On the way back from the States recently I made a stop in the city that was known as Byzantium for roughly 2,000 years, was renamed Constantinople, which it remained for nearly half a millennium, then was renamed Istanbul in 1923. But the Greeks have not quite adjusted yet to this most recent change and still refer to the city as “Constantinopoli.” When I first heard someone use that term here, I immediately judged the person as ignorant—did they really not know that the city’s name was changed almost 100 years ago? But eventually I realized that this is the only name that Greeks use for the city. Hell, what’s 100 years in a city that has a 2,600 year history? Flying out of the Athens airport, in fact, you will see flights to Constantinopoli on the board, not to Istanbul (until the sign switches to English.)
During my short stay in Constantinopoli/Istanbul, I encountered people from seemingly every corner of the planet. The city is hot now, of course, but not only with American and European tourists–it is also very popular with Middle Eastern and Asian travelers. So while strolling around downtown, one is likely to hear voices in Chinese, Korean, Arabic, German, French, Spanish, English–just about everything except…Greek. The short hop of a flight from Athens couldn’t be easier, but Greeks are not exactly flocking like the rest of the world to the capital city of their former overlords. When we mentioned to folks here in Greece that we had visited Istanbul, most people expressed a sort of mild curiosity at our choice of destination–sort of a “Huh, that’s interesting. But why there?” (And not Paris, Rome, or other obvious destinations?)
Do you remember the old yiayia in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who runs around the neighborhood accusing everyone of being a “bloodthirsty Turk”? There may still be a few older folks in Greece who think like that but my impression is that most educated Greeks today don’t have much of an opinion one way or another of Turks and Turkey. The conflict over Cyprus pops up in the news occasionally but Greeks just don’t seem too agitated about it. Too many problems of their own to worry about, I suppose.
It will be very interesting to see if relations with Turkey change under the new Syriza government, which has expressed interest in improving ties with their neighbor. It makes sense, even if not all Greeks want to admit the similarities between the two countries. Both have one foot in Europe and one in the East, culturally speaking. Both would like to be accepted as modern European nations but struggle with corruption and inefficiency. There are obvious differences of religion and attitudes towards European values, but the similarities and, potentially, shared interests, are great. I would hope that the new government can make significant progress in thawing this long freeze between the two.