• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

1955: the Second Fall of Constantinople



Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque this year was part of a pattern in which the Turkish state views its legitimacy as threatened by the symbols and peoples of its Roman predecessor. Instead of dwelling on Hagia Sophia’s conversion (2020), a tragedy well captured by the Philological Crocodile here, or prattling on the Population Exchange (1922-23), I’ve decided to shift the lens to 1955 because it reveals what the Turkish state will do to Romans (and other minorities) when it feels it can escape the consequences.

In 1955, the Istanbul pogrom, sometimes referred to as Septemvriana, was a government-instigated series of riots – a Kristallnacht – against the Romans of Constantinople. Indeed, the riots satisfy the criteria of the second article of the 1948 Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG) because the “intent to destroy in whole or part” of the Roman minority was present.



The events are best described by Speros Vryonis – a great scholar who died last year – in The Mechanism of Catastrophe (2005) which draws on a vast range of Turkish sources including the Yassiada trials and the report by Human Rights Watch (1992). Sadly, collecting disparate sources is necessary because there is still no official Turkish government or police report on the pogroms.

Here, I offer a quick summary of Vryonis’ 700-page indictment. In the weeks leading up to the pogrom, Turkish authorities repeatedly incited public opinion against the Romans, using Cyprus as a stick with which to beat them. A movement called “Cyprus is Turkish” was particularly active and created a hostile atmosphere in which the largest daily newspaper, Hurriyet, felt able to write that

“If the Romans dare to touch our brethren, then there are plenty in Istanbul upon whom we can deliver our revenge.”


Around midnight on 6th September an explosion occurred in the courtyard of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki. It was adjacent to the house where Kemal Ataturk was born and the press immediately blamed Romans, publishing photos that purported to show extensive damage.[1] Yet no Roman soul had been involved in the bombing. Instead (as demonstrated at the 1960/61 Yassiada trial) Turkish agents carried out the assault under orders from the Turkish government.[2]



Around 17:00 rioters were organised into groups – mostly recruited from the provinces by the Demokrat Parti – who successfully led mobs that devastated the Roman, Armenian and Jewish districts of Constantinople. They were armed with axes, crowbars, acetylene torches, petrol, dynamite and large numbers of rocks. Their mantra was

“Evvela mal, sonra can!”

(First your property, then your life!)



Meanwhile, though the Turkish militia and police were present, their function was not to keep the peace but to stop Turkish property coming under threat. As they stood by (in the enormous territorial triangle formed by the east tip of the Bosporus-Sariyar and Yeni Mahalle, as far as the Propontis-St. Stephan and the Isles) thirty-seven people died [3] – usually bludgeoned to death – two to three hundred Roman women were raped,[4] some boys too, many Greek men (including an Orthodox priest) were subjected to forced circumcision, and over five hundred million dollars of property was damaged (including the burning of over seventy churches, the desecration of the graves of the ecumenical patriarchs and smashing of the sacred vessels).[5] Leaders often carried portraits of Mehmet II and rejoiced in the pogrom as a natural (if violent) conclusion to the logic of the Valik Vergisi (1942-43), a Turkish confiscatory law which destroyed the economic bases of Romans and other minority communities.


To top it all off, after the population exchange there were roughly one hundred and ten thousand Romans in Turkey, most of them in Constantinople, Tenedos and Imbros. The majority, however, understood the pogrom as a warning shot across the bow and fled. Today, the Roman community – heirs of Byzantium – numbers little more than two thousand in the imperial city and five hundred on the two islands. Worse, most of the Romans were Greeks; a people who who had created the city in 668 BC; a folk who had continuously occupied the city for two-thousand-six-hundred-and-twenty-three years (one hundred and four generations) before suffering an end to their existence in little more than seven hours (19:00-02:00) in 1955.


[1] On 6 September Turkish newspapers carried headlines such as ‘‘Greek terrorists defile Ataturk’s birthplace.’’ On 7 September 1955 Turkish State Radio carried a broadcast that stated in part, ‘‘The criminal attack undertaken against the house of our dear Ataturk and our consulate in Salonika, added to the deep emotion created over a period of months in public opinion by the developments in connection with the question of Cyprus ... has provoked demonstrations on the part of large masses which have continued ... in Istanbul until late last night.’’ S. Vryonis, Mechanism of Catastrophe (2005), 118, 193.

[2] The agent provocateur in Thessaloniki, the student Oktay Engin, was acquitted at the Yassiada trial, and lived to occupy high positions in the Turkish state after the Istanbul pogrom. Ibid., 530.

[3] Ibid., 581–82 (Appendix B, ‘‘List of the Dead in the Pogrom’’). Thirty victims were identified – including a priest named Chrysanthos of Balikli – three unidentified bodies were dug out of destroyed shops, and three burned bodies were found in a sack in Besiktas.

[4] Ibid., 222. The estimates go as high as two thousand rapes. One of the most frequently mentioned cases of rape involved the Working Girls’ Hostel on the island of Buyukada (Prinkipo). List of victims were established by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and by the Greek consul general and, if anything, these were underreported thanks to the shame attached to the victims at the time.

[5] The Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul, in dispatch 139 (to Washington DC), reported that sixty-one churches, four monasteries, two cemeteries, and thirty-six Greek schools had been devastated. Ibid., 268. Between chapters 3 and 4 of the same book appear, inter alia, photos of the destroyed churches of Saint Constantine and Helen, Saint George Kyparissas, Saint Menat in Samatya, and Saint Theodoroi in Langa; the Church of the Metamorphosis; and the Panagia in Belgratkapi, as well as cemeteries and the open and desecrated tombs of the ecumenical patriarachs. Ibid., facing p. 288. These photographs of the destructions were taken by D. Kaloumenos and smuggled out of Turkey by the journalist G. Karagiorgas.

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