The Sea That Binds and Divides: Our Mediterranean

14 January, 2021

Bridge of Galata over the Bosphorus during the lockdown in Istanbul (all photos courtesy Iason Athanasiadis).

Bridge of Gala­ta over the Bospho­rus dur­ing the lock­down in Istan­bul (all pho­tos cour­tesy Iason Athanasiadis).

Iason Athanasiadis

Clouds masked a win­try sun whose brood­ing illu­mi­na­tion of Istan­bul for a few hours each day added an oth­er­world­ly pati­na to walk­ing its streets. In Samatya, one of the ancient city’s old­est and most his­tor­i­cal dis­tricts, the main street pro­vid­ed a con­stant­ly alter­nat­ing sight­line of cross-topped steeples and domes. But very few of the minori­ties by whom they were built remain.

On the week­ends, Istan­bul, the Mediter­ranean mega­lopo­lis of 16 mil­lion inhab­i­tants wrapped by water­ways, appeared an aban­doned city. It was Decem­ber 2020 and the author­i­ties had just rein­forced the night­ly move­ment restric­tion with a full week­end lock­down. Tourists were exempt­ed to encour­age them to keep on com­ing and, for the lucky few already there, that deci­sion instant­ly trans­formed one of the world’s most walk­a­ble but con­gest­ed his­tor­i­cal cities into a cap­ti­vat­ing­ly anachro­nis­tic stage-set.

On a cob­bled street a few meters from the Mar­mara seashore, Taki, a man in his late 50s and one of the last inhab­i­tants of the area’s Greek-speak­ing Rum Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty, hung per­ilous­ly out of the win­dow of his peel­ing wood­en house, look­ing the worse for wear on his third straight day of drink­ing. He had recent­ly lost his moth­er, with whom he lived, and was utter­ing inco­her­ent sounds, pos­si­bly of grief, pos­si­bly of anger. His neigh­bors, long­time inter­nal migrants from out­side Istan­bul who ran a fish tav­ern at the bot­tom of an adjoin­ing wood build­ing, greet­ed his utter­ances with indul­gent smiles.

“Tak­i’s always doing this,” one said. “He goes on these ben­ders but we’re here to keep an eye on him.”

A lit­tle fur­ther down, a bell­tow­er peeked over walls coiled with barbed wire. A Rum lady local to the dis­trict who now looked after the church, opened its met­al out­er door but refused to accept vis­i­tors with­out a per­mit from the Patriarchate.

One of Psomathia/Samatya's many minority churches.
One of Psomathia/Samatya’s many minor­i­ty churches.

Inside the near­by Ayii Theodori church, four priests com­mem­o­rat­ed the Met­ro­pol­i­tan of Vlan­ga’s name­day to a church almost emp­ty aside from two silent women towards the back and a fifth priest sit­ting up straight in the front pew. Vlan­ga is a dis­trict on the shore of the Sea of Mar­mara his­tor­i­cal­ly inhab­it­ed by the Rum com­mu­ni­ty, whose name embod­ies their lin­eage, reach­ing back to the East­ern Roman Empire of Byzan­tium. Along with Kon­toskali (Kumkapi) and Pso­math­ia (Samatya), they com­plete Istan­bul’s his­tor­i­cal sea­side trip­tych, and include the burned, pil­laged and earth­quake-struck ruins of some of the city’s most impor­tant Byzan­tine palaces and monasteries.

Although the city was desert­ed, the neigh­bor­hood around the church pulsed with street-sell­ers and Arabs, Africans and Asians who pre­ferred the area for its low rents and prox­im­i­ty to the whole­sale dis­tricts of Aksaray and Laleli. Some were just rest­ing for a few months or years before con­tin­u­ing onto Europe; oth­ers were slow­ly putting down roots, enrolling their chil­dren in the remain­ing Rum school and — for the Egypt­ian Copts and Ethiopi­ans among them — inject­ing new life into the area’s vacant Greek and Armen­ian churches.

Less than 1,500 Rum and about 50,000 Arme­ni­ans are left in Istan­bul, but they no longer reside in these his­tor­i­cal dis­tricts, which most Istan­bul­lus also shun. The new patch­work of migrants and refugees infus­es fresh life, but the way in which their mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism dif­fers from the old cos­mopoli­tanism reflects all the changed cir­cum­stances between a 19th cen­tu­ry Mediter­ranean where empires were break­ing up into nation-states, and a con­tem­po­rary sea suf­fer­ing the pass­ing of the nation-state in the era of glob­al­iza­tion and cli­mate chaos.


Achieving amnesia

In 2014, as the Islam­ic State amassed in law­less regions of Syr­ia, Iraq and Libya, I lament­ed the region­al moment in The Cities We Lost, an essay exam­in­ing how the nation-states that emerged dur­ing the 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry “fash­ioned us in such a way as to define our­selves accord­ing to nar­row eth­nic and reli­gious def­i­n­i­tions, or against com­mon foes, rather than visu­al­is­ing us as rich­ly-tex­tured com­po­nents of one har­mo­nious region­al his­toric tapes­try.” But the inter­ven­ing years proved that rip­ping up the nation’s lega­cy pre­sup­pos­es over­com­ing instilled behav­ioral pat­terns. Not unlike nation­al­ism, the Islam­ic State har­nessed reli­gious feel­ing in order to cre­ate a sense of chau­vin­is­tic supe­ri­or­i­ty among its fol­low­ers. In doing so, it fur­thered a cul­tur­al iso­la­tion­ism that was the log­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of nation­al­is­m’s frag­ment­ing narrative.
“Not unlike nation­al­ism, the Islam­ic State har­nessed reli­gious feel­ing in order to cre­ate a sense of chau­vin­is­tic supe­ri­or­i­ty among its fol­low­ers. In doing so, it fur­thered a cul­tur­al iso­la­tion­ism that was the log­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of nation­al­is­m’s frag­ment­ing narrative.”
The coun­tries found­ed after the col­lapse of the Ottoman, British and French empires knew that their sur­vival was invest­ed in form­ing in their sub­jects’ minds (be these “Turk­ish”, “Egypt­ian”, “Greek” or “Israeli”) a dis­tort­ed patri­o­tism intend­ed to dis­pel gen­er­a­tions of accu­mu­lat­ed mem­o­ries of coex­is­tence. To get to that point, the mul­ti­lin­gual­ism, cross-cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and com­mu­nal bonds that devel­oped over cen­turies among res­i­dents of cos­mopoli­tan com­mu­ni­ties in Smyr­na, Alep­po, Sara­je­vo or Diyarbakir had to be degrad­ed to con­vince them they need­ed the pro­tec­tion of the nation-state.

Whether the Ottoman mil­lets of the Rum, Arme­ni­ans and Jews in what became Turkey, the Mus­lims of the Balka­ns, or the Jews of North Africa, there were three stages to instru­men­tal­iz­ing these com­mu­ni­ties. First­ly they were reduced to social out­siders against whom the “indi­genes” could sharp­en their antag­o­nism. Then, their even­tu­al depar­ture ren­dered them absen­tees unable to defend their his­to­ries against dis­tor­tion by the reduc­tion­ist nar­ra­tive of the result­ing nation-state. The minori­ties who remained became loy­al Oth­ers, their com­mu­ni­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tives reg­u­lar­ly trot­ted out by the new admin­is­tra­tion to pub­licly under­line their alle­giance. Even­tu­al­ly, they were absorbed by their host soci­eties, while the descen­dants of those who emi­grat­ed to the new­ly-con­sti­tut­ed eth­nic home­lands retained only a ten­u­ous link through infre­quent visits.

Byzantine remnants of Constantinople hiding under the carparks of modern Istanbul.
Byzan­tine rem­nants of Con­stan­tino­ple hid­ing under the carparks of mod­ern Istanbul.

Once the humans had been dealt with, it was time for their phys­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal traces to be obscured. Some of Istan­bul’s most impor­tant Byzan­tine mon­u­ments were reused as spo­lia in oth­er con­struc­tions, or wrecked in 1870 as part of the orgy of destruc­tion involved in con­nect­ing Istan­bul to the Euro­pean rail net­work. This was a key sta­tion in the city’s com­ing-into-moder­ni­ty, involv­ing both the first groups of mass tourists arriv­ing on the Ori­ent Express, and the line’s exten­sion under the ambi­tious Berlin-to-Bagh­dad rail­way line, a geopo­lit­i­cal object of Great Pow­er rival­ry that devel­oped into one of the caus­es for World War One (and also marked a his­tor­i­cal first when the train was used to enable geno­cide dur­ing the 1915 elim­i­na­tion of the Armen­ian pop­u­la­tions). Today, the phys­i­cal rem­nants of Con­stan­tino­ple, Istan­bul’s most res­o­nant pre­de­ces­sor, are either con­vert­ed into muse­ums, mosques or decom­pose on the periph­ery of car wash­es, park­ing garages, and under the high­ways and train lines of this post-Ottoman city adapt­ed to the age of locomotion.

In North Africa, ancient Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in Cairo, Alexan­dria, Tripoli, Tunis, Oran and oth­er cities became asso­ci­at­ed with the Israeli state after its found­ing in 1948. Fol­low­ing their ejec­tion, or in the after­math of suc­ces­sive wars between Arab states and Israel, their syn­a­gogues and sec­u­lar build­ings remained locked. Yet anoth­er elu­cida­to­ry cul­tur­al link that could chal­lenge the relent­less state nar­ra­tive was removed. The silence deepened.

In Libya’s Nafusa moun­tains, the indige­nous Amazigh com­mu­ni­ty dealt with suc­ces­sive waves of invaders by fold­ing their ani­mist beliefs into the dom­i­nant reli­gion, be it Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty or Islam. But decades of cen­sor­ing their cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive result­ed in an amne­sia where­by, when I encoun­tered a Star of David etched in the rub­ble of a half-col­lapsed reli­gious build­ing in 2013, no local could answer what it rep­re­sent­ed and how it had end­ed up there.

Mediterranean, A Cultural Landscape is now a classic.

Mediter­ranean, A Cul­tur­al Land­scape is now a classic.

Remov­ing or mut­ing the minori­ties was the most effi­cient way of achiev­ing amne­sia as to a remark­ably recent and func­tion­al past. Many of the minori­ties were no less immune to the nar­ra­tives pro­pound­ed by the nation-states claim­ing to rep­re­sent them (Greece, Turkey and Israel) and will­ing­ly removed them­selves from the mixed com­mu­ni­ties where they had lived for cen­turies, relo­cat­ing to new imag­ined home­lands. Oth­ers stayed true to the pull of their roots, or were skep­ti­cal of their new home­lands’ eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty, and had to be con­vinced to leave through oth­er incen­tives, such as pogroms, nation­al­iz­ing their busi­ness­es, social engi­neer­ing or bilat­er­al state agree­ments (for exam­ple the 1923 pop­u­la­tion exchange between Greece and Turkey). In the case of Egyp­t’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, it was so inte­grat­ed in Egypt­ian soci­ety that Israel orga­nized a covert action, the noto­ri­ous Lavon Affair, to intim­i­date them into depart­ing. The same appears to have hap­pened in Bagh­dad, a few years ear­li­er. In Greece, Mus­lim and non-Mus­lim eth­nic minori­ties were sub­ject­ed to decades of social and state pres­sure, includ­ing bury­ing their vil­lages in mil­i­tary zones for which spe­cial vis­i­tor pass­es were needed.

The only place on the Mediter­ranean where mul­ti­con­fes­sion­al­ism remained large­ly intact, despite sim­i­lar­ly segu­ing into a nation-state after a peri­od of French colo­nial rule, was Syr­ia. Although the reli­gious minori­ties sup­port­ed the Alaw­ite-dom­i­nat­ed regime dur­ing the recent civ­il war and were pro­tect­ed by it, “these (suc­ces­sor) regimes end­ed up by almost inad­ver­tent­ly oblit­er­at­ing the cos­mopoli­tan val­ues and eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty they inher­it­ed from their local bour­geois and Lev­an­tine pre­de­ces­sors while fail­ing to replace them with more equi­table and rep­re­sen­ta­tive prin­ci­ples of nation­al belong­ing,” his­to­ri­an George Had­dad assessed in Rev­o­lu­tions and Mil­i­tary Rule in the Mid­dle East.

Six­ty years lat­er, ISIS formed in the Arab World as a Sun­ni Mus­lim transna­tion­al reac­tion to the nation-state’s depre­da­tions, but using some of the same divi­so­ry meth­ods. One of its main stat­ed aims was to demol­ish the post­colo­nial bor­ders defin­ing the new states and revive the Caliphate, but it appeared to suf­fer a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion along the way and set about recre­at­ing, in the cities it cap­tured, struc­tures remark­ably sim­i­lar to the states it was sup­posed to replace. ISIS was the fun­da­men­tal­ist sib­ling to the Arab Spring’s more sec­u­lar upris­ings, but both failed, not least because they were shaped by exclu­sivist “myths con­gealed into mythol­o­gy, his­to­ry into his­tori­cism,” as Pre­drag Matve­je­vic not­ed in his Mediter­ranean: A Cul­tur­al Land­scape. The nation-states out­last­ed them, demon­strat­ing that they had man­aged to bore down deep into the psy­ches of gen­er­a­tions of their cit­i­zens, depriv­ing them of an alter­na­tive vision.

Remains of the day

In mid-Decem­ber in Istan­bul, the Ortho­dox Patri­arch paid a vis­it to St Demetrios Sev­as­tianos, a 19th cen­tu­ry church rebuilt on an ancient ayaz­ma (sacred spring) a few metres from the Gate of Adri­anople, the point in the defen­sive walls where Mehmed the Con­queror is said to have entered the city in 1453. The church, which is called akri­ti­ki (mar­gin­al) for no longer hav­ing any faith­ful, is looked after by a fam­i­ly of eth­nic Arab Chris­tians from Anti­och, a province of Syr­ia ced­ed by France to Turkey through a rigged ref­er­en­dum on the eve of World War Two, in exchange for not enter­ing on Nazi Ger­many’s side.
“As the minori­ties depart­ed their cities of birth, they left behind an emerg­ing land­scape of dys­func­tion­al and cor­rupt post-colo­nial gov­ern­ments behold­en to nation­al and inter­na­tion­al inter­ests, which hob­bled pri­vate ini­tia­tive and per­pet­u­at­ed weak edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems. Crit­i­cal think­ing was dis­cour­aged for fear of chal­leng­ing nation­al nar­ra­tives that were often paper-thin. ”
One of the two sons, Sez­gin, almost apolo­get­i­cal­ly explained that he was the first of his fam­i­ly to be giv­en a Turk­ish name and said that they had trou­ble being accept­ed by the local Rum com­mu­ni­ty when they first moved to Istan­bul because of their Arab her­itage. This was at a time when the Rum had shrunk to almost zero and there were no longer enough chil­dren left to ensure that the Ara­bic-speak­ing new­com­ers would learn Greek well enough to achieve integration.

Sez­gin proud­ly showed us the church’s fresh­ly-repaved court­yard. The ren­o­va­tion seemed poignant giv­en how, for decades now, the church remains silent all but once a year. I thought a lit­tle about inter-com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions, lost oppor­tu­ni­ties, imag­ined resent­ments, and lose-lose dynam­ics, all back­dropped by a hos­tile state. The Rum com­mu­ni­ty had once been wealthy and pow­er­ful but was now reduced to emp­ty build­ings’ dulled gleam, absent descen­dants, and a fail­ure to mine his­to­ry for lessons. A lit­tle bit like nationalism.

Street scene from Alexandria's port area. The city's fortunes took off with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Street scene from Alexan­dri­a’s port area. The city’s for­tunes took off with the open­ing of the Suez Canal in 1869.

From Alexandria ascendant to Mediterranean brain-drain

“For these rea­sons, and oth­ers yet to be sort­ed out, moder­ni­ty hes­i­tat­ed to drop anchor in the ports — east, west, north and south — of the Mediter­ranean,” Matve­je­vic con­cludes sto­ical­ly. The cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Africa and the dis­cov­ery of Amer­i­ca had already stripped the Mediter­ranean of its sta­tus as glob­al trade’s pri­ma­ry sea, although the open­ing of the Suez Canal in 1869 returned some of its lost vol­ume, jump-start­ing Alexan­dri­a’s ascent.

But by the 1900s, as the world piled into indus­tri­al moder­ni­ty, the Lev­an­tines, Ital­ians, Greeks, shuwwam, Jews and oth­er Mediter­ranean movers and shak­ers fol­lowed glob­al cap­i­tal to Lon­don, New York, Hong Kong, Cape Town or to wher­ev­er else it bifur­cat­ed. Many of them had built con­nec­tions from their busi­ness deal­ings with colo­nial author­i­ties that they would fur­ther mon­e­tize in their new domi­ciles. The for­mer own­er of the lux­u­ry Pera Palace Hotel in Istan­bul, Pro­dro­mos Bodos­sakis-Athanasiadis (no rela­tion to the author), became one of Greece’s top indus­tri­al­ists off the back of the con­nec­tions he devel­oped in his hotel lobby.

As the minori­ties depart­ed their cities of birth, they left behind an emerg­ing land­scape of dys­func­tion­al and cor­rupt post-colo­nial gov­ern­ments behold­en to nation­al and inter­na­tion­al inter­ests, which hob­bled pri­vate ini­tia­tive and per­pet­u­at­ed weak edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems. Crit­i­cal think­ing was dis­cour­aged for fear of chal­leng­ing nation­al nar­ra­tives that were often paper-thin.

The cos­mopoli­tan port cities saw their sta­tus down­grad­ed, and soon played sec­ond fid­dle to the new coun­try’s cap­i­tal. Thes­sa­loni­ki took a back­seat to Athens, as did Smyr­na and Istan­bul to Ankara, and Alexan­dria to Cairo. The port cities often evoked humil­i­at­ing mem­o­ries for the nation­al­ists, who asso­ci­at­ed them with being treat­ed as ser­vants on their own land by for­eign busi­ness elites. Nor did they wel­come reminders of recent pasts that were mul­ti­cul­tur­al and nuanced. It can­not be acci­den­tal that the only cos­mopoli­tan city to make the tran­si­tion was Beirut, the cap­i­tal of the only state to be found­ed for a reli­gious minor­i­ty, the Maronite Chris­tians of Syria.

“What was Saloni­ca, once the out­let for a vast hin­ter­land of thou­sands of kilo­me­ters, des­tined to become, with the restric­tions of bound­aries reach­ing down to its very doors?” asked Leon Sci­aky, a mem­ber of Thes­sa­loniki’s Ottoman Jew­ish Dias­po­ra in his Farewell to Saloni­ca, writ­ing short­ly after the Greek Army claimed his birth­place in 1912. “There was talk of mak­ing a free city of it, a kind of mod­ern Venice serv­ing as the ware­house and empo­ri­um for all the Balkan states. But such a project, still neb­u­lous, required a coop­er­a­tion and good will we felt was far from the reality.”

Sci­aky was right to doubt, and he soon fol­lowed his instinct to New York, nev­er to return. Stand­ing on the boat sail­ing to Amer­i­ca, he “saw the tall minarets, the domed Byzan­tine church­es, the red roofs and ancient ram­parts recede more and more, until noth­ing remained of my native city but a faint white blur against the dark­en­ing hills. Long after dark­ness had swal­lowed this last vision I stood there, lean­ing against the guardrail, con­scious even then that my ear­ly world had died.”

A Muslim cemetery just outside the remnants of the Byzantine walls of Constantinople.
A Mus­lim ceme­tery just out­side the rem­nants of the Byzan­tine walls of Constantinople.

Two years after the Greek Army took Thes­sa­loni­ki, the First World War con­fla­grat­ed in the unsta­ble post-Ottoman Balka­ns. It was both a con­se­quence of indus­tri­al moder­ni­ty and its test­ing ground. In 1917, a fire burned most of Thes­sa­loni­ki down. In 1922, Turk­ish troops defeat­ed the invad­ing Greek army and anoth­er fire rav­aged Smyr­na. These fires, and the con­flicts that swirled around them, marked the end of Mediter­ranean cos­mopoli­tanism and launched a cen­tu­ry of nation-state orthodoxy.

Today, state mis­man­age­ment has fuelled an elo­quent brain-drain across the sea that binds and divides. The chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the minor­i­ty and dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties of yes­ter­year express their apa­thy over being brought up ill-equipped for moder­ni­ty in mem­o­ry-ellip­tic home­lands by vot­ing with their feet and depart­ing for bet­ter economies. Although attached to where they grew up, they will not return as long as cor­rup­tion, invent­ed tra­di­tions and nar­ra­tives of racial puri­ty thrive.

As the refugee cri­sis high­lights issues of racism in Mediter­ranean states, the scle­rot­ic and seem­ing­ly unre­formable edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems that shaped the depar­tees prove per­fect­ly inap­pro­pri­ate for bring­ing up the gen­er­a­tion now called to wel­come and inte­grate those flee­ing war, cli­mate change and dead-end futures. How can some­one brought up on the myth that their eth­nic­i­ty and reli­gion ren­der them supe­ri­or to their new­ly-estranged neigh­bours learn to wel­come strangers and live along­side them on an equal foot­ing? This per­sis­tent nar­ra­tive of racial or reli­gious supe­ri­or­i­ty under­lines the sys­tem­at­ic dis­crim­i­na­to­ry acts prac­ticed by states and peo­ple across the Mediter­ranean, from abus­ing domes­tics in Lebanon to an offi­cial pol­i­cy of push­backs by the Greek coast­guard on the Aegean, the beat­ings of migrants by Turk­ish nation­al­ists and Libya’s noto­ri­ous slave-camps. Per­haps recall­ing our recent cos­mopoli­tanism can pro­vide us with a tool­box that allows us to over­come what is one of the great­est chal­lenges of the 21st century.

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.


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