To this day, many Greeks consider Tuesday to be a day of ill omen – a black day – for it was on a Tuesday 29 May 1453 that the magnificent Christian city of Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, fell to the invading Ottoman Turks.
Following its conquest, the once flourishing, cosmopolitan and dynamic city of Constantinople was plunged into a dark age. Thousands of its Greek inhabitants fled, many of them settling in Italy, thus helping to fuel the Renaissance.
Despite the centuries of oppression and persecution that followed under the Ottomans, a large Greek minority, though depleted, continued to remain in Constantinople. The Greeks played a vital role in the social and economic life of Constantinople. But campaigns of terror and discriminatory policies by the modern Turkish state have continued to decimate the indigenous Greek community of the city.
Using murder, indiscriminate force, Turkification and confiscation of property, Turkey has over the years expelled the majority of Greeks (and Armenians) from Asia Minor, even though they have had a presence in the region for over 2,500 years – long before the arrival of the Turks.
At the outbreak of the First World War the population of Constantinople numbered at 900,000. Virtually half of the inhabitants were Christians, composing mainly of Greeks. The American HG Dwight wrote in 1915 that “one of the most characteristic things about Constantinople is that while it has become Turkish it has not ceased to be Greek”. Even the Turkish name for Constantinople – ‘Istanbul’ is from the Greek ‘Ee stin polin’ (‘to the city’).
“…one of the most characteristic things about Constantinople is that while it has become Turkish it has not ceased to be Greek.”
HG Dwight, 1915
Following the 1923 Asia Minor catastrophe, the Turks demanded an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The Greeks of Constantinople were supposedly exempt, but due to intimidation, 150,000 out of 250,000 of them fled to Greece.
Economic measures were used to bring about a further exodus in 1942. Taxes of up to 232 per cent of income were imposed on Greeks and Armenians, who were forced to sell their homes and properties and leave Turkey.
In 6 September 1955, Turkey sought to show its intransigence to Athens and London at the negotiating table over Cyprus. It did so by orchestrating the infamous ‘Night of Terror’, expelling Greeks from Constantinople. A devastating pogrom was staged by the Turkish authorities, immediately after an explosion at the Turkish consulate at Thessaloniki, which was stage managed by Turks. Thousands of Turkish demonstrators were bussed in to the city. They burnt and looted Greek homes, churches and businesses, chanting “Cyprus is Turkish” and “today your property, tomorrow your lives”. Prominent British journalists such as Noel Barber later wrote that there was a definite pattern of organisation to the riots. As well as Greeks, Armenians and Jews were attacked. 73 out of 80 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels were destroyed and gutted; 2,300 Greek shops and some 1,500 houses were looted; 200 women were raped and 15 Greeks including a 90-year-old monk were murdered. The damage to Greek property was set at $300 million in a storm of hate, invoked on the eve of the London Tripartite Conference on Cyprus. This was a form of Turkish political pressure to ensure their demands were met. The Daily Mail later wrote that the city looked like “the bombed parts of London during the Second World War”. As planned, the result was an exodus of a sizeable amount of the Greek community.
Though the United States consul general was later to write: “I personally witnessed the looting of many shops while police stood idly by or cheered on the mob”, Western powers turned a blind eye to this outrage so as to not offend their ally Turkey. The US took 12 days to respond to reports, such was their determination to appease the Turks. There was no official comment from the British government.
A further 30,000 Greeks were expelled from Turkey in 1964 with little or no warning. The Turkish government claimed they were a danger to the security of the state.
Hundreds of years on, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch, is still seated in Constantinople. The Patriarch’s church has been subject to attacks and vandalism and his flock has dwindlied. In violation of international laws on religious freedom, Turkey refuses to recognise the ecumenical role of the Patriarch and has seized property belonging it to it.
Despite ongoing discrimination against the Orthodox Christian community (as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and the Jewish minority), Turkey and it’s cheerleaders for European Union membership continue to cry foul that Turkey has not acceded to the EU because the organisation is a “Christian club”. Of course, the reality is that Turkey abysmally fails to meet the criteria for EU membership on numerous counts, such as its treatment of religious minorities.
Greeks in Constantinople now number approximately 2,000 and the dwindling Greek community almost faces extinction.
To this day, the Turkish state continues its policy of intolerance towards ethnic groups and non-Muslim minorities within land it occupies. This is evident in its ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Greek Cypriots from occupied Cyprus and their replacement with hundreds of thousands of Anatolian colonists – a plan to turn the island into a province of Turkey. Just as the Greek presence in Constantinople has been virtually extinguished, Turkey has sought to eradicate all traces of Greek Cypriots in occupied Cyprus, in that most recent Turkish conquest of foreign land.
As with the illegal invasion and occupation of Cyprus, the brutal capture of Constantinople is insultingly celebrated by the Turkish government. Recently, tens of thousands attended events in present-day Istanbul, that glorified the bloodshed and tragic events of 1453. Turkey’s president Erdogan uses the annual event as a signature show of nationalism and his religious messages portray the fall of Constantinople as a sign of Islam’s victory over Christianity. Meanwhile, some prominent Turkish figures have gone as far as making the outlandish claim that the conquering of Constantinople was a “conquest of hearts”.
While some states risk censure for their crimes, Turkey continues its violations, with the arrogant presumption that it will not be brought to task for its contempt of human rights and international law. Hardly surprising, if one considers the blanket support that Ankara has received throughout the ages, from politicians and large sections of the media, who continue to support and whitewash Turkey’s crimes of conquest, occupation, depredation and colonisation.
“As soon as the Turks were inside the City, they began to seize and enslave every person who came their way, all those who tried to offer resistance were put to the sword. In many places the ground could not be seen, as it was covered by heaps of corpses. There were unprecedented events: all sorts of lamentations, countless rows of slaves consisting of noble ladies, virgins, and nuns, who were being dragged by the Turks by their headgear, hair, and braids out of the shelter of Churches, to the acompaniment of mourning. There was the crying of children, the looting of our sacred and holy buildings. What horror can such sounds cause! The Turks did not hesitate to trample over the body and blood of Christ poured all over the ground and were passing his precious vessels from hand to hand…”
“They slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra towards the Golden Horn. But soon the lust for slaughter was assuaged. The soldiers realized that captives and precious objects would bring them greater profit.”
The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Sir Steven Runciman
“Breaking down the doors with axes, the Turks entered the Church and dragged the fugitives off to slavery. Two by two, the men were tied together with cords, the women with belts, without consideration for age or station. Scenes of indescribable horror ensued. The statues of saints were shorn of their jewels and smashed. The gold and silver Church vessels were seized, the altar cloths used for caparisons. Topped with a Janissary’s cap, the crucifix was paraded in mockery. The conquerors used the altars as tables; when they themselves had finished eating on them, they turned them over to the horses for feed troughs or used them as beds on which to assault boys and girls”.
The Fall of the Byzantine Empire, A chronicle by George Sphrantzes, translated by Marios Phillipides