Saturday, May 26, 2012


Unless you are an apologist for Ottoman ethnic cleansing, the three great genocides of the early twentieth century and prior to the Holocaust, are generally held to be the Armenian, Assyrian, and what we term Pontian genocides. The discontinuity in the titles of these genocides is apparent from the outset. While the first two denote or describe an entire people, the latter, defines not a nation but the inhabitants of a geographic region, namely the Pontic region around the Black Sea. By strict definition then, the Pontians could be anyone of the Greek, Turkish, Laz, Armenian, or Kurdish traditional inhabitants of the region, yet by convention, they are generally held to be those of Greek origin.

The titles of the collective genocides of the Christian peoples of Anatolia imply much as to the importance given to them by the nations that were afflicted by this heinous crime. For Armenians and Assyrians, the crime of attempting to extirpate them from the face of the earth is seen as striking to the very core of their national identity. This is especially so in the case of the Assyrians, as there exists not one of their constituent tribes that was in some way, untouched by the Assyrian genocide. In the case of the Armenians, it can be argued that the Eastern Armenians, those who today have formed the states of Armenia and Artsakh, being at the time Russian subjects, were not afflicted by the genocide in the horrible manner in which the Western Armenians, who lived in the Ottoman Empire were. Nonetheless, the enormity of the barbarity perpetrated upon the Western Armenians was seen by their compatriots as blighting the existence of the entire nation. Hence it was termed an Armenian Genocide and not a genocide of a particular brand of Armenians.

Despite the vociferous protestations of a few, the genocide of the Greek people on the Black Sea region is not referred to as the Greek genocide, in keeping with Armenian and Assyrian practice. Instead, it is referred to as the Pontian genocide, thus differentiating the community of Greek peoples living in that region not only from other Greek communities living in such parts of Anatolia as Cappadocia and Ionia, but also from the Greek nation in its wider sense, as well. From this, one can immediately comprehend just how that genocide is viewed by the broader collective of Greek people.

Some may and have argued that the term Pontian genocide reflects a more accurate view of history, than the term Greek genocide. They argue that while there was a definite and organized plan to extirpate the Greeks of Pontus, no such plan existed for the rest of Asia Minor, where the Ottomans mainly indulged in random acts of reprisals, along with organising the forced removal (with unprecedented levels of brutality) of Greeks from the Gallipoli peninsula and western coast of Asia Minor and that these populations were the victims of ethnic cleansing, rather than genocide.

The argument is of course, one of semantics and the academic point as to which degree of ethnic cleansing morphs into genocide does not concern a national consciousness. Instead, what is glaringly apparent, is that unlike the Armenians and the Assyrians, the Greek people manifestly do not view the 'Pontian genocide,' as a seminal moment in the construction of the Greek identity, even as they admit that it was a catastrophe. There is ample evidence to support this bleak proposition. The annual Armenian and Assyrian communities' of Melbourne commemoration of the genocide is a key event in their calendars. They are accompanied by the publication of books, lobbying of politicians and the appointment of scholars to speak on the topic and they are attended by members of the respective communities who come from regions as diverse as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Russia and Greece to name but a few. They attend, because the genocide is an event keenly felt by all of them, regardless of whether their families were victims of these terrible events. For the Greek community in Melbourne however, the Pontian Genocide barely rates a mention. There is little if any reporting of the event in the local media, save a few paragraphs as to how diverse and scattered Pontian clubs are commemorating the events. Such lectures and commemorations as are organised, are attended almost exclusively by Pontians. The implication is clear. This is an event that concerns only Pontians. It fails to move 'Greeks,' and has absolutely nothing to do with them.

Granted, Pontians are culturally distinct and this may be the reason why 'other' Greeks may have difficulty in identifying with them. But then again so are Cypriots. And then again, so are Cretans, and Epirots and Macedonians and Thracians and every single other sort of Greek. Further, far from being cut off from the main Greek discourse, Pontic Greeks played an immensely important role during the ottoman times both in trade, as well as in Greek cultural and religious life, supplying a considerable number of Patriarchs and replenishing the Greek community in Constantinople, the headquarters of the Greek nation. There is therefore no logical reason why Greek people find it difficult to empathise with and understand the enormity of the largest and systematic slaughter of a section of their compatriots, and to view that as a loss of their own.

No logical reason, except one, that is reflected in the organisation or rather fragmentation of our community as a mirror in which we see ourselves. Our myriad of brotherhoods, representing villages, parts of regions and federations of parts of region all attest to one melancholy fact: Millenia after the demise of the Greek city states, and despite the best efforts of the philhellenes and the official Greek State to create a Greek identity out of artificial and selective constructions and interpretations of our past ancient, the Greek view of its ethnic identity is largely a parochial one, coupled with the acceptance of mutually agreed overarching significant events such as the Greek Revolution. In that narrow conception, there is plenty of scope to treat Greeks from other regions as «ξένοι,» as so often happens, and also, plenty of scope to consider events significant to others as irrelevant to themselves.

It is difficult to conceive of any other nation that would be untouched by the slaughter of three hundred and fifty thousand of its people and leave it commemoration just to the families of those victims. Yet save for government lip-service and recognition of the Genocide, that is exactly how the Genocide is seen by non-Pontians both in Greece and elsewhere and this is a savage indictment upon our maturity as a people our insularity and our general apathy.

In the least, the Genocide teaches us that one's language, religion, and right to an ethnic identity cannot be taken for granted and must be fought for in order to be preserved. Most importantly, the fact that our particular genocide occurred contemporaneously with and for the same reasons as those of the Armenians and Assyrians, compels us to transcend the narrow boundaries of our own ethnic self-perception and view the event as what it is - a supreme example of religious intolerance and an event that can inform the way in which the world views similar incidences today.

Sundry Pontian groups have had the sensitivity to understand that their genocide cannot be viewed as separate from that of the other Christian peoples of Anatolia. Yet in the functions that have been organised with those peoples, along with the attempts at establishing a united lobby, what emerges starkly time and time again is the fact that it is the Pontians themselves, and seldom any other Greeks who are alone in preserving the memories of the slain and fashioning these into a discourse against intolerance and violence in all its forms, which is what they should be bound to do, to the concern and astonishment of their lobby partners.

Just how we can expect the modern state of Turkey to acknowledge the genocide, apologize and provide redress in the form of a democratic, fair and non-militaristic society is mystifying when for the vast majority of the Greek people, this unspeakable tragedy is an irrelevant event concerning the margins of the Greek people is a question that cannot be answered. What can be said, boldly and without fear is that the world has learned nothing from the Genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia, of which Greeks were also victims, as the Christian peoples of the Middle East are undergoing similar tribulations today. Where we could be best placed to foster understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation, we shy away from truly accommodating the Genocide within the context of our national narrative. And for as long as we do, the memories of the innocent victims cannot be honoured to the extent that they deserve, nor the troubled shades of the past, find their proper rest.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 May 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012


There can, in my mind, only be one solution for Greece's financial and social woes. In fact, ever since the time of Agathangelos, the mysterious Byzantine monk and visionary whose prophecies were supposedly written in 1279, only to be copied by an Italian monk in Messina in 1555, then translated into Latin by Theoklitos Polyidis, who distributed them around northern Europe, and then translated into Modern Greek in 1751 and printed in various editions in Venice, there has only ever been one solution.
Agathangelos is a worthwhile and reliable oracle, referring to events of the seventeenth and eighteenth century that took place centuries after they were predicted. It brought hope and a sense of mission to the downtrodden Greek people at a time when it appeared that liberation was nothing but an outlandish dream. The chief protagonist in 'saving' Greece was meant to be the blonde race «το ξανθόν γένος,» which was widely held to be Russia. Russia in turn, did see itself as the protector of the Greek race. It was for this reason that Catherine the Great conceived of a plan to resuscitate the Byzantine Empire through the placement of her grandson Constantine on throne.

The West in turn knows that Russia is destined to save Greece, restoring her to her former glory and this is why the West has always been dead set against Russia worming and winding its way towards the Mediterranean. The entire Crimean War was fought against Russia in order to keep her well and truly north of the Black Sea, and the Western Powers intervened during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to keep Russia, which was hammering on the gates of Constantinople, away from that city. In the Berlin Treaty of 1878, those same powers made sure to unpick any gains made by Russia during that war and as late as the nineteen forties, Churchill was most concerned to retain control in Greece, giving Stalin, who far from being blonde, and rather, was swarthy and pockmarked, a controlling interest in the rest of the Balkans.

In contrast to Stalin, Vladimir Putin, prime minister and president of Russia in rapid alternation, is fair and blonde. His sallow features remind one of Tsar Ivan the Terrible riding his destrier in the great medieval icon of the Church Militant, an allegorical representation of the conquest of Kazan. Not only is he a judo champion of repute, a muscled and agile all-round sportsman, jet flyer and racing car driver, tranquilizer of polar bears and shooter of whales, he is also the leader of the largest country in the world. Further, it is widely rumoured that Putin is descended from the royal Tverskoy family and in particular, from Mikhail of Tver, the Grand Prince of that principality.

It goes without saying then, that Vladimir Putin is well, special. Not only has he been able to preside over a remarkable period of growth in Russia, he has also found time to engage in the coining of such laconic Putinsims as: "To bump off in a toilet," referring to his steely resolve to destroy terrorists while performing their ablutions in the privy, "Ploughed like a slave on a galley," which is how Putin described his term as Russian president between 2000-2008, "Ears of a dead ass," referring to what Latvia would receive instead of the Pytalovsky district it claimed from Russia in a border dispute, and "At the very least, a state leader should have a head," in response to Hillary Clinton's claim that Putin has no soul.

Compare then Putin's wry sense of humour and healthy complexion with the colourless and empty platitudes of former Greek PM George Papandreou. Compare his decisiveness with the cackling of the shriveled time-warped leader of the Greek Communist Party Aleka Papariga, or the irresponsible ravings of the juvenile Tsipras, whose behaviour lends more plausibility to him being able to graffiti a train station rather than govern a country or advocate responsibly for reform. Compare his calm self possession and unbending will with the jaundiced prevarication and indecisiveness of Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy and compare his proven record on defending Russia's borders with the incoherent ravings of social misfit and would be Fuhrer of the Greek people Mihaloliakos, who believes that he can create an Aryan superpower out of the shards of social discontent and the demented Nazi fantasies of his follows. Could the ebullient and corpulent Venizelos, lately bullied and berated by sundry European Union finance ministers browbeat them into submission and better loan repayment terms by terrifying them into submission with his steely gaze? One doubts it.
When considered rationally, Putin is the only rational choice for Prime Minister of Greece. Native born politicians have made a hash of governance ever since the Modern Greek State was founded. Almost two centuries after the Greek revolution, Greece is bankrupt, its political culture compromised beyond repair and its people so desperate and aggrieved after having been brought up in a culture of vote buying and hand outs that it is willing to vote for parties such as SYRIZA or the neo-fascist Xrysi Avgi that manifestly have absolutely no idea how to govern, and exist on the margins of the Greek political system only in order to fulfill their own vacuous ambitions for publicity and notoriety.
Putin, or Vladmiros as we will call him, would be a strong and noble Tsar, a true leader who could stare down the ever acquisitive Turks, repel their incursions into Hellenic airspace with a swat of his hand, strike fear into the hearts of our northern neighbours, compel the FYROMIANS to accept a just solution to the naming dispute by a mere flicker of his eyelash, prohibit long winded current affairs shows where journalists and politicians appear on split screens in order to hurl abuse at each other and, why not, while he is at it, ban politicians altogether. Think of the savings.
Since Greece would then have become a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, it would become the favoured playground and holiday resort of the Russian people, injecting much needed funds into the economy. Petrol and gas would be cheap and Greece could, with a Russian army on its soil, safely exploit its own resources, other claimants to them having been cowed into submission by a Putinesque frown.
A Putin in a manly foustanella, much like King Otto who preferred the garment, would be a much more acceptable representative of the Greek people on the international stage than our previous colourless Prime Ministers. In the words of Mr T, he would finally be able to facilitate the Greek people into getting some nuts and moving forward. He is Orthodox, and we are Orthodox, so the monks of Mount Athos, those resisters of ecumenism and climate change are bound to anoint him emperor and then, who knows? Maybe he will forge a mighty Orthodox Empire that will see our eastern enemies scattered to the winds and force our western foes to abandon their abominable heresies?
There is absolutely no need for a second round of elections in Greece, should Putin become a candidate. In that eventuality, this diatribist will found an offshoot Putin's Army, a troop originally formed of healthy young Russian girls so dedicated to Putin's re-election, that they bare their breasts in public, in order to emphasize the fervour of their convictions. Our offshoot, Putin's Hellenic Army, will be formed of disinterested high school girls with bleached blonde hair, who will lift their palms in the characteristic mountza, as they march past all politicians, other than Putin.
As far-fetched and implausible as it sounds, the possibility of Putin running Greece is not as outlandish as the proposition that the Greek people will be able to elect a government comprised of politicians who are mature, professional and able to put the country's interests before their own and the second round of elections fills us with foreboding. Unless of course, Agathangelos' blond race refers to Eleni Menegaki and Tzoulia Alexandratou. Or maybe after all, salvation comes from within.


First published in NKEE on 19 May 2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Unlike the west, Byzantium inherited a multitude of medical schools from its ancient past. It was able to draw on these, in particular the prognostications of Hippocrates and the analytical and philosophical skills of Galen and to develop a highly sophisticated medical system, capable of identifying and dealing with many diseases that were only rediscovered in the later part of the millennium.

The basis of Byzantine medical theory was two-pronged. The first took inspiration from the neo-Platonist philosophers of the Hellenistic era and the writings of Saint Athanasius, celebrating the immortality and purity of the soul while understanding that the nature of the body is weak and corruptible. Thus much emphasis was placed upon spiritual as well as physical healing, the maxim healthy mind in a healthy body being much valued. The theological basis behind physical healing, was that man had been created in God’s image. The human body belonged to God and had to be properly looked after. Byzantine theory also provided an explanation for the origin of sickness. Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden had brought disease and death into the world.

Byzantium also had an ultimate role model, of greater standing than Asclepius or Hippocrates of the Ancients. Christ, the Son of God healed the sick and exhorted his apostles and disciples to give proofs of His own divine powers by acts of healing. Some thirty five miracles are recorded in the Bible and the apostles exercises healing as a ‘gift of the holy spirit.’ As a result, a plethora of icons and miraculous relics proliferated throughout the Empire. Sober theologians and clerics were careful to point out that cures by holy oil, relics or baptism should be considered divine providence and not as a routine health service. However, healing through the intercession of saints was firmly imprinted within the consciousness of all Byzantines. Certain saints were said to prevent diseases. St Charalambos and St Christophoros guarded against epidemics, Saints Blasios and Nikostratos were held to prevent diseases of the larynx, Saints Antypas and Apollonios were the patrons of dental care, Saints Stylianos and Therapon of paediatrics and Saint Aegidius the Athenian of psychiatry. Pride of place was taken by Saints Cosmas and Damianos, who as the tradition relates, performed the first organ transplant in the history of medicine, attaching a recently deceased black person’s leg to an amputee.

Byzantium enjoyed the first organized health care system anywhere in the world. Early Christian traditions of help and hospitality were extended and Christ’s instruction to His Disciples to care for the sick and needy assumed institutional form through the appointment of deacons whose purpose was to ensure the needy received a daily food intake. Leontius, bishop of Antioch from 344 to 358 AD set up hostels around his city and Bishop Eustathios of Sebasteia built a poorhouse. Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea built what was described by contemporaries as ‘almost a new city’ for the sick, poor and leprous. In even the most insignificant monastery, a section was set aside for healing, while in the towns and villages, small clinics were set up which were staffed by both men and women

Ultimately, nosokomeia became large and complex. The great hospitals were run co-operatively by the State, the Church and the noble families of the Empire. Medical care in the hospitals was always provided free of charge for the poor, while the well-off were charged in accordance with the magnitude of their wealth. Many noble families such as the Thalassinoi and the Komninoi granted large tracts of land to the hospitals which provided them with a steady income with which to fund their activities. By the mind sixth century, Jerusalem had one with 200 beds and Saint Sampson’s in Constantinople was bigger still, with surgical operations being performed and a wing for eye disorders. Edessa had a women’s hospital and major hospitals at Antioch and Constantinople were divided into male and female wards. By 650, the Pantokrator in Constantinople and the Ptokhotropheion of Mikhail Attaleiatos had a hierarchy of physicians and even teaching facilities, a home for the elderly and beyond the walls of the City, a leper house. To care for lepers and thus expose oneself to infection was a mark of holiness. Such a spirit of charity would eventually pervade the West with the advent of the Crusaders, whose Hospitaller Knights would adopt the medical ethos of Byzantium.

As well, the State arranged for the creation of a public officer known as the kouratoras who was charged with the duty to ensure the welfare of the sick, invalid or pregnant after the death of their spouse. Of great importance also was the creation of the office of paravolanos. The duties of the paravolanos were similar to those of a modern day social worker: to counsel the sick, the poor and those in emotional anguish.

Thus emphasis was given to the psychological and not only the physical aspects of an illness. The need to take a holistic approach to treating illness was lost and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. Indeed, psychological manifestations of anguish were treated as seriously as physical ones. Thus, psychoanalysis was used as a necessary tool to establish the patient’s state of mind. St Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Athanasios placed great emphasis on the patient’s right to make informed decisions as to their medical treatment. Psychoanalysis was also used to help bring patients out of states of shock and also to assist them to deal with the emotional trauma associated with their illness.

Mikhail Psellos and Saint Basil the Great were pioneers of a program designed to help reduce alcoholism among the working classes. They also piloted a program for conducting medical examinations of couples that wished to marry, so as to identify any hereditary problems, such as epilepsy, leprosy and schizophrenia.

Most importantly, the theory of medical care for the working classes was introduced, where injured workers could be compensated, treated for their injuries and provided with an income if they proved unable to work. In the legislation contained in the Basilika, Pandektae of Emperor Leo the Wise, we see the Byzantine ethos of medicine was inextricably intertwined with modern ideas of the welfare state.

In the sphere of medical knowledge, Byzantine doctors and researches were able to extend the findings of their ancient predecessors. Oribasius of Pergamon in Asia Minor, physician to the emperor Julian the Apostate studied at Alexandria and published three influential books, dealing with hygiene and diet and the properties of drugs. Oribasius correctly described the flow of oxygen in the lungs as well as the flow of blood in the arteries. His most striking feat was the delineation of the nerves. Demonstrating their source in the brain enabled him to conclude they played the part preceding thinkers had ascribed to the arteries: transmitting motor impulses from the brain to the extremities. Oribasius also wrote a practical medical compendium for the traveller.

Aurelianos in 420 established the first microbiological laboratory in the world, while Alexander of Tralles was able to prescribe simple remedies, based on plant matter, such as rhubarb, as a laxative.

Paul of Aegina (640) who studied and practiced in Alexandria, used the writings of the physician Galen as his inspiration. He wrote a treatise on gynaeocology and poisons which are not extant. His greatest work was the publication of a medical encyclopaedia known as Seven Books of Medicine. It opens with pregnancy, the diseases of childhood and of old age and then passes on to diet and healthy living. Illness is dealt is dealt with in Book II. Maladies affecting specific parts are treated from head to toe. Mental illness is also dealt with, with revolutionary methods prescribed. Treatment is to be gentle, with the use of music, the teaching of skills and daily conversation, in order to integrate the mentally afflicted into society. Book IV deals with skin diseases, beginning with scabies and elephantiasis and progressing to herpes, oedemas, cancers and ulcers The other books deal with the effect of toxins on the body, surgery, including an account of tracheoctomy. As a practical introduction, his Epitome was esteemed by Islamic physicians.

To all these physicians, complex medical knowledge, such as the anatomy of the eye was known and cataract operations did take place. Cancer was also known and many doctors attempted to remove tumours through surgery, use of herbal medicines and even physiotherapy.

Geriatrics was developed as a separate science and practitioners such as Nikolaos Myrepsos observed and record the changes of the body as it ages as well as to provide a manual of diseases and ailments that are prevalent among the aged.

Alternative forms of healing were common even in those times. While Oribasius raged against the proliferation of newfangled methods and cures, Theophanos Nonnos was a pioneer of physiotherapy for many injuries, prescribing also a course of messages and thermal baths to his patients. His treatment of septic shock was revolutionary. The sick were isolated inside a glass chamber, which served as an intensive care unit.
Narcotic herbs were used as local and general anaesthetics, while contraception through the use of various plants was known and there are recorded instances of successful hysterectomies, lobotomies of the liver and lungs, tonsils, and hemorrhoids.

Most importantly, Byzantine doctors placed great emphasis on prevention, as opposed to cure. Public sanitary measures were put in place by Paul of Aegina, Saint Basil the Great and Nikolaos Myrepsos to prevent the outbreak of cholera, typhoid and plague, while preparations were created to help prevent the contraction of many contagious diseases, including hepatitis and some forms of cancer. On the same token, pollution of the environment was identified as hazardous to public health and the drainage of malarial swamps was organized, while regulations were implemented for drainage and sewerage, planning of residential, commercial and industrial zones within cities to avoid exposure to dangerous pollutants and laws as to waste disposal, treatment of water and methods of food handling by retailers and primary producers.

Steps were also undertaken to ensure medical knowledge was passed through the generations. At the renowned medical colleges of Constantinople, Smyrna, Pergamum, Antioch and Alexandria, medical students were taught theory as well as practice, while the texts taught were collations of the works of Galen and Hippocrates, as summarized by the greatest of the contemporary physicians.

It is interesting to note that while there was much co-operation between the State and the medical profession during Byzantine times, given the holiness of the profession, medical negligence was severely punished. The Theodosian and Justian Codices prescribed different penalties for offences relating to inexperience, negligence, fraud, violence or illegal surgery, which included castration and abortion, as embryos were considered human beings with rights. Penalties ranged from being forbidden to practise, fines, confiscation of property and in some cases, execution.

Eventually, Byzantine medicine began to wane. The huge economic and social upheavals created by constant invasions of Persians, Arabs, Avars, Slavs and Turks caused a great decline in the opportunity to study and practise. Many doctors began to flee to the West, whose medicine was still in a primitive state. Byzantine doctors were also carried as captives into the Arab sultanates. Carrying their textbooks with them, they were able to modernize and revolutionize Arab medicine. Many ancient texts were copied and preserved by the Arabs, which otherwise would have been lost to the world. The influx of refugees to the West as a result of the Ottoman conquest sparked off a Renaissance in medical thought which can be linked in an unbroken chain today. In understanding the emotional as well as the physical aspects of personality and linking them to an ethic of philanthropy and social cohesion, Byzantium was able to achieve a system far ahead of its time. That it was able to do so in a world filled with internal conflict and barbarism is the apogee of its achievement.


First published in NKEE on 5 and 12 May 2012