Milestones in the History of Hellenism in Constantinople
Note from the Translator: As set forth by the Treaty of Lausanne, the
counterpart to the Greek minority in Turkey, namely the muslim minority in
Thrace, has been allowed by the government of Greece to flourish to
- 658 BC
Greek colonists from Megara establish on the coast of Keratia bay a new
city named Byzantium in honor of its founder Byzantas.
- 324 AD
The city of Byzantium, initially as "New Rome" and later as
"Constantinople", becomes the capital of the eastern segment of the Roman
Empire. As capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was for eleven
centuries one of the most important political, military, religious and
cultural centers of Anatolia, a fact which explains its reputation as the
"Queen of Cities".
Impregnable since the times of Constantine the Great, the Byzantine capital
is conquered in the spring of 1204 by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade.
The three days of plunder and violence which followed the conquest,
destroyed a large portion of the city, which was not able to restore its
original brilliance even after the restorations of the Byzantine emperors
After five centuries of resistance to the campaigns of the turkish tribes
of Anatolia, Constantinople finally falls in the hands of the Ottoman
Turks. Muhamed the Pillager, recognizing the Patriarch of Constantinople
as a political and religious leader of all orthodox citizens within the
limits of the Ottoman Empire, grants him a series of priviledges in order
to ensure the orderly survival of his followers under the ottoman rule.
One of the names given to Constantinople by the new conquerors is
"Istanbul", a linguistic corruption of the greek phrase "eis tin polin"
meaning "to the city".
With the support of the Great Powers of that time, the revolution of Greeks
in mainland Greece against the Ottoman Empire results in the creation of
the independent Greek state (1830). Patriarch Gregorios V is hung at the
gate of the Patriarchate in Fanari (Constantinople) as accountable to the
sultanate for the rebellion of his flock; the gate has since remained shut
as a symbol of mourning. Several other leading figures of the church and
society also lost their lives along with the Patriarch, and orthodox
churches in Constantinople were set on fire.
- 1839 to 1856
In the framework of the great reforms of the 19th century which were aimed
at curtailing the rapid decline of the empire, efforts were made to improve
the status of minorities, an event which allowed them to rapidly flourish
in the economic and cultural arenas.
At the verge of the First World War, the hellenic community of
Constantinople is living the last days of its golden age. According to
ottoman archives, the non-muslim population of the city account for almost
half of a population of approximately 900,000. The great majority of the
non-muslim population is comprised of the Greeks, followed by the Jews,
Armenians and few Europeans. Although the Turks represent the majority of
the population, it is the extensive commercial, industrial, economic
activities and international cultural ties of the minorities which give
Constantinople its cosmopolitan prestige of that era.
- 1918 to 1920
After its defeat along with the Central Powers in the First World War and
the Peace Treaty of Moudros, the Ottoman Empire is divided between the
allies of the Entente into spheres of influence, with Constantinople coming
under International Control. As part of the allied occupation forces,
Greek warships are positioned in the lower Bosphorus, while a Greek
military delegation is stationed in Constantinople.
Greece, under the leadership of Venizelos, lands a military force on Smyrna
in May. This is the start of the Asia Minor Campaign, which three years
later will result in the decline of the front and the dramatic retreat of
Hellenism from Anatolia.
The news of the destruction of Smyrna raises panic in the hellenic
community of Constantinople. Fearing Turkish reprisals, many Greeks who
had openly sided with the allied occupation, start the long road to become
premature refugees. It is estimated that only in the period from October
to December 1922, 50,000 non-muslims fled from Constantinople. Almost all
of them headed to Greece.
The Treaty of Lausanne defines the compulsory population exchange between
Turkey and Greece. The Greeks of Constantinople, Imvros and Tenedos, and
the muslims of Western Thrace are the only populations to be excluded from
the exchange. Despite the International reassurances regarding the safety
of their lives and property, a large number of Greeks abandons
Constantinople for Greece, to the extent that by March 1923 the
Patriarchate estimated that "the remaing Greek community in Constantinople
is about 250,000 while about 150,000 have left".
The Accord of Greek-Turkish Friendship is signed in Ankara between
Venizelos and Inonu. On the one hand, the normalization of the relations
between the two countries allows the improvement of their respective
minorities, yet on the other hand, isolated nationalist elements in Turkey
(such as the "Vatandas Turkce konus" or "citizen of Constantinople, speak
in Turkish!") apply assimilation pressures. By 1935, the Turkish census
for Constantinople accounts the Greek orthodox community at 125,046.
- 1942 to 1943
In the midst of the Second World War, Turkey passes the "property tax" or
"varlik", with the intention of improving the government's finances and
curtailing the black market which flourished due to the war. The level of
taxation with respect to total capital was 232% for the Armenians, 184% for
the Jews, 159% for the Greeks, yet only a mere 4.9% for the Turks.
Although they only accounted for 0.55% of the national population, the
Greeks of Constantinople were thus held accountable for 20% of its taxes.
The inability to meet these extreme levels of taxation resulted in the
closure of dozens of businesses and their transfer together with
considerable land and housing to Turkish hands in exchange for degrading
amounts of monetary compensation. The minorities, which even after
liquidating all their property still owed taxes to the government, were
transfered to the depths of Anatolia for slave labor at government projects
under very adverse conditions.
The night of the 6th to 7th of Spetember, the Turkish mobs were let loose
in the streets of greek neighbourhoods in an orchestrated orgy of violence
and plunder. Over 4,000 Greek businesses were ruined, more than 2,000
homes burgled, churches and schools were incinerated, and cemeteries
desecrated. While the Turkish government admitted a toll of 3 dead and 40
wounded, later reports raised the actual figure to 15 deaths. The
Worldwide Council of Churches estimated the damages at $150 million,
although other sources raise the value at $ 300 million. In the aftermath
of these events, a new wave of Constantinopolitans abandons their homes in
search of safe haven.
In March, the Turkish government responds to the escalation of tensions in
Cyprus by deporting the Greeks of Constantinople as "dangerous to the
internal and external security of Turkey". At the same time, Turkey
freezes their properties and bank accounts. By September of 1965, the
number of deportees, without including their accompanying family members,
reached 6,000. According to official population statistics, in 1965 the
orthodox christians in Turkey amounted to 76,122 (from 106,611 in 1960).
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus revives the climate of fear and insecurity
for the Greek community of Constantinople. In the months following the
invasion, hundereds of Constantinopolitans head for Greece.
- 1974 to 1995
The members of the Greek minority are constantly decreasing. In the summer
of 1993, the estimated size of the Greek community in Constantinople was
around 2,000. Today, due to the advanced age of these few remaining
Constantinopolitans, the Greek community is likely to be even smaller.
Translated by Leandros Arvanitakis from Margarita Poutouridou's text in
Kostas Sakellariou's photo album "Oi Teleytaioi Ellnves tns Polns" (The
Last Greeks of Constantinople), AGRA publishers, Athens, Greece, 1995.
Many of the figures regarding the Greek minority in the later years have
been taken from Alexes Alexandris' book, "The Greek Minority of Istanbul
and Greek-Turkish Relations, 1918 to 1974", Center for Asia Minor Studies,