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Society

Descendants of Constantinopolitan Greeks on Returning to the City

CONSTANTINOPLE – The descendants of Greeks forced out of Constantinople who are now returning to their ancestral homeland were featured in The Times of London on May 3.

Among them, Dafni Zachariadou, 33, who was born and raised in Athens, told the Times of visiting Constantinople, “Suddenly all my family stories came to life, like a fairytale. I thought to myself, ‘I will live in this town for ever.’”

Zachariadou, like many descendants of the city’s Rum community (Rum is a derivative of the term Romaioi, citizens of the Roman Empire in the East), grew up hearing about Constantinople from her elders. According to the Times, Zachariadou’s great-grandfather had a barbershop in the Istiklal neighborhood which once had “high-ceilinged mansions.” Her grandmother wanted to return there until the day she died in 2015, the Times reported. "She always said that Istanbul was the best city in the world,” Zachariadou told the Times.

Constantinople had a majority Greek population from the 8th century BC through the Ottoman conquest in 1453. The Ottoman census of 1910 counted 260,000 Greeks out of the city’s population of 850,000. In 1919, there were 350,000 Greeks but the population dwindled as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Though the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne guaranteed the right of the Greeks of Constantinople to remain, as opposed to other areas of Turkey where the population exchange was more strictly enforced, many fled to Greece or immigrated to the U.S. and other countries.

Zachariadou’s family members left in 1922, just two months before the Smyrna Catastrophe.

A property tax in the 1940s, pogroms in 1955, and attacks in 1974 due to the war in Cyprus led to a further decline in the Greek population. Beginning in 1964, the Turkish government also stripped 60,000 members of the Greek community of citizenship and Greeks were not allowed to sell their houses and property or take money out of their bank accounts before they left, according to a report from the Human Rights Watch.

Today, there are an estimated 2,000 Greeks living in Constantinople, many elderly, the Times reported, noting that in the first three months of 2020, there were 53 deaths and no births.

Zachariadou hopes to save the community from extinction, the Times reported, adding that she moved to the city three years ago, has learned Turkish, and is working on an oral history project.

Nikolaos Uzunoglou left Istanbul in 1974 after Turkish nationalists attacked his family on the first night of the invasion of Cyprus, the Times reported, adding that he now lives in Athens and supports Zachariadou and others returning. Despite tensions between Athens and Ankara, policies introduced by President Erdogan's party (AKP) made it possible, including the restoration of Greek citizenship, the Times reported.

"Our primary goal is to inform young people about their right to return to their homeland, which is Istanbul," said Uzunoglu, who regained his citizenship after 40 years, the Times reported. "The problem is that there are many difficulties for the new generation. In order to obtain citizenship, one of the parents must be a citizen.”

He also told the Times about the effort to discuss the issues with the Turkish government, noting that “this is the first time in history this has happened,” and “it was unthinkable” until recently to have this discussion with a Turkish Minister.

Legal reforms from the 1980s, and fully implemented in the AKP era, have also led to thousands of descendants of exiled Greeks reclaiming their families’ property in Constantinople, the Times reported, adding that the process is usually “long and difficult,” since “most of the confiscated or abandoned properties were transferred to the Turkish treasury, which then sold them to private investors.”

Zachariadou is not trying to reclaim her family’s property, but she will apply for Turkish citizenship as soon as she is eligible, the Times reported. "If I did not think we could rebuild this community, I would not be part of that effort," she told the Times. "At some point you have to choose: Will you be a victim or will you look to the future?"

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