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Volume 27, Number 4July/August 1976

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Islam in Greece

Written and photographed by Pamela Roberson

Most people know that the Parthenon in Athens was a pagan temple. Fewer know that it was also, at one time, a mosque.

The mosque was built many centuries ago—after the Ottoman Turks carried the banner of Islam into Greece in 1354. And although some old prints show a minaret rising from one corner of the Parthenon there is only one trace of the mosque left today: a rough staircase inside the ruins.

But that's the Parthenon. Elsewhere in Greece—in eastern Macedonia and particularly in Thrace—the stamp of Islam is plainly visible in the minarets and the soaring cry of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day.

Islam came to Greece at the invitation of the Byzantine Empire. Although initially a mortal enemy of the Byzantines, the Muslims agreed to help Byzantium tame the troublesome Serbs—and stayed five and a half centuries. Even as late as 1913 Muslims formed nearly 40 percent of the population of Macedonia. Ten years later, however, when the First World War's Treaty of Lausanne rearranged frontiers and populations, nearly 350,000 Greek Muslims had to leave in exchange for nearly 600,000 Greek Orthodox Christians living elsewhere. When the exchange was completed the Muslim presence was reduced to those living in Thrace, an enclave that today numbers about 108,000 Muslims.

Thrace is a region of great natural beauty, with the sharp peaks and steep ridges of the Rodopi range interspersed with little valleys and the Drama-Serres plain. It is also a prosperous region that grows cotton, cereals and, in the foothills around Kavala, Xanthi, Drama and Komotini, tobacco—Greece's major earner of foreign exchange. There are six principal varieties of the leaf: Basma, Bachi Bagli, Kaba Koulak, Trebezonde, Samsoun and Smyrna. As the names imply, the last three were brought in by the refugees of Asia Minor in 1923.

In the villages and towns of the lowlands the Muslims all speak Turkish, and in some outlying villages not a person can be found who understands Greek. But in the towns they are usually bilingual and freely intermingle with their Greek Orthodox neighbors. Children play together, mothers compare baby formulas on the street corner and both Muslim and Christian men retire to all-male tavernas for the evening. They play backgammon, twirl worry beads and sip sweet coffee.

In the highlands and mountains lives a completely different group of Greek Muslims: the Pomaks, a Serbian-speaking people from Bulgaria. The Pomaks are Slavs who accepted Islam after exposure to the Ottomans. Their name is generally believed to derive from pomagaci, or "helper," for they often served as auxiliary troops for the Turks after their conversion in the 14th century.

In costume and custom the Slavic past still exists among the Pomaks. But there are strong elements of the Middle East as well: long white dresses, ankle-length black cloaks and jewelry, the bangle bracelets, the necklaces and the earrings. Pomak women are also more conservative than their Muslim counterparts in the lowlands. They modestly turn their faces aside or turn in the opposite direction to avoid being looked at. On the other hand, the Turkish-speaking Muslims greet strangers and welcome them into their homes. But whether lowland or highland, all Greek Muslims live by the law of Islam and accept the decisions of the traditional Muslim arbiter: the mufti.

In Greece the mufti is a civil servant whose basic salary is paid by the Greek government. To qualify for the position a man must graduate from a madrasah, essentially a religious school, and in three districts—Xanthi, Komotini and Didymotichion—he is elected by those registered as Muslims. As in wholly Islamic countries, the mufti's authority is supreme in religious matters, but also extends to matters of "personal status"—family problems, marriage, divorce, tutelage and coming of age.

In Komotini the mufti, Hussein Mustapha, permitted me to observe a typical case. It involved a young Pomak boy and his girl who wished to marry, but had been forbidden to do so by one of the grandfathers. The girl and the boy told their stories separately while an elderly scribe in a gold brocade fez leisurely recorded their answers in an enormous ledger; he wrote in Turkish, but in Arabic script. When the mufti learned that the girl had run away from home five days before—to plead her case—he frowned with displeasure. But then, convinced they were in love and did wish to marry, he rendered a swift decision: marry tomorrow.

I didn't attend that wedding but observed others elsewhere. They were, like wedding celebrations in the Middle East, community gatherings with hours of talk, food, laughter and endless cups of black coffee. At one of them, which took place in a village called Volkion, I noted that the bride's house was a fine example of Greek-Islamic architecture.

In Greece, Muslim villages are readily, distinguishable from those of the Christians by the high walls around houses. As in Arab villages, each house is built around a compound which usually contains a well, a garden and shelter for the farm animals. The houses are usually one-story stone structures with balconies and everything is whitewashed, giving the villages a sparkling appearance against green fields and dark mountains stretching off into the distance.

In Greece, as in the Middle East, Muslims lavish great expenditures on their carpets. Furniture is kept to a minimum—some low sofas and big overstuffed cushions—and the only other decoration in the rooms is quotations from the Koran in Arabic, which few people read but all know by heart.

Mosques, of course, are the primary sign of the Muslim presence and in the countryside the interiors of the mosques are a stunning contrast to the plain exteriors. Open the door, and you see a rainbow of color: pink, orange, green, turquoise and yellow bands of paint wind their way up the walls, into the mihrab, or prayer niche, over the minbar, or pulpit, across the ceiling and around the columns supporting the women's gallery, while, simultaneously, rainbow shafts of light filter through the stained-glass windows and make dazzling designs on the oriental carpets. They are lovely, simple and reverent—fitting monuments to the centuries of a faith that endures and flourishes far from its homeland.

Pamela Roberson is a free-lance photographer who formerly lived in Lebanon.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the July/August 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1976 images.