Kastellorizo: Greece’s most easterly island

Borderland: Europe’s Eastern faultline

Rising tensions over gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean are fuelled by Erdogan’s dream of expanding Turkey’s borders

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The old man looks past my shoulder and off into the distance. His face is smooth, the nose is beakishly angular and classically Greek. The eyes, which are almost expressionless, transmit an imperturbable patrician confidence, and they are shaded in darkness and heavy-lidded — just like mine. 

The old man is my ancestor Georgios Sisinis, and I am in the National Historical Museum of Greece in Athens staring at his portrait. Sisinis was a leader in the 1821 Greek War of Independence. After proclaiming freedom for the region of Elis in the Peloponnese, he fought at the battles of Patras and Chlemoutsi, and ended up as Speaker of the revolutionary National Assembly, inviting the diplomat Ioannis Kapodistrias to return home to become the first Governor of an independent Greece.

Independence hero: Georgios Sisinis

Almost exactly 200 years ago, my ancestor made a decision: to help tear Greece from Ottoman rule and plant it firmly in Europe. En masse, Greeks rebelled from a decaying empire in the East to rediscover a civilisation they had helped build in the West. Lord Byron would die for Greece at Missolonghi. And the British and French navies, along with Russia, would strike the final blow for Greece at Navarino. 

Now Greece once more feels a threat from the East. Once more, it looks to its European allies. Greece is a country of frontiers and borders: between Europe and the Middle East; the EU and Turkey; Christianity and Islam. It is an ancient civilisation contained within a new state; a country that reveres both its pagan forefathers and the Orthodox church; and it is sundered between a Balkan, inward-looking, mountainous north that ends only in Moscow, and a Mediterranean, sun-kissed south that gazes out onto the world.

Is this a country on the very western border of the East or is it on the very eastern frontier of the West? Once more Greeks are being tested. Can they again count on Europe, and the wider West — or will they now be forced to go it alone?

The harbour of Kastellorizo is ringed by a line of pastel-coloured houses: reds, greens, pinks and yellows fill the eyeline; Greek flags dangle from Venetian-style balconies. The sparkling white of most Greek island homes is a world away. But then, at least in some senses, so is Greece. Kastellorizo lies around 350 miles from Athens but only 800 metres from the town of Kas on Turkey’s southern coast. It sits in the easternmost part of the Mediterranean — strictly speaking in the Levantine Sea, though no one here ever calls it that. It’s also, and this is crucial, the easternmost inhabited Greek island. Kastellorizo juts almost into the Middle East, and with it, Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The proposal supported by Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt to divide the Eastern Mediterranean into Exclusive Economic Zones

EEZs are big news here. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines them as areas in which a coastal state has jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources on and under the seabed. States get sovereignty over 12 nautical miles from their coasts and can establish an EEZ up to 200 nautical miles from shore.

In 2009, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus discovered gas fields on their seabeds. Now Greece, Cyprus and Israel are planning an Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) pipeline that will transport natural gas from Levant reserves into Greece, and then to wider Europe. Ankara is enraged. Driven, in part, by an expansionist Blue Homeland Doctrine that calls for Turkish control of these waters, it has sent its own ships to stake a claim. 

People now say war might come to Kastellorizo

In November 2019, Turkey’s president Recip Erdogan signed a deal with the “Government of National Accord” (GNA), which rules north-west Libya, to redraw the EEZ borders in the eastern Mediterranean. Their new map gives Turkey a common maritime border with Libya and cancels the EEZ of Crete, the third-largest island in the Mediterranean. Athens, meanwhile, argues that Kastellorizo should project its full EEZ right of 200 nautical miles southwards. Turkey, which never signed UCLOS, correctly retorts that this splinters its own EEZ. The sides are clear. Turkey and Libya face off against Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel with the UAE and France in the background. French president Emmanuel Macron has been particularly vehement. In July, he told Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades it would be a “serious error” for the EU to leave its security “in the hands of others” and sent France’s main nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle (along with accompanying ships and submarines), to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Turkish research vessels, accompanied by Turkish warships, now orbit the disputed waters. Athens sends its navy to shadow them. On 12 August, the Greek frigate Limnos accidentally crashed into the right side of the stern of the Turkish frigate Kemal Reis.

People now say war might come to Kastellorizo. I rattle in to see for myself in a small Aegean Airways plane that quivers as we come into land. The island is tiny. Its population is around 500 in the off-season, but it’s much higher now. On the drive from the airport I see a phalanx of soldiers jogging. In the harbour, a hulking grey warship is moored by the quay. To its right rises the minaret of an Ottoman mosque, and up from there, the outline of the ruined Kastellorizo Castle, built by the Knights of St John Hospitaller during the fourteenth century, which replaced a Byzantine fortress that had once been a Hellenistic one. This part of the world has been contested for 800 years.

When modern autocrats look to destabilise their enemies, they go for the borderlands

“The Turks opposite are our friends,” says Stratos Amygdalos, the deputy mayor. “If it wasn’t for Covid, commerce between us would be thriving. We don’t say, ‘This is mine, this is yours; this is grey, this is red’.” But this is a borderland where by definition everything is demarcated. Borders project state power and authority: you may enter; you may not. You are Greek; you are not. But they are also the periphery, where central authority is often weakest. When modern autocrats look to destabilise their enemies, they go for the borderlands: Putin in eastern Ukraine and South Ossetia, Xi Jinping in Taiwan, and Erdogan in Kastellorizo and Thrace. Amygdalos is upbeat but there’s no denying the recent tensions. “We want to be good neighbours. We want commerce. We want tourism. But there is also the question of the homeland. We’re proud that it’s our island that brings Greece to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

“We want a stronger presence from the EU on Greek affairs. You see both the Greek and EU flags flying, don’t you? We’re proud to be a part of this union. We’re proud to protect Greece’s borders but we also protect the EU’s borders. We are Greek and we are European.” This reminds me of Macron’s words over the summer: “Europe must protect the sovereignty of its members when it is called into question.” 

What are the islanders’ thoughts on Turkey? I drink Heineken with the island’s 74-year old priest, the most belligerent person I meet on my travels. “Erdogan? Pah, all he’s good for is turning churches into mosques,” he says. “We are the ones that should have demands of Turkey. My father had property there: our churches, our schools, our houses were all there! My mother was from Symi but she lived in Asia Minor. She had windmills there for flour, and land and Turkish employees. And then, in 1922, it was all taken away.”

Making EastMed gas profitable would require a price of $9.00. It doesn’t make any real sense

The year 1922 is a key date here. Following the Hellenic army’s defeat in the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war, 900,000 Greeks native to the Ottoman Empire for centuries fled the new state of Turkey. This wretched human flow was then formalised as part of a wider “exchange of populations” by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne: more than 1.2 million Greek Orthodox from across Turkey were swapped with 335,000-400,000 Muslims in Greece. Greece, with a population of around five million people, absorbed a refugee wave from Turkey amounting to just under a third of its population. Today the borderlands are filled with the descendants of those pushed out — on both sides. Borders are places of tinnitus: they hum with unresolved history and trauma.

Lausanne also set the borders for modern Turkey. Under it, Ankara ceded all claims on Cyprus, several Middle East countries including Egypt and Libya, and, crucially, the Aegean islands, including Kastellorizo, which were under Italian control until they were ceded to Greece in 1947. This still grates. Just two years ago Erdogan said that in the face of “recent developments”, Lausanne needed “a revision.”

According to Mustafa Aydin, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Erdogan spoke to something deep in the Turkish psyche. “Under Lausanne, Ankara retreated from its Ottoman territories to Anatolia,” he tells me. “When Greece was established, every expansion of it was against the Turks. Now there is a belief that Greece, especially with these islands, is again trying to expand against Turkey. And there is a feeling that not one inch must be yielded.”

Erdogan, it seems, is fighting a much broader battle than one solely over EEZs, not least because Turkey’s research vessels have found no energy reserves in their zone, nor is there any evidence that they will. But there isn’t much of an energy case on the other side, either. According to a report from the London School of Economics, the Cyprus and Israel gas discoveries are around 255 billion and 1080 billion cubic metres respectively. By comparison, Russia has proven reserves of 38,000 billion cubic metres. It can supply the EU’s energy needs for 80 years; Israel and Cyprus for about three years only. (Egypt will probably be forced to guzzle its own supplies). And then there’s the price: in 2019 the Dutch TTF spot price for gas was $4.28; making EastMed gas profitable would require a price of $9.00. It doesn’t make any real sense.

Greece hasn’t given up trying to Europeanise the Turkish problem

I want to get out onto the contested sea, and the next morning, I meet Adonis, or “Tony”, to go out in his boat. We are1,600 miles from Brussels but only 420 miles from Damascus. He points out the Turkish coastline under a kilometre away. “Tony,” I ask, “are the Greeks Eastern or Western?”

“The Greeks are Europeans,” he replies without hesitation. “We are the original Europeans.” We approach the border between Greece and Turkey. It’s unmarked because it’s somewhere in the sea, and we are now straddling it. A Turkish coastguard boat appears: a small, motorised black dingy sporting the red and the white Turkish flag. It wants to know who we are. 

Tony wants to show us how tense things are here on the invisible border: he pushes the throttle to veer left, and the coastguard dinghy veers left with us; Tony brings us around to the right, and it follows, becoming our shadow. Tony’s point made, we flip 180 degrees and sail towards the harbour. I turn around to see it buzzing back and forth across the border line, spraying white foam in its wake like a stream of urine, a cat marking its territory. Tony turns to me. “There you go,” he grins. “A taste of Turkey.”

It’s 1981. I’m too young to have clear memories, and I suspect those I have come later from the stories my father tells me. But what exists in my mind is this: I am at home in North London on a vast sofa. There is cheering and shouting on the BBC World service. Cars are honking. My father is talking to people back in Greece, which has just joined the EEC. He is delighted. “Everyone needs to belong to something larger,” he tells me. “Nobody can stand on its own, especially a small country like Greece.”

Years later, I watch video clips of the debates that played out in the late 1970s over EEC accession, between prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis and his opponent Andreas Papandreou. In the end, it comes down to one question: where does Greece belong — East or West? Karamanlis has no doubt. In what has become a famous cry in this country he roars: “I Ellas anikei eis tin dysi — “Greece belongs to the West.” Papandreou replies, uncharacteristically calmly, “I Ellada anikei stous Ellines “Greece belongs to the Greeks.”

It’s 2004, and this I remember clearly: Greece has just won the Euro 2004 football championship. My father is stuck in traffic as the whole of Athens drives to the centre to celebrate. He calls me and holds his phone out of the window. There is cheering and shouting. Cars are honking. Greece has built, with the help of EU funds, a gleaming new Metro system in preparation for the Olympics it will host in just over a month. 

Greece is the poster boy for EU prosperity. Next door, Turkey is desperate for a piece of the action. Relations between the two countries are sunny: Greece pushes Turkey’s EU accession case in the Brussels corridors. “The people who really wanted Turkey in Europe were the Greeks because we thought we could Europeanise the Turkish problem, kind of soften it through Europe,” says government MP Dimitris Kairidis, when we talk over Zoom in locked-down Athens. “And for a while, when things were going well in Europe, prior to 2009, it seemed it could work.”

Borders are places of tinnitus: they hum with unresolved history and trauma

Greece still hasn’t given up. After I return from Kastelloriozo, I meet the American ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt. Sitting in the pleasant gardens of his residence in central Athens he outlines his thoughts. “For Greece, what’s striking to me is that through all of this [Greek PM Kyriakos] Mitsotakis has been undaunted,” he tells me. “He is clearly the strongest advocate of dialogue and de-escalation with Turkey inside his government — and he has been very methodical, very careful. I don’t think there is any other Nato member state which is as strongly aligned with the US as is Greece, on the principle that one way or another we have to keep Turkey anchored in the West and anchored in Euroatlantic institutions.”

The need to be anchored in Euroatlantic institutions once drove Ankara. But after rejection by the EU, it now attacks its borders. On 4 March, the target was Western Thrace in Greece’s north, where the border snakes for 120 miles along the River Evros. Erdogan did what he had long threatened: he opened his side of the border to the millions of refugees living in Turkey (for which he receives billions of euros from the EU). 

Almost 35,000 gathered at Evros, arriving in free coaches the Turks had laid on; many attempted to cross and fought Greek riot police. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell acknowledged Ankara’s large refugee “burden”, but stressed that Europe could not “accept that migrants are being used as a source of pressure”.

Welcome to Alexandroupolis: The point where Asia meets Europe,” says the airport sign. I have arrived in Thrace to meet my friend Vasiliki, who lives here. I’m here to see the northern borderlands. Our first stop will be Feres, a town close to the Evros border. We drive through fields of gold under turquoise skies. Tobacco once grew here, but the EU’s anti-tobacco regulations killed the industry. “People were being given subsidies of just 200 euros for enormous amounts of the stuff,” says Vasiliki. “It wasn’t sustainable. The area was destroyed.”

After the March crisis Athens announced that it would begin building a wall, or as it insists on calling it, a “fence”

Greek flags hang from the Feres bus station and from shops; they dangle from lampposts and electricity poles. Things aren’t like this in Athens. “In a normal country, a border would be an opportunity,” says Nikos Gtosis who was deputy mayor here until last year. “But this is not a normal country — or a normal border. We do what we can to protect it, because it’s not just Greece’s border, it’s Europe’s border. Turkey doesn’t respect human rights. It’s instrumentalising people to pressure the EU. It’s acting like a spoiled child and Europe always caters to it.”

Lausanne is everywhere. We drive to the white marble monument to Dutch colonel F.J. Backer who, during the treaty negotiations, mapped the border and decided the Evros region in Greece’s favour. Gtosis looks at me. “He gave us the delta,” he grins. We visit the church of Panagia Kosmosoteira, which the Ottomans turned into a mosque before the independent Greeks turned it back into a church. Arabic lettering covers the walls; the centuries can’t wash it away.

In Xanthi, the city with the largest Muslim population in Greece, the streets are thronged with veiled women. Most are old. At the entrance to the bazaar is a stall draped in shirts of the Turkish football team Fenerbahce. All around I hear intermittent, staccato bursts of Turkish and Romani. In this small corner of Greece, the Ottoman empire lives on. The market is chaotic and sprawling: it caters to a wide and multiethnic wallet.

“Where are you from?” trills a stallholder to Vasiliki. 


“Thought so. You look like a foreigner!”

In his sparkling surgery office, Hussein Baltatzi, a doctor who is also active in minority politics, tells me about the difficulties of being a Turk here, what Greeks sometimes contemptuously called Tourkosporos — the sperm of the Turk. “We are a common denominator between the two countries,” he say, “and it’s difficult. We don’t want to become the Golden Apple of Discord — something that is contested.” But it’s hard. Erdogan has made a habit of attacking the Greek government for its treatment of minorities. Three years ago, he visited Thrace and referred to the gathered crowd as “expatriates” and “fellow citizens”.

I have one more step on my journey: to see the culmination of the recent tensions. After the March crisis Athens announced that it would begin building a wall, or as it insists on calling it, a “fence”, on its Thracian border. It will cost around 62.9 million euros, be 27km long and almost five metres tall, and topped with barbed wire. It will be heavily patrolled on land and water. The government will also improve and reconstruct the existing, far less fortified, fence, which was damaged.

In Alexandroupolis police station, sitting in an office dominated by a vast map of the border area, Inspector Dimosthenis Kamarios, head of the regional border management and migration centre, tells me what I’ve heard in every single place in Greece’s borderlands: “We are not just normal police officers on the border of a simple third country, but the main entrance from the Middle East and Turkey to Europe. What happens on this border affects all of Europe.” He talks about the crisis in March. “We did 20,000 preventions. And those were only those trying to cross in the southern part of the border where we have jurisdiction. It was a direct consequence of Erdogan’s actions. He is weaponising these people.” 

When Europe felt strong its borders withered away like frost in sunlight

March was a big deal not just for Athens but for Brussels. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, came to Evros, and was blunt: “Our first priority is making sure that order is maintained at the Greek external border, which is also a European border.” She knows the chaos that will ensue if the borders are lost. Once again EU officials obsess over Greece. This small country on the flank of Europe remains at the heart of three great crises of our age: financial, European and migration. And in some form or another they are all present on the border.

And still the refugees are coming. “Since the 2016 failed coup against Erdogan, many Turks have tried to cross the border,” says Kamarios. “Since July, 85-90 per cent of interceptions are Turkish. People from the educated classes: police and army officers; a lot of teachers. I even had to arrest a Turkish border colleague I used to work with.”

It’s 2010. Greece is in crisis: the banks are in meltdown. Brussels accuses Greece of fiscal irresponsibility. It quizzes Athens about books that everyone knew were cooked. The bailout comes and the country is made to suffer. In Athens, the homeless multiply; Greeks line the streets alongside Syrians and Afghans. Greece is the EU’s basket case.

This is the arc of Greece, and of Europe, over my lifetime. As I sat in the police station, I understood that countries (and indeed supranational institutions) build walls not because they are strong but because they feel weak. I looked at the map on the wall and my eyes drifted upwards towards the Bulgarian border. Once smothered by an iron curtain, it’s now almost non-existent by virtue of shared EU membership. When Europe felt strong its borders withered away like frost in sunlight. One legacy of the last 20 years is that a Greek can travel all the way from this police station to Calais and not have to pass through customs once. This may or may not be wise, but it’s unquestionably a sign of confidence.

People here in the borderlands don’t worship the glory of their ancestors, they are oppressed by the ghosts of them

 Turkish aggression now drives Greece to wall itself up, its electrified turrets facing outwards. Meanwhile Turkey retreats inwards. People call Erdogan neo-Ottoman, but this is simplistic. As Aydin observes, “Turkey was first active in Central Asia and the Caucusus, which were never part of the Ottoman Empire. Its actions have more to do with the opportunities it’s had.” There is no grand plan. Like Putin, Erdogan is an opportunist; he probes for weakness. And what the West has presented him with for 15 years is both opportunity and weakness. Aydin concludes: “In recent years, especially after the US decided to withdraw from the region, Turkey has increasingly been able to find ‘gaps’ in which it could be active.” 

The gaps are widening. Recently, Erdogan scored a triumph, helping Turkey’s proxy Azerbaijan to defeat Armenia in Nagorno-Karabak, another borderland. It was the first time Turkey has been able to redraw the borders on the European continent since the eighteenth century. No wonder Macron rails: he knows the West did nothing to stop it either. 

They say Greeks are afflicted with Progonoplexia — ancestor-worship. But here in the borderlands, I think the truth is slightly different. People here don’t worship the glory of their ancestors, they are oppressed by the ghosts of them; they are weighted down by the freight of history, and the symbols that comprise it. Erdogan prowls the Eastern Mediterranean with dreams of rewriting Lausanne. Ankara will never yield again: not even an inch. Greeks vow “I Ellas anikei eis tin dysi” — they belong to the West. But, this time, will the West have the strength and the will to hear them?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover