Greek Independence Day and Christian Commemoration of the Annunciation

Before we were ethnically cleansed in 1922 (when an estimated 100,000 Greeks were killed in 10 days), Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Turks as well as many Western Europeans lived peacefully in that thriving cultural and commercial centre that was Smyrne, a town of Polyglots. This, in spite of the fact that non-muslims were pretty clearly second-class citizens. Their testimony did not count in court, for example, and they were allowed few of their own schools.

Greeks are generally pretty aware of their history, but many foreigners do not seem to realise that for over 2000 years Greeks lived not only in those parts known as Greece today but right up to what is now Turkey and all down Asia Minor. From that fateful day on the 29th of May 1453, when the invading hordes from the Mongolian region defeated the besieged city of Constantinople after finding an  open gate in the walls, there followed some four hundred years of slavery and subjugation.

This applied not just to the Greeks, but to their Slav neighbours who had relatively recently (7th century AD) come to occupy Illyria and parts of Thrace. Perhaps one of the most hated aspects of this Ottoman occupation was the Turkish practice of kidnapping many non-muslim children, the boys being brought up in the Janissary armies to fight against their own people, and the girls being sold as sex-slaves.

People could come out of their second class citizenship by converting to Islam. This was accepted to a great extent by many of the Slavs of Bosnia with the resulting bitterness and divide that we witnessed in the country’s civil war at the end of the last century.

Over the centuries, regardless of who came and conquered and ruled, the Greeks held on to their own identity and culture.  Whether it was the Romans or Venetians or Ottomans (or in some islands, such as Cyprus, by the English or Arabs or Francs) who came to take the helm, the Greeks stubbornly held on to their ethnic identity. Children of mixed marriages tended to be proud of their Greek heritage and maintained it. My own Grandmother and one of her sisters (they were both teachers) played their individual roles in helping to keep the Greek language alive. The Ottomans did not allow sufficient Greek schools around Smyrne  and my grandmother and her sister, who were teachers, travelled by donkey from village to village to teach Greek to the Greek children.

The Ottomans were the longest foreign occupiers of the Balkan region, but resentment against them festered over the centuries. Greek resistance built up in the early 19th century and a series of revolts started on the 6th of March 1821. Independence was a gradual process. The Peloponnese had its first assembly in 1821/22. Afterwards Central Greece was freed. It wasn’t until May 1932 that it was recognised as an Independent State. After a fashion, that is to say. Its internal affairs were largely controlled by the three great powers: United Kingdom, France and Russia. Greece was even assigned a foreign king, Prince Otto of Bavaria. The Ionian Islands, which had been ruled by the Venetians for Centuries thereby escaping the tyranny of the Ottomans, became part of Modern Greece in 1864. Ioannina, near the border to Albania, did not gain independence till 1913 and Rhodes was handed back to Greece only after the Second World War, the Italians having previously been in control there.

In some regions Greeks have been totally deprived of independence. Many Pontians were killed and many emigrated to the Modern Greek State, but the Pontian Greeks that are left remain isolated near the Black Sea. Being cut-off from the rest of us, they have evolved a dialect of their own, which is none-the less clearly understandable to a Greek .  In Constantinople many Greeks were expunged by the subterfuge of a special ethnic tax that made it impossible for many Greeks to carry on living there. In Smyrne we had the Greek Hollocaust, the “Big Catastrophe” of 1922. An estimated 100,000 people exterminated in 10 days. Turkish forces  set fire to the city, first to the Armenian quarters  then adding vast amounts of petrol for it to spread to the Greek quarters. Pandemonium reigned with much pillaging and rape. The fire raged till it was burnt out. The heat was so great that people rushed to the harbour and hung from the jetties to cool in the sea and Turkish soldiers would come and slice off their hands.   Ships from various countries including Britain were in the harbour. Having encouraged the Greeks to revolt, Britain joined the other Western Powers in a stance of neutrality. The British Admiral gave orders for loud marshal music to be played to drown the anguished screams that filled the air in case sailors should obey their human instincts and come to people’s rescue. After ten days of hell, the admiral’s conscience got the upper hand and orders were given for all available boats to be lowered and filled with refugees.

In Cyprus a sort of independence was gained from its British colonists in 1960 without it being allowed to fulfil the wishes of the people and unite with the Greek motherland.  An unworkable constitution was imposed with Turkish Cypriots being given a disproportionate size of parliamentary vote and an absolute power of veto which they systematically used to prevent new laws being enacted. The resulting tensions led to the Turkish invasion of 1974 with the Greek inhabitants of the Northern parts being kicked out of their homes and farmlands, while America encouraged the Turks to take a third of the island and Britain quietly ignored its treaty obligations to intervene in such situations, standing by as it had done in Smyrne at the time of the “Big Catastrophe”.

What does the future hold? Who knows? The Hellenes of today probably face more threats to their existence than they did at any other time in their entire history, but they treasure their identity.

The value the people place on their heritage and the respect they feel for those 19th century freedom fighters such as General Kolokotronis can be seen, not just in the big Independence Day parades of the main towns, but also and more impressively in the small villages such as Lageia. I went to visit it on the eve of Independence Day. In the morning I attended the traditional Church Service commemorating the joint celebration of Greek Independence and Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary of her imminent motherhood to Jesus Christ.  After the Church Service there was a parade by the local children, a theatrical depiction of how things were at the time of the revolution for Independence and then a breakfast of salads and bread and Greek sweetmeats - A delightful, warming, experience where one could feel the heart and soul of the people.

The ancient past of the Greeks has left, in my opinion, three major influences to the Greek character of today’s times: The Athenians, with their great philosophers in particular, left us with a questioning mind, one much disliked by the ruling powers. The Macedonians, both Alexander the Great and his father Phillip, unified the different Greek City states, in part by diplomacy, in part by coercion. The Spartans had an ethic of never giving up, of “never leaving their shield”, because they needed it either to fight or, as a stretcher to carry them home if they died. From them we have inherited tenacity and concepts of honour and “Philotimo” a word that does not translate as one word into any other language I know.

Once in England I asked several Greek friends: “Do you know what “Philotimo” is?
“Of course I know,” they would reply.
“Tell me in English,” I would say.
“Respect.  Respecting other people.” There would be a pause. “Respecting one self”.
Sometimes the answer come the other way round:
“Self-respect…Respecting people.”

You see every Greek grows up with a concept inherent in the Greek language of the twin attributes of respect – to oneself and to others. Not every Greek will live by this code, but he will have the concept built in to his mind set. By the same token although other peoples may not have the concept built in to their vocabulary they too can live by it.

It is my belief that if a man-made solution to the artificially generated “Cyprus problem” is ever to be found, it will come not from high ranking politicians fluent in International “Blabla”, but somehow from the hearts and souls of ordinary people who value the twin aspects of respect – of self and other.