After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, why did Turkey (i.e. its successor state) retain control of the Empire's Balkan holdings? Considering the historical origins of the Empire Turkey should have gotten its holdings in Anatolia and Asia Minor, while Istanbul and the Balkans should have been given to Greece (after all, Constantinople had been the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire for about a millennium).

Looking at the map now, Turkey literally holds what used to be the territories of the "Byzantines" (I don't like that word myself).

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    Istanbul was the Ottoman capital for centuries. Also, it sits on both sides of the Bosporus. Please explain why you think they should have let go of such a strategic city. May 5, 2019 at 14:57
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    Might be, but I'd say the strategic nature of the Bosphorus pretty much rules out giving it back except by force. What more, isn't Turk the majority ethnic group in that area? May 5, 2019 at 15:02
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    Before the Turks decided to persecute and murder the Greek population there were about 3/5 as many Greeks as Turks iirc. May 5, 2019 at 15:04
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    Yes, well... Consider taking that argument to its logical conclusion. Would you picture North and South Americans returning to the Old World, and give the whole continent back to Native Americans? After all, they've been there for even less time than the Turks have been in Istanbul. It's just not going to happen. (Plus, see Israel for an example of what happens when you try.) May 5, 2019 at 15:11
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    For argument's sake, one can look at the case of Jerusalem, which the Israelis conquered during a war, but as a gesture returned the most important portions of it to the loser of the war. Perhaps there are other examples of a victor allowing a loser to retain some lost territory May 6, 2019 at 13:46

3 Answers 3


The borders of Turkey were established first by the Treaty of Sevres and then by the Treaty of Lausanne. Turkey lost as a party of WWI, and the negotiations followed. Turkey did not accept the first of the mentioned treaties, and a war followed. Essentially the Turks won this war. The main loosing party was Greece, but the Western Allies did not want to or could not make sufficient effort to win this war. The compromise was achieved and fixed by the treaty of Lausanne.

The great power which wanted Constantinople and surrounding area was Russia which posited itself as a successor of the Byzantine empire. This desire of Russia was actually one of the principal causes of WWI. At some point during the war, the Allies were inclined to give Constantinople to Russia. But Russia was out of the war, and not a "great power" anymore, at the time when the war ended, its own empire collapsed, and there was no strong enough power willing to fight for Constantinople, so the allies agreed to leave it with Turkey. The Greeks were willing to fight but they were defeated. See Magali Idea about original plans of partition of defeated Turkey, after Russia was out of war.

So the short answer on your question: "The Turks fought hard for this territory and won". In fact the very existence of Turkey was in question. How could they win against all odds, is a separate question. But the main reason is that the Western allies had no will to fight in the 1920s, while Russia had more urgent things to worry about. And the Greeks were not strong enough.

Remark. In general, the borders are not established by "what is fair", or what is "reasonable", or "what belongs to whom, historically", or even what is the majority of populations, etc. Borders are the results of wars. At least the Old World borders.

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    Sometimes borders are the results of negotiations and treaties. But you should really emphasize the (im)practical insanity of the "arguing historically" method for borders (despite how often this is done to justify things). May 5, 2019 at 16:34
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    +1 especially for the last paragraph.
    – jamesqf
    May 5, 2019 at 18:24
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    “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
    – Davislor
    May 6, 2019 at 3:36
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    All of the New World's borders are also a result of conquest... May 8, 2019 at 7:27
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    What I am trying to say is that history cannot be condensed in a few lines but when it is done let the important events be referenced.
    – mchar
    May 8, 2019 at 10:23

Let's look at the map in 1913:

Europe 1913: Aftermath of the Balkan Wars (click for large)
Detail view 1913:
Map centered on Marmar region with labels, 1913
Omniatlas: Europe 1913: Aftermath of the Balkan Wars

Greece according to the Treaty of Sèvres
"Greece according to the Treaty of Sèvres", in Wikipedia: Partition of the Ottoman Empire

These tiny remnants of Rumelia on both maps are not overly meaningfully described as "Empire's Balkan holdings".

The Empire's Balkan holdings, or Rumelia, looked as recently as 1861 more like:

Guillaume Lejean's Ethnic map of European Turkey and its vassal states, 1861

Or even in 1912:

enter image description here

So, after the Great War, Turkey only emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and just held the line at its western border? Compared to its former "Balkan holdings", this is a really tiny strip of land in the historic Marmara region.

During the Turkish War of Independence and especially the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922) the chaotically mixed settlement patterns of Greeks, Turks, and 'others' made it not overly convenient to base any considerations for future borders on 'historic precedent', 'rights' or even 'majority populations'.
Contemplating something like "Istanbul and the Balkans should have been given to Greece" – for whatever historical reasons, going back to late antiquity even – would mean that any armchair diplomat proposing such would ignore the past 800 years of historical development and the then present situation on the ground. That is of course great for nationalist expansion and a terrible idea for peace.

To rephrase the initial question:
Q Was there a reason why Turkey retained the rest of the Balkan territories of the Ottoman Empire, instead of adding East-Thrace and Istanbul to Greece or another of the Balkan states?

Yes. The Paris Peace Conference had terrible ideas for the future borders of a post-Ottoman/Turkish state. That caused a war in which the participants wanted to decide the argument with force. Turkey emerged from that war less defeated compared to other prying eyes and was able to largely retain the borders in its West as agreed upon in the concluding Treaty of Lausanne.

The Greek front collapsed with the Turkish counter-attack in August 1922, and the war effectively ended with the recapture of Smyrna by the Turkish forces and the Great fire of Smyrna.

As a result, the Greek government accepted the demands of the Turkish national movement and returned to its pre-war borders, thus leaving East Thrace and Western Anatolia to Turkey.

The Allies abandoned the Treaty of Sèvres to negotiate a new treaty at Lausanne with the Turkish National Movement. The Treaty of Lausanne recognized the independence of the Republic of Turkey and its sovereignty over Asia Minor, Istanbul, and Eastern Thrace. Greek and Turkish governments agreed to engage in a population exchange.
WP: Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922)

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    I think this wouldn't be complete without adding that the population exchange and great fire was an euphemism for civilan Greeks being either burned alive or thrown in the sea in Smyrna. Not really the "wilsonian self-determination". Also borders for Austria and Hungary were even worse, but the allies didn't move nevertheless.
    – Bregalad
    May 6, 2019 at 19:44
  • @Bregalad That's right. Although I don't want to pick sides here. Both sides & the Great Powers behaved barbaric. And even today the remaining Turks in West Thrace are to be called "Greek Muslims". The enduring perils of nationalism. What a great idea to make a mess. May 6, 2019 at 20:03
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    I'm not taking sides either - just describing exactly what happened instead of using euphemism. For some reason using euphemism is unacceptable for the holocaust but acceptable for other similar historical events, God knowns why... And yeah this was in a time where acting barbaric became the norm.
    – Bregalad
    May 6, 2019 at 20:05
  • @Bregalad - It looks to me like the population exchange followed the Greek genocide (that being burned alive and thrown into the sea that you mentioned). Although the population exchange seems to have killed a number of people, too, so it could be considered a continuation. That latter bit, the Greek genocide, seems to have included the Great Fire of Smyrna but not been limited to it. It's a separate event, though still related.
    – Obie 2.0
    May 7, 2019 at 1:14
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    Hey, this Omniatlas thing is really amazing ! I love it !
    – Bregalad
    May 7, 2019 at 10:02

One must understand that the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, shortly after the end of the First World War, led to a political reconfiguration of greater Anatolia.

Much of present-day Turkey exists within the millennia old land of Anatolia-(then renamed, "Asia Minor" during The Roman Empire 2000 years ago). The contemporary country of Turkey exists, primarily due to the efforts and workings of Kemal Ataturk.

However, shortly before the rise of Kemal Ataturk, Anatolian Turkey, was essentially divided into various European territorial zones of occupation......this included, a Greek occupational zone, which returned the region of Ionia and in particular the city of Smyrna/(Izmir) to Greece in the year, 1919. However, the Hellenic controlled zone of Ionia and Smyrna only lasted 3 years and by 1922, the Greek population of Smyrna were literally chased out by Kemal Ataturk and the rabidly nationalistic Turkish military. The region of Ionia and he city of Smyrna/(Izmir), in particular, had been "ethnically cleansed" of its centuries old Greek population and the limited sovereignty that the Greeks had over Ionia and Smyrna-(as guaranteed by The Treaty of Sevres)....was discontinued.

Beginning in 1922-23, the Republic of Turkey was born whereby much of Turkey's present-day borders have remained largely unchanged in 100 years. Though it should also be noted that around the same time when the Republic of Turkey was founded, there was a population exchange between Greece and Turkey whereby hundreds of thousands-(or perhaps even millions) of Turkish Muslims living in Greece-(primarily, Northern Greece), were relocated to and exchanged with millions of Anatolian Greeks-(residing primarily in the Black Sea region) who were subsequently, relocated to Northern Greece.

As for present-day Istanbul, it is a city of about 6 million people, the vast majority of its residents are Turkish Muslims. The Greek Christian population-(which is primarily associated with the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate), numbers in the thousands. Judging from its demographics, the Greek Christian presence in present-day Istanbul, is nearly infinitesimal in size. In other words, the heyday of Byzantine Constantinople, is a historical memory whereby the impressively designed Dome of the Saint Sophia Cathedral....remains surrounded and punctuated by four minarets....and has remained so, since 1453.

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