The Istanbul Pogrom, also known as the Istanbul Riots, or the Σεπτεμβριανά in Greek and the 6-7 Eylül Olayları in Turkish (both literally Events of September), was a pogrom directed primarily at Istanbul’s 80,000-strong Greek minority on September 6–September 7, 1955. Jews and Armenians living in the city and their businesses were also targetted in the pogrom, which was orchestrated by the Demokrat Parti-government of Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.
Over a period of nine hours, Istanbul’s Greek community came under sustained assault at the hands of an overwhelming Turkish mob, the most significant portion of which was trucked in to the city for the event. Although the orchestrators of the pogrom did not explicitly call on Greeks to be killed, between 13 and 16 Greeks and at least one Armenian (including two Orthodox clerics) died during or after the pogrom as a result of beatings and arson attacks.
Thirty-two Greeks were severely wounded. In addition, dozens of Greek men and women were raped, and a number of men were forcibly circumcised by the mob. The physical and material damage was considerable and over 4,348 Greek-owned businesses, 110 hotels, 27 pharmacies, 23 schools, 21 factories and 73 churches and over a thousand Greek-owned homes were badly damaged or destroyed.
Estimates on the economic cost of the damage vary from the 69.5 million Turkish lira quoted by the Turkish government, the 100 million GBP mentioned by British diplomatic sources, to the 150 million USD estimated by the World Council of Churches and to the 500 million USD estimated by the Greek government.
The disturbances accelerated a process of emigration that was to lead to the virtual extinction of the Greek minority in Turkey. Numbering 200,000 in 1924, in 2005 the Greek community of Istanbul is estimated to number a mere 1,500 persons.
The Greeks of Constantinople/Istanbul
Although capital of the Byzantine Empire until 1453, the conquest of the city by Ottoman forces did not spell the end of Constantinople’s Greek population. On the contrary, the city’s Greek population, particularly the Phanariotes, came to play a significant role in the social and economic life of the city and of the political and diplomatic life of the Ottoman Empire in general. This continued after the establishment of an independent Greek state in 1829.
Following the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, however, the Greek population of Constantinople (officially Istanbul from 1930) went into decline.
Punitive measures, such as 1932 parliamentary law, barred Greek citizens living in Turkey from a series of 30 trades and professions (from tailor and carpenter to medicine, law and real estate). During the Second World War, Greeks, Jews and Armenians were subjected to penal laws and arbitrary detention in labour camps (see Varlik Vergisi).
The 1955 pogrom was provoked by the demands of the overwhelming majority Greek population of Cyprus for political union with mainland Greece. Towards this aim, in April 1955, the Greek-Cypriot National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) began an armed struggle against British forces.
The Cyprus issue provided a convenient basis to intensify the latent hostility against Istanbul’s Greek minority. Since 1954, a number of nationalist student and irredentist organisations, such as the National Federation of Turkish Students, the National Union of Turkish Students and the editor of Hurriyet Hikmet Bil’s Cyprus is Turkish Party, had been protesting against the Greek minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
During 1955, a state-supported propaganda campaign, which involved the Turkish press, galvanised public opinion against the Greek minority. The political purpose of the pogrom was to demonstrate unequivocally the seriousness of the Turkish claims over Cyprus.
Indeed, in the weeks running up towards 6–7 September, Turkish leaders made a number of inflammatory anti-Greek speeches. On 28 August, barely two weeks before the Istanbul pogrom, Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes publicly claimed that the Greek-Cypriots were planning a massacre of Turkish-Cypriots. However, the Turkish conspiracy to detonate an explosive on 5–6 September at the Turkish consulate (and birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) in Greece’s second city, Salonica, was the propaganda spark that lit the fire on the day of the pogrom. At the Yassiada Trial in 1960–61, which convicted former prime minister Menderes and former foreign minister Fatin Zorlu to death by hanging for violating the constitution, it emerged that the consulate bomb fuse was sent from Turkey to Salonica on September 3, three days before the pogrom.
In addition to the Cyprus issue, the chronic economic situation seems also to have motivated the Turkish political leadership into orchestrating the pogrom. Although a minority, the Greek population played a prominent role in the city’s business life, making it a convenient scapegoat during economic crises.
There was also a religious motive. Contrary to Kemalist secular principles, prime minister Menderes played the religious card in Turkey, evidenced by the building of a thousand mosques during his tenure of office.
The 1961 Yassiada Trial against Menderes and his hardline foreign minister, Fatin Zorlu exposed the detailed planning that went into organising the pogrom. In the run up to the pogrom, Menderes and Zorlu mobilised the formidable machinery of the ruling Demokrat Parti (DP) and party-controlled trade unions of Istanbul. Interior minister Namik Gedik was also involved. According to Zorlu's lawyer at the Yassiada trial, a mob of 300,000 was marshalled in a radius of 40 miles around the city for the pogrom.
In addition, ten of Istanbul’s 18 branches of Cyprus is Turkish Party were run by DP officials. This organisation played a crucial role in whipping up anti-Greek hatred.
In his 2005 book, Harvard-trained Byzantinist historian, Speros Vryonis, documents the direct role of the Demokrat Parti organisation and government-controlled trade unions in amassing the rioters that swept Istanbul. Most of the rioters came from western Asia Minor. His case study of Eskişehir shows how the party there recruited 400 to 500 workers from local factories, who were carted by train with third class-tickets to Istanbul. These recruits were promised the equivalent of $6 USD, which was never paid. They were accompanied by Eskişehir police, who were charged with coordinating the destruction and looting once the contingent was broken up into sub-groups of 40–50 men, and the leaders of the party branches.
Municipal and government trucks were placed in strategic points all around the city to distribute the tools of destruction — shovels, pickaxes, crowbars, ramming rods and petrol — while 4,000 private taxis were requisitioned to transport the pogromists. A protest rally on the night of September 6, and organised by the authorities in Istanbul, on the Cyprus issue and the alleged arson attack in Salonica at the house where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born, was the cover for amassing the rioters. At 17.00, the pogrom started and from its original epicentre in Taksim Square, the trouble rippled out during the evening through the old suburb of Pera, the smashing and looting of Greek commercial property, particularly along Yuksek Kaldirim street. By 18.00, many of the Greek shops on Istanbul's main shopping street, Istiklal, were ransacked. Many commercial streets were littered with merchandise and fittings torn out of Greek-owned businesses.
According to the account of one eyewitness, a Greek dentist, the mob chanted "Death to the Gavurs", "Massacre the Greek traitors", "Down with Europe" and "Onward to Athens and Thessaloniki" as they executed the pogrom.
The riot died down by midnight with the intervention of the Turkish Army and martial law was finally declared. Eyewitnesses reported, however, that army officers and policemen had earlier participated in the rampages and in many cases urged the rioters on.
While the pogromists were not instructed to kill their targets, sections of the mob went much further than scaring or intimidating local Greeks. Between 13 and 16 Greeks and one Armenian (including two clerics) died as a result of the pogrom. 32 Greeks were severely wounded. Men and women were raped, and according to the account of the Turkish writer Aziz Nesin, men, mainly priests, were subjected to forced circumcision by frenzied members of the mob and an Armenian priest died after the procedure. Nesin wrote:
"A man who was fearful of being beaten, lynched or cut into pieces would imply and try to prove that he was both a Turk and a Muslim. "Pull it out and let us see," they would reply. The poor man would peel off his trousers and show his "Muslimness" and "Turkishness: And what was the proof? That he had been circumcised. If the man was circumcised, he was saved. If not, he was "burned". Indeed, having lied, he could not be saved from a beating. For one of those aggressive young men would draw his knife and circumcise him in the middle of the street and amid the chaos. A difference of two or three centimetres does not justify such a commotion. That night, many men shouting and screaming were Islamized forcefully by the cruel knife. Among those circumcised there was also a priest."
The physical and material damage was considerable and over 4,348 Greek-owned businesses, 110 hotels, 27 pharmacies, 23 schools, 21 factories, and 73 churches and over 1,000 Greek-owned homes were badly attacked or destroyed.
In addition to commercial targets, the mob clearly targeted property owned or administered by the Greek Orthodox Church. 73 churches and 23 schools were vandalized, burned or destroyed, as were 8 asperses and 3 monasteries. This represented about 90 percent of the church property portfolio in the city. The ancient Byzantine church of Panagia in Veligradiou was vandalised and burned down. The church at Yedikule was badly vandalised, as was the church of St. Constantine of Psammathos. At Zoodochos Pege church in Balikli, the tombs of a number of ecumenical patriarchs were smashed open and desecrated. The abbot of the monastery, Bishop Gerasimos of Pamphilos, was severely beaten during the pogrom and died from his wounds some days later in Balikli hospital. In one church arson attack, Father Chrysanthos Mandas, was burned alive. The Metropolitan of Liloupolis, Gennadios, was badly beaten and went mad. Elsewhere in the city, Greek cemeteries came under attack and were desecrated. Some reports also testified that relics of saints were burned or thrown to dogs.
"The church of Yedikule was utterly smashed, and one priest was dragged from bed, the hair torn from his head and the beard literally torn from his chin. Another old Greek priest [Fr Mantas] in a house belonging to the church and who was too ill to be moved was left in bed, and the house was set on fire and he was burned alive. At the church of Yenikoy, a lovely spot on the edge of the Bosphorus, a priest of 75 was taken out into the street, stripped of every stitch of clothing, tied behind a car and dragged through the streets. They tried to tear the hair of another priest, but failing that, they scalped him, as they did many others."
One significant eyewitness was Ian Fleming, the James Bond author, who was in Istanbul covering the International Police Conference as a special representative for the London Sunday Times. His account, entitled "The Great Riot of Istanbul", appeared in that paper on September 11, 1955.
While the pogrom was predominantly an Istanbul affair, there were some outrages in other Turkish cities. On the morning of 7 September 1955 In Izmir (Smyrna), a mob overran the Izmir National Park, where an international exhibition was taking place, and burned the Greek pavilion. Moving next to the Church of Saint Fotini, built two years earlier to serve the needs of the Greek officers (serving at NATO Regional Headquarters), the mob destroyed it completely. The homes of the few Greek families and officers were then looted.
Considerable contemporary documentation showing the extent of the destruction is provided by the photographs taken by Demetrios Kaloumenos, then official photographer to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Setting off just hours after the pogrom began, Kaloumenos set out with his camera to capture the damage and smuggled the film to Greece.
Although the Menderes government attempted to blame Turkish Communists for the pogrom, most foreign observers were aware of who was to blame. In a letter of November 15, 1955 to prime minister Menderes, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras graphically described the crimes inflicted on his flock. “The very foundation of a civilisation which is the heritage of centuries, the property of all mankind, has been gravely attacked”, he wrote, adding: “All of us, without any defence, spent moments of agony, and in vain sought and waited for protection from those responsible for order and tranquillity”.
The charge d'affaires at the British Embassy in Ankara, Michael Stewart, directly implicated Menderes's Demokrat Parti in the execution of the attack. "There is fairly reliable evidence that local Demokrat Parti representatives were among the leaders of the rioting in various parts of Istanbul, notably in the Marmara islands, and it has been argued that only the Demokrat Parti had the political organisation in the country capable of demonstrations on the scale that occurred," he reported, refusing to assign blame to the party as a whole or Menderes personally, however.
Although British Ambassador to Ankara, Bowker advised British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that the United Kingdom should “court a sharp rebuff by admonishing Turkey”, only a note of distinctly mild disapproval was dispatched to Menderes. The context of the Cold War led Britain and the US to absolve the Menderes government of the direct political blame that it was due. The efforts of Greece to internationalise the human rights violations through international organisations such as the UN and NATO found little sympathy. British NATO representative Cheetham deemed it "undesirable" to probe the pogrom. US representative Edwin Martin thought the effect on the alliance was exaggerated, and the French, Belgians and Norwegians urged the Greeks to "let bygones be bygones". Indeed, the North Atlantic Council issued a statement that the Turkish government had done everything that could be expected.
More outspoken was the World Council of Churches, given the damage wrought on 90 percent of Istanbul's Greek Orthodox churches, and a delegation was sent to Istanbul to inspect the havoc.
As private insurance did not exist in Turkey at the time, the only hope the pogrom’s victims had for compensation was from the Turkish state. Although Turkish President Mahmut Celal Bayar announced that "the victims of the destruction shall be compensated", there was little political will or financial means to carry out such a promise. In the end, Greeks ended up receiving about 20 percent of their claims due to the fact that the assessed values of their properties had already been vastly reduced.
Tensions continued and in 1958–1959, Turkish nationalist students embarked on a campaign encouraging the boycott of all Greek businesses. The task was completed eight years later in 1964 when the Ankara government reneged on the 1930 Greco-Turkish Ankara Convention, which established the right of Greek etablis (Greeks who were born and lived in Istanbul but held Greek citizenship) to live and work in Turkey. Deported with two-day’s notice, the Greek community of Istanbul shrunk from 80,000 (or 100,000 by some accounts) persons in 1955 to only 48,000 in 1965. Today, the Greek community appears destined for extinction, since there remain in Istanbul fewer than 2,000, mostly older, Greeks.
At the Yassiada Trial in 1960–61, Menderes and Zorlu were charged with violating the constitution. The trial also made reference to the pogrom, for which they were blamed. While the accused were denied fundamental rights regarding their defence, they were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
- Speros Vryonis, The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul, New York: Greekworks.com 2005, ISBN 978-0-9747660-3
- George Gilson, "Destroying a minority: Turkey's attack on the Greeks", Athens News, 24 June 2005.
- Ilias K. Maglinis, "Istanbul 1955: The anatomy of a pogrom", Kathimerini, 28 June 2005.
- Robert Holland, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus, 1954-59, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, pp. 75-78.
- Ali Tuna Kuyucu, "Ethno-religious 'unmixing' of 'Turkey': 6-7 September riots as a case in Turkish nationalism", in Nations and Nationalism, 11:3 (2005), pp. 361-380.
- Indymedia Istanbul, "50. yılında 6-7 Eylül Olayları".
- Mehmet Ali Birand, "The shame of Sept. 6-7 is always with us", Turkish Daily News, 7 September 2005.