Monday, April 19, 2010


The origin of this diatribe, comes to you via a circutous route- namely two facts: that one of my favourite poets, Li Po, known to the Chinese as the Poet-God, was actually Turkish in origin. His ethnicity proved no impediment to his production of the most extravagant and brilliant contributions to Chinese literature, and for him to be identified, forever with China. The second form of inspiration is an 1865 painting by Jean Léon Gérôme entitled “Young Greeks at the Mosque,” depicting foustanella clad Greeks performing Islamic prayers.
One of the facets of the interminable debate as to the nature of the Greek identity is whether it and the Muslim religion are mutually exclusive. While the jury will most likely be out on this point for aeons, given the unique historical circumstances that have shaped and continue to shape the construct that is Greek identity, what is fascinating is the number of persons of Greek descent who made lasting contributions to the Islamic world. For example, of the Ottoman Sultans, Bayezid I,(1354–1403), had a Greek mother (Gülçiçek Hatun) and Bayezid II (1447–1512), was also half-Greek, his mother being the famous Gulbahar, a noblewoman from the village of Douvera, in Trapezounta. So were Ahmed I, Ahmed II, whose mother was the daughter of a Cretan priest, Ibrahim I, (1615–1648), whose mother Kosem Sultan, was one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history, and was the daughter of a priest from Tinos, Murad I, whose mother, Nilufer Hatun, was a Byzantine princess, Mustafa I, whose mother was called Eleni, Mustafa II, whose Cretan mother Mah-Para Ummatullah Rabia Gül-Nush, was originally named Euphemia, Osman II, while Selim I was actually three quarters Greek, given that his father was half-Greek.
A number of other famous personages in the Ottoman empire were also of Greek descent. Hayreddin Barbarossa, the feared privateer and Ottoman admiral, had a Greek mother, Katerina from Mytilene. The distinguished Ottoman grand vizier as well as an army and navy commander during the reigns of sultans Mehmed the Conqueror and Beyazid II, Gedik Ahmet Pasha was also Greek, as was the founder of the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, Ottoman statesman and art expert and also prominent and pioneering painter, Osman Hamdi Bey the son of Edhem Pash, a Greek abducted as a boy during the massacre of Chios. Hussein Hilmi Pasha, an Ottoman statesman born on Lesbos, to a family of Greek ancestry, became twice Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire and was also Co-founder and Head of the Turkish Red Crescent. Ahmet Vefik Pasha, was a statesman, diplomat, playwright and translator of the late Ottoman period, who was also of Greek descent. He was commissioned with top-rank governmental duties, including presiding over the first Turkish parliament and became a grand vizier for two brief periods. Vefik also established the first Ottoman theatre and initiated the first Western style theatre plays in Bursa, and translated Moliere's major works.
Greek Islamic activity was not limited to the Ottoman sphere alone. Shah Ismail, the founder of Turkic-Persian Safavid Dynasty of Iran was also of Greek descent, His mother was a Turkmen noble, Martha, the daughter of Turkmen Uzun Hasan by his Pontian wife Theodora Megale Comnena, better known as Despina Hatun. Theodora was the daughter of Emperor John of Trapezounta, whom Uzun Hassan married in a deal to protect Pontus from the Ottomans Kaykaus II, the Seljuq Sultan’s mother was the daughter of a Greek priest; and it was the Byzantines of Nicaea from whom he consistently sought aid throughout his life. Even the infamous Ibrahim Pasha, the adopted son of Muhammad Ali of Egypt who plotted the genocide of Greeks in Peloponnesus, was a Greek from Drama.
Greek Muslims also made lasting contributions to Islam. Sheikh Bedreddin, was a revolutionary theologian who in 1416, led a revolt against the Ottomans. His mother was a Greek convert to Islam and is said to have influenced his revolt, which had as its aim, the equitable redistribution of land. The Greek Sheikh was buried in Serres until 1961 and the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was jailed for recommeding to military cadets that they read his work.
Muhammad Al Mahdi, final Imam of the Shi’ite Muslims, who will, according to Shi’ite belief, reappear to establish Islam throughout the world, and those after Muhammad, the most important personage in all of Islam, is also reputed to have had a Greek mother. Narjis is held to have been a Byzantine princess who pretended to be a slave so that she might travel from her kingdom to Arabia.
Greek converts to Islam have also played roles of intrinsic importance in the Muslim world. Gahar al-Siqilli, a Greek from Sicily, eventually became commander of the Fatimid armies. He had led the conquest of North Africa and then of Egypt and founded the city of Cairo and its most important mosque, al-Azhar, in the tenth century. Another of his compatriots, Leo of Tripoli, espoused Islam and conquered large swathes of North Africa.
John Tzeleps Komnenos, nephew of the emperor of Trapezounta, became a Muslim at the siege of Neocaesaria in 1140 and married the Seljuk Sultan’s daughter. The Ottoman Sultans claimed descent from him.
Al Khazini, whose most productive years were between 1115–1130 was a Greek convert to Islam and student of Omar Khayyam, who was a famous scientist, astronomer, physicist, biologist, alchemist, mathematician and philosopher, based in Turkmenistan. His Book of the Balance of Wisdom, remains an important part of Islamic physics, containing studies of hydrostatic blanace. He was also the first to apply experimental scientific methods to the fields of statics and dynamics.
Sinan, the most famous Ottoman architect, whose studies of Saint Sophia caused him to design the characteristic Ottoman mosques that dot the Balkans and Asia Minor is also said to have been of Greek or Armenian origin. In Ottoman records, Sinan's father is named "Hristo", which is the clincher for the case for Greek ancestry.
Some of the more modern Greek converts to Islam have fascinating, and often bizarre stories. Carlos Mavroleon, the son of a Greek ship-owner, Etonian heir to a £100m fortune, friend of the Kennedys, former Wall Street broker and war correspondent, ended up as the leader of an Afghan Mujahideen unit during the Afghan war against the Soviets and died under mysterious circumstances in Pakistan.
Hamza Yusuf, is a a half-Greek American-Islamic lecturer who once opined "I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way."
Cypriot musicians in particular display a propensity for adopting Islam. Most notable of these is Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, while Diam’s, formerly known as Mélanie Georgiades, is a French rapper of Greek origin, who donned the headscarf in 2000 because “medicine was not able to heal my soul.”
There are today, about 7,000 Greeks living in Tripoli, Lebanon and about 8,000 in Al Hamidiye, Syria. The majority of them are Muslims of Cretan origin. Records suggest that the community left Crete between 1866 and 1897, on the outbreak of the last Cretan uprising against the Ottoman empire, in 1897.Sultan Abdul Hamid II provided Cretan Muslim refugees with refuge on the Levantine coast. It was named Hamidiye after the sultan.
Many of these Greek Muslims of Lebanon managed to preserve their identity and language until the Lebanese Civil War, being entirely endogamous. The Greek Muslims of Al Hamidiye constitute 60% of its population and the community is very much concerned with maintaining its culture. The knowledge of the spoken Greek language is remarkably good and their contact with their historical homeland has been possible by means of satellite television and relatives. Omer Asan points to 75,000 Muslims speaking Pontian Greek in Turkey while alluding to the existence of many more.
Regardless of their ethnic origins and in the curious case of the Syrian Greek Muslims, their retention of the Greek language, it appears that to all intents and purposes, the Muslim Greeks’ adherence to Islam places them beyond the pale of “legitimately” being able to claim a Greek identity. Nonetheless, it is their ingenuity that transformed much of the Middle East into coherent, sophisticated political entities and the aftershocks of their influence permeates throughout the world to this day. To read their story is to blur political ethnic and cultural distinctions between perceived “enemies,” and to reconsider what elements do constitute the construct that is national identity.


First published in NKEE on 19 April 2010