Xanthi is often described as the most culturally diverse city in Greece and this structure is symbolic of the story of its diversity. Though the majority of the population is made up of Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, there are substantial communities of three different Muslim groups.
The impressive clock tower in the old market square did not start life as such. It was once part of an important mosque that was built in 1870, after the end of Ottoman rule of Greece, by the leader of the Pomaks, a group of Bulgarian-speaking Muslims from the area.
The Pomaks are of Bulgarian descent and are thought to be descendants of people who were forcibly converted to Islam by the Ottoman authorities. After the Ottoman period one of their leaders, Hadji Emin Ada, constructed a mosque in the Xanthi city center, known as the “Market Mosque”, which attracted worshipers from the surrounding area. The mosque was burned down by occupying Bulgarian forces in World War II, leaving the minaret tower to be converted to a free-standing clock tower.
In 1923, the Greek and Turkish governments organized a mandatory population exchange as a means of reducing tensions between and within the two countries. Many Muslims were forced to move to Turkey while Orthodox Christians in Turkey were deported to Greece. The Muslims of Western Thrace were exempted from this officially sanctioned process of ethnic cleansing and the area close to Xanthi still holds the greatest proportion of Greece’s Muslim minority. In the villages around Xanthi, Christians and Muslims live happily side by side but there are still land disputes which go back to the early 19th century.
In 1972, when the municipality announced plans to pull down the clock tower to allow development in the main square, the local Muslim community objected strongly and the demolition was halted. In 1982, Xanthi authorities tried to appropriate Muslim-held agricultural land just outside town the tower was the center of a large protest in the form of a hunger strike. The ownership of the land remains in dispute. Fortunately, this important cultural structure has recently been declared a national monument and inter-community relations continually improve.
Know Before You Go
If you are planning a trip which passes through the town try to time it for Saturday when the famous Xanti bazaar attracts people from as far away as Turkey and Bulgaria.
At night the area around the clock tower is very lively.
You can get to Xanthi from either Kavala or Alexandropoli by bus. Both journeys are just over 1 hour and cost about £3-5. From the UK the cheapest flights are usually to Alexandropoli but you need to shop around.