It’s Everyone’s Business About the Turks: Part I

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It’s Everyone’s Business About the Turks: Part I

Boris Kaplan, Reporter

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The ‘Republic’ of Turkey has been in the news recently due to its attempted coups, terrorism, and violation of human rights. The troubled state of a NATO member, with America’s nukes in it, is worrisome for both its people and its neighbors. Indeed, the country has a historical knack for worrying and angering its neighbors and its own people. From changing the name of cities, genocides, brutal repression of ethnic minorities, and territorial ambitions, the Turks, and Turkey, have had quite a history.


The nation across the Aegean Sea has had a host of problems with the Turks ever since they arrived in Anatolia in 1071. Beforehand, the peninsula was populated by Greeks, or at least those whom assimilated into the Hellenic culture. After the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071, between the Seljūq Turkic Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine emperor was captured. After his release the Empire fell into civil wars, and troops were removed from the Turkish front to fight for competing families in and around Constantinople. This gave free reign for the Turks to settle and raid Anatolia, forcing the Greeks out of cities such as Ancyra (now Ankara), Ikónion (Konya), and occupying a host of other cities and towns except for Sinōpē (Sinop), Trapezounda (Trabzon), and the northwestern coast. The Byzantines called on the west for help, and it formulated in the form of the Crusades. The coasts were later retaken, but the heart of Anatolia was Turkified. The majority of the Greeks were forced out, the only ones that remained were in the mountains of Kappadocia (Modern Nevşehir province).

The border would remain almost constant. For a hundred plus years, the Greeks and Turks would fight over the border in skirmishes. Large advances by either side would lead to disaster by the attacking side; as shown by the Byzantine attack at the Battle of Myriokephalon and the Turkish counter attack at the Battles of the Maiander Valley and Klaudiopolis (Bolu). A sort of stalemate was reached. Raids back and forth would occur, but relations normalized. The Turks and Greeks intermixed in the borderlands, and would borrow from each others cultures. Turks would even be able to reach important positions in the Byzantine imperial court, such as Alexius Axoukh, who became advisor to the Byzantine emperor Manuel Komnenos. Axoukh convinced the emperor to make converting from Islam to Orthodox Christianity easier by not requiring Muslim converts to denounce Mohammad, and his God. Unofficial toleration existed for Muslims in Byzantine lands, and Orthodox Christians in Turkic lands.

This changed with powerful hard-line Orthodox and anti-Turkish groups at the imperial courts fostering xenophobia against the Turks and Muslims. This was due to jealousy of the success of Axoukh, and the Axoukh family. Emperors after Manuel Komnenos would not allow for non-Greeks to rise in prominence. Toleration in some sense was kept, mosques were allowed to be built in major cities, and Muslims were allowed to live in relative peace. Most of the xenophobia was increasingly aimed at the Catholics, and cooperation with the Turks was preferable than with the Catholic heretics. Nevertheless, with the first fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, the Turks seized the southwestern coast, south of the Maiander (Büyük Menderes) river.

The Seljūqs of Ikónion/Konya bordered the Byzantine successor states the Empire of Nikía and the Empire of Trapezounda, The border was stabilized until the 1260s with the Empire of Nikía after the Battle of Antioch on the Maiander. The Empire of Trapezounda would fare worse, losing Sinōpē/Sinope in 1214. The Turks would be temporarily conquered by the Mongols from 1243 to 1335. However, in 1299, the Söğüt tribe, renamed to the Osmanlı (or Ottoman) tribe, would establish itself near the now reformed Byzantine cities of Nikía (İznik) and Nikomedeia (İzmit). The Greeks would continue to lose ground. The Turkish Kingdoms, or Beyliks, of Aydın took control of Smyrna (İzmir), and Menteşe took Ephesus/Efes. After Ephesus/Efes surrendered, the most of the local population was deported, and the ones remaining were slaughtered. The town was abandoned. Smyrna/İzmir was seiged, raided, and sacked several times by competing Turkish warlords and the Timurid Empire, also of Turkic origin. The Timurids slaughtered almost all of the citizens of Smyrna/İzmir, both Greek and Turkish. The city was returned to Turkish control by the Ottomans in 1415.

The Byzantines faced numerous defeats at the hands of the Ottomans, exploiting the constant civil wars. Nikía/İznik and Nikomedeia/İzmit were taken by 1337. Andrianoúpolis (Edirne) fell in 1361, and Konstantinoúpolis/Kostantiniyye was surrounded. In 1453, it fell, and for two days the Greeks were slaughtered or enslaved, until it was ordered to stop as it would become the new capital. By 1461 all Greek land not ruled by Italians was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

After securing the Greek lands, the Ottomans were tolerant of their presence, relatively. Christians had to pay poll taxes, convert to Islam, be enslaved or die. Most chose either of the first two. The poll tax was called a jizya, a common Islamic practice towards religious minorities. The Ottomans had another tax, unique in Islamic history, to encourage conversion; as if economic hardships were not enough. It was the devshirme, or the blood tax. The tax was that, if a family in the rural parts of the Balkans had more than one son, that son would be forcibly taken away, usually around age 8-10. This would usually be done if the family could not afford the jizya, though sometimes it was done randomly to fit looking boys. The son would have to convert to Islam, or face a hard laborious life. Depending on their skills, they would have to go into the military as regular foot troops, or as elite troops or janissaries; teachers, scientists, or administrators in the Empire; and if skilled enough, they would be able to ascend to generalship, or vizier. Occasionally they would be able to reach the level of grand vizier, the supreme military commander of the Ottoman army, instructed to take on important tasks in terms of expansion, or control.

Those enslaved for not converting and paying the jizya, would have different fates depending on their sex and appearance. Some were allowed to ascend to higher positions out of slavery, others would be slaves for the rest of their lives. Men would be worked or forced to fight. Sometimes they would be castrated and become eunuchs, especially if they rebelled. Women, would be taken to an odalisque, and would serve the concubines of the Sultan. If they were attractive or were good at singing, they would come to serve the Sultan sexually, and would continue for years to come. Still, they would be tolerated for the first two centuries.

However, the Greeks did not always passively accept their rule. Continuing in intensity after 1680, Greeks would openly defy Ottoman rule. During the Great Turkish War from 1683-1679, which was a Christian coalition against the Ottoman Empire after it tried to take the Austrian capital Vienna, Greeks would join the invading Christian armies, and help in key battles which curtailed Ottoman expansion into Europe. With the Ottoman Empire reaching its point of stagnation, Greek resistance increased. In 1705 for example, an Ottoman official traveled to southern Greece to collect more boys for the blood tax. Greek rebels attacked and kill the official, along with all his men. The Turks responded brutally, they hunted down the rebels and put their heads on the city walls of Thessaloniki (Salonika). General unrest would continue, and the Ottomans abolished the blood take soon thereafter.

During the During the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, ideas of nationalism spread among the minorities of the Ottoman Empire, including in Greece. Romantic notions of Greek culture and history spread after Napoleon briefly occupied the Greek Ionian islands, off the coast of western Greece. This exchange between Greek and Western culture would have the Western European powers interested in the region. Russia already had a vested interest in the Greece, to liberate the patriarchate of Constantinople and Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule. That is why in 1771, Catherine the Great attempted to have a joint invasion of the Ottoman Empire with Austria, to restore the Byzantine Empire. The plan never came to fruition, as Austria was distracted by the French Revolution. The Russians nevertheless continued to fund Greek rebels, and imported Greeks to live in coastal cities and towns on the Black Sea. The rebellions usually ended without anything being gained for the Greeks, and the rebels and their place of origin were severely punished. Sporadic rebellions would occur until 1821, with the Greek War for Independence.

The eight and a half year war for independence would be bloody for both sides. When the revolution against the Muslim Turks to establish the Greek fatherland started, massacres of civilian populations occurred within the first year. With the initial success of the Greek rebels in southern Greece, the Sultan ordered the execution of the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory V, the Orthodox equivalent to the Pope. His body was left to hang in Constantinople for two days before being tossed into the sea. This led to rage and calls for revenge by the Greeks, the Orthodox Christians, and the Russians. The Greeks of Constantinople, Thessaloniki, the islands of Chios, Crete, Cyprus, Psara, Samothraki, and many more areas with Greek populations, were slaughtered. Key community figures, especially ones of the church were executed seemingly everywhere under Ottoman control. Greeks responded with similar brutality. Towns in Greece which surrendered the rebels had their Turkish population slaughtered in reprisal. Ottoman troops stationed in cities such as Athens, surrendered in exchange for safe passage home. This was not honored, and surrendered troops were slaughtered. The Ottomans maintained Greece north of Athens for the majority of the war, repressing Greek areas harshly and with the help of Egyptian troops under Muhammad Ali. It took the pressure from Britain, France, and Russia to end the war, securing a small Greek state south of Larissa in 1829.

The new Hellenic Kingdom only had a third of all Greeks which lived under the Ottoman Empire. Plans to retake these Greek lands, similar to the borders of the Byzantine Empire in the late 1100s, was called the Megali idea, or the Great Idea. However, Greece was impoverished due to years of war. Worse yet, the two thirds of the Greek remaining under Ottoman rule suffered heavily. Thessaloniki/Salonica had its population drastically depleted. Cyprus lost key church figures. Greeks lost most of the privileges they had as bankers or merchants. Repressive laws were passed to keep the Greeks in check. The Young Turks, a nationalistic and modernizing group would institute laws to assimilate non-Turks of the Empire. This  This only proved to inspire more desire for Greeks to unite with Greece. By 1913, following the Balkan Wars, most of modern day Greece was secured, at the expense of the security of Greeks in Constantinople, Andrianoúpolis/Edirne, and Anatolia.

With the outbreak of WWI, nationalists in Greece were hard pressed to join on the Allied side to fight the Ottomans. However, having a German born king prevented that from happening until 1917, when the king was overthrown. Until then, the Greek nationalists would watch as the Greeks in the Ottoman empire would be genocided. The Pontic Greeks, those on the northern coast of Anatolia, were, along with the Armenians, suspected of siding with the Russians. Massacres occurred all along the northern coast. Executions ranged from hangings, shootings, to taking groups of men, women and children out to sea, and dropping them off in the middle of nowhere to drown. Cities such as Sinōpē/Sinope and Trapezounda/Trabzon lost a large amount of their Pontic Greek populations. In 1917, with their brothers and sisters being killed, and the possibility of fulfilling their Great Idea, they declared war on the Central powers. The next year, they were on the winning side.

The Greeks dreams were close to realization in the Treaty of Sèvres dealing with the Turks after WWI. They were given Andrianoúpolis. All land just west of Constantinople was given. Constantinople was to become an international city with Greek influence, though managed by England and France. Smyrna/İzmir and the lands around it were gained. The a large amount of the Pontic Greeks would become part of the new Armenian state, which at least they were safe from genocide, the Armenians suffering too in that regard. However, the new nationalist government under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, would refuse the Treaty. The Treaty was regarded as humiliating for the Turks, who abolished the Sultanate and set up a new government at Ankara, since Constantinople was occupied. The new government would wage wars against the French and Armenians in the east.

The Greeks, encouraged by the French and British, and Turkey fighting a two front war, invaded Turkey to enforce the Treaty. This would start the Greco-Turkish war, from 1919-1922. The war started with initial Greek success, making good pace into Anatolia. Nikía/İznik and Nikomedeia/İzmit were taken. Massacres of civilians would occur heavily on both sides. Then, with the Turks holding Greek advances at two battles of Inonoú/İnönü. The Greeks were becoming worn down. The Greeks attempted again to advance, hoping to take the new Turkish capital of Ankara. After a three week battle of Sangáriou/Sakarya, the Greeks were exhausted and lost the will to fight. With the front line remaining stable, the Turks under Kemal regrouped for a year while holding the Greek front. Then in September of 1922, in an amazing rush to the sea, the Turks pushed the Greeks out of Anatolia, reaching Smyrna/İzmir within a week. The Greeks while retreating instituted a scorched earth policy, which devastated the remaining Greek populations, and the Turks as well. This led to fires raging for days across western Anatolia, the largest being the Great Fire of Smyrna/İzmir. The city was destroyed, with the damaged focused on the Greek and Armenian centers. It was later found out that the Greeks did not start the fire, rather the local Turkish population.  After the Greek troops had fled, the non-Turkish civilians were massacred and raped by the Turkish troops. The British and French, exhausted by WWI, did not want to engage in a prolonged fight with Turkey, and they pursued peace.

This led to the Treaty of Lausanne, in which seemingly all Greek gains against the Turks were reversed. The Treaty included a population exchange. A million Greeks which still remained in Turkey were forced to leave their homes and head for Greece, which was mostly its pre-WWI state. Half a million Turks and Muslims were forced to leave Greece as well. There some exclusions. The Greeks of Constantinople/Istanbul, and the Islands of Imbros (Gökçeada) and  Tenedos (Bozcaada), and the Turks of northeastern Greece were spared. However, they would not live in peace. In 1932, the Republic of Turkey passed laws banning Greeks from holding certain jobs. In 1942, a heavy tax was placed on non-Muslims, aimed at the Greeks, to reduce their wealth and influence. In 1955, a state sponsored pogrom, or massacre, was conducted against the 200,000 strong Greek minority in Istanbul. The population of the minority rapidly dropped, until only around 2,000 remain today. Gökçeada and Bozcaada suffered in the 60s and 70s, with the Turkish government banning Greek language from being taught, and requiring any government officials to know Turkish. The government also built free range prisons on the islands, housing murderers and rapists, who were allowed to roam on the islands freely. As a result, a majority of the Greek populations fled.

The issue did not end there. In 1960, the island of Cyprus was given independence from Britain, which owned it since 1878. The island was majority Greek, making up around 82% of the population. As part of the agreement of independence, the two communities would have a certain percentage of autonomy, and a certain amount of guaranteed government jobs. The Greeks resented this, since the Turks, making up around 18% of the population, received a mandated 30% government jobs. A fascist Greek group overthrew the new government in 1974, and wanted a union with Greece. In response, as per the guarantee agreement between Britain, Greece and Turkey, Turkey invaded under the pretenses of protecting the Turkish minorities. The war that followed killed tens of thousands of Greeks and Turks, and displaced hundreds of thousands more, mostly Greeks. The island would be divided between Greek Cyprus, the UN recognized nation, and the the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only recognized by Turkey. There is a UN buffer zone, and since the invasion, a peaceful resolution has been rejected. All of this was allowed to happen due to Turkey being a part of NATO, and housing US nukes while bordering the Soviet Union. All of this is cause for tensions between the Greeks and Turks to this day.

Greece and Turkey still did not resolve the current border of their states. Territorial claims over the Aegean sea have led to several military and political standoffs between both nations. In 1987, claims over oil in the sea almost led to a war between the two. In 2004, Turkey reaffirmed that it has a just cause for war against Greece over the territorial dispute. Worse yet, the far-right nationalists of both nations continue claims towards each other. The far-right Greeks want to restore the Byzantine Empire, and want the territory of the Megali Idea. Greeks don’t have a word for Istanbul, still referring to it as Konstantinoúpolis. They also refuse to change the name of major Turkish cities from their historic Greek names in schools and media.. The far-right Turks claim Thessaloniki, all of Cyprus, and the Greek islands off the west coast as their own. The recent coup attempt in Turkey has led to some Turks seeking refuge in Greece, crossing the border illegally. Greece, however, supports Turkey’s entrance into the EU, as it will increase trade and tourism between both nations. Human rights, and genocide denial, however, prevent Turkey from entering the EU. The almost 900 year conflict between the Greeks and Turks has led to a constant string of bad relations. Attempts to improve relations have been made, however nationalist from both nations prevent this. The Turkish government denies any genocide occurring, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The Greek government tries rapprochement, but falls short on purpose, as they would give up claims to reparations. Most Greeks and Turks, however, like each other. Their respective governments prevent the past from being put behind, and the recent wave of nationalism across Europe, pushed normalized relations further down the road. 

The Rest of the Balkans

The Ottoman Empire had a similar history between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina , Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. It is not nearly to the same extent of mutual tragedies with the Greeks, but still played a role in their national identity. Serbian, Montenegrin, and Croatian nationalists still allude to the oppressive Ottoman Turks when referring to Muslims. Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria resent the brutal conquest of their lands by the Turks and Turkish attempts of assimilation. Turkish minorities in all aforementioned nations are not treated equally, with Bulgarians attempting to force the Turks to leave. Turkish culture, history, and politics is forever intertwined with the Balkan nations, much to their mutual displeasure.

For more indepth analysis of Turkish-Southern Slavic (Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, and Macedonians, see South Slav Sentiments.)


The relations between the Turks and the Russians, Armenians, and Arabs will be discussed in Part II of this series. 

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