City of the world’s desires

There is increasing acknowledgement of Istanbul's multicultural fabric and an increasing Greek presence, as William Gourlay reports

In the 1850s, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, travelled to Constantinople, and hearing a clamour of Turkish, Greek, Armenian and French voices, he cried, “You feel you are among the nations.” Such a thought would not occur to many modern visitors and citizens who see Istanbul as a solely Turkish city. The history books of the Turkish republic largely ignore, or deny the contributions of the city’s minorities.

“What were previously taboo subjects are discussed much more freely than a decade ago.” – Alex Massavetas Greek author in Istanbul

But Melville’s words have a poignancy for visitors to Istanbul with a knowledge of the city’s history and its largely vanished minorities. This is especially so for Greeks who, of course, know the city as the former capital of Byzantium and know that where there was once a large and vibrant Greek presence there now remains a scattered and withdrawn Constantinopolitan community of around 3000.

However, whether you call it Constantinople or Istanbul, the city has never been static, and change is an ongoing process. “The last eight years that I have been in Turkey have been very dynamic,” explains Yigal Schleifer, an expat journalist based in Istanbul. He comments that discussion of minority issues is one area of change. “What were previously taboo subjects are discussed much more freely than a decade ago.”

In fact, the current Erdogan government has been described as the most minority-friendly government that the Turkish republic has ever had. This year saw an Orthodox mass at Sumela Monastery near Trabzon (Trebizond) and a mass at the Armenian church of Akdamar, events that received both international praise and criticism from some Turkish nationalists.

Schleifer, who attended the mass at Akdamar, see these events as part of the government’s EU-driven reform process, but also as a reflection of the current government’s less rigid position on ideas of Turkish nation and identity.

While Schleifer observes that, as is usual for minority communities, the long-standing Constantinopolitan Greeks keep a low profile, he also notes a new and growing Greek presence in Istanbul. “The influx of young Greeks [from Greece] has dramatically raised the local Greek community’s profile.”

Writer and photographer Alex Massavetas is part of the Greek-born community now taking up residence in Istanbul. Based in Istanbul since 2003, he, too, notes Turkey’s dramatic transformation as it becomes “more democratic, more open to the world, as well as more affluent.”

Massavetas has a keen awareness of the depth of the city’s history. His book, Going Back to Constantinople: Istanbul a City of Absences, investigates the architectural legacy and the enigma of the city’s vanished communities. This is a subject that is now being broached, for the first time, by Turks as well.

“The current of nostalgia for old Istanbul, the multiracial, multilingual city of many faiths is growing,” Massavetas observes. He sees this happening on an people-to-people level, rather than as being prompted by government initiatives, saying that occasions like the Orthodox mass at Sumela are primarily aimed at garnering positive international publicity ahead of EU accession.

Some government initiatives, however, have allowed segments of Turkish society to acknowledge and embrace other cultures. Yigal Schleifer points out that Greek consulate recently opened a Greek cultural centre in the busy Istiklal precinct in Beyoglu significantly raising the profile of Greek culture in Istanbul. Alex Massavetas notes that the free Greek lessons put on at the consulate were soon inundated with eager Turkish students.

“Learning Greek has become a huge fashion in Turkey,” he observes.

Massavetas, who is fluent in Turkish, considers that his Greek heritage has helped as well as hindered his daily life in Istanbul. Rather than living the life of a sequestered expat, Massavetas is thoroughly immersed in Istanbul life, working closely and socialising with Turks. “The ‘Turk on the street’ does feel we are somewhat ‘closer’ because of my being Greek, and the phrase ‘you are not a foreigner’ is often repeated,” he says.

However, he adds that such perceptions of “closeness” are not necessarily always correct and can lead to misunderstandings. “Very often they expect me to be more understanding or familiar than, say, a northern European, to things that I find very foreign.”

While divisions inevitably arise between Greeks and Turks, Massavetas is also careful to articulate a distinction between Greece-born Greeks and Constantinopolitan Greeks. He sees the long-standing Constantinople community, as is true of all ethnic and religious minorities, as being conservative and concerned with the survival of their identity. In contrast, recent Greek arrivals are more self confident and progressive in their thinking, he explains.

“There is tension occasionally between the two groups in Istanbul, with Constantinopolitans crying ‘you don’t understand us’ and Greeks from the mainland retorting ‘get out of your ghetto,'” Massavetas says, adding that, “The latter believe the minority should claim a more vocal presence in the arts and culture landscape of the city.”

However, it appears the newly arrived Greeks are challenging the long-standing community to take a forward-looking approach, and in so doing are energising the Constantinopolitan minority.

The Baklahorani Carnival in Tatavla, which had been an annual celebration until the 1930s, was reinstituted in February this year. This is evidence of the new-found confidence of Istanbul’s Greek community, as is the emergence of various Greek-Turkish groups playing rembetika (with vocals in both languages). “The success of both is proof of the nostalgia of a growing segment of the Turkish public for the city’s multicultural past,” says Massavetas.

All of these initiatives, as well as an increasing expat presence, Massavetas sees as contributing to Istanbul becoming, once more, a world city. With more confident and more diverse minority communities comes a more confident Istanbul.
This is not to say that everything is suddenly entirely rosy for the Greeks of Istanbul, for very real issues remain unresolved, but segments of the Turkish public and government are clearly acknowledging the threads that minority communities contribute to the fabric of their great city. So it may be that a present-day travellers may also hear Greek conversation or rembetika in a Galata tavern and they, too, may feel that they are “among the nations”.

William Gourlay is a travel writer who has writes for Lonely Planet: The Travel Book, The Europe Book, Best in Travel 2010, Discover Europe.