Greco-Turkish relations

Relations between Greece and Turkey have been marked by mutual hostility ever since Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. Since then there have been four wars between the two countries - the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913, the First World War (1914 to 1918) and the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922). In addition, the two countries have come close to war several times since, most recently in the late 1990s.


Ottoman era

The Greek state which became independent in 1832 consisted only of the Greek mainland south of a line from Arta to Volos plus Euboia and the Cyclades. The rest of the Greek-speaking lands, including Crete and the rest of the Aegean islands, Epirus, Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace, remained under Ottoman rule. More than a million Greeks also lived in what is now Turkey, mainly in the Ionian region around İzmir (called Smyrna by its Greek inhabitants) and in the Pontic region on the Black Sea coast.

Greek politicians of the 19th century were determined to obtain all these territories for a greatly enlarged Greek state, with Constantinople as its capital. This was called the Great Idea (Megali Idea). The Ottomans naturally opposed these plans, and relations between Greece and the Ottoman state were always tense as a result. Greek nationalist feeling was aroused by regular nationalist revolts against Ottoman rule, particularly in Crete, which the Ottomans suppressed with considerable brutality.

During the Crimean War (1854 to 1856), Britain and France had to restrain Greece from attacking the Ottomans, by occupying Piraeus. Again during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 the Greeks were keen to join in and liberate Greek lands from the Ottomans, but Greece was too poor and weak to take any real part in the war. Nevertheless the Congress of Berlin in 1881 gave Greece most of Thessaly and part of Epirus.

In 1897 a new revolt in Crete led to the first Greco-Turkish War. The Greeks were unable to dislodge the Ottomans from their fortifications along the northern border and the war ended in humiliation for Greece, with some small losses of territory. This war aroused Turkish nationalist sentiment within the Ottoman Empire and made the position of Greeks in the Empire worse.

The Young Turks, who seized power in the Ottoman Empire in 1908, were Turkish nationalists whose objective was to create a strong, centrally governed state. The Christian minorities, the Greeks and Armenians, saw their position in the Empire deteriorate. Crete was once again the flashpoint of Greek and Turkish nationalism. This led directly to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, in which Greece seized Crete, the islands, the rest of Thessaly and Epirus, and coastal Macedonia from the Ottomans, in alliance with Serbia and Bulgaria.

The First World War and after

Greece entered the First World War with the intention of seizing Constantinople and Smyrna from the Ottomans, with the encouragement of Britain and France, who also promised the Greeks Cyprus. Although there was little direct fighting between Greeks and Turks, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 the Greeks were quick to claim the lands the Allies had promised them. The Treaty of Sèvres (1920) gave Greece eastern Thrace and a large area of western Anatolia around Smyrna. This Treaty, however, was never legally ratified.

Greece occupied Smyrna on May 15th 1919. Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) landed in Samsun on May 19th 1919, this is regarded as the beginning of the War of Asia Minor. Kemal established a nationalist movement to repel the armies that had occupied Turkey (including Italy, France and Britain) and establish new borders for a sovereign Turkish nation. Having created a separate government in Ankara, Kemals government did not recognise the Treaty of Sevres which the Sultans government accepted, and fought to have it revoked. The Greek advances into Anatolia were eventually checked and the Greek army was forced into retreat.

The Turks reoccupied Asia Minor and entered Smyrna on 9 September 1922. The Greek army and administration had already left by sea and the city was undefended. Many Greeks feared Turkish reprisals for actions that British High Commisioner Sir H. Rumbold described to Lord Curzon as acts of "bestiality and barbarity" commited by the Greek army. Their retreat involved a scorched earth policy, this left large tracts of land and property ruined or destroyed. The burning of crops left the inhabitants of Smyrna close to starvation. With the possibility of social disorder once the Turkish army occupied Smyrna, Kemal was quick to issue a proclamation, sentencing any Turkish soldier to death who harmed non-combatants.

Feelings ran high however, many Turkish soldiers massacred Greek and Armenians. An American observer estimated the total deaths, from all causes, to be around 2,000 people. Some sources accuse the Turkish commander Nureddin Pasha of playing a direct role in the violence, others show the fighting to be of a sporadic and individual kind. During the hostility, a fire had left Smyrna devastated. The cause of the fire is disputed, some accounts say it was started by Turkish troops who were looting Armenian shops. Others believe the fire to have escalated beyond control with Turks and Armenians creating fires to exact retribution, while a strong wind carried the flames across flimsily constructed buildings.

In the wake of this conflict there was a violent reaction against the Greek communities throughout Turkey, who were seen as disloyal since they identified more with their Greek heritage and Greece than Turkey. Ethnic minorities in Turkey suffered lootings and massacres. To end this situation, the Treaty of Lausanne of July 1923 provided for an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. About a million Greeks left Turkey for Greece and about half a million Turks left Greece for Turkey. The exceptions to the population exchange were Constantinople, where the Greek minority (including the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church) was allowed to stay, and the eastern part of Greek Thrace, whose Turkish minority was also allowed to stay. Due to the failure of the invasion and the heavy loss of life, Greece refers to the events following World War I as the Asia Minor Catastrophe/Disaster.

Between conflicts

The postwar leaders of Turkey and Greece, Kemal Atatürk and Eleftherios Venizelos, were determined to establish normal relations between the two states. After years of negotiations, a treaty was concluded in 1930, and Venizelos made a successful visit to Constantinople and Ankara. Greece renounced all its claims to Turkish territory. This was followed by the Balkan Pact of 1934, in which Greece and Turkey joined Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Romania and Albania in a treaty of mutual assistance and settled outstanding issues (Bulgaria refused to join). Both leaders recognising the need for peace resulted in more friendly relations, with Venizelos even nominating Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934.

The main irritant to Turkish-Greek relations was now Cyprus, a British protectorate whose population was 80 percent Greek and 20 percent Turkish. The Greek Cypriots desired unity (enosis) with Greece, and in 1931 there were nationalist riots in Nicosia. The Turks opposed this, desiring that the British stay in Cyprus indefinitely. The Greek government was forced by its financial and diplomatic dependence on Britain to disavow any desire for unification with Cyprus.

During World War II Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany while Turkey remained neutral. The Greeks suffered terrible privations in the last years of the war. In 1954 Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia formed a new Balkan Pact for mutual defence against the Soviet Union.

The Cyprus crisis

Main article: Cyprus dispute

In the 1950s the Cyprus issue flared up again, with the Greek Cypriots under Archbishop Makarios demanding union with Greece, and the EOKA group launching a guerilla movement against the British in the island. At first the Greek government gave no support to the movement, but by 1954 Greek public sympathy for the Cypriots was so great that Prime Minister Alexander Papagos took the Cyprus issue to the United Nations.

Turkish nationalist sentiment became inflamed at the idea that Cyprus would be ceded to Greece, and anti-Greek riots broke out in Istanbul and Izmir (formerly Smyrna). It was suspected, and later proved, that the Turkish government of Adnan Menderes had covertly organised the riots, in which many Greeks were killed and many more made refugees. In response Greece withdrew from all co-operation with Turkey and the Balkan Pact collapsed.

In 1960 a compromise solution to the Cyprus issue was agreed on. Cyprus became independent, with a constitution guaranteeing a Greek president and a Turkish vice-president. Both Greek and Turkish troops were stationed on the island to protect the respective communities. Greek Prime Minister Constantine Caramanlis was the main architect of this plan, which led to an immediate improvement of relations with Turkey, particularly once Menderes was removed from power in Turkey.

In 1964, however, the Cyprus situation deteriorated when Makarios, now President of Cyprus, tried to revise the 1960 constitution. The Turks threatened war if Cyprus tried to achieve unity with Greece. In August Turkish aircraft bombed Greek troops in the island and war seemed imminent. Once again the Greek minority in Turkey suffered from the crisis, many Greeks fled the country, and there were even threats to expel the Ecumenical Patriarch. Eventually intervention by the United Nations led to another compromise settlement.

The Cyprus dispute fatally weakened the liberal Greek government of George Papandreou, and in April 1967 there was a military coup in Greece. Under the clumsy diplomacy of the military regime, there were periodic crises with Turkey. Turkey rightly suspected that the Greek regime was planning a pro-unification coup in Cyprus.

The Closure of the Halki Theological School

In 1971 the Turkish goverment closed down the Halki Theological School which was founded in the 19th century on the grounds of the Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which had occupied the site for over a thousand years. The Seminary, located on the island of Halki was closed in conformity with a Turkish law that forbids private universities, despite Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution which guarantees religious freedom and education. In 1998, Halki's board of trustees were ordered to disband until international pressure persuaded the Turkish authorities to reverse their decision. In October 1998, both houses of the US Congress passed resolutions that supported the reopening of Halki ( In addition, human rights groups including Helsinki Watch support the reopening of Halki.

The 1974 crisis and after

On 15 July 1974 the Greek military regime staged a coup against Makarios, led by the Greek officers leading the National Guard. An ex-EOKA man, Nicos Sampson was appointed president. Makarios escaped to Britain. On 20 July Turkey invaded without any resistance from the British forces in the island, occupying the northern 40% and expelling the Greek population. Once again war between Greece and Turkey seemed imminent, although Greece knew that its military forces would be no match for Turkey's. War was averted when Sampson's coup collapsed a few days later and Makarios returned to power, and the Greek military regime also fell from power on 24 July, but the damage to Turkish-Greek relations was done, and the occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkish troops would be a sticking point in Greco-Turkish relations for decades to come.

An additional complication arose in Greek-Turkish relations during the 1970s: the discovery of oil in the Aegean Sea. The Balkan Wars of 1913 had given Greece all the Aegean islands except Gokceada and Bozcaada (Imbros and Tenedos), some of them only a few kilometres off the Turkish coast. According to the Turkish government, the Greek-Turkish maritime border had never been properly defined, and Turkey now claimed that the seabed resources, namely oil, should be shared by the two countries, while the Greeks insisted that 12 nautical miles (22 km), as defined by international treaties, is their territorial right.

Today, the Greek-Turkish dispute over the Aegean sea revolves around four distinct, yet mutually related issues:

  1. Sovereignity of the Aegean sea
  2. Claims of territorial waters limits within the Aegean Sea, by each side
  3. Jurisdiction over airspace zones
  4. Sovereignty over unspecified (gray areas) Aegean islands. See Imia-Kardak crisis.

In recent years relations between Greece and Turkey have considerably improved, although the Cyprus issue has remained unresolved and a constant source of potential conflict. The retirement of the nationalist Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou helped this improvement. His son, foreign minister George Papandreou, made considerable progress in improving relations. He found a willing partner in Ismail Cem and later in Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has little sympathy for the Turkish military and its determination to hang on to northern Cyprus.


  • 20 - 24 July 1974: Cyprus Crisis (as mentioned above)
  • 25 December 1995: Imia (Greek) / Kardak (Turkish) crisis brought the two countries one step away from war
  • January 10 1997: Purchase the Russian S-300 missiles by Greece increased tensions with Turkey.
  • May 2004: Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minister to visit Greece for 16 years, and the first to visit the ethnic Turkish minority in Thrace for 52 years. He called on the Thracian Turks to preserve their heritage while simultaneously maintaining loyalty to their Greek citizenship. The visit was largely symbolic, but did lead to a declaration by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis that Greece would support Turkey's longstanding bid to enter the European Union.
  • 12 April 2005 Greece and Turkey have agreed to establish direct communications between two air bases in an effort to defuse tension over mutual allegations of air space violations over the Aegean Sea. This did not resolve the airspace dispute. Athens claims its airspace runs 16 kilometers from its coastline, but Ankara only recognizes 10 kilometers, the same distance as for territorial waters.

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