History of Wars Between Greece and Turkey: A Look Back
Greece and Turkey may be heading toward a military showdown in their current dispute over access to gas and oil deposits in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, but this is only the latest in a long history of war and conflict between these two neighbors with nearly a thousand years of bad blood between them.
Greeks and Turks have interacted for nearly a thousand years, with much of those interactions involving military conflict and conquest that may lead to a new Greek-Turkish War.
But first let’s define what we mean by Greek and Turk in this historical look back.
Greek culture goes back thousands of years, to include famous Greek city-states such as Athens, Sparta, Troy, and others. Greek kingdoms, such as Macedonia, and leaders such as Alexander the Great. The conquests by sea-faring Greeks (like the Athenians) and empire-builders like Alexander and his generals, spread Greek (or Hellenistic) culture across the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, and into the Middle East and North Africa. Eventually, Greece and all of the Greek-speaking lands around the Mediterranean came under the rule of the powerful Roman Empire, which adopted many facets of Greek culture. When the Roman Empire split into separate Eastern and Western empires in 395 CE (AD), the East Roman Empire was dominated by Greek culture, while the West clung to Latin Roman culture. While the West Roman Empire fell to barbarian invaders, the Greek-speaking East Romans continued on for another thousand years. Modern historians now refer to the East Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire, but to the inhabitants of this empire, and to their enemies, it was still referred to as the Roman Empire.
Despite this fact, modern Greeks tie their history and culture to this Greek Byzantine Empire, which was based on the capital city of Constantinople (formerly known as Byzantium; now called Istanbul). The Greek Eastern Orthodox Church developed apart from the western, Roman Catholic Church, and the center of the eastern church was the Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople.
Around 1045 or so, on the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire, a new enemy, the Seljuk Turks, began raids from their newly conquered lands in Persia. The Turks began as nomadic tribes that, as they moved westward, conquered the more settled lands they encountered. This began almost 400 years of war between the Byzantine Greeks and the Seljuk Turks and their successors, the Ottoman Turks. With the Ottoman conquest, Hagia Sophia church was converted into a Muslim Mosque, which it would remain for 400 years, until 1935, when the President of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who was more secular than religious, turned it into a museum. In July, 2020, President Erdogan re-converted the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks, captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, completing their conquest of this once mighty empire. For the next 400 years, Greece was ruled by the Turks, but Greece was a restive possession, seeing many failed uprisings against Turkish rule over the centuries.
In 1821, Greeks launched a rebellion that would develop into the Greek War of Independence. With the help of Britain, France, and Russia, the Greeks gained their independence in 1832. However, the new Greek nation only included a relatively small part of European Greek lands (there were also large Greek populations in mainland Turkey (Anatolia), and other parts of the Ottoman Empire). This fact led Greece to constantly seek to re-take more land from the Ottoman Turks. Multiple wars between Greece and Turkey, and local Greek rebellions with the support of the Greek government occurred.
These Greco-Turkish Wars included:
Greek Epirus Revolt of 1854, in which Greek military officers aided the rebels in the Ottoman province of Epirus. This was also part of the larger Crimean War, and the Turks defeated these rebels.
The Greek population of the large island of Crete launched many revolts against Turkish rule including: the Greek Cretan Revolts of 1841, 1858, 1866-1868, 1875-1878, and 1889. All were defeated by the Turks.
A new revolt on Crete in 1896 led to the Second Greco-Turkish War which is also called the “Thirty Days’ War” of 1897. The Ottoman army, recently re-organized and with German advisors, easily defeated the unprepared Greek military. Greece had to surrender some minor border areas in the peace treaty and to pay heavy reparations to the Turks. However, the Cretan revolt, which continued until 1898 did result in the Great Powers forced the Turks to remove their military from the island, and set up an autonomous Cretan State, which, while still technically under Ottoman rule, was, in effect, self-governing.
Greece fared much better in the First Balkan War (October, 1912-May 30, 1913), in which Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro combined to hand the Turks a huge defeat, and take over almost all of the Ottoman Empire’s remaining lands in Europe. After this war, Crete also became part of Greece. This was the Third Greco-Turkish War.
The Fourth Greco-Turkish War (March, 1921-1922) followed the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One. Greek troops participated in the Allied occupation of large parts of Ottoman Turkey. Taking advantage of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greece launched a full invasion of Turkey, with the goal of reclaiming ancient Greek lands along the Turkish west coast lost to the Ottomans in the 1400s. This aspiration was called the Megali Idea (Great Idea) which sought to bring all Greek-speaking lands into the modern Green nation). The Nationalist Turks (who were also opposing the Ottoman Turkish government), led by Kemal Ataturk, launched successful counterattacks and drove the Greek military out of Turkey. The Greek civilian populations along the Turkish west coast were also driven out, with much death and destruction. The peace treaty ending this war called for all Turks in Greece, and all Greeks in Turkey to leave and go to their respective homelands.
Greek-Turkish Conflict Over Cyprus in 1974
That was the last full-scale war between Greece and Turkey, though there have been border disputes and hostility ever since. In 1974, the island-nation of Cyprus was engulfed in conflict when a coup overthrew the government with the goal of joining Cyprus (which has a Greek majority, but a sizable Turkish minority), into Greece. Within a few days of the coup, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus and set up a separate Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a “nation" that only Turkey recognizes. This Cypriot conflict almost caused a major war between Greece and Turkey (which at that time, as now, are technically allies in the NATO alliance).
Greece has maintained a combat regiment in Cyprus since the 1960s, and this unit engaged in combat with invading Turkish forces in 1974. Greece also managed to send an airborne battalion to Cyprus to reinforce the original regiment. The military forces from Greece suffered 88 killed, 83 missing, and 148 wounded. While this was not a full-scale war between Greece and Turkey, the Cyprus War did highlight the ongoing hostility between the two nations.
Now, in 2020, Greece-Turkey tensions are at their highest since 1974. Turkish President Erdogan’s re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a place of Muslim worship enraged many Greeks, which only exacerbated the economic competition for the oil and gas in the seabed near Cyprus. As the Greek and Turkish militaries face off at sea and in the air, the big question is, will these tensions ignite into a fifth major Greco-Turkish War?
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