CULTURE

Tome describes slow death of a community

In 1910, there were 330,906 Greeks living in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, the epicenter of Greek culture. There was a large network of schools offering high-quality education, one of the most sophisticated in the Ottoman Empire, including schools for girls. The Greek Orthodox millet (a millet was a nation ruled by its religious leaders) constituted a stable 25-30 percent of the population of «the City.» The Orthodox Church had more privileges that it had had in the Byzantine period and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, despite the spread of secularization and Enlightenment ideas, enjoyed a prominent role. So successful was the Greek community of Istanbul that Greeks even emigrated there from the independent kingdom of Greece. Today, there are about 1,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. In 2002-2003, there was a total student population of 249 spread across a tiny number of schools. Greek tuition is limited to a few hours a week and standards are low. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is still pleading for the reopening of the theological seminary at Halki. The relentless bureaucratic pressure, wanton interference, blatant discrimination and sometimes outright violence that caused this dramatic decline is the subject of «Turkish Policy toward Greek Education in Istanbul 1923-1974 Secondary Education and Cultural Identity» (Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive, 2004) by Irini Sarioglou. The product of several years’ research at the University of Birmingham’s Center for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, this 256-page tome «contextualizes the main causes of the flow of Greek emigrants from Istanbul,» focusing largely on the issue of Greek minority education. Sarioglou, who, as a graduate of the Zappeion High School for Girls in Istanbul and the University of Marmara, is well placed to carry out such a task, has drawn on a wealth of original unpublished material and published primary and secondary sources that alone make this book unique. She sheds light not only on the apparently narrow topic of Greek minority education, but also knits it into the broader historical context, demonstrating the impact of the autocratic, centralizing state of Turkey that emerged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Bent on creating a single, Turkish identity in which all other identities would be expunged, this Kemalist policy (well-described) treated all non-Muslim minorities with a suspicion that was tantamount at times to paranoia. For despite Turkey’s own secularizing drive, «Islam survived as a powerful factor… The deep-seated understanding of ‘Muslim equals Turk’ and ‘non-Muslim equals non-Turk’ has largely remained unchanged since then.» (Its counterpart in Greece, obviously, is that Greek equals Orthodox.) A treaty broken Chronologically, the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923) starts the period under examination and provides its constant point of reference. (The first part of the book gives the 19th and early 20th century background). Under it, the Greek minority of Istanbul, Tenedos, Imbros and the Muslims of Western Thrace «were entitled to religious, educational and linguistic freedoms, while they were given the right to control their religious/educational communal properties (vakif)… they were entitled to settle questions of family law and personal status in accordance with their own traditions.» The book relentlessly catalogs how those rights were broken, especially in the period immediately following 1923. The policy of Turkification led to teachers being dismissed for not having sufficient knowledge of the Turkish language or for holding Greek nationality. The hours for Turkish-language teaching were increased to 12 hours for seniors in 1925; those who failed the subject «were judged unfit to progress.» Textbooks were subject to prior inspection and approval by the Turkish Education Ministry. «Those found threatening to the Turkish nation were dismissed from the schools’ curricula.» Schools – this varied from period to period – had to be administered by a Turkish national. And so on and so forth. Emigration This pressure could reach the heights of absurdity. Sarioglou’s own school, Zappeion, was closed for a whole academic year because a statue portrayed the founder clothed in a classical Greek chiton. The «measures against Greek schools, and the resultant falling standards in education… were… key factors in the decline of the Greek minority of Istanbul,» Sarioglou states. Financially strapped, schools closed, if they were not shut down by the authorities. Turkish education policy was also influenced by fluctuating Greco-Turkish relations and developments on the international scene. World War II – with its Nazi influences – was a bad time for non-Muslims. The draconian varlik capital tax – the «institutionalized equivalent» of hysteria – was applied with especial severity on minorities, with some Greek businessmen taxed two or three times their total assets. Those unable to pay the tax were sent to labor camps, writes Sarioglou. After World War II, the fear of communism led to a rapprochement with the beleaguered Patriarchate, resulting in the election of Athenagoras I – an American – to the patriarchal throne. A number of restrictions were removed, including a tax on minority institutions. There was even an educational agreement in 1951 by which each government agreed to supply their respective minorities with textbooks and teachers. But the latter half of the period Sarioglou describes was soured by the Cyprus issue. The 1955 anti-Greek riots (probably organized in advance to coincide with the London conference on Cyprus) sounded the death knell for the Greek community as «long-established, well-to-do families did indeed leave.» In the wake of the riots, arrests frightened people into emigrating. To cap it all, in a piece of breathtaking legal chicanery, minority schools in 1961 were placed under the private schools department of the Education Ministry, thus depriving them of the communal status, and therefore the protection, afforded by the Treaty of Lausanne. They have this status today. Forced emigration was followed by outright physical expulsion in 1964, when the Turkish government ordered out all holders of Greek nationality, numbering about 12,000 (the context for the film «A Touch of Spice»). If there had ever been a chance for a solution, it was sabotaged by the Cyprus dispute. In 1971, the university division of the Halki theological school fell victim, and has been suspended to the present day. Little fault can be found with the book (a slight national bias notwithstanding). There is a certain amount of duplication and backtracking, perhaps almost inevitable, given the chronological and thematic arrangement. A habit of mentioning events and people in one section, and then elaborating on them later (or in an endnote) is one the reader could have done without. That detracts little from Irini Sarioglou’s opus. Well-referenced, with a fat bibliography, it looks to be a superb resource for researchers and is also accessible to ordinary people with an interest in history and education, subjects which continue to be topical, to say the least, in Southeast Europe. To quote the author, the book «illustrates ways in which international agreements have been thwarted… that were drafted in order to protect human rights and social justice.» Given the recent Yugoslav wars and Turkey’s possible EU entry, one can only hope, as Sarioglou does in her preface, for «the harsh lessons of contemporary history to be learned and unnecessary suffering avoided…» and that it will contribute to «a more humane treatment of ethnic minorities.»