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February 27, 2012

Istanbul Exhibition Examines Greek-Turkey Relationship

by Dorian Jones

The mass, forced population exchange between Turkey and Greece nearly 100 years ago is being examined in a groundbreaking exhibition in Istanbul. The exhibition is seen as an important step in the growing rapprochement between the two countries that remained foes for much of the past century.

An exhibition at Istanbul's Bilgi University documents the forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. The mutually agreed upon exchange followed the defeat of a Greek invasion of Turkey.

Despite involving millions of people, the event remained largely a taboo subject for Turks throughout the past century, according to Ayhan Aktar one of the exhibition organizers.

"The exchange of 1.2 million Anatolian Greeks with 400,000 [Greek] Muslims, and it is only mentioned in the modern history books, one of two paragraphs that is all," said Aktar. "The founders of the republic did many things and did not want to have a discussion about it. But you can stop discussion for a few decades, but it comes out. And the exhibition is related to this trend."

Through audio and video testimonies and archive film footage the exhibition, called "Twice a Stranger," explains the repercussions of the forced migration and other similar exchanges throughout the 20th Century.

Exhibition video director Andreas Apostolidis says interviews of 105 migrants indicate most share a common experience of alienation. He says that common experience can help bring Turks and Greeks closer.

"Even the second generation or the third generation, families transferred from one country to another still exist as a problem," said Apostolidis. "Especially a lot of people second generation trying to find the roots of their family and the roots of their family is in the opposite country. Many people in Greece and many people in Turkey they consider as their home, their homeland, not where they live today, but the country [where their] families lived 60 years or 100 years before."

Turkish and Greek relations through the 20th Century were tense, almost spilling into war on several occasions, the last time in 1996 over ownership of an uninhabited islet. But the 21st Century has been characterized by rapprochement.  

Greek exhibition worker Leonidas Liamabeys welcomes the fact Turks are becoming aware of a shared tragic past.

"It is something that everyone knows about, it is something that is taught in schools," Liamabeys. "People know about it, it is no means forgotten. It is very exciting it is happening in Istanbul, [the exhibition is] also going to Cyprus and it is also going to Athens. I do not think we can move forward by forgetting the past. It has to be something you move through, think about, and actually work with. It is not something to completely erase."

Speaking to Turkish visitors at the exhibition there is a thirst for learning about their lost past.

"Very touching, heart breaking," said a visitor. "I mean we lost a big part of our culture, I was born here in Istanbul and I always lived in a district where the Greeks, Armenians, Jews used to live together. The young generation had already left, it was only the old ones who resisted to remain here. And now they have all gone, and the culture they were representing has also gone."

Maria from Athens is one of a small, but growing number of Greeks who have recently come to Istanbul to work. She welcomes the exhibition, but is not surprised by it.

"Not anymore, I would of been very surprised a few years ago. Nowadays we have seen Turkey is in [the forefront] of these kind of things," said Maria. "And it honestly accepts these kind of attempts, and I find it very nice actually that it [the exhibition] starts from here and it is going to continue to Greece and Cyprus as well."

While the exhibition documents the cultures and traditions lost to both countries from the evacuations, there are signs of change in Istanbul.  

A short walk from the exhibition some of the remaining local ethnic Greeks, along with other Turks and Greeks now working in Istanbul, revived the carnival celebrating the start of the Christian Lenten season by staging parades Sunday and Monday. A century ago tens of thousands would have attended the carnival, but observers say less than a decade ago such a celebration in Turkey would have been unimaginable.