The Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, as it is known in Greek history, led to the displacement of 1.2 million Greeks from Turkey to Greece. “Ever since the expulsion from Eden, man has been trekking, and folk wanderings are the roots of his history,” reads a 1925 article in National Geographic on the human tragedy of Greece’s and Turkey’s expulsion of two million people. An accompanying photograph foregrounds a refugee camp of tents surrounding the classical Temple of Hephaestus in the Athenian Agora.1 A similar photograph documenting the Armenian genocide shows “the old arches and cellars” of Mimar Sinan’s Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, “filled with refugee families.”2 Highlighting the Periclean rebuilding of Athens after the Persian destruction (in the case of the temple) or the cultural accomplishments under the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (in the case of the mosque), the heritage narratives of both monuments have ignored the later episodes of suffering. While journalism relishes juxtaposing monuments of eternal heritage to contemporary tragedy, historic preservation is ambivalent over the episodic occupation of monuments. Without the evidence of the two sensational photographs, in fact, the occupation of both monuments by refugees would have remained unknown. The forced migration of Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani, African, and other refugees or undocumented migrants can be traced through the Greek countryside during the 2016 calendar year. This case study does not prescribe a solution for how to commemorate the camps of Europe’s migrant crisis but rather investigates the intersection of today’s migrants with a cultural landscape saturated with older, forgotten episodes of conflict, displacement, and trauma.
Although a member of the European Union, Greece aligns much more closely with the displacement histories of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Since its 1821 War of Independence, Greece has been a land defined by displacement.3 The state’s economic collapse of 1897 caused one in every four working-age Greek males to migrate to America, contributing to a third of the nation’s GDP through remittances. The Balkan Wars and World War I displaced thousands of ethnic and religious groups in 1912–18. After the 1922 Greco-Turkish War, a quarter of the country’s population (1.2 million) consisted of new refugees from Asia Minor. The Axis occupation during World War II destroyed one in every five villages and annihilated 87 percent of Greece’s Jewish population in concentration camps. After World War II and the Greek Civil War, 18 percent of the population was homeless. This and the Cold War created yet more migration to Germany, Australia, and the United States.4 The very same landscape that now hosts refugee camps has continuously been a receptacle of the unwanted.
More than any other country in Europe, Greece’s countryside is saturated with sites of forced migration. The passage of its newest migrants, thus, intersects with a long but neglected topography of pain. Placing its focus on the distant glory days of classical antiquity, heritage discourse in Greece…
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