The fire that destroyed part of the Greek hospital in the Balikli district of Constantinople, forcing its evacuation, brings to mind the history of the Greek presence in the city. Its status has changed dramatically over the years. Initially, I paused when I read the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople’s reaction to the destruction of the community’s property. Bartholomaios commented “our diaspora has suffered a serious blow.” It was the word diaspora that caught my attention. His Holiness is right of course, but my momentary surprise was because for most of their centuries-long presence in the city, the Greeks were not called diaspora Greeks. Instead, along with the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Pontos region, and those in other Ottoman domains they were considered ‘unredeemed’ Greeks (Alytrotos Ellinismos). From the time Modern Greece was established through the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922, Greeks did not consider those regions as foreign and their Greek inhabitants diaspora Greeks. Those were considered historically and culturally Greek areas with indigenous Greek inhabitants. The goal of the Great Idea, Greece’s foreign policy throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was to incorporate those regions within Greece’s borders and ‘redeem’ their ethnically Greek inhabitants by welcoming them as fully fledged Greek citizens.
The end of the Great Idea came with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 when Greece and Turkey agreed upon their frontiers and pledged to not make any more claims on each other’s territory. The Treaty also mandated an exchange of populations between those countries, but the Greeks of Constantinople and a few hundred on the island of Imbros and Tenedos were allowed to remain, as were the Muslims in Greece’s Western Thrace region. Both countries also agreed to protect those minority populations within their borders.
From that moment on, the Greeks of Constantinople became a diaspora Greek community, Greeks living in a foreign country and dependent on the Turkey’s promise to protect its non-Muslim populations. Known as ‘Rumlar’ in Turkish and Romioi in Greek and Rum in English, this community became the oldest Greek diaspora due to its centuries-long presence in the city. Even the Balikli hospital predates the emergence of the important 19th century Greek diaspora communities in Alexandria, Cairo, London, Odesa, and Vienna. It was built in 1753 by the city’s association of Greek grocers, its purpose being to care for Constantinople Greeks suffering from epidemics and common diseases. It was rebuilt in 1790 because of a fire.
When Constantinople was renamed Istanbul in 1930, it was the city outside Greece with the largest ethnic Greek population, numbering 200,000. This was more than the total number of Greeks in the three other big urban centers of the diaspora, Alexandria in Egypt, Chicago, and New York.
Alas, this venerable Greek Orthodox ‘Rum’ community barely exists today and from the original 200,000 only about two thousand Greeks remain in the city. Their exodus was caused by a string of hostile legislative and physical attacks on the community and a series of restrictive measures imposed on the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the authorities. The worst of those incidents were a crippling head tax in the 1940s, a horrific pogrom in the 1950s, and massive expulsions in the 1960s. These events have been highlighted in Speros Vryonis’ study entitled The Mechanism of Catastrophe, in Tassos Boulmetis’ autobiographical film A Touch of Spice, and a recent Turkish TV series The Club, which is available on Netflix.
The Greeks who remain in the city, despite what they have gone through, display a great deal of pride and resilience. It has been evoked in a charming way in the recently published novel A Recipe for Daphne by Nektaria Anastasiadou, herself an Istanbul Rum. The book was favorably reviewed in the Washington Post and other media outlets. The sense of history and perseverance of the Rum Greeks Anastasiadou evokes is reflected in the existence of vibrant Constantinopolitan associations across the world, from Athens to Los Angeles. This spirit of determination suggests the Balikli Hospital will survive the fire and resume its operations, especially if Greek Americans respond to Archbishop Elpidophoros’ appeal to the omogenia to “contribute in any way we can to mitigate the material damages that have been suffered so that the Balikli Greek Hospital can continue its mission caring for the elderly and infirm.”
As this process begins, one cannot forget the bigger picture, the tragic story of the near extinction of the Istanbul Greek community which the fire at the hospital brings to mind. In fact, there is an irony to the unsubstantiated official Turkish claims that Greece is violating the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 by supposedly militarizing its islands in the Eastern Aegean. In contrast, what the Greek Rum of Istanbul have suffered offers ample proof of how the treaty’s clauses – those about protecting the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey – have been systematically ignored.