Archive of the Centre for Asia Minor Studies
The Greco-Turkish War of 1919 – 1922 ended in what is known in Greek historiography as the “Asia Minor Catastrophe.” The “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” signed by the governments of Greece and Turkey at Lausanne, Switzerland, on 30 January 1923, ratified the compulsory exchange of populations between the two countries. The exchange involved approximately 2 million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Christians and 356,000 Muslims in Greece), most of whom were forcibly made refugees and de jure denaturalized from their homelands. At the time of the exchange, cities like Athens were housing refugees in any kind of public space possible. Refugees were housed in stadiums, theatres, and churches; they also built their own housing settlements on the outskirts of the cities. People who lived in these areas had arrived with few personal possessions and lived in shacks of tin and board. Their plight was exacerbated by serious incidents of discrimination and exploitation by Greek officials and civilians. The racism they faced caused few to want to stay and many hoped to return to their Anatolian homelands.
There is a large cultural impact due to the population exchange. We see the effects of the exchange rippling through Greek literature, art, music, theatre, and cinema. Greek writer and poet Nicephoros Brettakos (1912 – 1991) described the refugee neighborhoods as the neighborhood of poor angels. Film director Costas Ferris (born 1935) filmed “Your Eyelashes are Glowing,” a short movie, realized in 1961. The film was shot in the refugee shanty town of Neos Kosmos featuring two popular songs of the rembetiko genre. American writer Henry Miller (1891 – 1980) also gave a description of Neos Kosmos in his 1941 travelogue, “The Colossus of Maroussi.”
Salvaging the Refugees’ Memories
Twenty years after the population exchange Greek aristocrat Melpo Logotheti-Merlier (1890 – 1979) began recording interviews from Anatolian refugees with the aim of “salvaging” the history and culture of the Greek-Orthodox communities of Anatolia. The oral histories were recorded by selected interviewers under the purview of Melpo Merlier. Merlier and her team of researchers were collecting information about the topography, traditions, religious life, and other various subjects particular to each village. Approximately 5,000 refugees were interviewed with the outcome of this research consisting of over 300,000 hand-written pages of transcribed interviews. The Centre for Asia Minor Studies (CAMS) was founded by Merlier in order to house this “Archive of Oral Tradition.” As the interviews began some two decades after the population exchange, the accounts collected were not only documentary evidence of the Greek-Orthodox community in the Ottoman Empire but also the reflection of a settlement process, thus providing a distilled look at how the refugees viewed the “Catastrophe” and life in their homelands from a later point in time.
The importance of Merlier’s work can be appreciated if we take into account the hostility against the refugees by the Greek society and state. The Greek state was concerned with achieving homogeneity and developing a national identity. The refugees were seen as less than Greek as many spoke only Turkish or spoke little Greek, a situation that kept them at odds with the native populations. This animosity resulted in the construction of a separate identity in a large section of the urban refugee population. This refugee identity provided an aspect of continuity with their well-defined identity as Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire. Even rembetiko music, a genre which expressed the refugees’ Anatolian resonances was persecuted during the authoritarian Metaxas Regime (1936 – 1941) as it was associated with the hashish dens of Athens and Piraeus. In fact until the 1960s no public discourse had been developed about the heritage of the Anatolian Greeks.
As the Greek anthropologist Penelope Papailias argues in her essay “Writing Home in the Archive: ‘Refugee Memory’ and the Ethnography of Documentation” in Blouin F.X., & Rosenberg W.G. (2006) Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (402-416): “Reform of cultural memory usually cannot proceed without reform of memory work itself. In addition to disputing national narratives of Greek history, the center also critiqued the methods of Greek academic history and folklore. Given the politically conservative state of the Greek university at this time, true scholarship, Merlier might have argued, could only thrive outside of the academy” (404).
Of all the Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire Merlier was most interested in Cappadocia, an area in middle Anatolia. In fact, 34% of the Centre’s informants came from Cappadocia. Merlier’s interests lie on the fact that most Cappadocian Orthodox populations were Turkish-speaking—with some villages maintaining dialects of Medieval Greek—and shared much of the local lore and culture of the region’s Muslim inhabitants. Their books and manuscripts written in the Karamanli script (Turkish written using Greek characters) transmit elements of the Ottoman world and of Orthodoxy.
Besides the “Archive of Oral Tradition,” the Centre’s archival collections were enriched by accounts written by the refugees themselves and by documents donated to the Centre by individuals who were custodians of community archives, plus refugee cultural associations. These documents written in Ottoman and Karamanli scripts originate mostly from Cappadocia. This area has never been occupied by the Greek army, so the Greek-orthodox population didn’t flee but was rather allowed to carry “portable” belongings on their journey. This allowed many religious artifacts, communal, and personal archives to be safely transported to Greece, where these objects were subsequently donated to institutions and museums (i.e. Hellenic State Archives, the Benaki Museum and Byzantine Museum). The Centre has an enormous variety of material including personal and institutional records as well as land information. Land information mostly includes deeds, maps, and property titles, while the personal identity records include correspondence; diaries; photographs; travel permits; wills; birth, death, and marriage certificates; and registers. The institutional records include Ottoman court decisions, firmans issued for the construction of churches, concessions of imperial monopolies (caviar, tobacco) and Orthodox community records. These documents and especially community records are the best—often the only—evidence that we have for the economic and social history of the Greek-Orthodox communities of Anatolia; they also reflect community identity and collective memory. By documenting these core societal elements the archives constitute an excellent source for historians and cultural heritage academics interested in community history and identity.
In addition to the Archive, the Center’s library contains a rich collection of books—in Greek, Turkish, French and English—on Anatolian Christians, their life and activities during the Ottoman era and their settlement to Greece.
The closest Athens Underground station is Syntagma.
Turkish Studies Department, University of Athens
Image: photo by author