one-way rivalry

Istanbul Travel Blog

 › entry 6 of 14 › view all entries
As I was traveling through Greece before coming to Turkey, I was repeatedly chided for wanting to come here.  I knew Greeks and Turks weren't the best of buddies, but I was still surprised at the amount of lingering animosity felt by many Greeks toward Turkey.  Numerous times, when I told people I was on my way to Istanbul to visit an good friend from university, I was politely 'corrected':  "No, no, no, not Istanbul... It's Constantonopouli" (making me want to quote They Might Be Giants in reply).  The capstone came during my stay on Mt. Athos, when one guy (who was admittedly a couple gyros short of a greek picnic) warned me against spending any time at all in Turkey, because almost all Turks 'practice black magic' and/or 'worship demons'.

Then I arrived in Turkey, and nobody's really had a bad thing to say about Greece (despite my goading in the form of repeating what I had heard from the mouths of Greeks).  The only example I can think of is watching Efes Pilsen (one of Turkey's top basketball teams) play Panathanaikos (one of Greece's), while my Turkish friends were going nuts for Efes.  Although the game had maybe slightly more meaning because it was against a Greek team, I'll attibrute most of the display to sporting passion, since most Turks (at least my friends) are fanatic supporters of their favorite teams and will almost without exception support any Turkish team (even a hated domestic rival) against foreign competition.

Apart from it possibly being a function of the people I've happened to meet in both countries, there are a few reasonable explanations for the disproportionate extent of the Greece-Turkey rivalry.  The first is that everything is relative: as Emre pointed out, when you share borders with such fine, upstanding nations as Iraq, Iran and Syria, you're not going to be to terribly inclined to complain about Greece as a neighbour.  Apart from Turkey, Greece's options for #1 cross-border rival are the oh-so-intimidating Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria (although it's not terrifically friendly with any).  The second is a geo-political reality: Turkey has a population of over 70 million (not to mention one of the largest standing armies in the world), approximately 7 times larger than Greece.  There's an old quote from some Turkish army general:  "[When we invade Greece] I'll drink a coffee in [Thessaloniki], and burp in Athens".  Although NATO and the EU might have something to say about it, and Israel is certainly proof that a larger army doesn't guarantee victory in conventional warfare, most Turks seem to feel that if it ever came to out and out war with Greece, they don't have much to worry about.  I think Greeks, whether they'll admit it or not, feel slightly threatened by Turkey.  Third, and maybe most most significant, are various historical factors.  While in Greece, I noticed a definite bitterness toward the course of history, as if it was decidedly unfair that one of the superpowers of the ancient world and cradles of western civilization should be reduced to a small and comparatively insignificant modern nation. One of the main reasons for this tremendous indignity (at least as perceived by Greeks justifiably proud of their storied history) is the long suffering of Greece at the hands of the Turks, in the form of the Ottoman Empire.  The lingering animosity of Greeks toward the Turkish oppressors of their past is therefore not that dissimilar to that felt by Poles toward Germans, or Koreans toward Japanese, except in this case older and arguably more deeply rooted.  Turks, on the other hand, have historically been the conquerors rather than the conquered, and so aren't terribly bitter toward any particular nation or people.  In addition, one of the legacies of the Ottoman Empire in modern Turkey is that of multi-culturalism and tolerance. The ancestors of many Turks were from northern Greece, Albania, Romania, or other areas formerly within the Ottoman borders; they came to modern Turkey either during the times of Ottoman Empire or shortly after its fall, and brought many of their local customs with them, gradually infusing them into what has become modern Turkish culture.
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Istanbul
photo by: Memo