Often asked as to what my ethnicity is, I respond Greek. Dig a little deeper, and I will explain that my heritage stems from Izmir (Smyrna), modern day Turkey. The usual response to that is “Oh, you’re Turkish?” Rather than rush to say no, I just sigh and think ‘if only we can understand a country beyond its patriotism’.
Having traveled around Turkey and Izmir, with the intent of living there this year, I can easily say it is one of the most beautiful and special places this world has to offer. Being of Greek decent, Turkish culture never ceases to amaze me as to how similar it is with my heritage.
What makes Turkey such a unique place is that its culture and history is a remnant of the great Ottoman Empire, which comprised of several civilizations, as well as influencing all its subjects (Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians, Jews, Arabs). Before Turkey was established as a patriotic country in 1923, its society was a mosaic of different ethnic groups and religions, usually attributing their lineage not to a race or ethnicity, but to a location. Istanbul, Izmir, Cappadocia, Antalya, etc. It was the various regions that helped flourish these cultures, not nationalism. In many respects, it was a pre-United States of America, where all people lived together, identifying themselves with a united empire, not patriotic idealism.
For instance, the people of the Black Sea region of Turkey, known as Karadeniz or Pontus, have unique aspects to their culture that differentiate thems from the rest of their countrymen. In fact, the only other people similar to them are the actual Greeks, or “Pontic” families that came from there as well. These two groups of people lived within one society until 1922, dividing themselves amidst a civil war. However, they share a common dialect, traditional clothing, and dance tradition that make them brothers.
The fact of the matter is that these lands have only divided these great people for no more than 90 years. For the previous 500, they were together as one. When wars broke out at the beginning of the 20th Century, the people were divided by one aspect of their being; religion. There were Greek speaking Turks, Turkish speaking Greeks, Armenian speaking Greeks, Turkish speaking Jews. Greek speaking Muslims, Turkish speaking Christians. The list goes on.
In the end, the nationalistic powers that be didn’t even know where to begin with dividing the lands or their people. 500,000 Turks (a.k.a. Muslims) were sent to Turkey and over 1,000,000 Greeks (a.k.a. Christians) were sent to Greece. The nationalistic Greeks who witnessed the refugees come in by the boatload saw their new “kinsmen” as foreigners who came with “Turkish” dialects, cuisine, and culture. Simply put, they weren’t seen as Greek. Funny enough, today, the influence of these Greeks is synonymous with Greek culture today.
With the decline of empires and the rise of nationalism, people are more inclined to see society as nationalistic, becoming unaware of the shared traditions and cultures of a people. The line of what is Greek or Turkish is blurred, however, we can still pinpoint regional cultures and origins, as we are a mix of Aegean and Mediterranean societies.
For myself, I hope to live among the Smyrionites like my ancestors and enjoy the lands they called home for centuries. Whether I’m Greek or Turkish doesn’t matter. I’m Smyrnean. I think that’s as accurate as could be!