The Historical Background of the Greek-Asia Minor Diaspora

 by Spero Matthews


Beginning of Greeks in Asia Minor

The earliest presence of Greek civilization in the land that is now Turkey was around 3,000 years ago or 1,000 BC. Mainland Greeks called the land on the eastern shore of Turkey Asia Minor and Anatolia (the other land). Greek civilization began with the Minoans on the island of Crete and Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland. The Trojan War of 1,200 BC was fought by the invading Mycenaean Greeks against non-Greek Trojans in the NW corner of the Turkish mainland at the mouth of the Dardanelles, the strait leading to the Black Sea and modern Istanbul. What paved the way for the Greeks to come to Asia Minor was the fall of nearly all the Bronze Age empires and civilizations. They were swept away around 1,200 BC from a combination of barbarian invasions from the north and economic collapse. Included in this list were the Hittites who had been a dominant power in Turkey up to that point.


For the next 400 years a “Dark Age” descended on Greece. Around 800 BC the Greek world recovered to the point that a wave of migration out of Greece occurred due to population pressures sending mainland Greeks colonizing the Aegean coast of Turkey. Greeks spread out across the Mediterranean as well. A number of colonies were established during the centuries before the Golden Age of Greece, 800 BC to 500 BC marking the beginning of what is commonly considered Western civilization. From this vantage point on the western most perch of the Asian continent, the Greeks there benefited by contacts with the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and other Middle Eastern civilizations. Soon the Greek settlements along the Aegean coast flourished and great innovators such as Homer, Thales, Protagoras, and Herodotus hailed from this coast, a crossroad of the most advanced societies in the Mediterranean.


The Persians from modern day Iran conquered most of the Middle East and Egypt around 500-600 BC. They came into contact with the Greek colonies in Asia Minor and conquered them as well. The Asia Minor Greeks appealed to the mainland Greeks to help them break free of Persian domination. Athens sent an army that burned Sardis, the Asia Minor capitol, and the Persians vowed to conquer the mainland Greeks as well. After two attempts the Persians were defeated. Asia Minor struggled against the Persians until Alexander conquered the Persians and swept up the cities of Asia Minor as well. Asia Minor cities benefited from the period of Hellenism, Ephesus, Pergamum, Halicarnassus.



Asia Minor was the destination of the first missionaries. Paul wrote most of his epistles to places in the Greek world and Asia Minor in particular — the Ephesians, Galatians, and Colossians. The Asia Minor Greeks were the first non-Jewish converts. Greek slaves and former slaves were drawn to the new monotheistic religion that offered them affiliation and supported the poor even. The first bible was written in Greek and the Old Testament was translated into Greek for the early Christians. Early church theological ideas originated in large part from Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. The first Christian council, Nicaea in 325 AD was located in Asia Minor. Many of the attendants were from Asia Minor including St Nicholas (Santa Claus) of Myra. It could be said that the Christian heartland was once Asia Minor.


Under Romans

After the death of Alexander, the Great, the Hellenistic kingdoms (successor to Alexander, the Great’s empire) came in contact and gradually fell to Rome’s power. Asia Minor was the most populous and richest part of the empire. During the period of the Roman civil wars, when Rome moved from a Republic to an Empire, Asia Minor’s provinces were a favorite source of wealth and manpower and were pillaged frequently. Under the first two centuries of empire, Greek-speaking Asia Minor became prosperous and benefited from a period of peace. The Greek cities enjoyed imperial largess, with new temples and donated civic works by several emperors.


By the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire had become too difficult to manage and Rome was no longer considered an adequate capital. A second capital, Constantinople, was built by an Asia Minor born emperor, Constantine the Great, and thereafter the empire was split administratively and two emperors ruled jointly — one at Rome ruling the western half of the empire and at Constantinople the eastern half.


The creation of Constantinople was also an acknowledgement that the Greek-speaking half of the empire had grown more populous, wealthy and stable than the vulnerable western half with restive Germanic tribes on the borders. Also the city of Constantinople was geographically strategic and highly defensible.



The Eastern half of the Roman Empire survived the German barbarian onslaught of the 4th and 5th centuries that destroyed the Western portion of the empire. Roman emperors continued to rule in the East with the capital at Constantinople for the next thousand years. Where the western empire was carved up into Germanic kingdoms, the eastern half of the empire continued to fend off one barbarian invasion after invasion. The one spot on earth with the most battles fought over time is ground outside the Theodosian walls of Constantinople.


After the fall of Rome, emperors in Constantinople considered themselves Roman-speaking Latin ruling over an essentially Greek-speaking population. Justinian in the 500s finally recognized this fact by reverting to the use of Greek as the main language in the Eastern Empire.


Justinian expanded the Eastern Roman empire. He built the Aghia Sophia, the largest church for 1000 years until St. Peters in Rome was built. He codified Roman laws that became the basis of Western legal tradition. He attempted to and to some extent succeeded in re-conquering the Western Roman Empire from the barbarian successor kingdoms in the West— all of North Africa, some of Spain, most of Italy, including Rome, but later waves of Germanic barbarians reversed these conquests.


Constantinople became fabulously wealthy becoming the middleman between East and West. Important trade routes included the Silk Road, north to Russia, south to Arabia and Africa with principal entrepôts such as Venice and ports of north Black sea. Asia Minor benefited from this period of prosperity.


Arab Invasions

Arab tribes poured out of what is now Saudi Arabia and finding a moment of weakness in the Middle East as wars between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire exhausted both empires. The Arabs conquered the Middle East, Persia and swept west as far as France in the 700s. This Arab empire became known as the Caliphate, the inspiration to present day ISIS in Syria. This opened a period of instability in Asia Minor as Arabs used the Middle East as a staging ground to launch raids and invasions into Asia Minor, destroying cities and disrupting trade.


Although the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as Byzantium, lasted 1,000 years beyond the fall of Rome, these years were marked by a slow decline mixed with revivals and re-births. Most of the history consists of successive barbarian waves coming out of Central Asia, and Constantinople buying off, fighting, or out maneuvering each new group. Many times a barbarian horde fought their way to the city only to be frustrated by the Theodosius walls built in the 400s that withstood all assaults.


The decline of the Byzantine Empire began with the loss of the Middle East and North Africa to the Arabs in the 600s leaving present day Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. Then in 1054 Seljuk Turkish invaders defeated the Byzantine army in the middle of Asia Minor and captured the emperor. Asia Minor began a slow painful Islamization as these invaders raided Christian towns and cities, conquering, and reducing Byzantine territory. Christians began converting to Islam as a way to avoid the special tax imposed on Christians and to avoid depredations of the Central Asian marauders.


The Byzantine emperor, Alexis Comenius, requested help from the Western Christian kings and knights to fight the Turks. But what the Byzantines got instead was the Crusades. The Western crusaders had a different agenda than Alexis Comenius expected, they conquered the Holy Land further south and by 1204 the crusaders turned on the Byzantines jealous of their wealth and took Constantinople. This was the first time the city had ever fallen.


The empire was split between Western kings and adventurers. When the Greeks took back the city seventy years later Byzantium was no longer a major power. And finally the city proved powerless against the next threat — the Ottoman Turks who finally conquered the city in 1453.


Turkish Rule

The Ottoman Turks borrowed heavily from the Byzantine tradition and structures. The Greeks themselves soon became part of the power structure of a polyglot empire that extended up to the gates of Vienna and the shores of Italy. Greeks became prominent in the military and became wealthy merchants under the Turks.


But the Greek presence in Asia Minor shrank as conversions intensified; the Turks levied a poll tax on Christians but not Muslims. Also many Christians found opportunity in converting to Islam, giving them access to positions not afforded to Christians. Also, Christians were disadvantaged in ways that encouraged their conversions — Christians could not own horses, which prevented them from working land. Also for the first centuries, the Turks created a military elite by forcible drafting of first-born Christian males in certain parts of the empire. Then there was the legal system, where Christians were second-class citizens under Ottoman law compared to Muslims. Christian women had a surefire way to divorce — convert to Islam and the law prevented you from being married to a Christian. Also the sultan regarded all his subjects as his slaves to do with as he pleased. There was no bill of rights in this country.


Greeks did continue to thrive in certain areas of Asia Minor, the Pontic region of modern day Turkey, cities on the coast such as Smyrna, Trebizond and then Constantinople. The Phanar quarter in the city was the center of prominent Greek families who filled important posts throughout the empire. One set of families were even given Romania (Wallachia) to rule as an almost franchise since the Turks had no interest to run it themselves. Several high-ranking Turks and admirals were formerly Greek or born Greek or had Greek mothers.


Since it was difficult to live as Greek Christian in a Muslim land, you had to be a merchant, a trader, to have a skill to be well off enough to pay the tax. There were not many poor Christian Greek families. The temptation to convert to Islam and enjoy access to jobs, positions and the benefit of a friendlier law were too great. A word was used to describe a lapsed Greek Christian was a “Crypto-Christian.” The family’s father would convert for some economic gain while the mother and children remained Christian.


Greek independence in 1821 liberated only part of mainland Greece, leaving the majority of Greeks still under Turkish rule. From 1821 on, Greeks in the Turkish government began to lose favor and in some cases the monopolies they had enjoyed. The Turks no longer trusted them.


Despite a decline in Asia Minor’s trade after the discovery of new routes to Asia in the 1400s, it still was astride an important trade route. Smyrna was the second most important city in the Ottoman Empire after Constantinople. In the early 1800s it was perhaps the most important trading city for the early American republic. Merchant ships went directly to Smyrna for a variety of goods including carpets out of the Middle East. It was so important that America fought a war with the Barbary pirates to secure this trade route since its ships had to pass the long North African coast to get to Smyrna.


Road to Catastrophe

Turkey in the 1800s continued to be an empire of mixed nationalities and peoples. But this began to change when Turkey began to fall behind Western Europe militarily, economically, and socially. Foreign powers began to encroach on its territory in the Balkans until the Balkan wars of 1912, relegated the Ottoman’s to a small square piece of territory in Europe from Adrianople to Constantinople. Wars with an aggressive Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottomans lost lands in the Black Sea and Caucasus areas. In this painful contraction streams of displaced Muslims migrated to the remaining areas of Turkey, mostly Asia Minor, and became a destabilizing force into the late 1800s, terrorizing Christian towns.


Before the turn of the 1st millennium a pair of Eastern Orthodox priests converted Russia to Christianity. With fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Moscow considered itself the successor to Constantinople and then in the 19th century the Russians proclaimed themselves defenders of the Christians in the Turkish Empire. Russia often went to war in support of Christians oppressed by the Turks. In mid-1800s Turkey was encouraged to the point of being forced by the Western powers to reform and this meant changing their treatment of Christian subjects. The Turks and the Sultan resented this intrusion. The Christians began to be viewed as a disloyal element in the empire and potentially dangerous.


The next step toward the catastrophe for the Asia Minor Greeks was the Balkan wars of 1912. Turkey lost the rest of its European territory in a war that pitted the Christian countries of Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia against a weak Turkey. More Turkish Muslims streamed into a shrunken Ottoman empire. The Turkish government in the 1890s began a plan of forcing out Christians. The first pogroms began in the Pontus region on the southern shore of the Black Sea.


The final act in the downward spiral was World War I (WWI). Greece stayed out of the war at first due to its German Royal family, and at first so did Turkey. The Germans convinced the Turks to join them. This pitted them against the Russians and British. The war went badly for the Turks; whole armies vanished in the snows of the Caucasus fighting the Russians and in the desert sands against the British.


The Turks under the encouragement of the Germans decided that both the Christian Armenians on the border with Russia and the Greeks now represented a danger to the Turkish war effort and had to be dealt with. While up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in 1915, the 600,000 Pontic Greeks were suffering the same fate. In 1915 General Liman Von Sanders of the German Army as an advisor helped plan and round up thousands of Greeks on the Aegean coast, deporting them to labor camps in the interior of Turkey. The catastrophe had already begun.


Greece finally entered the war on the allied side but did little fighting against anyone much less the Turks. Only at the Treaty of Paris did a brilliant Greek statesman Venizelos make up for his country’s poor showing in the war by managing to get a major land concessions in a dissolving Ottoman Turkish empire. Although all the allies got spoils from Turkey’s defeat as Germany’s ally — the French received Syria, Italy got Southern Turkey, Britain got Palestine and part of Northern Turkey, Armenia became a nation, and the Kurds attempted to win their own country, and Greece got a territory around Smyrna where the majority of Ottoman Greeks resided.


The Greeks attempted to occupy the territory they were given, but the Turks, though defeated in the war, were rallied by the successful young Turkish general, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to dislodge each of the occupying powers in turn. As Greece fought to retain its foothold in Asia Minor, the emerging nation of Turkey under Ataturk waged a successful defense, and a full Greco-Turkish War erupted in 1919 involving hundreds of thousands of troops.  Greece was too small to sustain such a war across the Aegean Sea, and its allies Britain and France provided no help. The Greek Army overreached into the Asia Minor heartland, beyond Smyrna, and their fragile supply lines coupled with insane politics involving a murderous septic monkey, a communist takeover, and lagging enthusiasm for the war, sealed the defeat of the Greek Army and victory for the Turks in 1922.


When the Greek army was routed and fled for the coast, Ataturk gave a two-week ultimatum that all Greeks had to leave Turkey or be killed. As a result of the retreat of the Greek army, the burning of Smyrna and massacre of tens of thousands of Greeks ensued. A desperate evacuation from Smyrna of the several hundred thousand Ottoman citizens who were Greek, took place while some allies helped and others did not.


In the end the Treaty of Paris was torn up and a new treaty re-written by the Turks with Allied consent provided for a swap of populations of remaining Asia Minor Greeks with Muslims who lived in Greece. A few groups were identified as Greek, but who did not speak Greek, and Greeks who happened to be Muslim were uprooted for the sake of this agreement. By the time of the official transfer only 150,000 out of original 1,200,000 Asia Minor Greeks were actually transferred. The Greek population had fled or been killed. One exception was the 250,000 Greeks living in Constantinople who were permitted to stay. But ultimately even that population was whittled away over time by Turkish neglect, more pogroms, and outright policy.


Over 600,000 Greeks immigrated to the US during the early 20th century as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and through the end of World War I, when the Greek Army’s invasion of Turkey ended in defeat; referred to by Greeks as “The Catastrophe.” To protect the newly formed Turkish nation from further foreign threats, Kemal Ataturk demanded the expulsion of all Christians. He gave Christian Greek citizens of his country two weeks to leave. Most of the fleeing Greeks from Asia Minor went to Greece, to Athens and Salonika. While quotas for immigration to the United States (US) had been open and robust during the earlier decades of the 20th century — as the Asia Minor refugees’ plight became more desperate, US immigration quotas shrank. In order for the expelled Asia Minor Greeks to enter the US they needed sponsorship by relatives in the US. Among the last Greek refugees to enter the US from Turkey were women who came as brides, promised to Greek-American men they had never met.


Currently, there are no more than a few hundred Greeks living in Turkey. Nevertheless, The Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, resides in Istanbul and continues as the nominal head of the global Greek Orthodox Church. The Turkish government threatens to forbid the replacement of the Patriarch when he dies demanding that all Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs located in Constantinople must be born in Turkey.