Istanbul, or Constantinople, is one of the world’s most well-known holiday destinations. Millions of foreign tourists visit this historic city to see its cultural heritage and scenic beauties. However, a large number of magnificent buildings in the city, such as homes, offices, palaces, hotels, museums, and even mosques (converted from churches), that are now used by Turks or Kurds previously belonged to either Christians or Jews. These properties changed “ownership” as they were seized by the government or private citizens throughout the previous decades. The transfer of properties from non-Muslims to Muslims is ongoing in Turkey.
On March 7, for instance, a short announcement was published in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet. Columnist Bahadir Ozgur brought it to the attention of the public in his column entitled “What is happening to the properties in Beyoglu?” on the news website Duvar.
According to Ozgur, the ad said that in a case held at an Istanbul court, those who had information about a citizen named Viktor Dimitriyades, who is of Greek origin, were asked to contact the authorities within 3 months. It was an “absence” announcement. In other words, since it cannot be determined whether Dimitriyades was still alive or not, his personality will be terminated by a judge’s decision. Prompting this announcement is the fact that he owned land in a neighborhood of Istanbul’s Beyoglu District.
“The land has been used as a park by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality for years. According to the announcement, it was leased from Mahmut Bedrettin Foundation. At the end of the lawsuit, the ownership will most likely pass to the same foundation,” Ozgur writes
Ozgur mentions another piece of property seized from Christians, which is an apartment in Istanbul built and originally owned by Armenians.
“In January, Istanbul’s Beyoglu Municipality requested authorization from the city’s council to restore and rent a 7-storey apartment at Mis Street, which is almost like an island in Taksim with its unique identity, culture and regulars,” writes Ozgur.
The building, whose real name is Martin Apartment, was built by two Armenians, Aram and Isak Karakas, in the early 1900s. Ozgur notes that “architects and art historians count it as one of the rare works that bear the influence of the 'Art Nouveau' movement with the organic flower and plant motifs on the façade.”
Ozgur then goes on to explain how the building's ownership “changed hands” several times:
In 2007, it became the property of Aksan Ak Construction Company first, and then of Akasya Alçi Maden production company. Both companies belonged to Ali Katircioglu, one of the founders of Kaynak Holding, and one of the closest persons to [US-based Muslim cleric] Fethullah Gülen. A trustee was appointed to the [Gulen-affiliated] Kaynak Holding by the government after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The apartment had first been used as a weekend school and then as a private high school. Last week, a court ordered the confiscation of the companies’ properties.
Such situations have been ongoing for decades. The Armenian-owned apartment in Istanbul, for instance, was passed down “first from the Armenians to the Turkish Republic administration, and from them to the Gülen community and eventually to the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party,” notes Ozgur.
The population of the Armenian community in Turkey was only about 40,000 in 2019. There are around 10,000 Jews and as few Assyrian Christians remaining in Turkey today. According to a 2005 news report, there were only 1,244 Greeks left in Istanbul at that time. Most reside in Istanbul, whose current population is around 15 million. But the indigenous non-Muslims in the country are on the verge of extinction. How did these communities “disappear” from Constantinople, a city built and ruled by indigenous Greeks for centuries?
Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians were first exposed to genocide in Ottoman Turkey from 1913 to 1923. The properties of the victims were seized either by the Turkish government or private citizens of Turkey. But the persecution against genocide survivors did not end even after the genocide. Policies of the Turkish Republic (which was founded in 1923) aimed to impoverish and eventually get rid of indigenous Christians and Jews, so that the economy of the country would be Muslim-dominated.
According to scholar Amy Mills,
Since the beginning of the republic, Turkey’s leaders wanted to increase the participation of Muslims in the economy and reduce minority influence in the economy, especially in Istanbul. Turkey’s economy was dominated by Greeks, Jews, and Armenians in trade, shipping, industry, the professions, and in banking.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Istanbul’s population was one million but only 44% of the population was Muslim. Public services were dominated by Muslims, but only 15% of people working in trade were Muslim.
During the teens and early 1920s, boycotts against non-Muslim businesses and the expulsion of minorities from hundreds of jobs where they had dominated resulted in thousands of non-Muslims leaving Istanbul. By 1929, 70,000 non-Muslim people had left Turkey.
In 1922, the National Turkish Trade Association was founded to determine which businesses were Turkish. The association discovered that 97% of the import-export trade in Istanbul, and all shops, stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers in Beyoglu, were owned by minorities. This survey was a precursor to actions taken with the aim of Turkifying the city’s economy; in 1923, non-Muslims were expelled from trading jobs and insurance companies. In 1924 minorities were barred from service jobs, bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, as well as trades such as boat captain, fisherman, and streetcar driver, jobs previously dominated by non-Muslims. In 1934 a law identified further minority-dominated professions to be prohibited to foreigners.
In 1942, the Turkish government enacted the Wealth Tax Law as a way of removing Armenians, Greeks, and Jews from Turkey’s economy. Those who could not pay the tax were sent to labor camps or deported, or their properties were seized by the government. According to historian Corry Guttstadt:
Many families were forced to sell their shops and businesses, their houses, even their carpets, furniture, and other household articles, to raise the tax money. Some people committed suicide in despair.
On September 6-7, 1955, the Greeks of Istanbul became the target of a government-led pogrom, in which Armenians and Jews were also victimized. Turks attacked everything belonging to Greeks: homes, businesses, churches, cemeteries and schools, among others. A British journalist reported that the Greek neighborhoods of Istanbul “looked like the bombed parts of London during the Second World War.” The savagery of the mobs created such an atmosphere of fear that, following the pogrom, tens of thousands of Greeks left Turkey.
In 1964, Greeks in Istanbul -- including the disabled, the elderly and the infirm -- became victims of a mass expulsion at the hands of the Turkish government. The deportees were given 12 hours to leave Turkey, and were only permitted to take 20 kilograms [44 lbs.] of possessions and the equivalent of $20 with them, leaving behind the rest of their property, much of which was then confiscated by the Turkish state and private citizens. In the aftermath of the deportation, many members of Greek Orthodox communities outside Istanbul also left the country, bringing the total to 45,000, according to researcher Salih Erturan.
In the 1970s, the Turkish government continued seizing Christian properties. In 1975, for instance, the Turkish state implemented yet another plan based on a government policy from 1936 during which the government ordered all minority charitable foundations to list their assets and properties. Author Raffi Bedrosyan writes:
During the height of the Cyprus crisis in 1975, the state arbitrarily legislated that any properties that were obtained by minority charitable foundations after 1936 through donations, inheritance, wills, and gifts, were deemed illegal, since they had not been listed in the 1936 Declaration.
Bedrosyan notes that this illogical legislation paved the way to the “legalized but unlawful seizure, or state robbery.” He continues:
Armenian properties [were] lost in Istanbul, mainly during the 1970's, with the illogical but legal argument that if the charitable foundations had obtained properties after 1936, they would be deemed illegal because they had not been included in the 1936 Declaration. But the extent of this gross injustice would pale in comparison when we consider the amount of seized or lost Armenian properties after 1915, not only in Istanbul, but all over Anatolia, especially in historic Armenia.
When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, its constitution did not classify non-Muslims as “dhimmis” or second-class citizens of the country. According to its constitution, Turkey is secular. However, non-Muslims have enjoyed neither the right to life nor property rights since the founding of the country.
Apparently, even after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the discriminatory -- but non-official – “dhimmi” status of non-Muslims has continued in Turkey. Consequently, indigenous populations along with their properties and cultural heritage have been almost completely wiped out from the country.