Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

An outpost of Greek culture in Turkey

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Yigal Schleifer
Publication Date 12 November 2004
Cite as EurasiaNet, An outpost of Greek culture in Turkey, 12 November 2004, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

A EurasiaNet Photo Essay by Yigal Schleifer 11/12/04

Standing in the central square of his home village, Tepekoy, Yorgo Zarbozan takes a look around. To his left is the village's lively café, filled with people chatting away in Greek. To his right are long tables that belong to his popular hotel and taverna, Barba Yorgo, which are being set up for lunch.

It's a scene utterly different from what he encountered seven years ago, when he returned to live in Tepekoy after being away for almost 40 years. At that time, the village, which once had a population of 1,500, was down to some 30 residents, and was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. With the opening of Barba Yorgo, the first new business in Tepekoy in decades, Zarbozan helped spark something of a mini revival in the village. Tepekoy's full-time residents still number around 30, but the summer population now numbers close to 400, with villagers returning from as far away as New Zealand to spend a few months in their birthplace. Although today many of the village's old homes are crumbling, there are a significant number that are being renovated.

"My ancestors were calling me here, my old home was calling me," Zarbozan says about his decision to return to the village and open his taverna. "This way I can help keep my village alive."

Though a Greek-speaking village, Tepekoy is located in Turkey, on an island called Gokceada (or Imroz, as it is known in Greek). The mountainous island, located in the Aegean Sea near the entrance to the strategic Dardanelles straits, was given to Turkey as part of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which determined the country's modern day borders. The treaty also provided for a massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey, with close to 1 million Greeks moving from Turkey and some 500,000 Turks coming from Greece.

Gokceada was not included in the population exchange. As a result, it remained one of the few places in Turkey where Greek culture life continued on after 1923. As in the rest of Turkey, though, political and economic tensions over the years helped spur a steady decrease in the Greek population. Today, there are only an estimated 2,500 Greeks living in all of Turkey. Even on Gokceada, most of the island's 10,000 residents today are Muslim Turks – many of whom moved under government resettlement policies. Most Turks live in new villages built outside of the island's old Greek villages.

Like Tepekoy, though, some of Gokceada's Greek villages are also being revived, albeit on a small scale. With relations between Turkey and Greece having improved significantly over the last decade, many who reside most of the year in Greece are spending the summer, or a portion of it, on Gokceada. The island is reached from the mainland by a two-hour ferry ride.

In the old village of Zeytinlikoy, set on a mountainside that overlooks a large olive grove, a new cultural center, which plans to preserve the island's Greek heritage, was opened this past summer. A new boutique hotel, nestled into one of the villages winding cobblestone streets, has also been opened.

The island is the birthplace of the current Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, who returns every summer to visit and preside over a mass in the church of his home village, Zeytinlikoy. The celebrations surrounding the Patriarch's visit, as well as those during an annual summertime religious festival honoring the Virgin Mary, offer a glimpse of what Greek life on the island might have once been.

Steven Viglis left Gokceada in 1964, following a ban on Greek-language education the expropriation of Greek-owned land, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he owns an iron works company. He started coming back to the island during the summer several years ago. On a recent morning, he is sitting on the front porch of his 81-year-old mother-in-law's home in Tepekoy, a basket of freshly picked purple figs at his feet.

Up until the early 1990's he still had to obtain a special permit from the Turkish government if he wanted to visit his birthplace, Viglis says. Today, he says, the situation has changed. "People are coming back here to retire," he says with a smile. "It makes them live longer."

Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

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