30 August 2010

Defining Greek and Turk: Uncertainties in the Search for European identities

“Το παιδομάζωμα” (ή “το σκλαβοπάζαρο”) του Νικολάου Γύζη ... The Levy of Christian Children, by Nicholas Ghyzis

This paper was first published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol XIII, No 2 (Spring/Summer 2000), pp 240-253:

Defining Greek and Turk: Uncertainties in the Search for European identities*

Patrick Comerford

Foreign Desk Editor, The Irish Times

If accepted, Turkey would become the first EU member state with a Muslim majority. Greek objections no longer present the major barrier to Turkey’s application. Mutual antagonisms between Greeks and Turks, however, goes beyond politics, and has deep social, cultural and religious roots. This paper addresses the question of whether Greeks and Turks have constructed their identities by defining themselves as against each other, and whether there has been a parallel use of the Islamic constituent in Turkish identity to exclude Turkey from definitions of what it is to be European, and of the Christian constituent in Greek identity to define the furthest limits of Europe. The paper concludes by assessing whether Islam poses a threat to European identity or whether it is part of the European cultural, social, political and religious experience.


As part of its educational programme, the National Gallery of Greece recently brought a collection of significant 19th century Greek paintings to its Sparta annexe. Significantly, the catalogue and poster for the exhibition were illustrated by Nicholas Ghyzis, The Levy of Christian Children. The Janissaries were introduced to the Turkish army in the fourteenth century as a permanent component in an army raised by means of feudal levies. The best of Christian boys, both in brain and brawn, were taken from their families as tribute in the levy known as the devsirme. The Janissaries were feared even by the sultans: Osman II in 1622, and Selim III in 1807 were killed by Janissaries, and it was not until 1826 that Mahmut II had the power and the strength to disband the Janissaries. However, the blood of Greeks flowed through the veins of Janissaries, the viziers, and even the Ottoman sultans. Despite the subsequent claims by Ataturk in this century to a pure Turkish identity, forced conversions, the wholesale transfer of villages and communities, and the families of the Janissaries and even the sultans themselves are guarantees even today that there are many Turks whose ancestry is Greek, but who have been defined on the grounds of religion alone.

In recent decades, as Turkey has sought to be accepted as an applicant for membership of the European Union, that confusion of definition and identity has proved a major psychological stumbling block both for Turks and those within the EU. Both saw the Turks, by definition, as being Muslims, and their Muslim identity as such was a negative factor in accepting their claim to a European identity. But if a significant proportion of Turks are of Greek (and Christian) descent, and a significant number of Greeks are of Anatolian origin, it becomes important in the debates about European identity and the place of Turks within Europe, to ask to what degree religion was a determining factor in shaping both Greek and Turkish identities in recent generations. It may be that geographically we have been saying that Europe ends and Asia begins at the Bosphorus. But geography apart, are we also saying that the heritages of Christianity and Islam are definitive when it comes to separating European from non-European identity? Is it possible that Europe is defining itself in terms of Christianity, or, at least, a shared Christian heritage, and that, in the words of Claude Farrere seventy years ago, even those who have lost their Christian faith have preserved their anti-Muslim heritage If Turkey and Greece have been forced to play the role of protagonists, then to what degree did Islam play a role in defining Greek and Turkish identities as the new Greek and Turkish societies emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? And if Islam did play a role in defining those identities, what then are the implications for defining who is European and who is not European today?

A struggle for identity

The struggle to define a Greek identity that separated Greeks within the Ottoman Empire, including those of Greek ethnic identity who spoke Turkish as their first language and who accepted positions of power within the Ottoman administration, from those of Greek descent who continued to speak Greek but who had become Muslims may provide clues we need to help us understand the developments within the debates not only about who is Greek and who is Turk, but who is European and who is not.

The German historian Heinz Richter speculates that the debate over who is Greek and who is Turk, who is European and who is non-European, may have started as early as ‘the Persian Wars of 460 and 480 BC (perhaps even from the Trojan War) and evolve by way of the Fall of Constantinople (145[3]) to the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1923’.[1] Certainly, the debate began to be expressed in terms that excluded Anatolia from European cultural identity as early as the period between 1595 and 1610, when Vitsentzos Kornaros wrote his 10,000 verse epic poem, Erotokritos. Kornaros was a Hellenised Veneto-Cretan of a noble family, and wrote his poem during the Golden Age of the Cretan Renaissance, after the fall of Constantinople but before Crete fell to the Turks. The duel between the Cretan and the Karamanlite (a Greek from Anatolia) is symbolic of the Turkish threat not only to Crete but to the surviving remains of Hellenic civilisation, and the hero of the poem is Erotokritos, a ‘national champion’ fighting for his country (symbolised now not by Constantinople but by Athens) against an alien aggressor (by implication the Ottoman Turks).[2]

Two hundred years later, from the 1820s on, the debate about Greek identity – about defining Greek and Turk, European and non-European – would find its expression not only in the speeches and writings of those engaged in Greek struggle for independence in the 1820s, but through the songs, poetry, literature and art of the time and of succeeding generations.

Greek identity

The recent exhibition by the National Gallery of Greece at its Sparta annexe of significant nineteenth century Greek paintings was organised by the art historian Andreas Ioannides, curator of the National Gallery, and was an important initiative, assembling works by a number of artists who emerged as the modern Hellenic state was seeking expressions of its ethnic, cultural and political identities. Nicholas Ghyzis (1842-1901) and Theodoros Vryzakis (1814-1878), whose works were included in the exhibition, were two of the significant artists who emerged in post-independence Greece. They favoured battle scenes inspired by the uprising, and their work was part of a general artistic expression was confined to vernacular art and a declining post-Byzantine tradition in religious painting. As Marina Lambraki-Plaka, director of the National Gallery, points out, art of this kind could not serve the purposes of the new state or the aspirations of the ruling class.[3]

The shift from post-Byzantine art towards the models of the West is best represented in the works of Ghyzis, Vryzakis and their companions, who had studied in Athens and Munich.[4] Their paintings of scenes from the struggle for independence and, in particular, of military engagements with the Turks, provided artistic expression for the new state’s struggle for national identity.[5] The engagement of painters with the struggle to express the new, emerging Greek national identity was paralleled by similar efforts by poets and writers. Before Ghyzis painted his oil on canvas, The Destruction of Psara, the poet Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) was immortalising that incident from 1824, when, perhaps, 20,000 of the islanders of Psara, along with refugees from Chios, Lesbos, and Smyrna, blew themselves up along with their powder kegs rather than surrender to a force of 14,000 Janissaries:

On the coal-black ridge of Psara,
Glory walks alone.
She her heroes,
And on her head she wears a crown
Made from a few dry blades of grass
Left barren on the ground

“Μετά την καταστροφή των Ψαρών” του Νικολάου Γύζη ... The Destruction of Psara, by Nicholas Ghyzis

Solomos’ instinct was that literature had to bear witness to contemporary history; his The Free Besieged was originally to have been entitled To Heroes (‘Duty’). And so, poets, painters and writers combined in post-independence Greece to express a national identity for the fledgling state and its new ruling class to assert itself. Despite the romantic reflection of later artists and the influence in western Europe of Philhellenes such as Byron, it was not so clear to the Greeks who took part in the independence struggle that they were fighting to create a nation-state, for their motives differed enormously: while the peasants saw the struggle as a means towards land redistribution, the land owners assumed their role was to lead and were seeking to retain and reinforce their traditional privileges; the traditional elites thought of independence not in terms of substituting their own oligarchic rule for that of the Turks, so that the kodjabashis, the Peloponnesian notables, were disparagingly referred to as ‘Christian Turks’.[7]

It was only after the independence of the Greek state was confirmed in 1830 that the problem of national identity emerged as one that needed answers that could find expression in art, poetry, song and music. The new state could not be compared with other emerging European nation states, for, manifestly, it was not a nation state. While Greeks still looked to Constantinople as their city, their capital, the new state vacillated in its choice of capital, with the national assembly first meeting in 1822 in Nauplion in the sixteenth century Vouleftiko Mosque, and contained fewer than one-third of what had been the Greek population of the Ottoman Empire: all the major centres of Greek mercantile enterprise, including Smyrna, Thessaloniki and Constantinople, remained within the Ottoman Empire; many if not a majority spoke Turkish as their first language. So, how could one define a Greek?

During the centuries of Ottoman rule, Turks insisted that the ‘Greek’ millet or millet-i-Rum embraced all Orthodox Christians in the Empire, including Greeks, but also Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, Vlachs, and even Albanian and Arab Orthodox Christians. The desire for independence was first formulated and expressed in print by Rigas Veletsinlis (1757-1798), who is regarded as the ‘protomartyr’ of the independence movement. But Veletsinlis was not a Greek is we use today’s terminology that merges ethnic and national identities: he was a Hellenised Vlach from Thessaly, and his vision for independence embraced not just Greeks, or Greeks and Hellenised members of other ethnic groupings, but also Vlachs and the inhabitants of Moldavia and Wallachia (modern Romania) in a revived Byzantine empire. His definition of Greek identity rested not on religion, culture, ethnic background, or place of birth, but solely on language and culture: ‘He who speaks modern or ancient Greek, even if he lives in the Antipodes ... is a Greek and a citizen’.[8] The words were echoed by Shelley in the words quoted to applause by President Bill Clinton during his visit to Athens in November 1999:

We are all Greeks. All our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece. But for Greece [...] we might still have been savages and idolators.[9]

They were romantic definitions, opposing civilisation and barbarism, but they helped an emerging nation state to shape its identity. As early as the 1830s, the Austrian historian, J.P. Fallmerayer, aroused outrage in fledgling state when he questioned whether modern Greeks were the lineal descendants of the ancient Greeks.[10] The anger came as the political leadership, faced with the problem of constructing a nation as well as a state, realised a pressing need to create a shared sense of Greek identity, transcending traditional loyalties to family, to native village, to island, and to region. Questions were being asked: Who was a Greek? What made him a Greek? Who could claim Greek identity and a rightful place as a citizen in the new state? What constituted ‘Greekness’? Clearly language was not a factor: the majority of Greeks remaining under Ottoman rule spoke Turkish as their language, and even had books printed in Turkish, using Greek typefaces. Ancestry was important for many, but where did this place those of Greek ancestry who converted to Islam, adopted Turkish names and lifestyles, as with many of the Muslims of Crete? Where did a definition of Greek identity leave, for example, those aristocratic Phanariot Greeks of Istanbul who claimed Italian ancestry and affected Italian style in spelling their family names?[11] And where did it leave those who had identified with the Greek struggle but were not of Greek descent, such as Ioannis Kolettis (1774-1847), for it was Kolettis who first developed the Megale Idea, the theory and concept of a Greater Greece.

The new identity could embrace Vlachs and, perhaps, Gypsies too. Later poets were to recognise that ancient traditions could neither be fully recuperated nor ignored, and Kostas Palamas (1859-1943) expressed this in his poem, The Twelve Lays of the Gypsy (1907), in which the quest for the new Greek identity is undertaken on behalf of the nation state by one who is not an ethnic Greek himself, the central figure of the poem, the Gypsy musician; a symbol of freedom and art, he gradually deepens into the patriot, the Greek, and finally into the ‘Hellene’, citizen and teacher of the world.[12] In seeking to define that identity, religion was a factor, but many of the karamanlides or ethnic Greeks still living with the boundaries of the Empire had been secret Christians, outwardly conforming to Islam, while many of those engaged in the independence struggle were bitterly critical of the Orthodox Church.[13] Indeed, there were some who were obviously Greek but had another religious identity, as with the Roman Catholics of the Cycladic island of Syros, although King Otto’s failure to covert from Catholicism to Orthodoxy was a contributing factor in the coup of September 1847.[14]

An essential component of the national identity of the new state was the claim to racial descent from the ancient Hellenes, although classical literature had to be painfully reacquired by Greeks, who were largely excluded from its revival in the west during the Renaissance.[15] The historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, in an attempt to define Greek identity, linked ancient, mediaeval and modern periods in single continuum, linking the Athens of Plato and the Byzantium of the Paleologues with the citizens of the new state. But Kolettis, the Hellenised Vlach, had a wider vision of Greek nationality that went beyond the borders of the new state. He championed the cause of the heterochthones, the Greeks from outside the state, against the exclusivist claims of the autochthones, those Greeks from the heartland of the struggle for independence. Speaking before the constituent assembly in 1844, he declared:

The Greek kingdom is not the whole of Greece, but only a part, the smallest and poorest part. A native is not only someone who lives within the Kingdom, but also one who lives in Ioannina, in Thessaly, in Serres, in any land associated with Greek history or the Greek race.[16]

The definition embraced not just those who were ‘of the Greek race’ but also those who lived in any land associated with Greek history or the Greek race. ‘Greater Greece’ could embrace the Greeks of Constantinople and Smyrna on the western coast of Anatolia, and Greeks from Cappadocia in central Anatolia, many of whom were Turkish-speaking, lived a lifestyle that was little different from their Turkish neighbours, and had little consciousness of being Greek, and the Pontic Greeks on the Black Sea shores who spoke a form of Greek that was scarcely intelligible in other parts of the Greek world. It included those Greeks of the Aegean islands not yet incorporated in the new state, and those who lived in Crete – still part of the Ottoman Empire – including those of Venetian descent. It could include Vlachs, Jews and, perhaps, Gypsies. But could it embrace Cretans who were of Greek descent and spoke Greek, but for a number of generations had been Muslims by faith?

Rejecting Islam became a necessary part of assuming Greek identity. Many ‘neo-martyrs’ of the independence struggle were covert Christians who were presumed by their neighbours to be Muslims until they declared their Christian faith on marriage or on joining the Greek struggle.[17] But if rejecting Islam was a necessary part in assuming Greek identity, there was not the same necessity to reject elements of Turkish lifestyle. Many of the refugees from Anatolia who settled in Greece after the population exchanges of the 1920s could speak only Turkish. They encountered considerable prejudice, and were referred to by epithets such as giaourtovaptismenoi (‘baptised in yoghourt’), a reference to their extensive use of yoghourt in their cuisine.[18] They brought with them, however, writers and poets such as Giorgios Theotokas (1905-1956), author of Leonis, a novel about growing up as a Greek in Constantinople, and Euripides Pendazolis and other stories, and Giorgios Seferis (1900-1971), the Nobel Prize winning poet of 1967, who was born in Smyrna and moved to Athens at the age of 14.

The Greeks from Anatolia also brought their music with them to Greece. Some of the earliest recordings of rembetika music were in Turkey as early as 1904. The music developed in the nineteenth century on Syros and in Thessaloniki, still under Turkish domination, and in Constantinople and Smyrna, on the west coast of Anatolia The instruments were partly Turkish and partly Greek, like the santouri, the flute, the laouto and the oud. The bouzouki takes its name from the Turkish word bozuk, meaning broken, or broken-down – referring to an instrument broken down in size. The songs and dances had a Turkish flavour, including the zeimbekiko and the tsifteteli and the hasapiko, which was common in Greek communities in Greece and Turkey. The refugees who arrived from Anatolia after the Asia Minor Catastrophe brought a style of entertainment that was to change the pattern of social life in Greece, and rembetika, the music of the poor immigrants, became the music of the coffee houses in Athens and Piraeus in the 1920s.[19]

While poetry and art could help define the new Greek identity, and the music from Anatolia could be incorporated into the new Greek culture, the place for Turkish architecture was not so clear. Many Turkish monuments were destroyed during and after the War of Independence. Few Muslim monuments now survive intact, except in Thrace and Rhodes, and most mosques lie in ruins or have been put to secular use after the removal of the minarets.

The Loggia in Rethymno was converted into the Kucuk Haci Ibrahim Agca mosque under Turkish rule (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

During the Turkish occupation of Crete, churches and public buildings were converted into mosques: in the town of Rethymno, for example, the Loggia became the Kucuk Haci Ibrahim Agca mosque, the Church of Santa Maria the Nerace mosque, Santa Sophia the Ibrahim mosque, Santa Barbara monastery the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque, Saint Onofrio’s the Veli Pasa Mosque, and Saint Nicholas Cathedral in the Venetian Fortezza the Ibrahim Han Mosque. When Crete became part of Greece, and the Turkish population was expelled, the mosques became churches once again, sometimes with new dedications (the Nerace Mosque became the Church of Saint Nicholas). Those mosques that could not serve as churches became museums or public buildings: the Nerace mosque later housed the Music School, the Loggia the Civic Museum and the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque became home to the Inspectorate of Byzantine Antiquities.[20]

The same was happening throughout Greece. A society that could find a place for its Venetian and Genoan heritage felt forced to wipe out up to four hundred years of heritage from Ottoman rule, particularly if it was a public expression of the Muslim faith. And yet the Turks could leave their architectural memories in hidden corners of a town such as Rethymno, in dozens of street fountains and the inscriptions over doorways in Arkadiou and other streets, as well as in numerous Turkish loan-words still heard today in the Cretan dialogue.[21] The fate of Turkish monuments and architecture etches in stone the questions of whether there can be any place in the Greek identity for Muslims, or any acceptance that there was an Islamic contribution to the life and culture of Greece.

A Greek share in identity in the Ottoman empire

The reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) may not have been so magnificent without the contribution of two men who were both born Greek but who were forced to convert to Islam. The lasting monuments to the glory of Suleyman are the works of his chief architect, the great Sinan, including the Suleymaniye. Sinan was a Karamanlite, born ca. 1490 of Greek Christian parents in the Anatolian province of Karamania. At the age of 21, he was caught up in the devsirme, the annual levy of the strongest and most intelligent youths from Christian families. Those youths were forced to convert to Islam and many were then assigned to the elite and brutalised army corps of Janissaries. Sinan became the chief of the imperial architects, and his legacy today includes 81 large mosques, including 42 in Istanbul, 32 palaces, seven Quran schools and nineteen mausoleums, along with numerous public baths, aqueducts, hospitals and bridges.

Suleyman’s Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, Ibrahim Pasha, was a Greek who had been forced to convert to Islam too. He became an intimate companion of the sultan during the early years of his reign, and married Suleyman’s sister, Hadice. The Palace of Ibrahim Pasha still stands today on the Hippodrome in Istanbul, where it houses the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. When modern Turks view the grandeur and splendour of their past, they are gazing on works created by Greek minds. And few Turks today realise that the names of almost all the major Greek cities are Turkic versions of ancient Greek names: Ankara (Angora), Izmir (Smyrna), Sivas (Sebasteia), Kayseri (Caesarea), Konya (Iconium) and Kadikoy (Chalcedon). Constantinople became Istanbul through a simple corruption of the Greek εις την Πόλη (eis tin poli, ‘up to the city’).

Greek blood flowed through the veins of the sultans too. The favoured wife or First Kadin of Murat III (1574-1595) was a Venetian, Safiye. Their grandson, Ahmet I (1602-1617), had as his First Kadin a Greek, Kosem, who was only in her teens when she entered the Harem, and she became the most powerful and fascinating woman in the Ottoman Empire. Her half-Greek sons who became sultans included Murat IV (1623-1640) and Ibrahim the Mad (1640-1648), while her grandson, Mehmet IV (1648-1687), married Rambiye Gul (‘Spring Rose-Water’), one of ten Greek girls sent to the sultan by Gazi Huseyin Pasha after the capture of Rethymno in Crete in 1646.[22]

Turkish identity

Ataturk on a banner in the market in Sirinçe ... Ataturk once said, ‘How happy is he who says he is a Turk’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Ataturk’s saying, ‘How happy is he who says he is a Turk’, is popularly quoted throughout Turkey, posed on school corridors, painted in whitewashed stones on hillsides, and written on victory arches. The national anthem hails Turks as the ‘heroic race’. But who is a Turk in the context of the modern Turkish Republic?

Many Greeks who remained within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire after the Greek state had been established were content to identify with Turkish political culture. Indeed, some Greek intellectuals argued that the country’s future lay in some kind of condominium with the Ottomans, in which the sultan would have the title of ‘Sultan of the Turks and King of the Greeks’; one Phanariot, Pittzipos Bey, suggested the coronation of Abdulmejid as ‘Emperor of Byzantines’.[23] The first Ottoman minister to independent Greece was an Ottoman Greek, Kostaki Mousouros Pasha. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the chief representative of the Ottoman Empire was another Ottoman Greek, Alexandros Karatheodoris Pasha, who served as Ottoman Foreign Minister. The Greek banker Georgios Zarafis played a major role in the management of the Ottoman public debt and was personal banker and close confidant of the Sultan Abdul Hamid (1876-1908).

At first, the Young Turks promised equality for all, whether Muslim, Christian or Jew. Thessaloniki, the nerve centre of the Young Turk conspiracy, was a melting pot where the largest community was the Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, who made up more than half the population of the city. But the early promise of equality for all ethnic groups in the Empire held out by the Young Turks soon gave way to a policy of forced ‘Ottomanisation’.

Waiting Greeks on the dockside in Smyrna were denied access to allied ships in the harbour ... many jumped into the water and drowned in a vain effort to escape the massacre (Photograph: Benaki Museum, Athens)

In 1919, Greece became embroiled in an ill-fated military adventure in Anatolia in an effort to liberate the ‘unredeemed’ Greeks of Asia Minor. The campaign ended in disaster, and in September 1921, when Ataturk’s troops moved into Smyrna, a bloodbath ensued and the 30,000 Greek and Armenian Christians trapped in the city were massacred. In the great fire that ensued, only the Turkish and Jewish quarters survived. A 2,500-year Greek presence came to an abrupt end, and those Greeks who remained in Turkey were forcibly reminded in the decades that followed they had no place in the Turkish state. Under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the two states agreed to exchange their remaining populations, with the exception, on the one hand, of the Greek population in Istanbul and on the islands of Imvros and Tenedos, and, on the other, of the Turkish population of Western Thrace in northeastern Greece. The movement of people took place on a grand scale. Between 900,000 and 1.3 million Greeks were uprooted and sent to Greece from Turkey, while between 350,000 and 500,000 Turks were transferred to Turkey.[24]

Commenting on the bitter irony of the forced removal of the Turks of Crete, the Cretan historians Malagari and Stratidakis say ‘it came at a time when there was no longer any cause of division between the two communities’.[25] The basis of the exchange was religion rather than language or national consciousness. Greeks were defined not as Greek-speakers, for many of them still spoke Turkish as their first language, but as members of the Greek Orthodox Church; Turks did not include those Greeks who had arrived in recent waves from Anatolia who spoke Turkish, but instead were defined by their Muslim faith, and included, for example, Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete.[26]

A crumbling church in the Anatolian village of Sirinçe, which once had a population of mainly Greek-speaking Christians (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

After the Treaty of Lausanne, more than 100,000 Greeks remained in Istanbul. During World War II, a heavy-handed application of the wealth-tax struck Greeks and other non-Muslim minorities hard; it was a calculated blow aimed at forcing commercial life into Turkish hands. The state targeted the substantial Greek minority left in Istanbul with a crippling wealth tax in the 1940s, and had a hand in stirring up street riots in 1955 which sounded the death knell for the Greek community in the city. In 1964, the Turkish Prime Minister, Ismet Inonu, unilaterally cancelled the 1930 treaty of friendship with Greece. Prominent Greeks were indiscriminately denounced for anti-Turkish activities, and a total of 40,000 Greeks fled Turkey that September. Their properties were confiscated, and the Turkish treasury profited to the tune of $200 to $500 million.[27]

Today, there are less that 2,500 Greeks living in Istanbul, many of them old and poor. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople lives in constant fear in the run-down quarter of the Fener as bombs are thrown with regularity into the garden of the patriarchate and old cemeteries are desecrated by members of the Grey Wolves, who are closely associated with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). All Greek theological seminaries have been closed since 1974, and Turkish law decrees that only-Turkish-born Turkish citizens can become heads of churches, leaving the Greek Orthodox Church with an ever-dwindling choice of candidates to succeed as the Ecumenical Patriarch, seen throughout the world as the international leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians.

In an early definition, Ataturk could say: ‘The Turks are those people of Turkey who founded the Turkish Republic’. Those Turks who founded the Turkish Republic were the same Turks who had taken part in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Greeks of Smyrna and Anatolia. One of the first decisions of the new nationalist parliament was to give an amnesty to all those wanted by the Ottoman War Crimes Tribunal for the massacres of Armenians and Greeks. In 1919, the sultan’s government tried to have Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and other leaders of the nationalist movement arrested for alleged involvement in the massacres. Topal Osman, an early chief of Ataturk’s presidential guard, was wanted for his role in the Armenian massacres in the Black Sea area. Celal Bayar, President of Turkey from 1950 to 1960, was in charge of Special Operations in Smyrna at the time of the massacre of ethnic Greeks.

Today, Turkey sees itself as an ethno-cultural unit; despite 75 years of lip-service to secularism, Islam remains an essential component in defining who qualifies for membership of the unit. The right to speak any language other than Turkish is reserved in law for the non-Muslim Armenians, Greeks and Jews alone. The implication is that all Muslims in the state, particularly Kurds, are really Turks; Muslims who were Turkish citizens could only speak Kurdish, Arabic or Laz (a dialect of Georgian) at home, but were forced to speak Turkish outside. Ataturk and his republicans demanded that all Muslims in the new state would accept membership of a Turkish ethno-religious monolith.[28] The corollary is that Christians and Jews are not real Turks: a true Turk must be a Muslim. Humeyra Ozbas, proprietor of the Kismet Hotel in the Aegean resort of Kuşadasi, granddaughter of the last sultan, Mehmet VI Vahdettin (1918-1922), and one of the few descendants of the Ottoman dynasty now living in Turkey, spoke to the authors Nicole and Hugh Pope of three years of bureaucratic endeavour and humiliation it took to organise her Turkish citizenship. The determining question was: ‘Are you a Muslim?’ It was in this cultural context that President Suleyman Demirel answered the question of who is a Turk when he stated badly in 1995: “We are all – barring non-Muslims – owners of this land.’ The slogan, ‘Turkey for the Turks’, first associated with the ‘ethnic cleaning’ of Armenian and Greek Christians in Anatolia, remains the masthead motto of the nationalist newspaper Hurriyet.

Confusions and mixtures

It is remarkable that the two principals in the Asia Minor Catastrophe, Eleftherios Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, should have been born where they were: Venizelos was born in 1864 in Crete when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire; Ataturk was born in 1881 in Thessaloniki, and spent his childhood and his early military days in what would become the second city of the Hellenic Republic. The former Greek President, Konstantinos Karamanlis (1907-1998) was born in Kupoy in Macedonia when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire; even his name indicated his family background was one of Turkish-speaking Greeks from Anatolia. Could Venizelos have remained a Turkish citizen? Could Ataturk, who enjoyed wearing suits cut by the best Armenian and Greek tailors of the day, have become a Greek citizen if he had stayed in the city of his birth?

In the aftermath of the Lausanne Treaty, to be a Turk one had to be a Muslim; to be Greek, one could not be Muslim, but surprisingly did not have to be Greek Orthodox. Catholics still form a large proportion of the population on Syros: their place in Greek identity has been ensured for generations to come in the famous rembetika song written in 1936 by Markos Vamvakaris, Frankosyriani, ‘the Frankosyrian Girl’.[29] Recently, new studies have served to remind Greeks of the long-standing place Jews had in Greek history, and their part in Greek heritage and identity.[30]

A mosque in Rhodes ... the Turkish-speaking Muslims of Rhodes found they were Greeks once again in 1948 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2007)

Despite the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty, some surprising and unforeseen anomalies were to arise. As yet, the Greek state did not include the Dodecanese, and many of the Muslims from Crete moved to Kos and Rhodes, where they began to integrate with the local Muslim population. When the Dodecanese were incorporated into the Greek state in 1948, the Turks of Kos and Rhodes found once again that they were citizens of Greece. On many occasions I have passed the dilapidated refugee village of Kritika (‘the Cretans’) on the coast road out of Rhodes town on the way to the airport; in the town itself, it is easy to pick out Turkish names on the marquees of sandal-makers, or on the names of kafenia and kebab stands. In Kos, the domestic architecture of the bi-ethnic village of Platani can be strongly reminiscent of rural styles in provincial Crete.

Closing images

During his visit to Athens in November 1999, President Clinton said that at the heart of the challenge to bring prosperity and full democracy to the Balkans lay the challenge of creating stability and lasting peace in the Aegean and genuine reconciliation between Greece and Turkey; he identified as a crucial part of these challenges building bridges between three great religious traditions which come together in south-east Europe, Islam and the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.[31]

In recent months, there has been a palpable warming in relations between Ankara and Athens, quietly promoted by the Greek alternate foreign minister, Yannos Kranidiotis, who died in a plane crash in Bucharest on 15 September last [15 September 1999], and aided by the Greek response to the earthquakes in north-west Turkey and the greater Athens region last August [1999]. The foreign ministers, George Papandreou of Greece and Ismail Cem of Turkey, have been holding talks on trade, tourism and the environment, and Greece has become an active supporter of Turkey’s application for EU membership. The two most visible expressions of this new rapprochement were provided by images from the sporting and academic worlds: in Thessaloniki on 2 September [1999], the Galatasary soccer team from Istanbul entered the stadium for a charity match against PAOK carrying a banner with the words in Greek: ‘We thank our brothers the Greek people who share our suffering’; and on 4 October [1999], Mr Papandreou spoke beneath a huge poster of Ataturk during the opening ceremony for the new academic year at Istanbul University.

The poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), in Waiting for the Barbarians, has the city notables waiting, assembled in the forum, the senate waiting without legislating, the emperor waiting on his throne At the city gates, and the consuls and the praetors in their robes bearing gifts and waiting for the Barbarians. As they wait for the Barbarians, they have an excuse for doing nothing; but when night falls, they return home because the Barbarians have not yet come. Defining the outsiders as Barbarians makes them a more credible threat and provides an excuse for failing to wrestle with pressing domestic problems. Perhaps, in seeing Turks first not as Europeans but as Muslims we have forced ourselves into perceiving them as an external threat and so allowed ourselves to delay any co-ordinated political action to counter the anti-Muslim prejudice that is prevalent throughout all EU member states. As night falls on Cavafy’s city, some men just in from the border say there are no Barbarians any longer, and the people ask: ‘Now what’s going to happen to us without Barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.’ Those who go out to the border realise there are no Barbarians, that Turkey has always had a European identity. We must move from thinking of the Turkish problem in terms of Muslim identity and Islamic culture to thinking of the Turkish problem as one of economic development, human rights and the role of the military. Then we can remove the real threats that are hindering closer EU-Turkish ties.

Antiques ... a Greek sign on a shop in Kusadasi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Not all Turks are Muslims, nor are they all of the same ethno-religious unit. Perhaps the most unusual minority to survive in Greece today are the Gaguaz who are several thousand in number, a community of Christian Turks around Alexandhroupoli. And in Turkey there was surprise too in the 1980s when it was discovered that one cabinet minister, the late Adnan Kahveci, once vetoed at Turgut Ozal’s choice as Foreign Minister, spoke fluent Greek. His family came from a mountain village that had been once part of the independent Greek kingdom of Trebizond but whose descendants had converted to Islam. In Greece today, the Muslims of Rhodes, Kos and Thrace are classified in law not as Turks but as Muslims; there are no doubts about their citizenship or their place in Greek life. In Turkey, however, the Greek Orthodox of Istanbul, Tenedos and Imvros are Greeks rather than Christians or Christian Turks; in Turkish law they have no right to claim a Turkish identity.

Definitions of ethnicity and nationhood that are based on religion alone are no longer acceptable among the member states of the European Union. Who would accept an Ireland defined as exclusively Catholic or a Sweden that is exclusively Protestant? A Turkey that claims to be a secular state and that seeks EU membership must find new ways to explore and express its identity. At the same time, the EU must leave behind any excuse that Turkey cannot qualify for membership because of its Muslim majority: such were the definitions of national identity that led to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and Kosovo.

* I am grateful to my colleague Declan Burke-Kennedy, for reading an earlier draft of this paper and for sharing his insights, to Ciarán Donnelly of Churchill College, Cambridge, for his interest and encouragement, and to my wife Barbara for help and assistance.

This paper was first published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge), Volume XIII, No 2 (Spring/Summer 2000), pp 240-253 (editor Charlotte Lindberg Clausen). At the time, Patrick Comerford was Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times. It is reproduced here with some minor corrections to typographical errors, and with the addition of illustrations that did not appear in the printed edition.

Footnotes and references

[1] Heinz Richter, ‘The Greek-Turkish Conflict’, in Marion Safaris and Martin Eve, eds, Background to Contemporary Greece, vol 2, London, Merlin Press, 1990, pp. 153-359, and p. 317.
[2] David Holton, Erotokritos, Bristol, Bristol Classical Press, 1991, p. 6 and p. 11.
[3] Martina Lambraki-Plaka, ‘Art in the Young Kingdom of Greece’, in Lina Tsikouta, ed., Greek Painting, The 19th Century, Sparta, National Gallery of Greece, Alexandrous Soutzos Museum, 1997, pp. 5-6.
[4] Andreas Ioannidis, ‘Greek Painting, the 19th Century,’ in Tsikouta, Greek Painting, pp. 7-9.
[5] For examples from Vryzakis, see his War Scene and Council of War in the National Gallery, both included in the Sparta exhibition, and his Episode from the War of Independence in the National Gallery, Athens.
[6] Dionysios Solomos, On Psara, my own translation.
[7] Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992 (1997 reprint), p. 41 and p. 46.
[8] Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, p. 194.
[9] Shelley, Hellas.
[10] Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, pp. 47-48.
[11] For example, the Mano family came to Constantinople from Sicily via Genoa, the Mavroyeni family claimed descent from the Morosini family of Venice, the Scarlati family came from Florence, and the Mavrocordato family claimed descent from Othello, the Moor of Venice, in the male line and from Fabius Maximus Cunctator in the female. See Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1968, p. 362, n. 2, and p. 367.
[12] Roderick Beaton, ‘Greek literature since national independence – a conspectus’, in Marion Safaris and Martin Eve, eds., Background to Contemporary Greece, vol 1, London, Merlin Press, 1990, pp. 20-21; Constantine A. Trypanis, The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, London, Penguin Books, 1971, p. lxiii and pp. 544-550.
[13] Adamantios Morais (1748-1833), the leading figure in the pre-independence intellectual revival, was a fierce critic of the clergy and their subservience to the Ottoman powers, although he was careful to streer between ‘the Scylla of superstition and the Charybdis of unbelief’, see Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, pp. 216-217.
[14] Even an Irish-born Philhellene, Sir Richard Church (1784-1873) from Cork, could become a Greek citizen and remain an Anglican. Church was appointed commander-in-chief of the Greek army in 1827, and later became a Greek citizen and a senator. See C.M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece, A Short History, 4th ed., London, Faber and Faber, 1986, pp. 144-149 and p. 153.
[15] Beacon, ‘Greek literature since national independence’, p. 9.
[16] Quoted in Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, p. 48.
[17] See the story of Saint George the Younger of Ioannina, previously known as Hassan, in Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, pp. 56-57.
[18] For the treatment of the Anatolian refugees in Greece, a moving example in modern literature is provided by Louis de Bernières in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, London, Vintage, 1998.
[19] Gail Holst, Road to Rembetika, Limni, Evia, Denise Harvey, 1994 ed., pp. 19-24, p. 35 ff. And p. 67 ff.
[20] Alkmini Malagari and Haris Stratidakis, Rethymno, Rethymno and Athens, 1988 ed., passim.
[21] Malagari and Stratidakis, Rethymno, pp. 22-24 and pp. 56-57.
[22] Malagari and Stratidakis, Rethymno, p. 41.
[23] Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, p. 71; Ilber Ortayli, ‘The Greek and Ottoman Administration during the Tanzimat Period’, Perceptions, Centre for Strategic Research, Ankara, 2/2, p. 53.
[24] Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, pp. 101-106; Richter, ‘The Greek-Turkish Conflict’, pp. 317-318; Woodhouse, Modern Greece, pp. 207-210.
[25] Malagari and Stratidakis, Rethymno, p. 10.
[26] Holst, Road to Rembetika, p. 24.
[27] Nicole Pope and Hugh Pope, Turkey Unveiled, Ataturk and After, London, John Murray, 1997, p. 116.
[28] Pope and Pope, Turkey Unveiled, p. 9, p. 19, and p. 250.
[29] Holst, Road to Rembetika, p. 32 and pp. 104-107.
[30] For a comprehensive study, see Photini Constantinopoulou and Thanos Veremis, eds., Documents on the History of the Greek Jews, Athens, Kastoniotis Editions (in association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece and the University of Athens), 1998. See also Chris Eliou, ‘Rebirth of a Synagogue on the Island of the Minotaur’, Hermes (Athens), no. 36, July-August 1999, pp. 68-69; Diana Far Louis, ‘Etz Hayyim, A “Tree of Life” grows again in Chania’, Athens News, 24 September 1999, pp. 12-13.
[31] Text of President Clinton’s speech in the Inter-Continental Hotel, Athens, 20 November 1999, supplied by the Office of the Press Secretary, the White House.

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