By: John Kazaklis
A painful legacy of European nationalism during the early 20th Century was the population exchanges that took place in an effort to create nation states. Although this may have theoretically been a good idea, this was a difficult and painful task, especially in regions where there were no clear lines within diverse regions and communities. What's more is that the Ottoman Empire played a role in tolerating diversity, which left many regions ethnically (and religiously) mixed and diverse throughout the Balkans and Asia Minor. Statistics say that approximately 2/5 Greeks today have full or partial ancestry to communities who came to Greece as a result of the population exchanges of the early 20th Century.
During my travels to Greece in late 2015, I had the opportunity to take a short trip to visit the town where my grandfather's family originated from: present-day Ivaylovgrad, Bulgaria. We know the town as Ortakio (Ortaköy & Ortakioi are also used), its former name during Ottoman rule. You can view Ortakio's location here.
This was a special moment for my father and I since it was our first time visiting a specific place where we had roots. We also recognized the heaviness of the trip since it was the place where my grandfather, his family, and all of the ethnic Greeks of the town were forced to leave.
Just under a 10-minute drive from the Greek-Bulgarian border, Ortakio is a ghost town of a Greek community that has been transformed into a Bulgarian town. There seemed to be little or no trace of a Greek past, with the exception of the abandoned Greek Orthodox church in the old neighborhood. I thought to myself, "Do the local residents today know or have a clue of what this town used to be? Why does a 10-minute drive from Greece feel like a whole new world?"
I had to keep on telling myself that so much can happen in 100 years. One has to consider the process of Bulgarisation that took place once the town was newly inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians. We also cannot forget that the presence of communism and Soviet fundamentals could have very possibly wiped out any cultural residue that the Greeks had left behind.
Short History Lesson
World War I and European nationalism spawned the creation of nation states, and countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey decided to purge their countries of ethno-religious groups that did not belong to the dominant ethnicity or religion. As a result, Orthodox Greeks who had lived in Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, and Thrace for thousands of years were forced to relocate between the 1910s and 1920s to present-day Greece. This also took place with ethnic Turks and Bulgarians living within Greece.
Ortakio was part of the Northern Thrace (Boreia Thraki in Greek) region in present-day Bulgaria where many Greek villages and towns were once located prior to the population exchanges of the early 20th Century. Between 1913 and 1914, the whole Ortakion Greek community (with the exception of a few families) was relocated to Greece. This included my grandfather and his family, who eventually settled in the village of Tholos in Eastern Macedonia.
What We Learned
My Uncle Thanassi (Athanasios) had visited Ortakio a couple of times prior to our trip and we were able to leverage his knowledge so that we could learn as much as possible. My uncle introduced us to a local known as "o daskalos" (meaning the teacher in Greek) and he seemed to be the only Greek left living in Ortakio today. He is formerly known by his full Bulgarian name: Nikos Apostolov. His family was exempt from the population exchanges and as a result, he grew up in the community as a Bulgarized Greek who spoke both Greek and Bulgarian. He is also known to receive and host any Greek visitors wanting to learn about their family roots in Ortakio, just as we did. Here is some information we learned from the o daskalos on Ortakio:
- The economy of Ortakio relied on agriculture and its nearby wineries
- The village relied heavily on its trade with Konstantinoupoli / Constantinople (present-day Istanbul)
- Before the 1914 population exchanges, the village was populated by only Greek families, except for 1 family that was ethnically Turkish
- The only Greek church in the village was built around 1883 and was called St. Elias (Agiou Ilía)
- The few Greek families that remained in Ortakio after the population exchanged eventually intermarried with the local Bulgarian population, and eventually became fully Bulgarized.
- Prior to the population exchanges, other Greek surrounding communities in the region were subject to Turkish violence and slaughter, but the Greeks of Ortakio were left out of the violence
- The former residents for Ortakio mainly settled in villages and cities in the present day Greek regions of Macedonia and Thrace