The pastel-painted taverns, cafes and hotels that line the small port in the remote Greek island of Kastellorizo this time of year are usually bustling with tourists, including hundreds of day-trippers from Turkey — which is just a 10-minute speedboat ride away.
This year, the port is quiet, and not just because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This stunning, craggy isle surrounded by the deep-blue Aegean Sea has become a pawn in a dispute between Greece and Turkey — NATO allies and longtime frenemies — over maritime borders and offshore gas and oil exploration rights.
As tensions heightened last month, their militaries went on alert, sending warships and warplanes to the eastern Mediterranean, and raising fears of a confrontation.
“If you type Kastellorizo on Google, you will have an idea of war, gray zone, that something terrible is happening,” says Eleni Karavelatzi, a tourism marketer who grew up on the island. “This is not our world. This is politics.”
The trouble began when the Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis, accompanied by Turkish warships, started gliding near disputed waters to explore for offshore natural gas between Greece and Cyprus.
This angered the Greek government, which claims that, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Greece has exclusive drilling rights on the continental shelf of each of its islands. Turkey, which has not signed this convention, says it unfairly defines part of the Turkish continental shelf as Greek.
“And Turkey tries to make it look most unfair in the case of Kastellorizo,” says Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, a political science professor at Bilkent University in Ankara and head of the Turkey program at the Hellenic Foundation of European and Foreign Policy in Athens. “Turkey argues, how can this tiny island so close to Turkey deny continental shelf rights to a long Turkish coast?”
Turkey also takes issue with the Greek military presence on Kastellorizo, which is one of the Dodecanese islands that Italy ceded to Greece after World War II, with the provision that they be demilitarized. Greece says it made that promise to Italy, not to Turkey.
As the Oruc Reis made its way along the Aegean Sea, Greece sent its own navy ships to shadow it. When a Turkish frigate accidentally collided with a Greek warship on Aug. 12, both countries’ media speculated a showdown seemed imminent on Kastellorizo.
Karavelatzi could not even imagine it. The Turks who lived across the sea in the town of Kas were friends and neighbors. She remembers one Turkish man inviting the entire island to his wedding in Kas.
“People who are far away from the border think that we are enemies,” she says. “People that live near the borders don’t think that because they see how is it to drink ouzo and [have a] meze with Turks.”
This, she says, is what life looks like when politics gets out of the way.
The island of the “red castle”
The Turks call the island Meis, after its ancient Greek name, Megisti, which means “great.” Though the island is less than 4 square miles, it’s the largest of at least a dozen isles (most of them uninhabited) in a small archipelago. The name Kastellorizo likely has roots in Latin, says Constantina Agapitou Crowley, a former marketing executive whose roots here go back generations and who’s known as the island’s ambassador at large.
Travelers and invaders to the island always spotted an ancient castle and fortress, shaded red by the setting sun. “They called it Castello Rosso, Castello Rougio, the Red Castle,” Agapitou Crowley says, “and it eventually became Kastellorizo.”
The island changed hands many times — the Byzantines, the Knights of Malta, the Ottomans. Kastellorizo flourished in the 19th century as a sea-trading power with a population of more than 14,000. After two world wars and occupations by the French, Italians and British, most of its residents fled to Egypt, Palestine and Australia.
Agapitou Crowley first saw the island in 1968, 20 years after it formally joined Greece along with the rest of the Dodecanese islands. Kastellorizo’s homes were still in ruins from wars and looting.
“The first thing you noticed was the silence,” she says. “Then I noticed the breathtaking beauty and the incredible smell of figs.” Fig trees were everywhere. After residents fled during the war, the trees had sprouted in the cisterns of collapsed homes. Her family invested in the island and helped it rebuild.
By 1970, a former palace guard who joined the priesthood became the island’s presiding cleric. Father Giorgos Maltezos, or Papagiorgis as he’s known here, was happy to see life slowly returning to the island where he had grown up. Then Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. He feared Kastellorizo would be next.
“We heard it on the radio,” the priest recalled, settling down after his Sunday service at a fish tavern called Billy’s. “We shut off all the lights on the island. … At the time, we were vulnerable. We didn’t have soldiers here.”
Despina Achladioti, a widow who lived with her goats and chickens on the nearby islet of Ro, staked her defense by raising the Greek flag every morning. The priest calls her a hero. Greeks have deified her as the “lady of Ro.”
Greece installed an army base on Kastellorizo shortly after the Cyprus conflict, “to allay the security concerns of the islanders,” says Grigoriadis, the political scientist. “It’s still a very limited military presence.” The island is dotted with hidden shelters.
Kastellorizo got on the tourist map with the 1991 Oscar-winning movie Mediterraneo, which was filmed here.
Today, fewer than 500 people live on the island, most of them near the port. The number can go down to half that in the winter.
Earlier this month, a steel-gray military ship was docked at the marina, near a row of colorful fishing boats.
Fisherman Dimitris Achladiotis has gotten used to Greek soldiers in fatigues hanging around the island. As he unloads the catches of the day — amberjack and shrimp — he explains that the military presence has not hurt his relationships with Turkish fishermen, who work along the same invisible line in the sea that divides Greece from Turkey.
“We all know each other,” he says. “They’re good guys. … They used to eat with us here. Now instead of the Turkish fishermen, we pass Turkish military ships that get too close to us.”
Another Dimitris Achladiotis — the deputy mayor of Kastellorizo, who is related to the fisherman with the same name — also laments the loss of Turkish visitors from Kas. The deputy mayor, whom the islanders call O Psilos, meaning The Tall One, says he wants the “big politicians” in Athens and Ankara to work out the maritime dispute reasonably, “without any more tension, which is hurting us all here.”
He points out that Turks kept the restaurants and cafes busy even during the winter.
“One of my Turkish friends even uploaded a photo of himself on Facebook dancing Greek-style,” he says, with a sigh. “He said he misses us. We miss them too.”
Before the pandemic, Greeks shopped at the Kas farmers market every Friday. They hung out at the town’s clubs and cafes.
A love story
Kykkos Magiafis — who goes by Tsikos — met Hurigul Bakirci at one of those cafes almost 10 years ago.
“I had been out with my Turkish friends in Kas until really late,” says Magiafis, a Greek who was born and raised on Kastellorizo. “The sun was beginning to rise. I was dying for some coffee, and when I went to the first cafe that opened, there she was.”
“We spoke in a mix of Turkish, Greek and English,” says Bakirci, who is from Kas, laughing at the recollection. “A year later, we got married.”
She sometimes adds her husband’s Greek last name to her Turkish one. The couple has a 3-year-old son named Paraschos and homes in both Kas and Kastellorizo. They run a beach and lunch bistro on a nearby islet called Agios Georgios. The menu features homemade Turkish gozleme alongside Greek salads.
Bakirci, who has learned Greek, says their marriage prompted even more Turks to visit.
“Everyone wanted to see how I had settled here, how I was doing,” she says. “They would bring friends to our beach bistro, and those friends would bring more friends.”
Actors from Turkish soap operas — which are wildly popular in Greece — visited, too. Magiafis remembers how excited the islanders were. “The grandmothers were the best,” he says. “They all had canes yet they still seemed to be running to get autographs and hugs. It was so much fun.”
Now business is down, and Bakirci hasn’t seen her parents in person in six months. “It feels strange because we are 10 minutes away from each other,” she says. “I can see my house from the island, I can see their cars moving. We flash our headlights to each other to say hi.”
“Let’s give diplomacy a chance”
Political tensions between Greece and Turkey are not new. Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, until it declared independence in 1821. A century later, after the empire had collapsed, Turks and Greeks went to war over territory.
As recently as 1996, Turkey and Greece were on the brink of war over uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea.
“The United States, through Richard Holbrooke, averted an escalation back then,” says Grigoriadis, the political analyst, referring to the late U.S. diplomat.
“Now the United States is withdrawing from the world. The secretary of state made some statements [about the current Greek-Turkish standoff] but did not claim a leading role. The void is in part being filled by Germany, which is trying to make sure violence is off the table,” he says.
Earlier this month, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his government plans to purchase new French fighter jets, helicopters and weapons systems. On Sept. 13, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited Kastellorizo and declared that Turkey is causing “tensions aimed not only at Greece, but also the EU and NATO, threatening peace and stability in the region.”
The Turkish government criticized Greece for teaming up with Egypt, Israel and Cyprus — Turkey’s regional rivals — to form a new consortium to manage Mediterranean gas prices and infrastructure costs. In response, Ankara signed its own maritime agreement with Libya.
A series of diplomatic fails, including last year’s Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, has left Turkey isolated, says Sinem Adar, a research associate specializing in Turkey at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
“Turkey’s concerns are now nearly inaudible on the world stage,” Adar says. “If this conflict is worked out according to sensibility, then [Greece and Turkey] need to sit at the negotiating table and come up with some compromise. And if that doesn’t work, they should go to the International Court of Justice.”
The European Union, which is threatening fresh sanctions on Turkey, has largely taken Greece’s side. Last week, Turkey’s government decided to pull back its exploration vessel for maintenance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently told reporters, “Let’s give diplomacy a chance,” but he added that Turkey won’t stop surveying the eastern Mediterranean.
Pantazis Houlis, a Greek mathematician who recently opened a puzzle museum on Kastellorizo, has a special puzzle for Erdogan “in case he gets any ideas that our island is his,” he says.
“It’s like a Rubik’s cube with the colors of Greece, blue and white,” he says, twisting the cube. “And no matter how many ways you twist it, it’s always got the pattern of the Greek flag.”
Agapitou Crowley, the former marketing executive with deep roots on Kastellorizo, got used to watching Greek and Turkish military ships from her terrace, which has a sweeping view of the Aegean. She wonders how long the dispute will drag on.
“The irony is that, by the time this issue is solved, maybe all the gas and whatever will be obsolete,” she says. “And in the meantime, Kastellorizo and Kas will have suffered.”
Joanna Kakissis reported from Kastellorizo, Greece.