Sismanoglio: A beacon of Greek culture

Nick Dallas explores the Turkish town of Sismanoglio and its Greek connection

When visiting Istanbul, I don’t know why anyone would want to stay anywhere other than somewhere in the vicinity of Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). Located in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, it is Turkey’s most famous pedestrian street. Spanning three kilometres, it begins in Taksim Square and terminates at Tunel, the world’s second oldest subway.

This elegant boulevard is packed with restaurants, cafes, boutiques, cinemas, consulates, patisserie, art galleries, bars and nightclubs. Bristling with magnificent 19th century edifices, this cosmopolitan avenue is always abuzz with commercial and artistic activities. Some fifteen years ago, I spent almost half a year living in a ‘minus five’ star hotel off one of Istiklal’s side streets while attending Turkish language classes at Tomer, a Turkish language institute. I’ve never made so many friends in my life, a bit inevitable when the heating oil runs out and everyone gathers around a small heater operating in the hotel’s lounge area. Despite having my budget student days behind me and armed with a nostalgic intent to revisit old haunts, I still found myself inside a classroom upon my return to Istanbul.

This time it was a classroom of mostly Turkish students learning Greek in the heart of Istanbul. I was in the classroom as an observer and as a guest of Angeliki Douri. Little did Angeliki know that apart from observing her students, I paid even greater attention to her lesson: when to use polis (irregular adjective) and poli (adverb) and its orthography. My Greek grammatical knowledge had undergone some deterioration over time. I met Angeliki a few years ago when she was in Australia on a short study tour.

She then returned to Germany to write up her Master’s dissertation on Griko, a minority language related to Modern Greek, which is spoken in southern Italy. Her mobility astounds me, there are no geographical limits to where her next teaching appointment may be. Kenya, China, Brazil are some of the places I recall. She’s now been in Istanbul more than a year which is long by her standards.

Angeliki is part of the wave of new Greeks who live by the motto ‘have skills, will travel’. Super-qualified graduates with impeccable credentials that Greece can’t absorb, even less so in the present climate, seek their fortunes abroad. Confident, intelligent, brash and passionate, they seek new experiences and challenges, they don’t want their creativity stifled and they don’t crave a secure position in the public sector.

Angeliki is not alone in her teaching endeavours. Together with another four female teaching colleagues, their efforts are going a long way in building ties of friendship between Greek and Turkish citizens but also disseminating Greek culture to a wider Turkish audience. All these teaching activities take place in Sismanoglio Megaro, an impressive mansion on Istiklal Caddesi that houses the residence of the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul.

The premises of the building are also used to display works of art, including those of local Greek artists. It also houses an important and rare library collection that contains every book printed in Constantinople in Greek and ‘Karamanlidika’ (Ottoman Turkish written in Greek script) since the beginning of the 17th century. The collection was donated by the family of Father Meletios Sakoulides. As a repository of rare works, it will be a treasure trove for future research students who want to investigate the fortunes of Hellenism in the Ottoman Empire. The venue’s cultural repertoire is further extended by the hosting film nights, music events and public lectures during the course of the year. Thousands of Turkish citizens pass through its doors resulting in a greater awareness of Greek culture.

The building was donated to the Greek government in 1939 by the Sismanoglio family, a distinguished family of Cappadocian Greeks. For many years it remained unused due to the unavailability of restoration and maintenance funds. It gained a new lease of life when the United States Information Service (USIS) leased the building from 1952 to 1968. The building once again fell into disuse but in 1973 the mansion was given heritage protection status. The fortunes of this largely abandoned building changed in 2000 when reconstruction efforts commenced. It has now been converted to a multifunctional cultural centre. Today five hundred Turkish students are studying Modern Greek with no tuition fees.

There are also a handful of Ancient Greek classes. Demand is much greater but the authorities have to be selective, choosing young students with distinguished academic credentials. Hopefully many of them will become key figures in shaping Turkish public opinion of tomorrow. Initially the school started with modest class sizes and targeted the families of Istanbul’s small Greek community. Later the net was cast wider with classes running seven days per week. They run in three to four hour blocks from 10am to 10pm. There are a myriad of motives that lead Turkish students to study Greek. Many are just fascinated by Greek culture, others are studying archaeology, Ancient Greek or Byzantine Studies, while others have their origin in Greece’s Muslim community in Thrace but were born in Turkey.

What inspires the teachers is the passion and determination of their students. They are extremely attentive, focused and determined. Those living on the outskirts of the city may spend one and a half hours getting to class. A big part of the operations of the cultural centre are funded by the donations of various charitable institutions. The school itself and the salaries of the teaching staff are funded by the Niarchos, Bodosakis and Kanellopoulos Foundations. One can only but admire the results from such a simple but targeted initiative. The efforts of a handful of dedicated teaching staff are having a positively exponential impact on Greek-Turkish relations and friendship ties. On my final night in Istanbul, I accompany two of the teachers, to an unflinching Greek custom: the pre-midnight meal. I listen attentively to the highs and lows of living and working in Istanbul.

Their thoughts are never far away from their families and loved ones. Their tenure in Istanbul may end at some stage, they may struggle to return to Greece given its present malaise, but they should feel immensely proud of the contribution they are making. I couldn’t depart the scene without requesting a photo of the three of us. As I handed the camera to the young Turkish woman sitting at the adjacent table, her immediate words were “Is that Greek you were speaking?”

“I’m Turkish but my grandmother was born in Alexandroupoli, I grew up listening to her stories. I’ve travelled there three times and love the sound of Greek” she continued. “Well we teach Greek at the nearby consulate, you may want to apply to become a student there” was the immediate reply of the teachers.

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