The Istanbul pogrom of 1955 which had irreversible political, social and cultural outcomes, effectively wiping out the existence of non-muslim communities in the historically cosmopolitan and multicultural city, is remembered on its 66th anniversary.
The events that began on 6 September were triggered by news reported in a daily newspaper that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, Greece, a house where the Turkish Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had also been born, had been bombed.
Described later in an interview as “an excellent special warfare operation which reached its goal” by retired general and former chief of Special Warfare Department, Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu, the pogrom started early on 6 September as crowds started attacking the houses and shops of Greeks, Armenians and Jews in many of Istanbul’s different neighbourhoods.
The pogrom, resulting in at least 11 fatalities according to Turkish news sources, 15 according to Greek sources, hundreds of wounded and over 200 women were reported raped. It constituted the latest stage in the ethnic cleansing targeting non-muslim communities which made up more than a quarter of the total population in the Ottoman Empire just 40 years before.
Over four thousand private residences, a thousand shops and offices, 73 churches, one synagogue, one monastery plus 26 schools were destroyed, burned and looted during the attacks of tens of thousands of people armed with axes, sticks and knives.
Eventually martial law was declared and more than five thousand people were arrested, although the government initially claimed that the events had been started due to provocations of communists, and rounded up political figures and intellectuals including authors like Kemal Tahir and Aziz Nesin.
The pogrom virtually brought to an end the coexistence of non-muslim communities in Istanbul. While the city’s Greek population had fallen from 100,000 to 48,000 between 1923 and 1955, a further, sharp decrease followed the pogrom, bringing the number eventually down to only a few thousand.
Out of the 10,000 Catholic Georgians of Istanbul, after the pogrom only a few hundred remained.
Documents provided by a retired judge, Fahri Çoker, later revealed that many people who took part in the pogrom were actually brought from various Anatolian cities hundreds of kilometres away, including 145 from Sivas, 117 from Trabzon, 116 from Kastamonu and 111 from Erzincan.
As for the so called “bombing” of the Turkish consulate in Greece, a Turkish citizen, Oktay Engin, who later turned out to be an agent of Turkish National Intelligence Agency, and another Turkish citizen, Hasan Uçar, a staff of the consulate, were both arrested as culprits. Engin and Uçar were released after some time in custody, due to their immunity as state officials.
Engin was later appointed to an important position at the Turkish National Intelligence Agency, and promoted as the city administrator of Nevşehir in 1992.