Last Byzantine Greeks Facing Extinction in Islamist-Led Turkey

OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

The Greeks who represent the last vestiges of Christian Byzantium and the Roman Empire are heading towards their final extinction in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, with their numbers dwindling to a mere handful under his Islamist government.

What is now Turkey only began to be colonised in by the Turkic peoples in earnest from around 1071, after their Seljuk ancestors had arrived from Central Asia and vanquished the Greek-speaking Christian ruler Romanos IV Diogenes’s forces at the Battle of Manzikert.

The last bastion of the Byzantine state was finally snuffed out with the brutal conquest of Constantinople, until then widely regarded as the greatest Christian city in the world, in 1453 — or, more arguably, with the fall of the citadel of Salmeniko Castle in modern-day Greece in 1461, following a brave but doomed resistance by its commander, Konstantinos Graitzas Palaiologos.

Despite widespread massacres and enslavement during the Turkish conquests, however, the region’s Greeks survived and were allowed to retain something of a cultural life, albeit as second-class citizens — not least because they served as cash cows for their Muslim rulers through the imposition of the jizya tax.

But Greeks in Istanbul, as Constantinople is now called, have now tumbled from 200,000 as recently as 1914 to, officially, a mere 3,000 — and a Times correspondent who visited the city to interview some of the survivors, known as the Rum, reports that the true figure may be nearer to just one thousand.

The Times‘ interview subjects did not describe a life as hard as that endured by some of their forebears, such as in 1821, when many of the city’s Greeks were massacred and the Patriarch of Constantinople hanged from the gate of his cathedral, or in 1955, when the security services organised violent pogroms against them in what POLITICO dubbed a “Turkish Kristallnacht”.

“Everyone is gone now,” said Lazari Kozmaoglu, the 75-year-old owner of a rare pork butcher’s shop.

“When I was young, I used to get worn out saying hello to everyone I walked past on the street. Now it’s so lonely,” he said, recalling that the neighbourhood was home to some 5,000 Greeks in his youth — reduced to just seven now.

Mr Kozmaoglu has passed away himself since speaking to The Times, leaving his sons to carry the torch.

None of the interviewees, perhaps understandably, or their interviewer, perhaps less understandably, touched to any great extent on the reasons so many Greeks have fled their ancestral homeland in recent years, but the mood against such minorities in once strongly secular but now Islamist-led Turkey is souring.

The authorities have made it increasingly difficult for Orthodox Christians to receive a religious education, for example, and some historic churches and monasteries have been demolished or repurposed as mosques, sometimes with little warning.

The most (in)famous casualty is the former Church of the Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, forcibly converted into a mosque after the Turkish conquest but turned into a secular museum after the fall of the Ottoman dynasty in the early 20th century, with much of its priceless Christian artwork uncovered once more.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now turned it into a mosque once again, dismaying Christians the world over.

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