My great grandfather, Yiorgo came to Constantinople at the turn of the century to make his fortune as a grocer in a village along the banks of the Bosporus named Neohori or Yenikoy, in Turkish, which means New Village. Later, he handed the business over to his son Panayiotis, my maternal grandfather, who brought his family from our ancestral home in Northern Epirus to join him. My mother and her two siblings have fond memories of growing up in Neohori in the 1920s and 1930s. The few Greeks who are left in the villages along the Bosporus remind us of a multicultural and more tolerant City. Unfortunately, the once vibrant Greek community is only a pale shadow of its former self. On the banks of villages like Neohori Greek fishermen and farmers have eked out a living on the margins of history in Istanbul. There were also pockets of Armenians and Jews here and there. In the 19th century, although located next to the City, villages like Neohori remained distant, accessible only by kaikia (boats) or by horse. The overcrowding, lack of hygiene and epidemics, not to mention the unbreathable atmosphere within the walls of the City in the summer months made these villages attractive to foreign ambassadors, Phanariotes, and Turkish pashas who built grand villas on the shores of the Bosporus emblematic of their luxurious lifestyle and refined tastes. These vacation homes, always constructed of wood, were called "giali." The giali changed not only the appearance but also the social reality of the villages. The Greek fishermen and farmers lived adjacent to members of a multinational aristocracy and bourgeoisie that transformed these villages into affluent resorts. As Greeks from Northern Epirus began to migrate to these villages they were nicknamed Arvanitochori. Mixing with Greeks from Thrace and the Aegean islands, they rekindled the Roman character of the area.
In doing the research for this post I discovered that my favorite Greek poet, Constantine Kavafy lived in Neohori for three years as an adolescent. His mother Harikleia Fotiadou came from a Constantinopolitan family and after the death of Kavafy's father, the family's serious economic straits brought them from Egypt to Constantinople. Kavafy fell in love with the panoramas and the natural beauty that the village was surrounded by. In particular he loved to walk in the green hills and along, the seaside promenades between Neohori and Therapies, which remain the finest the Bosphorus has to offer.
For the current residents of the City, Yenikoy, is synonymous with expensive restaurants, cafes, confectioneries, villas and beaches. The
Greek population began to wither in the 60s replaced by an influx of well to do Turks. Every Easter the small congregations of the two active churches, Panagia Koumariotissa and Agios Nikoloas celebrate the Resurrection service and the mixed congregation of Greek, Russian and other Orthodox faithful wander home with lighted candles to their homes. Young bystanders stare at them, perplexed, with benign curiosity: "Why carry lit candles? Celebrating something? they ask oblivious of the areas former character.
The soul of the community is Lakis Vigkas, chairman of the Association of Graduates of Zografeiou Lyceum (one of the major Greek schools of Constantinople). He looks after a small enclave of elderly men and women and a few Greek entrepreneurs and their families who stubbornly persist in the City. Despite the hectic pace of his work, he is actively involved in renovation projects at the Churches and Greek cemetery, looking after the elderly members of the community, chanting in church on Sundays and organizing cultural events. "I belong to the new generation, but I carry the memories of old," he says. He explains the anguish of rescuing the physical memory of a once vibrant community. "If you lose a cemetery, you've a lost chapter in the history of Romiosini." Father of three children, Lakis looks to the future. "Young people, descendants of former residents, are returning to settle in the City," he says with a tone of optimism. Perhaps this new blood may overcome the stereotypes and wounds of the past and thereby help Romiosini survive in the city of its birth.
Ξένε, σαν δης ένα χωριό όπου γελάει η φύσις,
κ’ εις κάθε πλάτανο κοντά που κρύπτεται μια κόρη
ωραία σαν το τριαντάφυλλο — εκεί να σταματήσης·
έφθασες, ξένε, στο Νιχώρι.
Κι όταν το βράδυ έλθη, αν βγης έξω να περπατήσης
και βρης εμπρός σου καρυδιές, στον δρόμο μη προχώρει
του ταξιδιού σου πια. Aλλού ποιον τόπο θα ζητήσης
καλύτερον απ’ το Νιχώρι.
Τέτοια δροσιά δεν έχουνε αλλού στον κόσμο οι βρύσεις,
των λόφων του την αρχοντιά αλλού δεν έχουν όρη·
και με της γης την μυρωδιά μονάχα θα μεθύσης,
ολίγο αν μείνης στο Νιχώρι.
Την πρασινάδα που θα δης εκεί να μην ελπίσης
που σ’ άλλο μέρος θα την βρης. Aπ’ το βουνό θεώρει
τους κάμπους κάτω και ειπέ πώς να μην αγαπήσης
αυτό μας το μικρό Νιχώρι.
Πως αγαπώ υπερβολές, ω ξένε, μη νομίσης.
Υπάρχουν τόποι εύφοροι πολλοί και καρποφόροι.
Πλην έχουν κάτι χωριστό, και συ θα ομολογήσης,
καρποί και άνθη στο Νιχώρι.
Εάν στης Κουμαριώτισσας της Παναγίας θελήσης
την εκκλησία να μπης μ’ εμέ, φανατικός συγχώρει
αν είμ’ εκεί. Άλλην, θαρρώ, χάριν οι παρακλήσεις
έχουνε στο πιστό Νιχώρι.
Aν δε να μείνης δεν μπορής, πριν, ξένε, αναχωρήσης
πρέπει να πας μια Κυριακή στην σκάλα στου Γρηγόρη·
ειρήνη, νιάτα, και χαρά θα δης, και θα εννοήσης
τι είναι αυτό μας το Νιχώρι.
(Από τα Κρυμμένα Ποιήματα 1877)