher working with them to help identify resources and check understanding. The resources given as sources in the handout and in the bibliography at the beginning of this module will be helpful places to start.

5. Each group should work together to propose a project presentation that they think will highlight the most important understandings they have garnered from the project. The teacher should work with each group to refine the plan for their presentation.

6. When presentations are completed, have each group of students give the other presentations constructive feedback, in addition to assessment by the teacher. Adaptation: (optional)If time is limited or students have limited experience working with historical documents, teachers can choose a smaller number of documents, and work through them with students.

7. Extension: (optional) Have students find and research individuals from Salonica, writing short biographies that connect them with the ethnic groups, trades, government and class structure of Salonica. Place the biographies on an online timeline program, such as Tiki-Toki, TimeRime, or Dipity.

8. Assessment: This project is designed to allow students an opportunity to develop 21st century competencies in collaboration, communication, cultural competence and technology. Assessment of the project should be built into each stage, and include assessment of student group work by the teacher as well as by the students in each group. Final presentations should include a self-assessment by the group presenting, as well as peer assessment by other students.



Barbara Petzen, “Lesson 4.8: Salonica, A Cosmopolitan City,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed June 22, 2021,

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