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On the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Erdogan’s shadow looms

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KASTELLORIZO There is no indication that Horseman Giorgis, who slaughtered Lydda’s famous dragon with a single blow of a sword or spear, ever stopped at Kastellorizo ​​during his adventurous life. And yet the name of the man who became Saint George for Christians is found everywhere in Kastellorizo ​​or Megisti, as the Greek island is known to the locals.

The monastery bears his name, as do the churches and even a few boats. Mentioning the name of the patron saint of knights, it seems, is a kind of plea for protection. Nowadays there are no dragons, of course, trying to harm the easternmost island of the Dodecanese archipelago. But the people of Kastellorizo ​​live in the shadow of another threat, which bears the name of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish president suddenly rekindled tensions with Greece this summer by ordering his ships to conduct a gas exploration campaign in the eastern Mediterranean. Fighter planes roamed the skies. And in the nationalist and expansionist speeches that he likes so much, Erdogan does not hide this from him, it is logical that an island located far from the Greek mainland and so close to Turkey (Kastellorizo ​​is only 2 km from the coast) would one day return to the Turkish bosom.

The island is a long disputed territory and has been controlled several times by the Ottoman Empire. And as part of his fiery speech, Erdogan warned Greece that it will face “bitter experiences” and “ruin” if the two countries cannot resolve their maritime sovereignty issues. Even the name of the territory is controversial: Kastellorizo ​​was inherited from the Crusades and remained in use until 1957, when Athens decided to return to its ancient Greek name of Megisti.

And yet, in the taverns around the port of Kastellorizo, people smile when Erdogan’s topic comes up. The Kastellorizians have assumed for decades that armed conflict is a thing of the past, and don’t think Erdogan, for all his neo-Ottoman bluster, will really change that. There is nothing to worry about, at least that’s what they say. In addition, they know Turkey, embodied by the city of Kas, which is clearly visible from Kastellorizo. In ordinary times, the islanders walk there daily to the bazaar.

“We have lived in a cycle of tension between Ankara and Athens for a long time, but here relations between the Greek and Turkish populations are excellent,” said Stratos Amygdalos, deputy mayor and spokesperson for Kastellorizo, sipping iced coffee. on the terrace of his bistro, Stratos. “With Kas, we’re like twin cities. We’re friends.”

Change hands

It must be said that the inhabitants of both shores have everything to live peacefully. Kas, located in the province of Antalya on the Turquoise Coast, has become a popular spot for scuba diving and cultural activities. It attracts Turkish artists and bohemians. And Kastellorizo, for its part, is a true island paradise. It is a bridge between two worlds, as evidenced by a fort of the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Orthodox churches, an Ottoman mosque and colorful houses with various inspirations. Its charm attracts travelers from all over the world, including princes and billionaires who anchor their yachts offshore. After being engulfed by centuries of war, it became very prosperous.

The island is a bridge between two worlds.

Since the days of ancient Greece, the island has seen its share of invasions and destruction. It was part of the Roman Empire and later of the Byzantine Empire. During this period, it was attacked six times by the Arabs and deserted the first time, with the survivors taking refuge in Anatolia. Later, the Turkish Seljuks conquered the island and gave it the same as Meis.

Then it was taken by the Crusaders, then the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, the Catalans, the Kingdom of Naples, the Ottomans, the Republic of Venice and again by the Ottomans. The Ottoman period was very prosperous for Meis, as the sultans of the Sublime Porte allowed the island’s sailors to trade freely in the Mediterranean.

Self-administered during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, it was still occupied by the last Ottomans, then by France, Italy and finally the United Kingdom. Those who survived World War II were taken to Palestine by the British and then emigrated to Australia. Kastellorizo’s population had grown from 14,000 at the start of the 20th century to 250 by the time the war ended and the island officially joined Greece in 1948. The population is now officially 500, including officials sent by Athens and Albanian immigrants who arrived 20 years ago. The number of inhabitants whose ancestors are Kastellorizo ​​is comparable to that of 1948, or about 40 families.

Keep perspective

Suffice it to say that this Mediterranean gem, which has suffered tragedy after tragedy and rebuilt itself on the memory of these sufferings and exiles, does not appreciate the threats of war or the patrols of warships and planes. of fight.

While loggerhead turtles come to the quayside to see if a cook has thrown fish heads into the sea, the Kastellorizians on the terraces of Lazarakis or Alexandra restaurants exaggerate their recklessness. It is necessary to push the conversation accompanied by rounds of ouzo to make them admit a slight concern.

The island has become a popular spot for scuba diving and cultural activities Photo: Limits of Kostas

“It is true that political tensions are reaching an unusual level,” admits Deputy Mayor Stratos Amygdalos. “This summer, some people were afraid that a war would break out.”

Even before Turkish ships punctually came to tease the waters around Kastellorizo, an unusually long exposure of fighter jets from both countries caused panic on July 21.

“Erdogan is unpredictable and his speeches are always very harsh,” Amygdalos says. “For us who live in perfect harmony with the Turks on the coast, it makes us sick to hear him threaten to sink Greek ships.”

Georgios Karagiannis, a ship captain with a boat named Barbara (after this mother) and another, of course, called Saint George, dismisses “old Erdogan tunes” as just more the same. “We know that even if there was a diplomatic deal on gas exploration, he would do it again next year for some reason. That’s the way he is, ”he says.

But Father Christos Symeonidis, a newcomer to the island who was recently sent to succeed the old priest who led the Orthodox Church here for decades, is worried about the possibility of a military accident. He stresses, however, that he tries to remain calm and says that when it comes to dealing with everyday Turks, there is nothing to fear. “They know each other,” he says. “They appreciate each other and life goes on …”

The long ferry to Rhodes

Kastellorizo’s biggest concern right now is not the “sound boom” that split the skies in July and sent tourists scurrying on boats but the lack of visitors due to the COVID-pandemic. 19.

The border closures mean Turkish visitors to Kas, who had two daily shuttles to the island, have been absent since March. Also, to buy what they need, islanders whose only industry is fishing now have to travel by ferry to all that is in Rhodes, which is much further away. Also missing are the “Kassies”, as Australia’s Kastellorizian diaspora has called it, who traditionally spend their summers in their ancestral village. This year, they are confined to the Pacific. In Kastellorizo, seasonal incomes are down by around 70%.

Marie Rivalant is one of the five French residents of the island and the only one to work there. Rivalant arrived as a student 30 years ago and then spent every summer there with his French family. She has now lived in Kastellorizo ​​for 20 years and is married to Georgios Lazarakis, the son of a smuggler like almost all islanders and owner of a historic tavern bearing his name.

An architect who builds and renovates houses, she also runs the charming guesthouse Mediterraneo, named after Gabriele Salvatores’ Oscar-winning Italian film. The film has greatly contributed to popularizing the sublime landscapes of the island and attracting tourists for 20 years.

In Kastellorizo, seasonal incomes are down by around 70%.

Rivalant says she wouldn’t leave this “balcony on the Orient” for the world. She loves both shores so much that she also bought a house near Kas and an apartment in Istanbul. She finds the political situation “disturbing”, even if, like a good Kastellorizienne living off tourism, she minimizes the crisis and makes fun of aerial displays. She says she was swimming quietly when she saw, with amazement, the panic that gripped tourists this summer.

Rivalant says that “the islanders are much less anti-Turkish than visitors to Athens”. What offends her, she adds, is that the Greek warship Upopliarxos Mykonos, when not on patrol at sea, is anchored in the port of Kastellorizo. Its powerful generator breaks the precious silence day and night. “It could be anchored elsewhere on the island,” she said.

‘Share a dream’

But if for so many travelers, Kastellorizo ​​is a haven of peace, it is also a garrison island. Besides a patrol plane and Greek navy boats moored in the port, a few hundred soldiers live in Kastellorizo.

Posted at the top of the cliffs and on the surrounding islets, they watch for Turkish maritime movements. In the afternoon at the Café Faros, where the beauties come to bathe, and in the evening on the terraces of the port, soldiers not on their guard have their eyes elsewhere on the girls of the local island, to which they wink. ‘eye and offer beers.

Such is the life on this idyllic and arid rock surrounded by a turquoise sea but which is also at the heart of the geopolitical conflict between Greece and Turkey. The Kastellorizians pray for a diplomatic agreement as much as for an end to the coronavirus epidemic.

From a cafe emerges the sound of David Gilmour’s guitar. The waitress plays the album that the former Pink Floyd guitarist composed after falling in love with Kastellorizo. After Castellorizon, the instrumental opener, comes the poetic title song: On an island. “Sharing a dream on an island was good,” sings Gilmour.

In the meantime, the sun is setting. A woman laughs. His companion orders an ouzo. The threat of war seems so distant.


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