From the outset, I would like to ask you, the reader, for your opinion. Can you tell me what the most significant cities of all time are? Can you tell me what would be the greatest city of Greek civilization?
I’m sure opinions would be varied and can be debated for hours. When I ask my friends and colleagues, they usually answer the former question with the following cities: Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome, Carthage, Athens, Babylon, New York, Tokyo and of course Rio de Janeiro, (hey they like Brazil). My friends and colleagues would answer the latter question with the following cities: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thessaloniki, Alexandria, Thebes, Syracuse, Mytilene (o.k. I’m the only one who includes my home town).
There is however another city that rivals all of these places, and in this author’s opinion could well be the greatest city of all time. This is a city that has existed for thousands of years and has been the scene of many of history’s most significant moments. The home of one of the greatest empire’s in history, the home of two world religions, a city of two continents and two seas and a place where so many stories are told and will be told.
This is a city that has seen more plot lines and twists and turns than any literary novel. I will keep you guessing as to its identity for a little while longer, but I will give you a hint, it was named after an Emperor and today whilst no longer being Greek, it still has a Greek name.
In 1453, the world witnessed one of the greatest and most heroic sieges. The well-organised and superior military machine of the Ottoman Empire took aim at one of the last independent cities of the Byzantine Empire (Medieval Greek). It is often said that when the great canons of the Ottomans’ Hungarian engineer, Orban, began blasting the city’s great walls on April 6, it was the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times.
The City I have been alluding to is the city of Constantine, CONSTANTINOPLE. It was founded by the Greeks of Megara in 657 BC and became an important trading colony and link between the city-states and kingdoms of Greece and the new settlements in the Black Sea. It was worth mentioning that Greek descendents of the Black Sea colonies as well as many archaeological sites are still found in the Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey and Russia.
In 324 AD, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, made the momentous decision of renaming the city after himself and moving the Empire’s capital to “Constantinople.” Over the next few decades, the City grew in importance, and as the Roman Empire crumbled with Rome itself being overrun by barbarians, Constantinople soon became the capital of what was to be known as the Byzantine Empire, the Greek empire of the medieval times.
The Empire at its peak would rule over the entire Mediterranean, including southern Spain in the east, Syria and Persia in the west, North Africa in the south and the Balkans in the north. The peak came through conquests in the 6th Century and again in the 11th Century. Other than those centuries, the Empire ruled over what was called the Greek world, places that included southern Italy, the Black Sea, Asia Minor, the Balkans, Alexandria and of course Constantinople. There were two things that distinguished Greeks of the Empire from the non-Greeks, the term “Romai,” which meant Greek citizen of Rome and Christianity, which would evolve to become the Greek Orthodox religion. I have been to places in the Ukraine where people still speak the old language and call themselves “Romai” (see article entitled: “Ola Kala – Kai Panta Kala”). I will never forget the first time I heard this term, I was in the village of Sartana in the Ukraine and a man said to me, “we are the Romai,” it sent a chill through my entire body.
Surprisingly, the Byzantine Empire is often neglected by modern Greeks; who think that Greek glory belongs to the classical period, ending with Alexander the Great’s conquests of the east. How do you explain to people that Byzantium, a term for the 1,100 year history of the Empire, is full of rich cultural, religious, artistic, literary and scientific achievements?
Achievements include the formulation of a new language for the Slavic peoples who appeared in the Balkans in the seventh century AD. The Cyrillic alphabet was devised by Cyril and Methodius and is now spoken by approximately 400 million people. Thus, Christianity flourished and was spread across the Empire, Byzantine architecture was in a word, AMAZING, public buildings were of the highest order, Byzantine mosaics and frescoes were captivating, and art and literature had a profound impact on civilisation, (for example, the Renaissance had its foundations in the work of the Greeks of Byzantium). Today, you can still see some of the Byzantine achievements in Italy, notably in Venice, Ravenna, Calabria, Apulia, Libya, Tunisia, Jerusalem, Syria, Alexandria, Turkey and the Balkans, not to mention in Greece, especially in the Morea and Monemvasia.
Throughout its 1,100 year history of the Byzantine Empire, the city of Constantinople was the envy of the entire world, it was a cultural and economic phenomenon. At its peak, there were 500,000 people residing in Constantinople, with the overwhelming percentage being of Greek descent. However, there were people of all ethnicities that resided or traded in the city, including Arabs, Persians, Spaniards, Venetians and other Italians, English, French, Russians, Germans and the list goes on. In fact when the great siege took place in 1453, all of these nationalities played a role in either the City’s defence or capture, it wasn’t solely a Byzantine (Greek) versus Ottoman (Turkish) battle.
In the 200 years leading up to the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II the Conqueror, Constantinople had seen a series of catastrophes. A plague, which wiped out half of the population, a number of Greek civil wars (typically, a Greek history lesson can never be complete unless there is civil war and intrigue), various sieges and the Latin (Italian states) betrayal and capture of Constantinople for 60 years. It is this last point which had a lasting impact on Greeks and the history of Constantinople. The Latins not only massacred Greeks in the city (a reprisal for the Greek attacks in the previous century), they brought about the decline of the Byzantine economy and stole countless treasures from the City. In fact the two great horses in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice were brought there by the Latins in the 1200’s (by the way, the church of Saint Mark was originally built by the Byzantines).
By the time the Greeks led by Michael VIII Palaelogus had re-captured their capital of Constantinople in 1261, it was a shadow of its former great self, though it still produced a great number of artists and leaders over the next 200 years.
When the City fell to the Ottomans on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, the world was stunned. It was hard to believe that a city that had withstood so many sieges and had contributed so greatly to civilisation was no longer controlled by the Greeks. By the time of the siege, there were no more than 50,000 people residing in the city. From the time of the fall of Thessaloniki to the Ottomans in 1402, most people had fled to places such as Italy and Crete. The conquerors numbered between 150,000 – 250,000, depending on what source you believe. A fact that is not in any doubt whatsoever is the courage of the vastly outnumbered 7,500 defenders of the city, who until the final hours very nearly turned back the Ottoman tide in a courageous and inspiring defence.
The Emperor, Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologus, died a national hero. Never once did he consider abandoning Constantinople, and when the invaders had taken the city, he threw off his imperial regalia and fought bravely to the death. It was said by the Greeks that the first emperor of Byzantium would be a Constantine and the last would also bear the same name. It appears that this prophecy was fulfilled.
Despite the general massacre and pillage that took place as soon as the City was captured, it must be said that Mehmet II the Conqueror, like most of the Sultans who would rule from Constantinople, was pragmatic and sought to rule a harmonious and multi-ethnic empire. The Sultan encouraged Greeks to return to Constantinople and respected the office of Patriarch, who became the leader of the Orthodox people in the Ottoman Empire. Until the 1800’s the Ottomans were mainly gracious rulers, allowing freedom of worship. The Greek community grew strong economically and despite paying high taxes and occasionally providing young boys for the Janissary regimen (this was the Sultans highly trained military unit made up of former Christian boys that were forcibly converted to Islam), they enjoyed special privelleges in the Ottoman Empire.
Thus by the turn of the 19th Century, the Greek population of Constantinople numbered approximately 200,000 people and of course Asia Minor had a population of over 2 million Greeks. Unfortunately, as the Ottoman Empire declined, so did the graciousness of the hosts. More and more Church and Greek properties were confiscated by the authorities — a prelude to Turkish policies in the 20th Century — and Greeks and other non-Turks were dealt with harshly. Inevitably, the rise of Turkish nationalism alongside the decline of the Ottoman Empire precipitated massacres of non-Turks. By 1922 figures provided by the Great Powers would show that 2.5 million people had perished either from the massacres or forced marches. This was a disturbing way for the great and mainly tolerant Empire to finish.
By 1920 the City had a large population of 1.2 million people and was still known as Constantinople. Several years later, Kemal Attaturk, the first leader and statesman of the new nationalist Turkish state, would change the name to Istanbul. The name is a play on the Greek term, “I stin polis,” which means “to the City.”
Despite the massacre of non-Turks by the Turkish state and the subsequent population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 (1,100,000 Greeks from mainland Turkey and 380,000 Turks from Greece), relative calm had begun to ensue in the early 1930’s. In fact, Eleftherious Venizelos, the Greek statesman had nominated Kemal Attaturk for a Nobel peace prize (much to the bewilderment of the organisers and Greeks in general).
With the goal of a nationalist Turkey complete, Attaturk promoted tolerance and secularism (perhaps two decades too late) which was of great comfort to the Greeks living in Constantinople and the islands of strategic importance near Turkey of Imvros and Tenedos, as were the Muslims in the Greek state of Thrace. Both these areas and were excluded from the population exchange between Turkey and Greece under the terms of agreement of the Treaty of Laussane that was signed by the two countries in 1923.
It is a reasonable assessment to make that despite the turbulent history, Greeks and Turks in Constantinople lived relatively harmoniously in the years after the signing of the Treaty of Laussane. It took the issue of Cyprus to shatter this illusion and by 1955 the tensions between the Greek state and Turkey over Cyprus had become intolerable.
When you consider just how closely linked the cultures of these two peoples are it is little wonder that when the pettiness of politics is not in the equation, there are essentially few problems. This author can recall that having been to Turkey in 1999 and again in 2004 and having worked with numerous Turkish people in a Turkish dominated suburb, it is easy to see how similar and rich the cultures of the Greeks and Turks are, and how very warm and hospitable people are in these countries.
The issue of Cyprus is a problem that the Great Powers have failed to manage over the years. In 1955 it became the pretext for the nationalist government to target Greeks in Constantinople with what became known as the Septembriana or a Pogrom. The night of shame, September 6-7, would see a state organised reprisal attack on the Greeks of the City. I use the word reprisal as there had been an act of arson and vandalism on the house of Atturk in Thessaloniki. Thus the state thought it would be a great initiative to bring in 100 000 Turks from the mainland. Strangely enough, it would subsequently emerge that it was the Turkish Government and not the Greeks that was responsible for the attack on Atturk’s home.
In total, 16 people were killed, including 2 priests, 200 women and men were raped, 4348 Greek-owned businesses were looted, as were 110 hotels, 27 pharmacies, 23 schools, 21 factories, 73 (from 90) Greek Orthodox churches and over 1000 homes destroyed. Many Byzantine relics and the tombs of saints were also desecrated. Jews and other non-Turks were also targeted as were Greeks and other non-Turks in Izmir (Smyrna). This was a night of shame that most of the people in the City could not believe had actually occurred.
Whilst islands and territorial borders are constantly in dispute between Greece and Turkey, the facts of the Pogrom are not in dispute. The condemnation from the international community and media was quick, however, as this happened during the Cold War, no action was taken by the Great Powers against the Turkish Government. During the 1961 Yassiadi trial in Turkey against the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister for a number of constitutional violations, it emerged that they were to blame for organising the 1955 Pogrom.
In 1955 the Greek population of the city was approximately 100 000, however, the Pogrom triggered a chain of reactions that led to the migration of Greeks out of Turkey. In 1964, the Ankara Government forcibly deported tens of thousands of Greeks who held Greek citizenship, despite being born and living in Istanbul and were theoretically protected under the agreement between Greece and Turkey.
A population count in 1965 revealed there were only 48,000 Greeks residing in Turkey. Over the next few years, Government policies, boycotts of Greek businesses, confiscation of Greek properties, tensions over the Cyprus problem and natural attrition meant that the Greek population declined significantly. Today there are only 5,000 Greeks living in the spiritual capital of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the majority of them are elderly. On the islands off the Turkish coast, Tenedos and Imvros, the Greeks number in the hundreds. Over the last few decades, the Greek population on the islands has been subjected to lack of government funding of basic social services, high taxes, the building of open jails, the immigration of undesirable and criminal elements and the teaching of the Greek language is opposed. In Izmir (Smyrna) only Greeks from NATO live in that city.
Despite the decline and virtual extermination of Hellenism in the former Greek city, it is certainly worth a visit. The Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeous still leads the people and the Greek areas are noticeable. You can visit Agia Sophia, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the Sixth Century, a number of Greek Orthodox churches, the old fortifications of Constantinople and the Hippodrome, the scene of many sports contests.
There are a number of Greek schools in existence with approximately 260 pupils across all grades made up of Greek and Arab Christians. Greeks can be located in the modern areas of Nisantasi, Sisli, Kadikoy, Heybeliada (the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church), Buyukada, Burgaz, Yenikoy, Arnavuza, Kuzguncuk, Hatay and Adaraz, or the old areas of Kumkapi, Karagumruk, Samatya and Balat. In 2006 a conference on the future the Greek population of Turkey was held in Istanbul with the intention of finding real solutions to the problems encountered by those people and promoting a good relationship with the Turkish Government.
It is worth mentioning that the Greeks of Constantinople (circa 1453) always said that it would better to be ruled by the Turks than the Pope, in reference to the hatred that existed between Catholics and the Orthodox following the great Schism of the 11th Century and numerous religious differences. The Pope’s 2006 visit to the Patriarch resulted in a very symbolic announcement that the old “Schism” between churches is now officially over.
In the same way that this so-called millennium old feud between Greek Orthodox of Constantinople and the Catholics of Rome is over, it is hoped that the feuds between Greeks and Turks also belong to the past.
Author’s note: “A touch of Spice” filmed in 2005, is a critically acclaimed movie about the Greeks and the Turks of Constantinople and Istanbul in recent decades and is highly recommended viewing.