Monday, March 22, 2004


It has been the marvel of visitors to Greece for two centuries now, as to how highly developed the Greek people’s sense of identity actually is. This sense of identity has been forged from the common consciousness of three thousand years of civilisation. The forging largely took place in the nineteenth century, when a renascent Greece sought to formulate a national ideology that would justify its existence. Of course, there was plenty of material to choose from and the Greece of the three eras, ancient, Byzantine and modern, is with us still today, passionately nationalistic and largely ignoring the long sojourns and contributions of other nations in the geographical area of Greece.
It comes for example as a surprise for many to learn that the most successful emperors of Byzantium were actually of Armenian descent, or that indeed, Greece marks the birthplace of other peoples’ national myths. Thus Thessaloniki occupies a special place in the national myth of Turkey. It is the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern, racially homogenous Turkey and spinner of the myth that the ‘new’ Turkey basically has no room for non-Turks. It was in Thessaloniki that Ataturk made the ideological connections that would drive his vision to its ultimate conclusion and the house in which he was born remains a place of pilgrimage for his admirers even today.
The Albanians’ nationalistic narrative is so inextricably linked with Greece that it is difficult to perceive where “Greece” ends and “Albania” begins. This is because Albanians have had a long history of settling in Greece and primarily in Peloponnesus, and have played a considerable role as mercenaries in the Byzantine armies. They have as their national hero who first ‘united’ the ‘Albanian’ tribes and consequently ‘created’ an Albanian identity, Georgios Kastriotis, a Greek nobleman who successfully held southern Illyria and Epirus against the Ottomans for over twenty years. A latter day Kastriotis exists within the framework of the myth in the person of Ali Pasha, the wily Albanian warlord of Tepeleni, who ruled Epirus so effectively that he was able to extend his schizophrenic benevolent/malevolent rule at the expense of the Ottomans throughout the whole of Greece. Thus the Albanian national myth, in parallel to the Greek one, is forged in the fires of resistance against the Ottomans. This is evermore so obvious when one considers that most of the ‘Greek’ revolutionary fighters, including the Souliotes, spoke Albanian dialects and organised their daily lives in accordance with Albanian tribal custom. Theophanis Mavromatis, or as he is known in Albanian, Fan Noli, the first president of Albania, further attempted to construct the Albanian national myth along Greek lines by providing an ancient past for those people. Thus, in accordance to official historiography, Pyrrhus, king of Epirus was Albanian, as was Alexander the Great, his ancestor. A sign on the walls of the castle at Argyrokastro in Northern Epirus reads: “Illyrians (supposedly the ancient ancestors of the Albanians), Epirots and Albanians are one race.” There can be no doubt that the genesis and basis of Albanian national consciousness rests firmly in Greece.
The Adolf Hitler prize for most blatant examples of history being pillaged to suit the builders of national identities would have to go to those persons who took the heritage of the Macedonian kingdom, scraped away all vestiges of Hellenism and purported to present the well scraped, paper thin and wholly ludicrous aftermath as the national identity of a hitherto non-existent ‘race’ to a people who, hitherto, had no such identity, the Vardar Slavs.
Mt Athos, surprisingly enough has been a particularly interesting genesis point for Slavonic national myths. The lonely pioneer of Bulgarian nationalism was Father Paisi, a monk at Mt Athos. In 1762 he wrote a history of Bulgaria in which he tried to make his people aware of their illustrious past. His work, considered as history, was of no scientific value. It was naïve and uncritical, written in clumsy and artificial idiom, half Church Slavonic and half Bulgarian. But it was alive with nationalist fervour and it had a dynamic effect in the limited circles in which it was read. Paisi’s appeal is an interesting one, in an age when most Bulgarians thought of themselves as Greeks:
“Why are you ashamed to call yourselves Bulgarians and why don’t you think and read in your own language? Didn’t the Bulgarians in former times have a great empire? Why be ashamed of your race and adopt a foreign tongue?…Of all the Slav peoples, the Bulgarians have been the most illustrious. They were the first to receive baptism, the first to have a patriarch, the first Slav saints were of our race…”
Historically, Bulgaria’s national myth is also inextricably linked with that of Greece. While Bulgarians’ origins lie in the intermingling of Turkish tribes from the Volga region of Russia with Slav settlers, the empire that Paisi refers to, that of the Asans and Samuels was one built along Byzantine lines and predicated on the gradual conquest of the Byzantine state and the assumption of its heritage by the Bulgarian khans. Not a few of those khans styled themselves ‘Emperors of the Romans,’ while they are also claimed by the Vlachs as their own. The first apostles to Christianise the Slav peoples, Cyril and Methodius are also claimed by the Greeks, Bulgarians and the Slavs of Vardar as their own.
Serbian national consciousness also rests within Mt Athos. Tsar Stephan Dushan and the Nematjid rulers carved for themselves in medieval times an empire in Greece along similar geographical lines as that of Ali Pasha and used Byzantine rites and rituals to legitimise their rule. Most importantly, the jewel in the crown of imperial Serbia was Hilandar monastery on Mt Athos, built by Serbia’s patron Saint, St Sava in 1198. Richly endowed by Serbian kings, it remained a beacon of Slav nationalism throughout the Ottoman Empire, maintaining spiritual and cultural connections with Serbian communities in the Balkans. It also played a notable role in preserving the national awareness of the people, leading to a renewal of the Serbian state in the nineteenth century. Sadly, this monastery, a treasure house of Byzantine and Serbian manuscripts was heavily damaged by fire recently. It is hoped that it shall be restored soon so that its importance remains undiminished.
Ultimately Greek national myth which excludes that of the nations herein is a poor one considering how much of our own experience these fraternal nations have adopted. At any rate, national exclusivity leads to stagnation and ho hum, tedium. Our cultural experience is much broader and much less exclusive than we may like to think.

First published in NKEE on 22 March 2004