Greeks and Turks are working together to protect Istanbul’s heritage.
It is difficult to find a place to rent in Moda, Istanbul’s most fashionable neighbourhood. Yet right in the heart of the Asian-side district – where people are cool, bars are full and demand for flats is sky-high – stands a pair of abandoned historic houses: a totem of political tensions that have stalked Turkish-Greek relations for a century.
Several storeys tall, built of wood and sometimes masonry, these residences, like thousands of others scattered around the city, were home to members of Istanbul’s Greek community, which once numbered more than 200,000. Their inhabitants stayed in the country while Greeks elsewhere in Anatolia were deported following the collapse of the Ottoman empire but then fled amid pogroms in the 1950s and 1960s and the Cypriot war of 1974. Their houses were either sold at bargain-basement prices, seized or, like these two, left to crumble.
Political antagonism between Turkey and Greece continues. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to seize part of the Aegean and the Greek islands in it; Athens is vowing to defend its sovereignty. Such rows flare cyclically, often when Erdogan needs to bolster his domestic support. In 2020 he infuriated Greece by converting Hagia Sophia, once the seat of Orthodox Christianity, into a mosque. But for the Turks who are saving the old houses and other Greek heritage buildings in Turkey, the spats matter little: friendships and co-operation endure.
“Whenever we have meetings in Europe, Greeks and Turks somehow gravitate to the same place,” says Banu Pekol, a Turkish architectural historian and co-founder of the Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. She worked with a Greek researcher to survey historic houses on islands in the Sea of Marmara and organised an exhibition on the Greek history of Istanbul’s Kurtulus neighbourhood, which also showed in Athens. “There was a lot of hugging and crying,” she says of the Istanbullus – Turks and Greeks – who came to see it.
Greeks who once fled Turkey are finding ways back. Nikolaos Uzunoglu, who was born in Moda, left Istanbul with his family after a nationalist mob attacked his home on the first night of the Cypriot war. He has lived in Athens since but reclaimed his citizenship of Turkey in 2019. Now he runs a cultural exchange project bringing young expatriated Greeks to Istanbul to learn about their heritage in the city. “The problem was never with ordinary Turkish people,” says Uzunoglu. “Many understood that what was happening was deeply unjust. Today relations between Greece and Turkey have no effect on what I do.”
The empty houses are such a part of Istanbul’s fabric that most locals hardly give them a thought. Pekol says that tour guides in Balat, the gritty neighbourhood around Orthodox cathedral the Patriarchate of Constantinople, often just say that they were built by Greeks, without expanding on what happened to that community. But a small number of Turks, including Pekol, are buying and restoring houses, preserving their original features and researching their histories.
“In the past 10 to 15 years many Greek buildings were bought and restored by people from big cities like Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara,” says Murat Demirli, a Turkish architect specialising in historic structures, who is part of a project training craftsmen in restoration techniques. “Old photos and plan drawings are important,” he says. “Sometimes even an interview with a previous resident helps in understanding the original story of a building.”
ILLUSTRATION: Yo Hosoyamada