The telegram with reference number FO 371/5190 from National Archives UK is a petition signed by Greek and Armenian church representatives on January 29, 1920. The document is significant for discussing cultural nationalism and collective memory from the perspective of the primarily Greek Orthodox Community during the Occupation of Istanbul which lasted from 1918 to 1923. A copy of the document is currently being exhibited at the “Occupied City: Politics and Daily Life in Istanbul, 1918–1923” exhibition held at the Istanbul Research Institute. Having been addressed to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (office 1916–1922), the document conveys the complaints of the Greek and Armenian communities against the Muslim-dominated municipal council of Istanbul and on the status of appropriated buildings originally belonging to these communities. This essay aims to evaluate the aforementioned document based on its importance in showing how the legacy of nationalist movements which began to form in the 18th century continued to influence the Orthodox population of occupied Istanbul and in which way the minorities expressed their identity through material culture.
The document possesses nine pages written in French as contemporary lingua franca. The text is composed in the form of a one-page telegram addressed to David Lloyd George followed by more than a hundred stamps and signatures of the church, social club, and school representatives. The analysis of stamps provides rich information about the locations and foundation dates of the now-lost institutions.
The text bears significant points regarding the political and ideological mentality of the period. The first complaint arises against the exclusion of the Greek and Armenian population of Constantinople in the city council led by Mayor Cemil (Topuzlu) Pasha. It is known that this issue of unfair representation has long been a source of debate and protest among the predominantly Greek population since the early 20th century (Hanioğlu 152). As a result of this representation issue, the magnates of minority communities state that they do not recognize the decisions that have been made in the council. Representatives base their right to political visibility on three topics: first, the initial “Hellenic and Christian character of the city”; second, the presence of a substantial Greek and Armenian population that continued to exist after “years-long slavery”; third, the monuments which Turkish administrators appropriated to justify their presence among these communities. They further request the return of the Orthodox churches that were converted into mosques by the “vandalism of Turan” to their “authentic owners”. The representatives later assured that they would take care of these monuments, which contain the “desecrated graves of the emperor-kings and the remains of those of patriarchs who were not drowned or hanged”, in the way Ottomans preserved the tombs of their Sultans. This aggressive yet sentimental passage has deep meanings to decode in a historical context.
First, the line “desecrated graves of the emperor-kings” can be interpreted as a reference to the Ottoman policy of converting churches into mosques. The first instances of this policy are traced back to the reign of Mehmed II with the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The other major contemporary event was the construction of the Fatih Mosque over the demolished 6th century Holy Apostles Church, a church which was known for being the burial place of various Byzantine emperors over centuries (Magdalino 136-7). This instance can be surely interpreted as an ideological move by Mehmed II during the transformation of the city into an Ottoman capital. Mehmed II’s approach against Christian monuments was relatively moderate considering his decision to grant the property rights of these monuments to the Christian community (Kritovoulos 94-5; Runciman 170). However, the successors of Mehmed II are known to tighten this policy and convert more churches into mosques, inclining the absence of written agreements. Having claimed that the written agreements had been burnt in the fire at the Patriarchate, the Greek lawyer Xenakis tried to persuade Selim I in the presence of three janissaries giving oath for witnessing Mehmed II granting these monuments to the Greek community (Runciman 189). The conversion of Orthodox churches continued in the reigns of Süleyman I, Selim II, and Murad III. It is apparent that the issue of conversion remained a subject of discontent throughout the centuries. The acclamation of these monuments in the 20th century as a part of collective identity appears to be highly influenced by the formation of Greek nationality in the 18th century. Throughout the progress of intellectual theorization of Greek nationality, the primarily rejected narrative of historical continuity between ancient Greece and Byzantine civilizations started to gain acceptance in the 19th century with the efforts of historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos (Seirinidou 82; Christodoulou 234).
The second part of the sentence which mentions “drowned or hanged patriarchs” was related to more recent events which began with the Greek War of Independence. During the war, it was reported that several ecclesiastics with treason allegations were executed by the Ottoman State (Karabıçak 92). The most famous among these cases are the executions of Patriarch Gregory V and the Archbishop of Cyprus. In the Patriarch Gregory V’s case, the execution can be considered a consequence of the Ottoman State’s disappointment in his incapability to stop the resistance in Morae (Karabıçak 92). The executions and imprisonments also concerned some of the Greek nobilities such as the Soutsos faction of the Phanariot community (Karabıçak 95). The memory of these events can still be read between the lines of the document subject to this essay. It is also notable that the language of the document does not resonate a revenge but with a need for equality in representation.
To conclude, the document FO 371/5190 from National Archives UK bears importance as it portrays Istanbul’s Orthodox communities’ political demands and ideological agenda during the years of Occupation. A careful reading of the document reveals details regarding the centuries-old issue of the appropriated Christian monuments and the events triggered by the Greek War of Independence. To obtain equal political representation in the municipal council, the justification of Orthodox communities’ existence as irreplaceable components of the city, shows the remnants of a collective memory of a community on the threshold of great dispersal.
Christodoulou, Despina. “Making Byzantium a Greek Presence: Paparrigopoulos and Koumanoudes Review the Latest History Books”. Héritages de Byzance en Europe du Sud-Est à l’époque moderne et contemporaine. Edited by Delouis, Olivier, et al. École française d’Athènes, Athens, 2013.
Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire. Princeton University Press, 2008.
Karabıçak, Yusuf Ziya. “Making Sense of an Execution: Patriarch Gregory V between the Sublime Porte and the Patriarchate.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, vol. 47, no. 1, 2023, pp. 85–102., doi:10.1017/byz.2022.26.
Kritovoulos. History of Mehmed the Conqueror. Princeton University Press, 2019.
Magdalino, Paul. “Around and About the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.” The Holy Apostles: A Lost Monument, a Forgotten Project, and the Presentness of the Past. Edited by Mullett, Margaret, et al. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC, 2020.
Runciman, Steven. The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1968.
Seirinidou, Vaso. “Communities.” The Greek Revolution: A Critical Dictionary. Edited by Paschalis M. Kitromilides, and Constantinos Tsoukalas. Harvard University Press, New York, 2021.
Cemre Melis Yordamlı
Koç University, Department of History
 I would like to thank Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal for his help with the document and Assoc. Prof. Alexis Sergei Rappas for his suggestions.