Life After the Catastrophe: Imperial Heritage in Southern Marmara

The most striking characteristic of Anatolian refugee memory was not the nostalgia for lost homelands but the extremely charitable depiction of former neighbors. When asked about the quality of inter-communal relations in Anatolia, the refugees usually responded with the definitive but simple claim ‘we got on well with the Turks’ (kala pernousame me tous Tourkouṣ) or used very similar wording. (Doumanis, 2013)

In his scholarly analysis of late Ottoman inter-communal life, Doumanis argues that the various ethnic and religious communities of Ottoman Anatolia lived harmoniously together in some senses. According to his account, “trade, visits, in some cases education, friendship and many parts of the daily life were engaging. However, the author underlines that this is not “a practice of living together following obedience to power” as in the official Turkish narrative. Doumanis’ approach is comprehensive and nuanced: he analyzes the constraints of relationships between communities, but he is nevertheless solid in analyzing continuities as well. Where it misses, however, is its somewhat erroneous assumption that almost all inter-communal relationships take place in homogeneous cities. It should be noted, however, that this assumption is an often-repeated error in the tradition of post-imperial historiography. Motyl (2001) argues that this is one of the problems that come up when thinking about the empire in modern times. When we consider the narrowness of the literature on late Ottoman sociology, it becomes easy to see the reason for this mistake. These two examples, which we will examine, are important cases. Erdek and Marmara are cities that experienced exile or abandonment in the pre-war period and lost almost all of their Orthodox population in the post-war period. When we examine the exile or pre-war periods, we see that the majority of the population of the relevant cities is Orthodox: According to the Ottoman census of 1891, the number of people living in Erdek is 33,007. The vast majority (89%) of them are Greeks (29,165 people). The Turkish population in Erdek is 3.070 people (9%). 91% of the population of Erdek center consisted of Christians, with an overwhelming majority. (TÜİK, 2016) Another data that will reinforce the relevance of these data to the center of our subject is that there were 11 churches in Peramo, a small town in the city, in 1905 (just 18 years before the population exchange). This results in one church falling for approximately 310 Christians solely in the relevant town. In other villages of Erdek, it can be stated that this average is less than one church per 500 people. (Index Anatolicus, 2022) In short, we cannot interpret a harmonic city for Erdek, where all aspects of life together are experienced. On the contrary, there is a broad debate that most of the Turkish population of Erdek are not continuous city residents. Even we can argue that the majority of the Turkish/Muslim population of the city is made up of civil servants or traders. We can support our claim with the data that the “Hacı Ömer Çarşı Mosque,” one of the mosques of the city, is an 18th-century church converted from a church or that there is no religious building in the city that is not converted from a church. (We will discuss this claim and its consequences in more detail in the following sections.) In the case of Marmara Island, it is necessary to begin the discussion with an accurate geographical analysis of both cities. This large island group has the second-largest island in Turkey, the largest of which is also known as Minarya (Nijman, 2020). There is a large cluster of hills in the centers of Marmara Island and Erdek, which compresses the settlements of the city along the coastline agricultural and hunting/fishing areas. Apart from this, the prominent location of the two cities, commercially, if not militarily, caused the towns to encounter high maritime traffic and host many ports of various sizes. It should be noted that this situation limits the connection between the communities of both cities. Still, the much higher slopes of Marmara Island make the situation more difficult to reach than Erdek, and therefore the cohesion among the populations is weaker. In this respect, it is known that the population of Marmara Island was entirely composed of Greek Orthodox until 1915. (Nişanyan, 2022) The only exception to this is the Arabs village of Avşa, one of the archipelagos, where the Greeks and the Muslim population settled in the region to live together. (Tunçdilek, 1987) The naming of the village as “Arab” for the distinctly non-Arab Muslim population is a discriminatory address by the Greek Orthodox community in Southern Marmara to the later settlers. From this point of view, we can state that the claim of “homogeneous distribution” in the region is not valid. We cannot continue our analysis on churches due to the lack of data on the subject. However, as a native of Marmara Island and in mainland Greece, there are clues from our interviews with the descendants of the islanders who founded the city of Neos Marmaras: In Figure-1, we can see the readable sign of “ΤΩΝ ΤΑΞΙΑΡΧΩΝ” (Of Taxiarches) and date signs of 1884-1889. Although the information we have is limited, there are a few things we can deduce from the current location of the city and our historical information: The church is quite close to one of the old plane trees in the city center and looks like an arch between the coastline and the land that is starting to hill.

One of the inferences we can make from the activities of the Taxiarch church in Anatolia is that the population living on Marmara Island belongs to one of the oldest Orthodox traditions in Anatolia. By concluding the historical, geographical, and sociological analysis we have done for both cities here, we can gather our inferences about urban science and urban networks in Marmara Island and Erdek:

  • Both cities were geographies where the Orthodox population dominated until the years of the Exchange or War and where life and urbanization practices were experienced through Anatolian Orthodoxy.
  • The settlements in these cities, whose population could not be counted as minor according to their time, were somewhat fragmented.
  • The cultural life and especially the meeting places of these scattered settlements were around the churches/church clusters. This is how we can make sense of the proximity of city ports, churches, and schools. An additional example of our analysis is the close location of the Fisherman’s School in Erdek to the Government House, the Old Garrison, and the Church. (Ertüzün, 1999)

Living-Not-Anymore-Together, Inter-Temporality, and Erasure of Memory & Legacy

Both cities of Erdek and Marmara eventually lost their nearly entire Greek Orthodox population after the population exchange. All the Greeks in Marmara had already been deported to Bandırma in 1915. In the ongoing process, Marmara Island had turned into a ghost town that was constantly looted by Turkish and Greek pirates and then by compounds of bigger military units. We do not know what happened during this ghost city experience on Marmara Island. However, we know that Marmara served as an important station during the withdrawal of the official and Greek militia forces in the region during the withdrawal of the Greek army from Anatolia. Later, during the population exchange, Muslim immigrants from Crete, Thessaloniki, and Karabiga (some alleged to have lived on the island before) were placed on the island. From now on, it would not be wrong to use the term “passive destruction” for the process in Marmara. Although the Great Erdek Earthquake in 1935 destroyed most of the buildings in the region and even caused the evacuation of Marmara Island, we can say that the newly settled Muslim community left specific structures irrelevant instead of starting a large-scale demolition on the island, causing their destruction. We can say that the most important example of this is what happened to the Taxiarchon Church, whose last traces we share in Figure-1. The roof of this building, which has been used as an outbuilding and warehouse by our neighbors for years, collapsed due to the snowstorm last winter.

Another interesting example is the famous “Manastır Beach” of Marmara Island. This beach, which the residents of the city do not know much about because it was built on the part of a collapsed monastery that faces the sea, was built on the ruins of a monastery in a somewhat rocky area, which can be seen as a typical choice for Anatolian Greek architecture. When we move on to examples for Erdek, we witness a similar but more aggressive policy of demolition and reassessment.

We can say that a prime example of this is the Old Greek Fishing School, which now serves as the “Imam Hatip High School.” This school, where I was educated while serving as a primary school, was transformed into a primary school right after the population exchange. While expected to be converted into an archeology museum, this building, which was turned into an institution for religious purposes, is now an Islamic educational institution that bears the typical features of Anatolian Greek architecture.

Emin Aslan Özbek

Emin Aslan Özbek

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