1821, was just the beginning: Greek lands in a time of Revolution and beyond

Billy Cotsis explains that it was never just 400 years of occupation. Some areas were never liberated while other Greek lands were never occupied by the Ottomans. This article provides a snapshot of Greeks in Albania, Romania, Asia Minor, Constantinople and elsewhere. The author has visited the museum of Philiki Eteria in Ukraine and most of the places he writes about in the article.

1821, such an important and emotional period for the Hellenes. However, it wasn’t solely four centuries of Turkish occupation, there were other enemies at the gates. Let us start with the ones who gave us the biggest headaches. The Seljuk Turks, forerunners to the Ottomans, came to medieval attention by defeating an overconfident emperor, Romanos, at Manzikert on the outskirts of what is now Syria and Turkey. Up until this moment in 1071, the legacy of the Greek Macedonian House (ended 1057) of the Byzantine Empire, was as the superpower of the known world. Romanos was forced to kneel down and surrender as the leader of the nomads placed his sandals on his neck. Humiliation. All Romanos had to do, was not engage in an unfavourable terrain where the Seljuk horseman came into their own. Like many a Greek ruler with an ego, he ignored his advisers, though he was also betrayed by some of his Byzantine rivals who fled with thousands of troops during the battle.

This defeat was not the end of Byzantine dominance of Anatolia. Rather, it opened the gates for the nomads to pour in and eventually settle, taking hundreds of Greek and Armenian towns within decades.

Constantinople retained control over most of Anatolia until the 1204/5 betrayal of the Crusaders who took the city; Byzantium weakened dramatically and never recovered its former glory as it split into the Empire of Trebizond (Pontic region), Despotate of Epirus and the Empire of Nicaea. The latter empire was based in Anatolia and would eventually regain Constantinople in 1261, restoring the city as capital of the Byzantine empire, with territory stretching from the Peloponnese to the Black Sea. Sadly, the damage done from the Crusaders and the temporary Latin Empire, which stripped Constantinople of wealth, was lasting. Add in a series of disastrous Greek civil wars in the 1300s, culminating with the entry of Ottoman Turks to Gallipoli and Europe in 1354 and permanently by 1376. Gallipoli would not be free again until after WW1, then permanently lost to the newly created Turkey at the end of 1922.

During this era, thanks to the Latins, parts of the Greek speaking world was absorbed into new kingdoms/empires. Venice, who benefitted the most from the fall of Constantinople in 1205, began picking up islands and territory across the Balkan coast. Genoa had similar success in the Aegean and Black Sea as well as a colony in Asia Minor opposite Constantinople. In Magna Graecia, last remaining Greek towns had well and truly been taken by Normans or Latins almost two centuries earlier.

Why am I telling you all of this?

The Turks weren’t the only ones to take advantage of Greek speaking territories. It is important to know there were enemies everywhere and within Greek speaking lands. Cyprus had been lost to the English and French and Palestine and Syria long gone to Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans. By 1453, Constantinople and a few Greek territories remained free of Ottomans and Latins. Over the next few years, the Ottomans took Constantinople after one last heroic siege that was just hours away from being saved from the barbarian hordes. This was followed by Trebizond in 1460 and the Morea (Peloponnese) by 1461. The last remaining Greek towns of the Crimea were taken in December 1475. In 1480, Otranto the Italian town with many Greek speakers, was taken for a short period before the Ottomans were repelled.

The 1500s saw a consolidation of Ottomans in the Balkans and Mediterranean, as arguably the pre-eminent power of Europe. The following century would see Venetian and Genoan losses to the Ottomans with Crete the biggest blow. By the time the 1800s commenced, Russia, France, Britain had surpassed the Italians and the Ottomans. The Greeks attempted a number of uprisings in Crete and the Orlov ‘revolution’ in 1770, which was poorly supported by the Tsar.

While the Russians may have struggled to help with troops and more realistic support, they did protect the Greeks of the Crimea/Ukraine. The city of Marioupolis on the Sea of Azov was founded by Greeks, while Odessa on the Black Sea became a vital hub for Hellenes. I have been to both cities and met many of the descendants of our patriotic uprising who live in these cities. I had the privilege of being given a solo tour of the House of the Philiki Eteria, which is where many revolutionaries met in the early 1800s. I read their journals, diaries, visited the rooms they met in and planned for their uprising. The Russians were supportive of Hellenes, a far cry from the Stalin and communist era which resulted in tens of thousands of Hellenes dead and many more banished to Siberia. The assassinated Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V was brought to Odessa in 1821 for burial at the Greek church of Saint Troiskaya located at Ekaterininskaya 67. I have been there to pay my respects. 

Under the Ottomans, there were areas of that empire which were either self-governed or controlled outright by Greeks. In fact, the early Ottomans are more benign than many have given them credit for. Greeks prospered as they generally understood commerce. Constantinople Greeks continued the level of schooling and education that was standard during Byzantium. In an area of the city called Phanor, you could find thousands of Greeks. A class of bureaucrats emerged, known as the Phanariotes.

The territories of Romania are without doubt the most prominent for the Phanariotes who ruled on behalf of the Ottomans, however, they were virtually independent in their own fiefdom, Wallachia and Moldavia; both were host to a number of noble families. One of these was the Byzantine nobility of the Cantacuzino. Not content with having accelerated Byzantine decline in the 1300s through a series of disastrous wars, a branch of the family had made their way to the region upon the fall of Constantinople hoping to continue their noble existence.

In 1593, Michael the Brave who was half Greek through his mother Theodora Cantacuzene came to power in Wallachia with the blessing of the Ottomans. Within a few months he had turned against the Sultan and declared Wallachia independent with the support of neighbouring Catholic kingdoms. In 1600 he managed to gain control of Moldavia and Transylvania. This was the first time a unified Romania was created, however, he was assassinated in 1601.

The Sultan, having had enough of the Romanian/Greek intrigue in the 1700s from Wallachia and also Moldavia, sought an end to the local prince/rulers system which was nominally elected by local Boyar nobility. Probably a fine idea except he brought in Greeks from the Phanar area of Constantinople. Clearly a lesson was not learnt.

Nicholas Mavrocordatos was the first Phanariote to rule. The key elements of rule by Mavrocordatos was the promotion of Greek culture; they brought as much Greek influence as they could muster including Greek fashion, promotion of the language, costumes and Hellenic manners, whilst building a number of Greek Orthodox churches. Nicholas wrote a Greek novel, the Leisures of Philotheos. It should be noted that the Greek culture was already noticeable prior to the Phanariote era, they simply elevated it to a level that was below local culture.

In 1812, Russia gained sections of the Danube and a section of Moldavia between the two rivers Pruth and Dniester. There were many Greeks living here and as far as the Black Sea coast.

The Ypsilanti family at this time were the effective rulers of Wallachia, with Alexander strongly in favour of the independence movement which had grown from a light breeze to strong wind. It is interesting that the family originated from Trebizond on the Pontus, hence a strong feeling of anti Ottoman resentment was felt.

Some might ask the question, ‘why on earth would one want to give up the good life for a Greek uprising that had no guarantee of success?’ It’s probable that the Ypsilanti’s were genuine in their desire to see the Greeks rise again. Perhaps the Pontian spirit was the true guide. Greeks were educated, had a long history and had proven themselves capable in the principalities, more or less. Perhaps the education and enlightenment of the ancestors of Homer and Aristotle that longed to be free of any overlord.

Alexander was succeeded by his son (Constantine) and grandson by the 1821 uprising took place. This said grandson was a name that will forever be remembered in Greek folklore, Alexander Ypsilantis. He fought for the Tsar for over a decade, helping turn the tide against Napoleon. He was promoted to the rank of General before making his way back to Bucharest by around 1820. He became the leader of Philiki Eteria.

By the end of the year, Alexander thought he could muster Romanians as well as Greeks in the Principalities and from across Europe. Romanians were not enthused by helping Greeks; they had not suffered unduly by the Ottomans who did not keep any troops stationed past the Danube. With the Tsar offering no support, Ypsilanti nonetheless pressed ahead with his plans. Unfortunately, a strong 30,000 military contingent crossed the Danube on orders of the Sultan. Rather than meet them before they crossed into the principalities, Alexander fell back on a defensive position with his limited forces. Hence whilst the revolution was declared in March, by June the Greek leader had been completely defeated. Further ignominy was heaped upon him by the Tsar who stripped him of his Russian military rank.

The name Ypsilanti btw, is honoured by a town in America.

There was no such concept as Greece, as defined by modern boundaries. Ypsilanti, had he been successful would have created a Greek entity far from the Greek heartland. It is probable that up to 10% of the population was Greek. Not enough to have a viable Greek country in the long term. The uprising in the Danubian principalities proceeds 25 March by several weeks. Additionally, the Laconians declared independence and epanastasi at Areopolis on the 17th.

As the Greek Revolution was now in full swing in the Morea, which would eventually lead to the liberation of the Peloponnese, Steria Ellada and Athens and a few Greek islands. That was it unfortunately. Independence truly came by 1832 when the apparent Great Powers bestowed upon us a German king. Ironically, the Nazis would cause catastrophic damage to Greece a century later, and to this day owe Greece hundreds of billions in damages and stolen gold. 

In 1854, Epirus revolted but failed after the Great Powers sided with the Ottomans. A theme that the Hellenes would experience repeatedly in the 1900s when Mussolini occupied Corfu in 1923 and Bulgaria was awarded reparations in 1926 for a short war. Both episodes were not provoked by Greece, yet the supposed Great Powers sided against Hellas. Mussolini claimed that Corfu had spent 400 years under Venice and should ‘return’ to Italy.

Other Greek lands to gain liberaty: Ionian Islands from the British in 1864, Thessaly and Arta in Epirus in 1881. Then Epirus, most of Macedonia, various islands and some of Thrace in the First Balkan War 1912, then Crete, Serres, Kavala in 1913 during the Second Balkan War, followed by more of Thrace; though our mates the Great Powers forced Greece to give up parts of Macedonia to Serbia and Bulgaria, helping give rise to some of the issues we now have in the region. The apparent Great Powers also gave parts of Epirus to Albania, resulting in a Greek majority in many areas of Albania. With mates like these, who needs enemies! Smyrna and its hinterland and areas around Gallipoli to the Black Sea were returned to Greece in 1919 before a disastrous war with what became Turkey concluded in 1922. Had we stopped a year earlier, Greece today would have territory that surrounds Constantinople (though would not include former Byzantine capital), Gallipoli, and land on the sandy beaches of the Black Sea. Sadly, Greek political intrigue, incompetence and the Great Powers led to the Turkish victory under an energetic Ataturk. 

In 1940 – 41 Greece regained parts of Albania that traditionally belonged to Epirus. This was lost to the Germans again, same nation which trained the Ottomans/Turks in modern warfare in World War One and genocide. The Germans had tested genocide measures in Africa in the early 1900s, brutally massacring 30,000 innocent people. 

The final remnants of liberation or independence came to the Dodecanese by 1948, formally taking possession from Italy, and in the 1960s and 70s, there was a big push for enosis/union between the newly independent Cyprus and Greece, before the disgraceful Junta and Turkey did their bit to bring war to Cyprus and an occupation that pathetically remains today.

Constantinople, the Sea of Marmara islands, Asia Minor, Imvros, Tenedos and occupied Cyprus were areas with millions of Greeks, are now inhabited by a combined total of 7,000 Hellenes, if that. 

1821 precipitated independence to many Greek lands, though, it is not as simple as 400 years of Ottoman/Turkish yolk. Nor were the Ottomans the only occupiers of Greek speaking territories. However, it took over a century to develop the modern boundaries of Greece, with many territories inexplicably remaining outside the borders. My hope is that our nation never again has to fight for liberation or be screwed by ‘allies’ and that we remain at peace and friends with our neighbours. We all appreciate the struggles of Greece; we can never forget the past. We must always honour her and her people. The people must stand united, not just for 1821, for all our patriots before and since. 

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