This story was amended on 7/30/11. Private donors, rather than the Greek government, finance Şişmanoğlu Megaron.
On Istanbul's main shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi a Greek flag flutters from the Şişmanoğlu Megaron, a 19th century baroque building that contains Turkey's first private Modern Greek language school. But this is more than just another language school. It is, according to Greek Consul General Vasileios Bornovas, an experiment in intercultural relations.
“In order to have access to the core of your neighbor, you have to know their language,” Bornovas said. “Even though Greeks and Turks are close geographically, we are too far [apart] sociologically, linguistically. There is a deficiency in the knowledge of the other.”
Beginning in the 1920s, use of Greek and other minority languages was discouraged in Turkey with the “Citizens, please speak Turkish!” policy. The campaign intensified in the 1950s with the Cypriot conflict, which contributed to riots against Istanbul’s ethnic Greeks, or Rums, on September 6-7, 1955.
Out of the 55 Greek-language schools open at the time, three remain in operation today. An estimated 2,000 to 1,500 ethnic Greeks with Turkish citizenship still live in Istanbul; in 1955, their population numbered about 100,000, according to data cited in Spyros Vryonis’ work on the riots, “The Mechanism of Catastrophe.”
The three remaining Rum schools operate as private institutions with funds from donors and local foundations outside of the Turkish education system. Bureaucratic delays have kept any other Greek-language schools from opening, despite the 1923 Lausanne Treaty’s stipulation for non-Muslim minorities’ right to open schools for instruction in their own language.
Most of the Rum schools’ graduating students leave Istanbul to continue their Greek-language education and to pursue what has been perceived until now as a better future in Greece. That trend means that much of the Greek language’s future in Istanbul will depend on the Turkish students at the private, Şişmanoğlu school, which reopened in 2009 after 21 years in disuse.
The school’s 200 students come mainly from academic and cultural professions, and often have Greek-related research interests. Many of the non-professional students come from Istanbul University's Modern Greek Language Department to take advantage of learning Greek from native Greek speakers. Private donors cover fees for tuition and books and other supplies.
Teacher Angeliki Melliou, who started studying Turkish in Greece, sees the lessons as “a step for both countries to start learning one or two things which are more important.”
“There are very many similarities in the culture and the language. It is wonderful for us to discover them,” said Melliou, who came to Istanbul to pursue a master’s degree in Turkish-Greek Comparative Literature at Bilgi University. “I think most people from Greece or Turkey don't know the other country, and so, little by little, they learn [about] the enigmas and it becomes very interesting.”
A recent poll by the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a non-profit think tank in Washington, DC, that specializes in Turkish affairs found that overall views in Turkey toward ethnic minorities remain negative, particularly among individuals with lower levels of education. Sixty-seven percent of 3,040 respondents had negative views about Greeks; 71.5 percent expressed adverse views about Jews and 73.9 percent held unfavorable opinions of Armenians.
Conditions have improved in non-Muslim schools, according to Umut Özkırımlı, director of Turkish-Greek Studies at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. Yet, schools in Istanbul for the native Greeks of the city continue to be underfunded, noted Nikolaos Ouzunoglu, president of the Ecumenical Federation of Constantinopolitans, a Rum Diaspora organization in Greece.
Delays in distributing minority-language books to schools are still common, Ouzunoglu said, citing a three-month delay in securing approval from the Turkish Education Department for a set of Greek-language textbooks.
Zografyon Rum High School, which has 60 students, tried in the past to run an after-school Greek language school, but was denied permission on the grounds that a working school may not operate a for-profit educational program on its grounds.
Officials at the Turkish Education Department could not be reached for comment.
Özkırımlı stressed that the problems involved with Greek language education in Turkey is connected to politics. “You must not forget that the issue of mother-tongue education is problematic in Turkey not because of non-Muslims, but because of Muslim minorities, notably the Kurds, whose minority status is not recognized by the state,” said Özkırımlı.
Additional options for Greek-language education would not cause the same type of public outcry that widespread Kurdish education initiatives would generate, he added.
For now, with relatively limited options for that education, the Greek language remains under threat of going silent in Turkey.
Maria Eliades is an Istanbul-based writer whose Istanbul-born father and his immediate family left Turkey in 1959 due to the effects of the 1955 rioting.