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Crypto-Christian Greeks of Pontus- Between Islam and Christianity


Standpoint of Turkey

Crypto-Christian Greeks of Pontus- Between Islam and Christianity

Zeynep Türkyılmaz


Zeynep Türkyılmaz

Specialist in Ottoman History

While the situation of Hemshin people, Muslim Armenians in the Black Sea region is becoming increasingly well known, the question of the Greeks in Turkey remains largely taboo or unrecognized. Called Roums in Turkey, Ottoman Greeks in Greece, these heirs of the Byzantine Empire were expelled in 1923 following a vast operation of exchange of population with Greece which ended the war between the two countries. This immense ethnic cleansing based on religious belonging and carried out with the endorsement of the League of Nations only spared the Orthodox Greeks of Istanbul and the islands of Gökçeada and Bozcaada allowed to remain among the soil of the young Republic Turkish.

Some Hellenophonic populations in Asia Minor, however, have a much more confusing history. This is the case with the so-called Crypto-Christian Greeks of the Black Sea. These Hellenophonic populations, spread around Trabzon and Gümüşhane, were superficially Islamized during the Ottoman period but continued to practice the Orthodox religion more or less openly. Zeynep Türkyılmaz, historian, is more specifically interested in the case of miners of the Kurum valley near Gümüşhane. These Greek-speaking Muslims collectively decided to return to Christianity in the mid-19th century. Straddling between Islam and Christianity, the astonishing history of these populations shows us that during the Ottoman period, religious affiliations were not always as exclusive as one might think.

Not much is known about the islamised Greek society, is there such a society in fact?

There is, in fact, such a society. However we are refering to many things when we say ‘’ Islamised Greek’ just as when we say ‘’ Islamised Armenian’’. There is not one single group, experience or time period. When we study the issue for a period starting with 15th century and look at different periods of the Ottoman Empire following that we find a scene with many pieces and many layers.  However, when we look back after the genocide and uniformity, all the stories are perceived as similar experiences from a single source, caused by a single reason and managed from a common center. It is perceived as if those who underwent the Islamisation experience did have a rational choice. Especially, the Islamised Greeks I am working on belong to a group called ‘’double-religioned’’. We learn of their existence since 1830’s from various notes left by the travelers and missionaries. They mention that these groups called ‘’Kurumlu’’ used to live on the mining zones between Gümüşhane and Trabzon. I follow the story of ‘’Kurumlu’’ starting from 1857 when they announced their desire to convert back to Christianity up until the end of the empire. This comprises Islamisation with also an experience of a sort of Christianity and an experience to convert back to Christianity. There are also other Greeks that did not have a double-religion experience, who protected their language even when they underwent Islamisation starting with the 17th century, who changed their religion but kept their language. Very interestingly, all these different Greek groups, those with double-religion, those who were Islamised and those who stayed Christian, managed to live side by side for centuries. With the 19th century, we start to see much more clearly a forced Islamisation practice that is a result of the increasing violence policies. There is also another group of Islamised Greeks, that appeared after 1918 and who still keep the fears of those days fresh.

Are we able to talk about those two groups?

Although there are some rumors about those groups, we do not know for a fact. And probably it will stay that way until an opportunity for them to express themselves is given.

Why don’t we know it for a fact, are they too far assimilated? For example, when we talk about ‘’ the Hemshinli’’, even if some people say that it is just a fact of the history, still it is an issue that is discussed, same as the Islamised Armenians.  Why aren’t the Greeks known about? Why, when Islamised Greeks are mentioned, people’s first reaction is to ask ‘’ is there such a thing?’’.

Actually, it is also very recently that people started to talk about the Hemshinli as well, however there is a very specific fact about the Greek issue that is the ‘’ exchange’’. Regarding the Armenians, there is of course the experience of genocide that is traumatic and destructive, however genocide does not make it impossible for Armenians to continue their juridical existence... However, with the ‘’exchange’’ there is an international treaty that says that Greeks and those who declare themselves Christian can no longer continue to stay on these lands. Therefore, probably many such people chose to accept Islamisation and to stay where they were when they were forced to make a choice between the lives they were accustomed to and an unpredictable future in an unknown new land. And this was a secret that everybody who lived there knew. I consider the word ‘’ origin’’ to be very problematic but use it in this example specifically. Because there are many Greek speaking villages in many places such as Of, Çaykara, Maçka and Tonya, and even though people who live in these places adopted various identities within time, the fact that the Greek language is still there is an issue that needs explanation by those who want to wipe away the traces of history. However, those we refer to as ‘’ double-religioned’ is a different case. There is a saying in Turkish language which is ‘’ imam by day, priest by night’’ which is in fact much more than a saying but the reality in those parts. This is a historical fact that we see even in the Ottoman documents.

Does such a thing still exist today? It is very hard to tell. Also, I believe that it might cause problems and can make such people targets in today’s political environment to say ‘’ yes, there is such a thing today and such people are still hiding amongst us’’.

At the same time, uncertainty is a source that feeds anxiety. Some of them are probably totally Islamised and Turkisized and some of them are probably aware of their history but we can never know what that feels like. We need to understand that these are totally distinct experiences and that every experience should be evaluated within the context that created it. I also believe that we should not burden these identities with a political mission.

To hide their identities due to fear was a fact specific to Armenians and this fear is slowly disappearing in the recent years. Is it possible to say that Greeks, if they still exist and live around Trabzon, are hiding their identities due to fear of pressure?

Of course, we do hear about one or two cases of converting to Christianity, however we should underline once again that we do not know for a fact whether they exist or not. Who converted to Islam and how far deep are they converted, and if they did not convert will they come out in the future? Such a fear should not be fed. Instead, what should be done is to create an environment where people can express their identities freely, give people space fort hem to decide what their identity is. However, Trabzon is one of the toughest places when it comes to hardline nationalism.

In my thesis I worked more on the anxiety of converting religion in the 19th century and this is what I have seen; just as it happened in the 17th century in the Balkans, there is a wave of Islamization which Islamised the Balkans and Anatolia within a long period of time. However in 1850’s, a group of people came out and said that they were in fact Christians.... we are not talking about one single village or a small number of people, we are talking about twenty thousand people. This created a serious concern for the Ottoman Empire and this concern was also transferred to the Turkish Republic.

How do these people identify themselves?

I will again go back to the 19th century... I am talking about a very resilient group of people when I am mentioning the Greeks I worked on – miners who lived at very high altitudes. They make a declaration in 1857 and this is what we see at this point; these people do not leave an identity and convert to another. There are such confessions as we see in the Ottoman documents ‘’ there is now a thing called half-Muslim, these go to the mosque on Friday and to the church on Sunday’’. This shows how sterilized and prototyped our perception of identity has become today.

For instance, the Hemshinli identify themselves as ‘’ Turks’’ today...

That is how it is at the moment. We look at their stories after 150 years and that is the only option we are left with. Because living between two identities made their lives unbearable. This is exactly the most mind opening side of studying such groups; it tells you about what other modes of existence were possible, what types of processes were lived so that those now became improbable. Groups like Hemshinli, Kurumlu or Istavri are groups that intermingled various distinct identities and created new ones. These people had to make choices sometimes due to political and sometimes due to economical reasons. Therefore we have seen a multitude of identities in a very short period of time. And after that, they were once again forced to uniformization.

Did they have any linguistic characteristics?

They spoke Greek. Probably they knew Turkish as well. Because mining regions were heavily Greek regions and the Metropolit of Gümüşhane was a metropolit specific to Greek miners and when the mines were closed these people dispersed to various other regions and the Akdağ mines of Yozgat is one of those places. For example, we know for a fact that those people spoke Turkish. Therefore, language and identity does not match or does not limit each other. There are Muslims or double-religioned people who speak Greek.... Interestingly, to speak Greek does not reciprocate to a religious identity neither in Trabzon nor in Akdağ mines.

You mentioned Gümüşhane many times, is that where they lived most?

The double-religioned ones lived mostly in Gümüşhane, Maçka and Torul regions... the Islamised ones cover a much larger area, Çankaya, Of, Sürmene...

Actually, these are not issues that are studied in detail, they need to be studied more thoroughly. Considering that those regions belonged to Pontus Empire until 15th century, I think the tracks of Islamisation can be traced much more clearly in the documents of Ottoman archives.

You have stated that mentioning the existence of these people might create political problems and make their situation more fragile. However on the other side, is it not a serious shortcoming not to know anything at all about these people? The impression is that even the Greek community does not have an intention to study the issue in more detail...

If we go back to 19th century, it is my opinion that they are one of the most resilient groups in the Ottoman Empire, they are very organized and their demand is very clear. Their attribute to act in unison and demand is impressive. When we read the documents 150 years after the events we see that they have demanded something highly political but at the same time did this with a very clear stance.

It is an all-together different story after the Republic. The Armenian and Greek experiences move on in their different paths.  The Greeks that stayed after the ‘’exchange’’ were limited to a territory that comprised Istanbul and the two islands and these people created reciprocity to the Turks that stayed in Greece. In the Ottoman times, there are differences between the Greeks of İstanbul and Greeks of this region. After the ‘exchange’ the gap grew bigger. But there is also such a reality that the Greeks who later came back to search to find their relatives, those who tried to make contact with the distant relatives who stayed here, were mostly the people of the Trabzon- Gümüşhane region. Interestingly, until recently, the Greek government and other Greek groups were very distant and disinterested to the issue of Islamised Greeks. Maybe because they were different from the Pontus Greeks or maybe because they did not know what happened to these people.

What I am talking about is not only an issue regarding a sense of belonging, the formation of their political identity is also very distinct from each other. For instance the Pontus Greeks experienced a ‘’relocation’’ which they identify as ‘’genocide’’. You asked me the connection of this issue with the discussions on the Armenian problem, actually they are two processes with different dynamics but they do have similarities as well. While trying to understand and conceptualize their calamity, the Armenians for a long time used the concept of holocaust. And today, the Pontus Greeks evaluate their experience in relation to the Armenian Genocide. This is where we are at, at this moment in time. And slowly, when Pontus Genocide is mentioned, Greeks from the other parts are complaining that their experiences are being over looked. This is also a new issue...

What kind of an attitude did the Greek nationalist of those times demonstrate?

First reactions of the Greek nationalists of those days were to blame this community with pragmatism and deem them not worthy of their attention because they considered this society as people who were not loyal to their nationality and who abandoned their faith.  On the contrary, the Greek nationalist of the turn of the century saw them as victims who preserved their identity in spite of the oppression of the Ottomans. However, as much as they might be feeding the political rhetoric, unfortunately these nationalistic depictions is no help to understanding the essence of the issue itself.

What is the reason behind these distinct approaches?

We might say that the reasons are the cyclical differentiation of political needs and also the differences that appeared in the perception of identity itself. We face a similar change even today. We might think in the terms of the conversion of the Hemshinli to a greater Armenian identity or the way that the discussions on weather there are any Armenians Islamised in the 1915 is conducted. Time does not change what the experience of the event in the past actually was, however the frame and rhetoric built around the event effects how the experience is perceived.

You said they had political but very clear demands, what type of demands are we talking about here?

First they had demands for identity. They were saying that they were Christians, and without mentioning any further explanation they were saying that they have actually always been Christians but had to pretend as Muslims and that now they don’t anymore want to live under the false pretence of being Muslims but live openly with their Christian identity. And they were insisting on this issue. This is in itself a very serious political demand. In addition to this, they also demanded for some rights regarding how they pray. They were not afraid to raise their voices in the face of pressure, for example they were opposing to the issue that their dead were being taken by the authorities and they were struggling to bury their dead in the Greek cemetery and in accordance with Christian tradition.

If we talk about assimilation, is it only about religion? Can we say that they preserved the Greek language and the culture?

Actually the strength of assimilation is a more recent issue in history. We see that co-existence of two different identities is a matter of choice. We do not yet know under what circumstances they made those choices. This is one of the major shortcomings of our historical research studies. Islamisation is still an arena for political competition. What other nations see as Ottoman oppression is actually seen as the tolerance of the Ottoman by the Turkish nationalists. We need to get past behind this. First we need to distance ourselves from the state centric rhetoric passed on to the historians through state documents. My focus is the experience that these people underwent and the geography where they lived. And what I see is not people who are oppressed, afraid, forced and controlled but on the contrary people who struggle, make choices, make some people angry via these choices and therefore fall into hardship, but at the end they are real people. And of course the geography also that makes this possible. It was very hard before the 20th century to assimilate these people who lived above an altitude of 1500 meters of mountainous area with a high cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. It is very important for me to express this.

Because if we read the history as if the tools, strategies and opportunities that states have in the 20th century were also present in those days, we do not only create a false depiction of an all-mighty state but we also subtract a lot from the struggles those people have endured and the willpower they have had and leave behind only victimhood.

Is it possible to make a clear distinction between the period before and after 1918-1923 and say that; before 1918-1923 people could make their own choices and after 1918-1923 there was no freedom of choice?

Let me clarify once again, I am not saying there was no forcing in the process whatsoever before 1918-23, I am just saying that people had more freedom of choice. Actually the structure of the villages gives clues for this. There are those villages where only Christians and secret Christians live. So if you ask me why they did it, I think the answer is pure choice. Because if your neighbor is Christian, then why do you need to hide your identity and act as if you are not? Why are you hiding your identity, from whom are you hiding your identity? I would like to think of this as the formation of a new identity. It is claimed that forced Islamisation took place in the region in the 19th century between two Russo-Ottoman wars but we do not have the numbers. But anyhow, in this region there is not such forced Islamisation experience as the one faced by the Armenians between 1894-96. There is no such event that can be named as mass conversion to Islam.

However, after 1918-23 the picture is very clear, if you want to stay, you have no choice. We already know that there was forced Islamisation during the exchange. If you want to stay in Gümüşhane you cannot stay a Christian, there is no other way around.

If we assume that there is still such a group of people in the region, what must happen or what should be done to make a research about these people, to find these people?

In today’s Turkey there is a common problem for everyone, the flexibility to discuss such issues is just not present. Forget converting back to Christianity, we cannot even talk about what the story is, what was really lived in those days. I am talking about historical research here. If your question is about today, we do not know if these people exist or not, or what choices they are making. What choices these people can do, once we have the political environment to enable a discussion of these issues, it  is an other discussion in itself.

Your words are very ambiguous; such people may exist, may not exist, we do not know etc... What does that signify?

Yes, unfortunately so. I travelled those regions myself. The atmosphere is very intense in those villages. Even the smallest of questions on these issues creates a tense atmosphere. You cannot even ask them questions on the issue, let alone these people coming out to express themselves.

Today, in an environment where even the Kurdish issue is such a heavy issue, the existence and expression of those identities which violate many of the identity borders which are seen as taboo in Turkey, is really hard to expect of these people.



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