By George Capsis
I was a bit surprised at my own shock and, yes, anger when I read in the New York Times that the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had announced that the Turkish government would again take over the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia—
Turkish newspapers showed crowds cheering at regaining something they obviously feel is a part of their historic tradition going back to the surrender of the Byzantine Empire to the Muslim invasion in 1453, when Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and remained so until 1934 when it was made into a museum (it has been one of the most frequently visited museums in the world).
The enormous domed church marked the beginning of the Eastern Roman and Byzantine Empires and of the Christian era. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity on his deathbed at his mother’s pleading.
The language spoken in Byzantium then, now Turkey, was Greek, of course, and many Greeks still live in Turkey, with families dating back centuries. One of those families is—or more correctly, was—mine.
Very soon after a Greek meets another Greek for the first time, the classic question pops up, “Where does your family come from?” If it is from the Peloponnese, the largest segment of that island-fragmented country, the answer might be “Langadia,” which is where my wife’s family came from (her maiden name was Geanacopoulos); but if you ask that question of a Greek whose family came from Turkey, he will answer, “My family is from Asia Minor,” because for a Greek the word Turkey is anathema (another Greek word).
The Capsis family came from a fishing village, named after Saint Paraskevi, which fronts the largest and most important harbor city on the west coast of Turkey, near Izmir (or Smyrna—its ancient name).
In June of 1988 Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal (who, later, became the Turkish president) visited Greece for three days to address the growing tension over the 14-year occupation of Northern Cyprus by the Turkish army, and the Turkish oil exploration in Greek waters. Greek crowds demonstrated in the streets and the Turkish anthem was not played.
To accompany Ozal during the brief tense visit, Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou assigned a well-known and outspoken journalist and deputy foreign minister, John Capsis (yes, the son of my Uncle Pantelis, also a journalist).
In a quiet moment during the visit, Ozal asked John the classic question, “Where in Greece does your family come from?” When he was told that the Capsis family came from Izmir, Turkey, the delighted prime minister burst out, “And have you visited it?” John explained that for a Greek foreign minister that was not possible, and Ozal, enthused nevertheless, said that when he returned to Ankara he would make it possible—and he did.
I got a call from a jubilant John ordering me to take the next plane to Athens; we were going to be “returning to our ancestral home.” I obeyed. He was waiting for me at the airport and had booked us on a flight to the island of Chios, from which you can just about see the coast of Turkey. “We will return like our ancestors, in a fishing boat,” John exclaimed, exhilarated. He had rented a converted kaiki and we were off.
As we approached the Turkish shore, I saw it was lined with spectators and news photographers. John, who fancied himself an amateur seaman and had his own second-hand boat, jumped about doing seaman-like tasks as we approached the dock, while I sat and watched; the onlookers assumed I was the Foreign Minister and shoved a mic in my face. I pointed to John pulling the ropes.
Ankara had appointed an official guide who greeted us and took us to a seaside restaurant for a selection of the best dishes that Turkey had to offer; and they were all familiar to me, being Greek.
We then visited the Capsis ancestral home which was now just an oblong hole in the ground—nothing was left. But when I went into what must have been the cellar, I found a few bits of pottery which I hope are still in my own cellar as I write this
Then we went to the family church where, I must assume, generations of Capsis family members had been baptized. It looked pretty much as all Greek Orthodox churches do, except for an odd amorphous structure at one end at a strange angle. (This was to signal the direction of Mecca—the church had been converted into a mosque).
When I got back to New York I received, fortuitously, an invitation to a reception at the Plaza Hotel for the very same Ozal, President of Turkey.
Before entering the main room where the reception was held, there was an elevated area above it from which one could make a grand entrance down a wide staircase and also have a view of the entire room below. The room was filled with Turkish men in navy blues suits, but in the middle there appeared a circle of brown uniforms with a sprinkling of navy blue (members of the army and navy were surrounding President Ozal). I made my way to the circle and walked through it until I encountered the short, plump Ozal who looked at me, smiling with a bit of surprise.
“I am the cousin of John Capsis,” I offered, as Ozal’s face lit up with pleasure. “And did he get home to his village?” Ozal demanded with a wider smile. “Yes, he did, and I went with him,” I replied. “And what did he think of Turkey?” the now beaming Ozal further demanded. I found myself saying… “The best Greek food we ever had, we had in Turkey.”