At the end of a steep road facing the sea, with views across the seaport of Kavala, stands a former Madrasa built by the Ottoman General, Mohammed Ali Pasha. Ari Kellerman takes a tour, discovering a confluence of cultures and one woman’s determination to restore the historic monument.
BY ARI KELLERMAN | SEPTEMBER 2023
Anna Missirian was in negotiations with the Egyptian government for nearly a decade, such was her commitment to restoring Imaret, a derelict madrasa in her native Kavala, Greece. Built by the Kavala-born Ottoman general, Mohammed Ali Pasha, in the early 19th-century, the Imaret is one of a few remaining properties that illustrates the cultural legacy the Ottomans left behind and is, architecturally, an amalgam of the diversity of Kavala. Yet neither Greece nor Egypt had made its restoration a priority.
Kavala is the principal seaport in Macedonia. With Bulgaria only a short distance to the north, and Turkey an hour and a half to the west, the city feels vastly different from the many islands and villages that have come to typify Greek culture. It is a crossroad between the East and the West. Its Byzantine and Ottoman heritage is omnipresent, and today the cultures are so enmeshed that there is little telling them apart here.
Previously known as the Byzantine city of Christoupolis, Kavala fell to the Turks in 1387. While there was turmoil, there were also periods of religious freedom, and in the 19th century the city thrived as a cultural center of Christians and Jews, with a Muslim majority. Unlike much of Southern Greece that saw its independence in 1829, Northern Greece did not see the end of Ottoman rule until the Balkan Wars of 1913.
Following the Greek-Turkish War in the early 20th century, a population exchange occurred, and the city lost its Muslim majority and gained tens of thousands of exiled Greek-speaking Christian refugees from Asia Minor. Imaret is one of the few properties that illustrates the cultural legacy the Ottomans left behind.
Built in the Ottoman Baroque style with Roman and Byzantine elements, Imaret was constructed for the Ottoman general, Mohammed Ali Pasha - born in Kavala in 1769 - and became royal property when, on the order of Sultan Mahmud II of Istanbul, Pasha travelled to Egypt and defeated Napoleon, resisting the French occupation of Egypt. The Sultan recognized him as Governor and later Viceroy, establishing the Mohammed Ali dynasty - the last dynasty of the Egyptian state.
Wanting to transform the city of his birth, Pasha founded Imaret as a Madrasa, a religious school for Muslim boys to be trained as imams and lawyers. The complex (Külliye) included elementary schools and colleges, a mosque, a library, a printing press, a hamam, along with a charitable center for men and women of all faiths. The construction began in 1813 and continued for 20 years. Once operational, the Imaret - meaning ‘soup kitchen’ - housed up to 300 students, many of whom were orphans.
When the Balkan Wars began, Imaret welcomed refugees to the compound. The forcible population exchange of 1922-24 followed, and the mass exodus of ethnic Greeks and the Christian minority from Asia Minor left many “foreigners” homeless in Kavala, and at Imaret’s door. The Greek state could not support them, which hastened the exile of Greek Muslims to Turkey. Both Christians and Muslims were seen as other in their new homelands, enduring the lasting traumas of war.
Imaret, which remained as refugee housing and storage until 1970, was recognized by the Greek state as a protected historical monument and dual Greek and Egyptian territory. While both countries agreed to create a cultural center for the promotion of shared heritage, nothing was successful and Imaret fell into disuse.
Missirian, who hails from one of Kavala’s last tobacco families, always had an interest in the shared identity between the Greeks and Turks. As a child she played at the deteriorating monument - after operating for a century, Imaret fell into disuse and lay empty for years - and as an adult she saw its inherent cultural value. She has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to its revitalization, which has not been without diplomatic difficulties. In the end, Missirian was granted a lease for just 50 years.
The restoration began in 2001, complying with international conservation guidelines and using only historic methods and materials. Adhering to these guidelines proved complex: many of the materials were difficult to source or unsafe to work with, such as the lead used in the numerous domes. Much of the lead was missing due to it being melted down to make bullets during periods of war. The many faucets used for washing before prayer were also stolen and melted for scrap value.
While the restoration is still ongoing, in 2004 Imaret opened a section of the 61-room complex as a luxury boutique hotel, achieving contemporary use while still offering public access as a heritage site. Through her conservation efforts, Missirian founded the Motivation of Heritage Affinities research center, under which Imaret and a separate structure, the Mohammed Ali Pasha House, function. The non-profit aims to further the study of the cultural and scientific history of Islamic civilization.
Despite the preservation efforts made by MOHA and the Missirian family, the future is uncertain. No-one knows exactly what will happen when Egypt’s 50-year lease comes to term. Missirian is only a steward, in the same way that every historic preservationist protects our cultural landscape for the next generation. Yet she had the foresight, the strength and the resources to undertake a massive, and truly rare, Ottoman masterpiece in Europe, when everyone else had watched it fall to pieces.
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Ari Kellerman is a Maine-based photographer and antiquarian, and a regular contributor to Cabana | Follow Ari on Instagram: @arikellerman