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Revolution and the Great Church
In the history of a nation's hour of triumph a myth is often embedded, a romantic story of heroic action or noble gesture which passes from generation to generation even though nobody really believes it. The Greeks cherish such a myth about the outbreak of their war to win independence from the Ottoman empire. This empire, dominated by the Turks, was one of the most impressive that the world has ever seen. It lasted from its foundation by Osman I in the fourteenth century until the end of the 1914--18 war. At its greatest extent it stretched from Algiers to Baghdad and from Cairo to Budapest. From the time of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 Greece became a small, poor and backward part of this great empire, and remained so for nearly 400 years.
In the early months of 1821 Greece showed all the signs of impending revolution against her Turkish rulers. Plans for it were debated, dates for its outbreak were discussed, and widespread purchase of weapons led to a shortage of powder and shot in the bazaars.One of the most prominent Greek leaders was Georgios Yermanos, bishop of Patras in the north-west Peloponnese for the last fifteen years. Yermanos was not simply a local dignitary. A personal friend of the Greek Orthodox patriarch, his reputation and influence extended beyond the Peloponnese to the rest of mainland Greece and to the islands of the Aegean. It is on Bishop Yermanos that the myth centres.
According to the story Yermanos was summoned from Patras at the end of March 1821 to Tripolis in the central Peloponnese for one of the regular meetings of Greek leaders with the Turkish authorities. His route took him to Kalavrita, high in the hills above the Gulf of Corinth, and there he declared that he would go no further. After spending a night in prayer at a convent, he proceeded on 25 March to the nearby monastery of Ayia Lavra, where 1,500 armed peasants were assembled. He promised them a miracle: that when the Turks came to seize him, the Greeks needed only to shout the Old Testament slogan 'Thine, O Lord, is the victory.' So it turned out: when sixty Turkish cavalry appeared, the united roar echoed from the surrounding mountains and the Turks scattered and fled pell-mell back to Kalavrita.
As the story continues, a Te Deum was sung, and Yermanos, now regarded as a supernatural being, celebrated mass, and then addressed the assembled throng. There will be no help, he said, from the Christian powers. What benefit, he asked the military leader and former mercenary Kolokotronis, did you ever get for shedding your blood under the Russian flag? France, always the friend of the Greeks, could provide only distant and indirect help. As for Britain, the governor of the British-held Ionian islands and the English consuls in Greece were so hostile that one could count them as on the Turkish side.
Nevertheless, Yermanos went on, we can no longer remain subjects of the Sultan, and he pointed out that the die was now cast. The whole of Greece was compromised by action already taken against the Turks, which he described as 'a spark which will produce a general conflagration'. The attempted revolution now in progress among the weak-spirited people of Moldavia and Wallachia would fail, but both that venture and the rebellion in Iannina of Ali Pasha, the 'criminal', would helpfully divert Turkish forces. He claimed for Greece the islands of the Aegean, and districts and cities as far north as Ali Pashas domain, a boundary not in fact achieved until nearly a century later. The supreme principle of our policy, he said, must be to conquer or to die, and he concluded: 'I will go back into the Lord's house and will repeat to you from the pulpit of truth what I have told you today: that our whole history, and our whole future, are enshrined in the words religion, freedom and fatherland.'
His speech ended, Yermanos allocated tasks to each leader, and with other priests received confessions. Then he mounted a knoll and gave a general absolution to the crowd, which had now grown to 5,000, the same number as those to whom Christ preached in the desert. After distributing to each, by his own hand, the consecrated bread, he released the faithful from their Lenten fast, publicly doing so himself and declaring that, since the life and religion of all were under threat, they must have strength to defend the people and the altar.
So ends the legend-creating account. The Greek revolution did in fact begin in the spring of 1821, but this whole incident was pure invention. Neither Yermanos nor Kolokotronis, whom he is supposed to have addressed, were at Ayia/Lavra on 25 March, Kolokotronis being miles away in the southern Peloponnese. Contemporary historians, Greek and foreign, dismissed the episode as only assumed to be historical or as simply false. The story comes from the pen of Francois Pouqueville, French consul in Greece and author of a four-volume history of the Greek rising rushed out in 1824. Pouqueville is not to be trusted. He invents incidents, and plucks convenient facts and figures from the air. He does so either to enhance a story or to express his animus against any country but his own, as he did in Yermanos' supposed references to Russia and Britain and in his own calumnies against some of his fellow consuls. If Chauvin had not given his name to bellicose and exaggerated nationalism, Pouqueville might have done so.
Nevertheless Ayia Lavra has become for Greeks the defining venue for the outbreak of their revolution, and 25 March is still a day of national celebration. The appeal of Pouqueville's story is that it links the Greeks' revolution in every possible way to the Bible, to religious faith and to the Orthodox church: the setting at a monastery, the Biblical slogan which scattered the Turkish cavalry, the gathering of a Biblical 5,000, the date which coincided with the religious Feast of the Annunciation, the emphasis on religion ahead even of freedom and fatherland. In this the myth reflects reality. The church had indeed been the main preserver of Greek national identity throughout nearly 400 years of Turkish rule.
As Sultan Mehmed II launched his Ottoman forces in a final attack on Byzantium's capital Constantinople in the early hours of Tuesday 29 May 1453 it was the churches whose bells rang the alarm throughout the city, and whose buildings were sought as asylum by the terrified inhabitants. Constantinople fell that day. Churches were pillaged, and the refugees still sheltering there either slaughtered or led away for ransom or to slavery. In the late afternoon of that cataclysmic Tuesday the Sultan entered Ayia Sophia, the greatest church in the city and indeed in the whole of Byzantium. From the pulpit a Muslim cleric proclaimed that there was no God but Allah, and the Sultan himself mounted the altar slab and made obeisance to the God of his faith.
The triumph of the Ottomans might have been expected to mark the end of the Greek Orthodox church, but this did not happen. Many of the churches of Constantinople were saved from destruction on the grounds, sometimes rather artificial, that they had surrendered rather than been captured. The Sultan, still only 21, had Greek blood, a beloved Greek stepmother and a profound admiration for the Byzantine achievement. He was therefore sympathetic to his new Greek subjects, and his policy towards them was from the beginning pragmatic rather than destructive. The Greeks were to form a separate community within the Ottoman empire, subject to its laws and taxes but otherwise largely self-governing. The ultimate responsibility for their good behaviour was to lie with the patriarch of the Orthodox church who would, as in Byzantine times, reside in the city which was now named Istanbul, though for the Greeks it would always remain Constantinople.
The office of patriarch was at that moment vacant, and the Sultan could make his own choice. This fell on the eminent and widely respected scholar Georgios Yennadhios. There was an excellent political reason for appointing Yennadhios, in that he was the leading opponent of the union of the Eastern and Western churches, that is of the Orthodox and the Catholics. This union was the subject that the two sides had met to discuss at the Council of Florence fourteen years earlier. There the Orthodox, under pressure from the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologos, who wanted Western political and military support against Ottoman invasion, had reluctantly signed an act of union with the Catholics which was widely unpopular with the Greeks. A later historian described the strength of anti-union feeling on the eve of Constantinople's fall: 'If, at this ultimate hour, an angel had appeared to the Byzantines and had told them: "Admit the union of the two Churches and I will scatter your enemies," the Greeks would not have listened and would have preferred the yoke of the Ottomans; such deep traces had the schism left.'
The Sultan had no wish to see the western European powers giving to their fellow Christians the support against Islam which John VIII had tried to secure at Florence. Thus the anti-union Yennadhios was a highly suitable candidate for patriarch, but at first he could not be found. Eventually it was learnt that he had been captured at the fall of Constantinople and was now the house slave of a wealthy Turk in Adrianople, modern Edirne. He was brought back to Constantinople and in January 1454 was enthroned as patriarch in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The formal enthronement was a link with the past. A secure future was promised in the words of the Sultan as he handed Yennadhios the robes, staff and pectoral cross of office: 'Be Patriarch, with good fortune, and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges that the Patriarchs before you enjoyed.'
The terms on which Yennadhios accepted the patriarchate laid down the framework of semi-autonomy for the Christians in the Ottoman empire. The patriarch himself, and his successors, were guaranteed personal inviolability, freedom of movement and exemption from taxes. No more churches were to be converted to mosques. Patriarchal rather than Turkish courts were to deal with all cases where only the Orthodox were involved. The patriarch could tax the Orthodox to raise money for the church. In return for these privileges the patriarch was responsible to the Ottoman authorities for the good behaviour of his flock and for ensuring that they paid their taxes to the state. These patriarchal powers and responsibilities were not limited to the Greek members of his flock. They extended in principle to all the Orthodox churches which then or later were part of the Ottoman empire: the patriarchates of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch, the Slav Orthodox churches and even nominally the Russian.
All this promised well. The patriarchate was under the protection of the state, its powers were consolidated and in some respects extended, and the rights as well as duties of the Christian community were formally established. But the weaknesses of the arrangement soon became evident. The promise not to convert churches to mosques was overridden by later sultans. Church leaders were now involved in the politics of the Sultans court and skill in intrigue became as important an attribute as spirituality. Finally, there was the question of money. Though the patriarch was personally exempt from taxes, the patriarchate as an office was not, and taxes on it steadily rose. Furthermore, since under the Yennadhios agreement a patriarch, though elected by the Holy Synod, needed confirmation by the state, the practice developed of making a payment to the state on election. These payments increased not only in amount but also in frequency, as Turkish intrigues brought about repeated changes of patriarch: a total of sixty-one elections in the hundred years 1595-1695. Thus by the eve of the Greek war of independence the patriarchate was hugely in debt.
Chronically short of funds, the church neglected the clergy in the towns and villages. Little was done for the clergy's own education, or to enable them to provide schooling for their parishioners. In fact, with the Turkish conquest, Greece entered a dark age of education. The university at Constantinople and the academies at Thessalonika, Mistra and Trebizond all disappeared. A century after the fall of Constantinople a professor from Tubingen, Martin Crusius, on a visit to Greece lamented: 'In all Greece studies nowhere flourish. They have no public academies or professors, except for the most trivial schools in which the boys are taught to read the Horologion, the Octoechon, the Psalter, and other books which are used in the liturgy. But amongst the priests and monks those who really understand these books are very few indeed.' By the beginning of the nineteenth century a disgruntled traveller could maintain that Orthodoxy was no more than 'a leprous composition of ignorance, superstition and fanaticism'.
Nevertheless, the church remained in close touch with the people. The village priest was chosen from among the villagers, and lived as they did. If the community wanted to protest against acts of aggression or extortion by the state, it was often through the local pappas and his superiors that this could be done. While the nation's Muslim occupiers attended the mosque, a sense of Greek national identity was maintained by the church services in the Greek language. It is still widely believed in Greece that the local churches were also used as secret schools. Greeks of today still remember the children's rhyme beginning 'Phengaraki mou lambro':
Little moon, so bright and cool,
Light me on my way to school,
Where to study I am free,
And God's word is taught to me.
Why, the mystified child would ask, should it be the moon which lights the way to school, and would be told that because of Turkish oppression children had to creep from their homes at night to learn their language and religion secretly from the local pappas. But the Turks did not suppress education, secular or religious: they left it in the hands of the Orthodox patriarch. Probably many children did go to a makeshift school, often in a church and with a priest as teacher, but went at night simply because they were working in the fields all day.
By the end of the eighteenth century the patriarch was faced with an increasingly difficult dilemma. On the one hand, the church was, for the Greek people, the trustee of their continuity with the past, and many saw it as the guarantor of their eventual liberation. On the other hand, the patriarch had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Sultan on taking office, and had accepted the agreement made by Yennadhios at the very beginning of Turkish rule. Was it not therefore the patriarch's duty to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's? The church was thus at the head of both collaboration and resistance and was, as it were, cast simultaneously in the roles of Petain and de Gaulle. The collaborationist role was the dominant one, in public at least. A Paternal Exhortation was published in 1798, over the signature of the patriarch of Jerusalem but perhaps composed by Grigorios V, then patriarch of Constantinople as he was again in 1821. The document could hardly have been more obsequious: the author thanked God for the establishment of the Ottoman empire, which had preserved Orthodoxy and saved it from the incipient heresies of Byzantium, and he ordered the faithful to obey and respect the Sultan whom God had set in authority over them.
As revolution approached, the patriarchal line hardened even further, and at the first outbreak of revolt in March 1821 an encyclical was circulated, over the signatures of the patriarch Grigorios and twenty-two other prominent churchmen, excommunicating any who took part in a revolution against their lawful sovereign the Sultan. But the dilemma of the church could not be resolved in this or any other way. Grigorios was arrested for supposed complicity in the revolt, hanged at the gate of his own palace and his body dragged through the city and thrown into the Bosphorus. The Great Church still had a significant contribution to make in the fight for independence, but the patriarchate now had none.
Excerpted from The Greek War of Independence by David Brewer Copyright © 2003 by David Brewer. Excerpted by permission.
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|A note on pronunciation||xiii|
|A note on currencies and prices||xiv|
|1.||Revolution and the Great Church||1|
|2.||Resentment and Regeneration||8|
|3.||Two Prophets of Revolution||17|
|4.||The Philiki Eteria||26|
|6.||Revolt along the Danube||49|
|7.||Doubts and Deliberations in the South||62|
|8.||The Storm Breaks||70|
|9.||The Land War||79|
|10.||The War at Sea||89|
|11.||The Turkish Reaction||100|
|12.||The Capture of Tripolis||111|
|13.||Forming a Government||124|
|14.||The Eyes of the World on Greece||135|
|15.||The Philhellenes in Action||145|
|17.||The Expedition of Dramali||168|
|18.||The Greeks Divided||180|
|19.||Byron's Road to Greece||194|
|20.||Byron at Mesolongi||204|
|21.||Gold from London||220|
|22.||Civil War in Greece||226|
|23.||Ibrahim in the Peloponnese||234|
|24.||The Involvement of the Powers||247|
|25.||Odysseus and Trelawny||258|
|26.||The Fall of Mesolongi||269|
|27.||The Second English Loan||289|
|29.||Athens, the Last Ottoman Success||306|
|30.||The Treaty of London and the Admirals' Instructions||316|
|32.||Kapodhistrias, a Border and a King||337|