Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 21: Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans

Copyright ©2011, 2012 by T. Pavlidis

Picking up the Pieces

There was a danger that the demise of the Ottoman Empire would have left the Turkish-speaking Muslims without a state. There were few alternatives. Reviving the Ottoman empire was not a realistic option. The imperial institutions had been designed to assure the rule of the house of Osman in perpetuity. While no one was able to challenge the house of Osman, no one had care to defend it either. The sultan and those around him were resigned to the possibility that Anatolia would become a British or even American protectorate [BL02a, pp. 240-241].

In this chaotic situation Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the only Ottoman general to achieve a victory in War World II, emerged as the leader of a group that was willing to discard the Ottoman past and replace it by a modern state based on a Turkish ethnic identity. Turkish-speaking Muslims were no more descendents of the Turks who had arrived in the region 1000 years earlier than the citizens of Greece were descendents of the ancient Greeks. However the connection with an ancient past had proved workable in Greece and Kemal used it as the basis to build a modern nation. Theodor Herzl had used the same approach in creating the Zionist movement.

It is important to realize that the tenuous connection with an ancient past was primarily of symbolic value. In all cases there were groups of people that identified themselves primarily through a religion and a shared cultural heritage and the challenge was to make them fit the prevailing model of nation state. While religion was a binding factor it was also one that would interfere with efforts to create a modern state, hence the need of a new definition for the existing groups. Kemal went much further than Greek leaders had done or Israeli leaders would do in the future and set up modern Turkey as a secular state. But before attempting to define a new state Kemal and his associates faced a more urgent task. Most of Turkey had been curved in "spheres of influence" of European powers and a Greek army was advancing in the interior of Anatolia.

The Greek-Turkish War and Its Cruel Resolution

Originally the Greek army had landed in Smyrna (Izmir), a city with a large Greek population. Their stated intention to keep the city and the area around it as part of a "Greater Greece". However, the Greek army did not stay in Western Anatolia but it expanded its campaign in the interior where there were no significant Greek populations. What was the reason for such a deep Greek advance? It seems Britain was interested in the oil fields of Mosul and the Greek army was a proxy for British interests to reach Mosul from the North. At the same time Britain also took a "southern" approach by trying to create a state that would stretch from the Persian gulf to the Mosul oilfields.

Kemal had to organize resistance against the invaders as well as deal with the Ottoman sultan who was still the nominal ruler. By June 1919 he was at Samsun, a city on the Black Sea coast in eastern Anatolia. By September an "Association for the Defense and the Rights of Anatolia and Rumelia" had been formed with Kemal as its head [ibid, pp. 248-249]. Initially, the movement affirmed its loyalty to the sultan objecting only to the government in Istanbul. However, the sultan acted against the movement obtaining a fetva declaring that the killing of the "rebels" was a religious duty [ibid, pp. 251-252]. By January 1921 a nationalist government had been formed in Ankara (then only a small town, but in a central Anatolian location).

In August 1921 Kemal's forces were able to stop the Greek advance at the Sakarya river, 300 miles east of Smyrna, in a battle with enormous casualties on both sides. While the Greek army retreated to and held a new line west of Sakarya, the battle was a big success for the nationalists because it established their credibility as a fighting force.

The new Soviet Union had already signed an agreement with the nationalists in March 1921 and after the battle of Sakarya, in October 1921 the French signed an agreement where they left Cilicia while giving Kemal's force the military hardware of that the occupying army left behind [ibid, pp. 253-254]. Another important event of August 1921 was the creation of the country of Iraq by the League of Nations. It consisted of the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Basra and Britain was granted a mandate to govern the country. While the province of Mosul was not added to the new country until a few years later, the British southern strategy had achieved its goal and Britain had not reason to continue supporting the Greek army.

The end of the Greek campaign came within a year. In August 1922 the Greek front collapsed and on September 1922 Kemal's forces entered Smyrna [ibid, p. 254]. The retreating Greek army was followed by refugees from the Christian populations of Anatolia. They fled to the coast and the lucky ones found boats to take them to Greek territories. The rest were slaughtered by Turkish irregulars. The advancing Greek army had committed several atrocities against Muslim civilians and the result was really "bad blood" between the ethnic groups. My mother and her parents and siblings were amongst the refugees who eventually found shelter, first in the island of Mytilini and then in Thessaloniki. (See One of the stories I have heard is that if "Turks" raped any Greek women, the "Greeks" would retaliate not by going after the rapists but by raping innocent Turkish women and so forth. The war had given free reign to the sociopaths of both ethnic groups. The events of August 1922 have been enshrined in Greek memory as the "Asia Minor Catastrophe".

Eventually Greece and Turkey signed a treaty in Lausanne in 1923 that provided for a "population exchange". Any Christians left in Turkey would have to move to Greece and any Muslims living in Greece would have to move to Turkey. Religion determined ethnicity in spite of both countries' claims of ethnic identities. (See the section on "Population Peaks and Modern Heritage" in Chapter 2 on the complex issue of ethnic identities.)

A succinct characterization of the tragedy can be found in the book by Lewis [BL02a]. He states that the “population exchange” was in reality “two deportations into exile - of Christian Turks to Greece and of Muslim Greeks to Turkey.” (p. 355). Many of the Christians that moved to Greece were speaking only Turkish and many of the Muslims expelled from Greece spoke only Greek. Both groups of refugees found hostile receptions in their new countries. The tragedy of these events has been described in many books and I list below some of the ones I have liked. I have witnessed that for people in my father's family and fate brought me to hear such a story from the other side. In the early 1990's while checking out of a hotel I had a conversation with a clerk who was a student working there for the summer. He was Turkish and he knew some Greek because his grandparents spoke mostly Greek. Of course, I knew some Turkish words that I had picked up from my parents. (They would talk in Turkish if they did not want us children to know what they were talking about.)

I include here a poem written by a Turkish-speaking Christian priest, Neofitos Economos. (Ismet Pasha and Venizelos were, respectively, the chief Turkish and Greek negotiators.)

Ismet Pasha,Venizelos got together
They decided on an exchange
Did they concur with anyone, I wonder?
It has never happened before in history
They displaced us from Turkey
All our eyes are filled with blood tears

The poem was given to me by fellow Karamanian Professor Ekrem Ekinci, President of Isik University, Istanbul Turkey who also provided the English translation. The original was in Turkish with Greek characters. You can find more about the poem by visiting

Cruel as it might have been, this "population exchange" was a success in removing internal ethnic strife in both Greece and Turkey. Greece had also the benefit of solidifying its hold on Macedonia, a land it acquired after the Balkan wars. Under the Ottomans Greeks tended to live mostly in the cities while the Slavs were farmers. There were significant dislocations after Macedonia was divided amongst Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria but a significant Slavic population was still living in the Greek part. Most of the refugees from Asia Minor were settled in that region strengthening the Greek character of the region.


The term Karamanlidika refers to Turkish written with the Greek alphabet, a practice that started amongst the Christians of Anatolia around the middle of the 19th century. Figures 1 and 2 show two examples of the use of this writing system.

Figure 1: Cover of a book in Turkish printed with Greek characters, published in Istanbul in 1891.

It is a translation of the French novel Les Filles de Bronze by Xavier de Montepin, a very popular writer in the 19th century.

The lines of text marked with green lines have the meaning given below:

  • Th. K. PAVLIDIS - Name of the translator, grandfather of Theo Pavlidis
  • DERI SAADETDE - PLACE (or GATE) OF HAPPINESS, an Ottoman appellation of Constantinople. The line underneath it is the name of the publishing house ANATOΛH that means East or Sunrise in Greek.

Figure 2: he word on the keystone is Turkish written with Greek letter. In modern Turkish it is spelled as Masallah and it means “may God protect us.” (Today in Turkey, you can see this word painted not only on houses but also on trucks.)

The Greek owners of the house fell quite comfortable with a Turkish blessing over the entrance.

I took took the picture during a trip to Turkey in 2008 while visiting the old Christian neighborhood of Germir, Cappadocia. (Germir was the hometown of my paternal grandmother.)

The Birth of Modern Turkey

After Kemal expelled the Greek army from Anatolia he was encouraged by his associates to continue the war with Greece by invading Thrace. Others encourage him to invade Syria and take it away from its new French masters. Kemal showed a remarkable restrain for a victorious general. Instead of pursuing the war he turned his attention to modernizing Turkey. "Renouncing all foreign ambitions, and all pan-Turkish, pan-Ottoman, or Pan-Islamic ideologies, he ... devoted the rest of his life to the grim, laborious, and unglamorous task of reconstruction." [BL02a, p. 255]. History lists many victorious generals who repulsed invaders to their land. But Kemal is the only one who transformed his country from a medieval state into a modern nation.

There had always progressive forces in Turkey, but it was not until Kemal that they found an effective champion. At this point it is instructive to look at some of the past debates on the future of Turkey. In 1912 the periodical Itihat (Opinion or Conviction) published an series of two articles visualizing a modern Turkey in the form of a dream. Here are some of the features of the modern country. The sultan would have only one wife and no concubines, the fez would be abolished, women would choose what to wear with interference from the religious authorities, match-making would be abolished and women would be free to choose their husbands, convents and all religious schools (medreses) would be closed and replaced by modern educational institutes [ibid, p. 236].

It is also interesting to look at the reaction of the conservatives to such reforms because today are been repeated in other countries of the region. An Islamic journal argued that religious schools should be reformed rather than closed and went on to point out that "Oxford and Sorbonne had started as religious schools". Itihat replied that the evolution of the western schools took more than half a millennium but the Ottomans did not have the luxury of so much time [ibid, p. 237].

Ten years later the dreams of the progressives started to become reality. The first step of Kemal's reforms was eliminating the secular power of the sultan. In November 1, 1922 the National Assembly in Ankara passed a resolution that ended the traditional form of government by an individual and the same time stated that the Caliphate belonged to the Ottoman house but the choice of the Caliph from amongst the members of the Ottoman house rested with the Assembly [ibid, pp. 257-259]. The last Ottoman sultan Mehmed VI did not wait for the Assembly to confirm him as the Caliph. He left Istanbul on a British warship that deposited him in the island of Malta. (He spent the rest of his life in the Italian Riviera.) The Assembly went on to elect Mehmed's cousin Abdülmecid as Caliph [ibid].

The next step was the creation of a new polity. Elections were held and a new Assembly of 286 deputies convened in August 1923 and Kemal was elected Head of State. The Assembly ratified the treaty of Lausanne that secured the international status of the new Turkish state and then voted to make Ankara the capital of that state. In October the Assembly passed a resolution declaring Turkey a Republic and electing Kemal as its first president. Kemal than appointed his old comrade-in-arms Ismet Pasha as premier. (Ishmet had been the chief Turkish negotiator in Lausanne.) [ibid, pp. 260-262]

The next target of Kemal was the religious establishment that he held, rightly, responsible for the backwardness of the Ottoman state. After the proclamation of the Republic the Caliph had become a magnet for all opponents of the new regime and all adherents of the Ottoman traditions. The Caliph found support amongst Indian Muslims, including Aga Khan (the head of the Ismailites) amongst others [ibid, p. 263]. On March 1, 1924 Kemal gave a speech where he emphasized the need for the stabilization of the Republic, the need for a national system of education, and the need to "cleanse and elevate the Islamic faith, by rescuing it from the position of a political instrument". Two days later the Assembly passed a law abolishing the Caliphate and banning all members of the Ottoman house from Turkish territory. The next morning the Caliph was put on the Orient Express and sent to Europe [ibid, p. 264]. There was another series of changes: abolishing the office of sheyhulislam, the ministry of Shariat, closing the religious schools and colleges, and abolishing the shariat courts [ibid, p. 265]. You can get a better impression of Kemal's fervor by looking at an an extract from one of his speeches.

Not surprising there was open opposition to these reforms and in February 1925 an armed Kurdish revolt broke out that spread throughout the eastern part of the country. Kemal acted decisively to suppress the revolt and the government assumed dictatorial powers that lasted until March 1929. The leaders of the Kurdish rebellion were executed and, because many of them were dervishes, Kemal abolished the dervish orders and banned their meetings and activities [ibid, p. 266].

These events should give cause for thought for those who advocate democracy AND modernization at the same time. It may be necessary to push modernization from above (as was the case in Turkey) and wait for the later development of democratic institutions. See FZ03 for more on this issue.

Next to go was the fez, even though had itself been a sign of modernization 100 years earlier. In a law passed in November 1925 wearing the fez became a criminal offense. Again foreign Muslims raised, including the rector of al-Azhar university in Cairo their objections, but to no effect. On December 1925 the Gregorian calendar and era were adopted putting an end to the anarchy discussed in Chapter 20. However, the progressives stopped at legislating against the veil used by Muslim women to cover their faces [ibid, pp. 268-271]. In 1926 a new civil law went into effect based on the adaptation of the Swiss civil law. It established equal rights for men and women, it allowed civil marriage, and all adults were given the right to change their religion [ibid, p. 273].

It should be pointed out that Greece did not allow civil marriage until 1982 and there was a provision in the Greek constitution that a Greek orthodox could not change his or hers religion. What happened in Greece is that the millet system survived with the change that the Christian Orthodox millet moved to the top. This provided the illusion of change while keeping the substance of the Ottoman system. A similar situation exists in Israel where the (orthodox) Jewish millet moved to the front. Under such a system, it is not surprising that reform rabbis are not recognized. Recall the trouble that Shia Imam's faced in the Ottoman empire where the Sunni millet was at the top (see Chapter 14).

The Young Turks had struggled with deciding whether Turkey should create its own modern Islamic civilization or should adopt European civilization. As early as 1911 one of them had written that "Civilization means European civilization" and Kemal subscribed emphatically to this view [ibid, p. 267].The constitution of 1924 proclaimed that "the religion of the Turkish state is Islam" but in 1928 that clause was deleted from the constitution and any other references to religion were removed from the statutes [ibid, p. 276].

At the same time a campaign started for replacing the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet for writing Turkish. There were already precedents for writing Turkish with non-Arabic alphabets. Turkish speaking Christians in Anatolia had started using the Greek alphabet since the middle of the 19th century (see Figure 1). For obvious reasons the Greek alphabet was not acceptable to the reformers, hence the choice of the Latin alphabet, augmented with a few letters to cover special sounds of the Turkish language: , ş, , , ğ and ı. A law to that effect passed in November 1928 that also made illegal the public display of Turkish written with the Arabic script. The latter prohibition took effect on January 1, 1929 [ibid, p. 278].

Finally, on June 28, 1934 a law was passed requiring all citizens to adopt surnames. Kemal himself adopted the surname Ataturk, father of the Turks. The prime minister Ishmet Pasha was given the surname Inn from the place where he won victories against the Greeks [ibid, p. 289]. Kemal died in 1938 (at age 57) and Inn became president of the republic.

One might argue that Turkey broke finally with the Ottoman past when in November 1950, the ruling party (founded by Kemal) lost the parliamentary elections and was replaced by the Democrat party (ibid, pp. 312-313). Peaceful surrender of power was not a feature favored by the empires of that region of the world. On the other hand it is not easy to overcome habits formed over the millennia that the region had been ruled by empires of which the Ottoman was only the last one.

The last 50 years have seen military coups that led to military rule although civilian rule eventually prevailed and it seems to be quite secure at the time of this writing (2011). The country faced and is facing various challenges. The political novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk offers an insider's look about the challenges facing the country.

Greece and the Balkan Countries

Greece underwent major political convulsions as a result of the Asia Minor catastrophe and in 1922 it became a republic. However a plebiscite in 1935 invited the king back and in 1936 the king dissolved the parliament and installed a Fascist style dictator. Following the German occupation in WW II a civil war broke out between "nationalists" and "communists" that ended with the defeat of the latter in 1949. In 1967 a military coup created a dictatorship but in 1974 the military gave up power having messed up the state affairs. Greece became again a republic in 1974 and we may consider that year as the start of the modern era for that country. Greece joined the European Union and in 2001 adopted the Euro as its currency.

However, as the recent financial crisis suggests the country is not free from the habits developed the while it had been ruled by empires. The biggest problem of Greece is not the budget deficit but the attitude of people who feel that they have no stake in the state and view it as an entity to be fought and defrauded like any tyrannical government. Such attitudes developed over millennia and they were probably the correct response to the Byzantine despots and the Ottoman sultans who succeeded them. In turn those in power (regardless of political party) treat the citizens with disdain and corruption and favoritism are rife. I have often tried to summarize the difference between Greece (and other countries of that region) and the West in the following way. In the West connections are used as the tiebreaker when two people have the same qualifications. In Greece qualifications are the tiebreaker when people have equally strong connections.

While modern Greeks like to tout their connection with ancient Greece that connection is at best tenuous and Greece is in essence the successor of the Byzantine state. The historian Warren Treadgold devotes much of the concluding chapter of his book on this topic [WT97, pp. 851-853].

The other Balkan countries also suffer in various degrees from the same problems as Greece and, in addition, they have to deal with the effects of communists regimes that were in power between 1945 and 1950 and, for some, internal ethnic strife.

After WW-I Serbia absorbed Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia that had been part of the dissolved Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1929 it changed its name to Yugoslavia (land of southern Slavs). With the exception of the Albanian population of Kosovo, the rest of the inhabitants of Yugoslavia were Slavs, but there were deep divisions amongst them. The Slovenians and Croatians were Roman Catholics and used the Latin alphabet while the Serbians were Eastern Orthodox and used the Cyrillic alphabet. Finally, the Bosnians were Muslim. During WW II the Germans occupied the country and they created an "independent" Croatia but after the war the country was united again. It finally broke up into several countries at the end of the 20th century.

Bulgaria and Romania joined the Axis during WW II and Romanian troops fought in the Russian front on the German side. After WW II they were occupied by the Soviet Army and both became Soviet Republics. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to their become western style democracies.

While there have been tensions amongst these countries, they have avoided wars with each other. This is particularly remarkable in the case of Greece and Turkey who, most of the time, try hard to put their old differences aside. In particular no one in Greece advocates seriously anything like the "right of return" for the people expelled from Turkey in 1922-24. The loss of claims to the Byzantine lands is accepted as a historical fact.

Books About the Events Surrounding the Greek-Turkish "Population Exchange"

In English

[BC06] Bruce Clark, Twice a Stranger, Harvard Univ. Press, 2006 - The best and most objective historical account of the tragic events I have seen. See my review on Amazon and the comments it has elicited:

[JE02] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, Picador, 2002 - This is a best seller that won the Pulitzer Prize that covers a wide range of topics, but the first 60 or so pages of the book describe life in a village near Bursa (the area where my mother came from) and the 1922 catastrophe. While it is not a primary source, it gives a good picture of the events.

[LB04] Louis de Bernieres, Birds without Wings, 2004 - A work of fiction that provides a fairly accurate account of life in Asia Minor and the subsequent catastrophic events. My only criticism is that the description of the relations between Greeks and Turks before WW I is a bit too idyllic. The description of [EK85] seems to fit better with I have heard from my relatives. Relations between the two groups were good but not free of friction.

[MHD98] Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, 1998 - A reprint with a new introduction of the 1972 London edition of The Smyrna Affair, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971.

[TD77] Thomas Doulis, Disaster and Fiction: Modern Greek Fiction and the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922, Univ. of California Press, 1977.

[HM29] Henry Morgenthau, I was sent to Athens, Doubleday, 1929. (Title of the London edition: An International Drama)

In Greek

[CS80] Χ. Σαμουηλιδης, Καραμανιτες, Εστια, Athens, 1980 - A historical novel that takes place in Kermira, the hometown of my paternal grandmother. It also emphasizes the "friendly and brotherly relations of the Greeks and Turks of central Asia Minor" until the end.

[EK85] Ελενη Σ. Καρατζα, Καππαδοκια (ο τελευταιος ελληνισμος του Ακσεραι Γκελβερι), Γνωση, Athens, 1985 - A serious historical work about some of the Greek population of Cappadocia. The book is dedicated to "The last Greek inhabitants of the region and their Turkish compatriots, who had more things to unite them than to separate them." The book includes numerous photographs, including one of a woman who was born Christian but converted to Islam rather then leave for Greece during the population exchange.

[GT94] Grigoris Troufakos - Preface to the 1994 Greek Translation of [HM29].


First Posted: April 20, 2011. Latest Revision: April 3, 2012.

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