Armeno-Turkish platform

Viewpoints from Turkey, Armenia and the Diaspora
Full translations into Turkish, Armenian, English and French


The identity of the Greeks of Turkey today

  Other point of view

The identity of the Greeks of Turkey today

Céline Pierre-Magnani


Céline Pierre-Magnani

A French translator and journalist living in Istanbul since 2008

The constantly dwindling numbers of Greeks in Turkey fell from around 100,000 at the beginning of the Republic to only a few thousand today. In this article, Céline Pierre-Magnani describes the special connection that the Rums keep with the city of Istanbul, which they consider their true homeland. The author also mentions the difficulties faced by this Greek community in Istanbul (or Romiosini) whose identity considerably changed with the recent arrival of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Greeks from Antioch.

Bringing up the subject of « the City » – i Poli (ηΠόλη) in Greek – leads us directly to Istanbul… Greek-speaking Orthodox people have prospered for thousands of years along the banks of the Bosphorus. In Greek historiography, the Byzantine Empire is pictured as the acme of Hellenistic culture, and the continuity claimed by the Rum1 community (the Greeks of Istanbul) during the whole Ottoman period has contributed to perpetuating the cosmopolitan spirit of that sprawling city. The birth of the Republic in 1923 and the need for self-assertion of the new Turkish nation-state prompted the establishment of a new legal status for the Rums, who became recognized as a “minority”2.

With their Turkish citizenship and Greek nationality, the Romiosini (ρωμιοσύνη, or “Greek community of Istanbul”) experience a two-dimensional identity split between their referential space (Greece) and their concrete political space (Turkey). Caught as we are in the classic framework of the State construct, it is hard to imagine that nation and territory might not always coincide. However, it is through this double identity that one should understand the relationship of the Rums to the city of Istanbul.

At official level, the Consulate of Greece handles the administrative affairs of these Hellenic citizens in Istanbul. However, since the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, administrative complications generated by the very status of the Rum community have required the Consulate to intervene on a regular basis. Just like the Patriarchate, the Greek Consulate has repeatedly filled in for the nonexistent representative institution of the community. In the absence of an official spokesperson or organization for Rums in Turkey, the Consulate has often played that part. Whether for political or economic support, the community can hardly do without that invaluable help, although the Consulate’s positions do not always make unanimity. 

Proud of their specific identity, the Greeks of Istanbul only feel tied to the Consulate out of necessity. Being Greek nationals, they are also and above all politis (πολίτης, or « residents of the City ») – i.e. inhabitants of Istanbul. The wealth of vocabulary in that respect is eloquent as to the awareness of that specificity. Three commonly used terms can be translated as “Greek”, the intellectual categories of the Greek language allowing nuances distinguishing between culture and geographical origin. The word ellinas (έλληνας) refers to all who feel they are recipients of the Greek culture, whether they live in Greek national land or elsewhere: Greek Cypriots, Greeks of Istanbul, Greeks in the Diaspora, etc. “Hellenes” would be a better translation than “Greeks” if the term was not now associated to Antiquity.

Istanbul: the true homeland

In the context of the Istanbul community, the use of the word elladitis (ελλαδίτης) or “Helladic” is frequent. The word designates “Greeks” or “Hellenes” living in the Greek national territory versus the Greeks of the community. The term romios (ρωμιός) is employed to designate the “Greeks of Istanbul” – i.e. the Rums.  Used just as much in Greek as in Turkish (rûm), it refers to “Turkish citizens who are Greek-speaking Orthodox” (this use going back to the Ottoman period when Orthodox Christians were assimilated to “Romans”). Rums are warrants of the continuity of the Romiosini, the branch of Hellenism which flourished within the city of Istanbul. The very existence of this specific terminology is proof of a clear distinction in the minds. With their occasionally faulty knowledge of the Greek language and typical accent, Rums sometimes feel an inferiority complex in relation to “Helladic Greeks”. Indeed, the phrases and vocabulary that they use reveal the influence of the Turkish language.  

The territory makes identity tangible, providing a framework for the latter to bloom and evolve. In short, they are in a dialogue. So if Turkish society reflects the identity of Turkish nationals, how does it work for Rums? The Greek identity may remain abstract while the dynamics of everyday life leads them to develop a thriving Turkish identity. To the question “What is your country?” the answer is always the same: i Poli (“the City”). It looks as though their identity could not be projected onto Greek land any more than on Turkish land. As a place of synthesis between Greek nationality and Turkish citizenship, Istanbul is their sole true homeland. The Patriarchate, the churches, and the Byzantine heritage are as many landmarks in the landscape of “the City” attesting their deeply rooted – and therefore legitimate – presence. It is in fact more around the Byzantine legacy than the legacy from Antiquity that they seem to centre their conscious collective identity.

Protective mechanisms have set in to try to preserve the integrity of the Romiosini: for instance, their reluctance to engage in mixed (Greek-Turkish) marriages. A numerous community until the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the community deliberately practiced endogamous marriages. However, as more and more Rums were leaving Istanbul, marriages within the community rarefied, and each mixed union was perceived as yet another chip off the Romiosini. This conservatism is in part the source of its historic persistence; but it often leads to rejecting so-called “new ways” brought by the surrounding society, out of fear of weakening its culture. The high average age of the community is a symptom of this lack of dynamism.

The Patriarchate traditionally embodies this conservative stance. Its use of Greek as liturgical language during the Ottoman period made it the warrant of the continuity of the Greek nation. Throughout the Republic, the Patriarchate was the object of many suspicions in Turkish public opinion. True enough, its statute remains unclear: it is definitely not the local religious institution that the Turkish Republic had envisaged and had internationalized while maintaining a responsibility in relation to the Greek community of Istanbul. The Patriarchate is in turn viewed as a traitor to the Republic, as a local political institution or as allied to Western powers. Being at the same time the interface between the Greek community and the Turkish government, involved in Greek-Turkish relations and a player on the international religious scene, it superimposes three dimensions of intervention.

However, the appointment in 1991 of Patriarch Bartholomew I brought about changes. Renowned for his open-mindedness, his action breathed new life into the institution. The interest shown in key contemporary issues (ecology, dialogue between civilizations…) as well as the activities the Patriarchate developed under his leadership have rejuvenated the image of that institution. Together with the Consulate, the Patriarchate remains key to administrating the community, also taking part indirectly in its social life through simple advice or donations. Its presence in Istanbul is justified by the religious part it plays in the community and it is therefore directly threatened by the shrinking numbers of Rums. From 160,000 members at the beginning of the 20th century, they are estimated at only around 2,000 today. If these Orthodox Turkish citizens came to disappear, the Patriarchate of Istanbul would no longer have any real raison d’être. Going to church regularly is a way of consolidating one’s roots. Indeed, the Sunday Church meeting has become more of a social gathering than a genuine show of faith: it lets people be together, exchange news of each other and reactivate community links.

New identity issues

As in churches, the community crunch has had a negative effect on the functioning of school establishments. Schools are the main vector of transmission of Romiosini, but many have shut down, which raised the level of concern and sapped the morale of the community. The Great School of the Nation (founded 1454), the Zappeion (founded 1885) and the Zografeion (founded 1893) are among the last schools still open, the symbols of a bygone golden age. Their functioning costs are a sinkhole for the community budget. Why not regroup the small numbers of students into one central establishment? The question seems not to be even raised as, above economic figures and efficiency, it is the very image of the community which is at stake in maintaining its educational system.

The schools issue brings up an additional problem: with the arrival of Arabic-speaking people from Antioch, Rum identity finds itself challenged. The Rum category used by the Turkish administration designates Turkish citizens of Orthodox denomination, but since the 1990s, successive waves of migration have brought many Arabic-speaking Orthodox from Antioch to settle in Istanbul. Administratively speaking at least, they are assimilated to the Rum community and are granted by law the same rights as Greek nationals. And for Rum schools, their arrival has posed a very special problem – that of language. Being Rums, they attend the schools of the community, but not knowing Greek puts them at an immediate disadvantage. If children schooled from a young age can rapidly catch up, the older ones meet with serious difficulties when juggling between their Arabic mother tongue, the compulsory Turkish and their new teaching language, Greek.

Their number has risen constantly in the last years, and these children now make up to 50 per cent of some classes. The level of the students is also a problem, although a minor one. The real concern of the community is that of assimilation into the Romiosini. Responses have been varied – from unabashed rejection to a will to integrate. The demographics among Arabic-speakers are the reverse of those among Greek-speaking Rums. Boosting the numbers of students, these arrivals made it possible to keep open schools that were on the verge of closing. Such dynamism also lets us foresee that in the long run a reversal of power will take place. Therefore, should the Romiosini be kept alive if its definition itself must change? In the future, the Rums as defined by the Turkish administration will be mostly Arabic-speaking, while the Hellenic Romiosini is bound to disappear.

The question of departures is one of the taboo subjects in this small world where everyone knows each other, and where you are watched and assessed according to your loyalty to the original Romiosini. The statistics leave little hope of rejuvenation for the community, but some personalities are very actively fighting to maintain this Romiosini, and cultural representations seem to be passed on quite effectively. In Greece, as in Turkey, a person’s background is essential in how she is perceived. You tell of your family’s origins going back two or three generations, talk proudly about that grandfather who came from “the City”. More than where he or she comes from, it is the cultural atmosphere of the other person which holds interest. A Romiosini from here or elsewhere is thus taking shape: many Greeks from Istanbul who migrated abroad perpetuate the connection to the original community. And for them, maintaining the Romiosini is a vital stake, as if descendants of the community could not make sense of their own existence without referring to a living embodiment of their original culture.

1. In Turkish, the word « Rum » (or οιρωμιοί in Greek) refers to individuals belonging to the Greek-speaking Orthodox community settled on the territory of today’s Turkey. In common usage, it also refers to Greek Cypriots. The administrative category called “Orthodox Rum” also includes Arab-speaking Orthodox people from Antioch (Hatay). Since the Conference of Lausanne (1922-23), the Rum community has had the official status of “minority,” like the Jewish and Armenian communities.

2. The Greek community in Turkey has been regularly shrinking since 1923. From an estimated 100,000 members at the beginning of the Republic, it is thought to number only a few thousand people in Istanbul (1,500 according to the figures of the Istanbul Patriarchate,) most of whom being over 60 years old. Throughout the 20th century, Rums have been leaving Turkey towards Greece and traditional destinations of the Greek Diaspora (Western Europe, United States, Australia, Canada…). Being de facto out of step with the policies of cultural homogenization, the “Romiosini” (« ηρωμιοσύνη » ) was pressured into changing, caught in a vice between the logic of two nation-states. Several historical steps seemed to have accelerated the emigration process: the “varlık vergisi” or wealth tax of 1942; the events of 6th and 7th September 1955, or so-called “pogroms” directed against the Greek minority; the Cypriot crises of 1963-64 and 1974.  



Subscribe to our newsletter

Partners on the “Repair” project: