Are the Rums returning to their city?
The taxi driver that picked me up from the Beşiktaş pier assured me he knew the address: “Şişli Rum-Orthodox cemetery.” “You mean the big wall, opposite Cevahir Shopping Mall?” We drove up the steep hill of Akaretler but were stuck a long time in traffic. The driver had second thoughts about the address and started tapping on the traffic application on his tablet. The automatic voice told him to take another side road, which he did. We went through narrow side streets and got stuck several more times. Eventually we arrived at the wrong gate, the Armenian Orthodox cemetery. The driver found a good excuse: “Armenians, Rums, same thing. Yours must be near there,” he said and then he sighed: “There is no difference … We are all children of one God.”
Eventually, I had to walk quite a distance to find the right gate for the historic Greek-Orthodox cemetery, apparently the largest in the Middle East. Part of a huge plot of non-Muslim cemeteries, the place for Istanbul’s Rums is a 40-acre piece of land where more than eighty thousand Istanbul Rums as well as Russians and other Christian Orthodox minorities have been interred since it was founded in 1859, when the Rums of Istanbul were the most populous and the richest non-Muslim community of the city.
The reason for my trip to the cemetery last Saturday was to shoot a TV story, one day before the official re-opening of the cemetery chapel referred to as Metamorphosis, after four years of restoration. When I arrived, the work was still ongoing. Workers were busy taking down the wooden scaffolding inside and outside the chapel where for four years, they have been trying to restore this 19th century magnificent building to it is original state. It was a gift by the powerful “Galata” banker Zanni Stefanovic Schilizzi in memory of his parents. The chapel’s priest told me that the work was difficult for both the workers and the architects, as years of wear and tear plus acts of vandalism had left their deep marks.
Equally difficult and demanding was the restoration work for the old funerary monuments. Some of them, marble statues, crosses, vaults, ornate sepulchers erected by the powerful and rich Greek families of the late Ottoman period, had suffered serious mutilation during the September 1955 pogrom against the Istanbul Greeks and other non-Muslims. Experts and students from the Fine Arts School of Athens Polytechnic had also participated in the restoration work.
The works finished last Saturday, the bad memories were dusted away and the white marbled monuments now look unscathed. Hundreds of Rums, today mostly living in Athens, as well as the remaining members of the small Istanbul Greek community gathered here yesterday for the official ceremony of “thyranoixia,” (literally the opening of the doors of the church) by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos. Everyone was happy that a duty that had to be fulfilled was completed. From now on, the Istanbul Rums will continue to bury their dead in this magnificent walled plot of historical monuments against a background of shopping malls, skyscrapers and high faceless buildings. Some of the new inhabitants of the city would probably be unaware of what these walls hide from their eyes.
Recently, there has been a renewed discussion in the Turkish media claiming the Istanbul Rums are returning to their city. I think it is mostly wishful thinking by those who would like them back. Indeed, some do return to their country of birth to escape a Greece of continuous economic crisis. Most of them are retired and had never cut off their relations with their city. But certainly, there has not been a “repatriation” wave of Istanbul Greeks. It would be nice if there was. But until such time, the remaining Istanbul Rums, seem determined to preserve their culture and history and honor their dead. Or, as they had told me while showing me the restored graves in the Şişli cemetery, “our dead will die only when we forget them.”