«Την ελληνική σημαία, μάνα μου την αγαπώ. Έχει του ουρανού το χρώμα και στη μέση το σταυρό.»
Whenever I look at a Greek flag flying upon a flagpole, my chest does not swell with pride or patriotism, nor are my thoughts infused with grandeur and triumph. Instead, invariably, a lump constricts my throat and I remember a time when, standing on the ramparts of the castle at Argyrokastro, now in Albania and gazing at the Greek flag flying over the Greek consulate in the city below, Father Nicodemos mused: "To think that for fifty years we could only dream of this flag. You can make a flag illegal, but you can't outlaw a dream. This flag of ours, the Greek flag, is the rag that mops up the tears of the race throughout the ages. After all, Greece is much more than a country. It is an ideal and as an ideal it exists outside the world of corruption."
|Flaf of Nrothern Epirus|
This is a tremendously poignant though highly romanticised view. After all, the Greek flag, has only existed since its official adoption by the First National Assembly of Epidaurus on 13 January 1822 and thus cannot be said to hold any plausible connotations of continuity. It is not the flag the ancient or byzantine Greeks fought under, though it is said that the current flag resembles that of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros Phocas.
|Flaf of Nicephoros Phocas|
It is not the flag of the Greek merchants who flew a specially designed Ottoman Greek flag comprised of two red stripes separated by a blue one, only to be replaced by the Russian flag after the treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca. Nor is it the flag that most of the protagonists of the Greek revolution fought under, with the Philike Etaireia having its own flag sporting fasces-like emblems, Ypsilantes sporting a red white and black flag similar to that proposed by the visionary Rigas Feraios for his Balkan confederation of Christian peoples and Athanasios Diakos fighting under a white flag bearing an icon of Saint George killing the dragon. The savvy naval captain Andreas Miaoulis on the other hand, also flew a white flag with yellow cross and, in a brilliant propaganda move, also sporting a British Union Jack in the top left hand corner.
|Flag of Miaoulis|
Nonetheless, despite the lack of historical continuity, the modern Greek flag has proved to be extremely popular with the Greek people. As a result, several Greek researchers have misguidedly attempted to establish a continuity of usage and significance of the blue and white colors, throughout Greek history. Spurious usages cited include the pattern of blue and white formations, created from placing white metal layers on a blue surface on the shield of Homeric hero Achilles, the connection of the colors with goddess Athena, Alexander the Great's army banners, supposed coats of arms of imperial dynasties and noble families, uniforms, emperors' clothes, patriarchs' thrones etc and, of course, cases of usage during the Ottoman rule. Though it can be argued that since the 1769 uprising of Lambros Katsonis, where the flag he flew was that of a blue cross on a white background, there seems to be a consistent trend to see the blue and white as Greek "national" colours, to my mind it is what happened after the revolution that endeared or rather bound the flag to the Greek people.
Quite simply, the Greek flag was associated with the highest aspirations - that of reinstating the Greek nation in the exhalted place among nations that it believes properly belongs to it. As a result, it was under this flag that almost half of Modern Geece was liberated in the twentieth century and it was also under this flag that the unredeemed Greeks of Northern Epirus, Asia Minor and Cyprus (back then thought they were Greek) dreamed a dream of emancipation, only to have their hopes cruelly dashed. As a result of the propaganda of the enlightenment, many Greeks associated their flag with the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and the abolition of feudal overlords, vested interests and clientilism. They too would have their hopes cruelly dashed. Most importantly, during such unspeakably terrible times as 1940, when the very existence of the Greek nation was placed in jeopardy, it was arounf the Greek flag that the Greek people rallied as never before to repel foreign invaders and it was the notion of freedom encapsulated in that flag that inspired Greeks of all ideological persuasions to resist domination.
Despite the pettiness, corruption and internecine strife that has punctuated our existence as a modern nation, our flag has refused to become tainted by our squabblings. Instead, as Father Nicodemos pointed out to me in Albania, it has become an ideal that it is eternal. It is for this reason that the Greek flag, flying over the blue Aegean sea, was the last image that most migrants retained of their homeland as they abandoned it in search for a better life and it is that flag, that, wherever they see it flying, lightens the psychological burden of their exile and acts as solace and balsam for their own doubts as to their life choices. It is the ark of the ideology of their identity. It is the bastion of hopes betrayed and hopes yet unfulfilled. In ways inexplicable and too deep to fathom, it is the sum of all of us.
Driving past Federation Square on 25 March this year, the two Greek flags flying atop the flagpoles flanking Swanston Street almost escaped my notice. One was the state flag, replete with stripes and the other, the 'national' flag, being merely the white cross on the blue background. There they remained for the entire day, flapping sedately in the wind, mute reminders to the general and unsuspecting populace of Melbourne that on this day, one hundred and ninety two years ago, a chain of events was set in motion, that would change the face of Europe and possibly, cause a frown or two, and at least some crows feet, in that of the world.
The flying of the Greek flags in the heart of Melbourne was not undertaken upon the initiative of any Greek organisation, or even the Greek consular authorities, whose idea of commemorating Greek National Day is to organise a decidedly unrevolutionary, elitist, invitation only gathering of community kotzambasides. Somehow, the need to manifest and share some pride on the actual day of the anniversary with the rest of our fellow citizens slipped past the Greek community's notice. Instead, one ordinary member of the community and passionate Greek, Mr John Kakos, approached the management of Federation Square and requested that they fly the Greek flags in honour of Greek Independence. The good people at Federation Square were only too happy to oblige provided that they were provided with the requisite flags, for they had none and thus it was that Mr Kakos own flags were lovingly handed over and flown over the city. This, to use the cliche without compunction or the slightest contrition, is Greek λεβεντιά at its best.
Driving for the last time past the Greek flags of Federation Square, on the afternoon of the twenty fifth, I recalled the words of James Bryce: "Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong." Looking up at the white cross starkly juxtaposed against the blue background, I felt as ever before, that call to righteousness that has challenged, frustrated but ultimately uplifted us as a people, despite our shortcomings. I drove away secure in the knowledge that albeit in the most remote and unlikely places of the earth, as long as there exists a John Kakos to raise the Greek flag, the future of our people is secure.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 30 March 2013