A key issue in Turkey today is the "redo" of the mayoral election in Istanbul, slated for June 23. The first municipal election was held on March 31, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refused to accept its result – the loss of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate to that of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).
The CHP victor was Ekrem Imamoglu, originally from Trabzon, a city in the heartland of the historically Greek region of Pontos on the Black Sea coast in northeast Asia Minor. Since Imamoglu's now-refuted election as mayor of Istanbul, many Turkish nationalists have been denigrating him for being of "Greek" or "Pontic Greek" origin.
At a public gathering on May 15, for instance, Mehmet Tevfik Göksu, the mayor of Esenler, said:
"What is the Greek media saying? Have you followed it? They say Greeks have won Istanbul. Wait a minute! Where is this guy [Imamoglu] from? How is it that the Greek media talks about Greeks winning Istanbul and there is no opposition to that? This is a big incident, my brothers. The scheme is big..."
The Greek media have not mentioned the real or supposed Greek origins of Imamoglu, however.
After a recent protest against Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, Ali Kopuz -- the head of the Istanbul Commodity Exchange – tweeted that the demonstrators were "Pontians [people who lived in the Pontic Mountains of Anatolia] who pretend to be Muslim, just like Ekrem [Imamoglu] does."
At a holiday festival in early June, organized by the municipality of Giresun -- another historically Pontic city – the AKP's deputy chairman, Nurettin Canikli, paid tribute to Topal Osman. Osman – with the knowledge of the Turkish nationalist movement in the 1920s – had led his followers to rape, torture and murder Greeks, Armenians and Alevis.
"Right now," Canikli said, "we, as the grandchildren of Topal Osman, are engaging in a struggle similar to the one he engaged in against Pontians and those who wanted to turn this region into Pontos during the War of Independence."
Sadly, Imamoglu responded by saying: "My allegiance is to Topal Osman."
Ironically, another shameless comment came from Lütfü Türkkan, the deputy president of the opposition Good Party (Iyi Parti), while he was attempting to defend Imamoglu against those who accuse him of being "Greek": "I wish you had not sunk too low to call people of Trabzon Greek," he tweeted on June 6.
The attacks on Imamoglu for being Greek, and Türkkan's "defense" of him for not being Greek, stem from facts about Trabzon and other cities in Asia Minor with which many Turks seem to have failed to make their peace:
- These cities were built, enriched and ruled by Greeks for millennia, well before Turks from central Asia started invading the region in the 11th century.
- The Greek population of the region dwindled and were eventually exterminated as a result of the well-documented, centuries-long persecution under Turkish rule, which culminated in the 1913-1923 Greek and Christian genocide.
- Muslims became a demographic majority in Turkey, after emptying the Greek, Armenian and Assyrian/Aramean lands of their original inhabitants through genocide, carried out by people such as Topal Osman.
As the Greek Genocide Research Center notes,
"The Greek Genocide... was instigated by two successive governments of the Ottoman Empire; the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) party, and the Turkish Nationalist Movement of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It included massacres, forced deportations and death marches, summary expulsions, boycotts, rape, forced conversion to Islam, conscription into labor battalions, arbitrary executions, and destruction of Christian Orthodox cultural, historical and religious monuments. According to various sources, approximately 1 million Ottoman Greeks perished during this period."
An early eyewitness account, published in the New York Times in 1918,[i] notes assimilation policies, such as compulsory child transfer and extensive Islamization during the genocide:
"One of the most diabolical methods was the institution of the so-called orphan asylums at Panormo. These orphan institutions have in appearance a charitable object, but if one considers that their inmates are Greek boys who became orphans because their parents were murdered, or who were snatched away from their mothers, or left in the streets for want of nourishment (of which they were deprived by the Turks), and that these Greek children receive there a purely Turkish education, it will be at once seen that under the cloak of charity there lurks the 'child collecting' system instituted in the past by the Turkish conquerors and a new effort to revive the janissary system. The Greek boys were treated in this manner. What happens to the Greek girls? If we review the Consular reports about the persecutions from the year 1915 to 1917 we shall find hardly one of them which does not speak of forcible abductions and conversions to Mohammedanism. And it could not have been otherwise, since it is well known that this action, as has been stated above, was decided upon in June, 1915, in order to effect the Turkification of the Hellenic element. This plan was carried out methodically and in a diabolical manner, through the 'mixed settlements' of Greeks and Turks, always with predominance of Mohammedan males and of Greek females in order to compel mixed marriages."
Greek Christians were exposed to this treatment in their own Anatolian lands, where they have lived for nearly three thousand years. No matter how hard many Turks try to deny the Greek origins of cities they currently inhabit, even the names of several of those areas have Greek roots.
Anatolia, for instance, comes from the Greek word for "sunrise." Pontos (or Pontus) is derived from the Greek name of the Black Sea. Trabzon, where my own ancestors were forced to flee during the genocide, also comes from its Greek version, Trapezous (or Trebizond). According to the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center (AMPHRC):
"From the 9th century BC to the 15th century AD, Asia Minor played a major role in the development of Western civilization. Since 1923, Asia Minor has comprised the majority of the Republic of Turkey. Greek settlements in Asia Minor date as far back as the 11th century BC when Greeks emigrated from mainland Greece. They founded cities such as Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna, Sinope, Trapezous, and Byzantium (later known as Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire). These cities flourished culturally and economically."
Instead of recognizing this history, many Turks -- including the Turkish state -- either deny it completely, or attack Greeks or those born in pre-Greek cities in Turkey, with racist epithets.
After Ottoman Turks invaded and captured Constantinople (today's Istanbul) and Pontos in the 15th century, Christians and Jews became "dhimmis," second-class subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Historian Bat Ye'or, among others, notes[ii] practices, such as: the ghulam system, in which non-Muslims were enslaved, converted and trained to become warriors and statesmen; the devşirme system, the forced recruitment of Christian boys taken from their families, converted to Islam and enslaved for service to the sultan in his palace and to join his "new corps," the janissaries; compulsory and voluntary Islamization -- the latter resulting from social, religious and economic pressure; and the sexual slavery of women and young boys, deportation and massacre. Christians and Jews were also forced to pay taxes disproportionately higher than those of Muslims: cizye (or jizya, tribute, poll tax, head tax) and haraç (land tax). Many other dues levied on peasants and traders were heavier for dhimmis than for Muslims. Failure to pay the cizye could result in forceful conversion, enslavement, or death.
Today, less than half a percent of Turkey's population is Christian -- the result of a history throughout which Turks persecuted the region's indigenous Christians. Many Turks still proudly endorse this history, with no attempt to face it honestly, or secure respect for the victims. In fact, they falsely label the victims as perpetrators, praise the criminals and insult the memory of the victims and their descendants. On April 24 -- the 104th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide -- Erdoğan repeated his view of the genocide:
"The relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters who massacred the Muslim people, including women and children, in eastern Anatolia, was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period."
The hostility of the Turkish people in Anatolia seems to be the result of having been indoctrinated with false information since childhood. Ironically, many Turks who harbor ill will towards Greeks are most likely of Greek origin, and are actually insulting no one but their own Greek ancestors and themselves.
Dr. Vasileios Meichanetsidis is an Athens-based historian, genocide scholar and editor of the 2011 book "The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks."
[i] "Turkish Cruelty Bared by Greeks. Atrocities Like Those Against Armenians revealed in Documents," in The New York Times, 16 June 1918, p. 42.: https://www.nytimes.com/1918/06/16/archives/turkish-cruelty-bared-by-greeks-atrocities-like-those-against.html
[ii] Vasileios Th. Meichanetsidis, "The Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, 1913-1923: A Comprehensive Overview," in Genocide Studies International 9, 1 (Spring 2015): 107.