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Mapping the Memories of Anatolian Refugees

Updated: May 10, 2021

Editor’s note: This guest blog post was written by Ciara Barrick a Literature and Ancient Greek student at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

A group of seven students and two professors (Professor Kitromilides, The University of Athens and Professor Tom Papademetriou, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey) have traveled to Athens to study the Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christian Communities of Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire. The seminar was sponsored by The New York Life Insurance Company, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. It took place at the Centre for Asia Minor Studies and focused on Oral Histories. These histories were provided by refugees who recount their lives in Asia Minor prior to the expulsion of their communities following the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

As part of our program we did research on the archive, reading the accounts and intimately experiencing the traditions, beliefs, personal histories, and struggles that faced the Greek Orthodox Christians in Asia Minor, primarily focusing on the villages that belonged to the bishopric of Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri, Turkey). During our research we were also engaged with faculty and peers to piece together the history of these refugees.

Greek Orthodox Christians under Islamic rule

With the decline and fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (324-1453), many Christians of the Greek Orthodox Church came under Ottoman rule: Islam was the dominant religion of the state while Jews and Christians were allowed to establish their own self-governing communities, called millets, each retaining its own religious laws, traditions, and language under the general protection of the sultan. Greek-speaking Ottoman subjects anchored their identity to religion and the Orthodox church.

While immediately after the fall of the imperial capital of Constantinople in 1453 many Greek scholars fled to Italy bringing with them priceless knowledge and rare manuscripts, by the 1550s Constantinople emerged once again as an important center of Greek learning. Individuals who desired could be trained in the schools of Constantinople and then pursue further education in Europe. These students most often returned to reignite the desire for Hellenic learning, constantly pushing for an educated society, Ioannis Kyriakantoriakis, a researcher at the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, told us.

Through education the Greeks were exposed to foreign ideas. Especially during 1750 and 1821 intellectuals of the so-called Modern Greek Enlightenment promoted social and national liberation in the period that lead to the Greek Revolution. The Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) which was the first major war of liberation after the American Revolution ended with the establishment of the independent kingdom of Greece in 1832.

The ideology that provided the raison dêtre for the young Greek Kingdom was that of the ‘Great Idea’, literally an irredentist ideology that aspired to the emancipation of all Greeks under Ottoman rule. Greece used various means to extend its territory into the Ionian islands, Thessaly, Macedon, Crete and the Aegean, but a disastrous advance into Turkey (1919-22) failed resulting in a huge influx of Greek refugees in exchange of ethnic minorities between Greece and Turkey.

The Exchange of Populations Between Greece and Turkey

The exchange resulted in one of the greatest population movements of the 20th century, it involved approximately 2 million people (around 1.5 million Christians in Turkey and 356,000 Muslims in Greece), most of whom were forcibly made refugees and de jure denaturalized from their homelands, Dimitris Kamouzis, researcher at the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, told us. Refugees were housed in stadiums, theatres and churches; they also built their own housing settlements on the outskirts of the cities. People who lived in these areas had arrived with few personal possessions and lived in shacks of tin and board.

Refugees were hesitant to put down roots as they hoped to return to Asia Minor. Additionally, the racism they faced caused few to develop reasons to want to stay. Many spoke only Turkish or spoke little Greek which kept them at odds with the native populations. Language was not the only barrier for these refugees; often, women came to Greece having been separated from their husbands. These women were seen by the Greeks as being somehow unclean or unethical.

There is a large cultural impact due to the population exchange. We see the failure of the exchange rippling through Greek art, music, theatre, television and cinema. (As in Nikos Koundouros’ “Μαγική Πόλις” or “Magic City” a movie filmed in the shanty town of Neos Cosmos).


A walk around a refugee settlement

Nicolas Nicolaides (PhD student of Ottoman History) guided the group on a walking seminar through Neos Kosmos, the site of the refugee housing during the exchange. Neos Kosmos was one of the shantytowns that had sprung up on the outskirts of Athens housing thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees. Even today when empty Armenian churches and a decaying Bauhaus social housing complex bear the only witness to the refugee settlement that once was, new immigrant groups from Southern Asia and the Middle East continue to find in the neighborhood a focus for acculturation to urban life. Nico shared with us a passage from Henry Miller’s book “The Colossus of Maroussi” which recounts Miller’s time in Neos Kosmos:

Despite the fact that the whole quarter had been created out of the rubbish heap there was more charm and character to this little village than one usually finds in a modern city. It evokes books, paintings, dreams, legends: it evoked such names as Lewis Carroll, Hieronymus Bosch, Breughel, Max Ernst, Hans Reichel, Salvador Dali, Goya, Giotto, Paul Klee, to mention but a few names. In the midst of the most terrible poverty and suffering there nevertheless emanated a glow which was holy; the surprise of finding a cow or a sheep in the same room with a mother and child gave way instantly to a feeling of reverence. Nor did one have the slightest desire to laugh at seeing a squalid but surmounted by an improvised solarium made of pieces of tin. […] Only in sorrow and suffering does man draw close to his fellow man; only then, it seems, does his life become beautiful.” 

Photo ©

Photo ©

The power of images

In the pictures attached, the top is of the Smyrna Opera House before the exchange. It illustrates the wealthy, culturally advanced, thriving society of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey). In the second picture we see a theatre in Athens filled with refugees who perhaps a few years prior were sitting in that same Smyrna Opera house. At the time of the exchange, cities like Athens were housing refugees in any kind of public space possible. It is the paralleling of images which allows us to see how devastating the effects of the exchange were on these people.

2. Smyrna's theater

Smyrna Opera House

3. municipal theater

The Municipal Theatre of Athens

#Populationexchange #RichardStocktonCollegeofNewJersey #CentreforAsiaMinorStudies #scholarledwalkingtoursinAthens #OttomanGreeks

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