Saturday, April 06, 2013
“Everywhere, as though at a preconcerted signal, the peasantry rose, and massacred all the Turks—men, women and children—on whom they could lay hands. In the Morea shall no Turk be left. Nor in the whole wide world. Thus rang the song which, from mouth to mouth, announced the beginning of a war of extermination... Within three weeks of the outbreak of the revolt, not a Muslim was left, save those who had succeeded in escaping into the towns.” W Alison Phillips.
Cast aside for a moment, the chest swelling rhetoric describing a proud but down-trodden people rising up after a long hiatus in order to re-claim its rightful place within the brotherhood of nations. Let lie the demagoguery of those who would juxtapose the bestiality of our enemies against our own purported innate nobility, dignity and decency of ethos and soul. Submit to Lethe the national myth that we stoically endured the depravities of our oppressor, who tortured and massacred the weak and the defenceless, abjuring resort to a similar harrowing of the innocent but confining ourselves to the methodical and steady removal of the enemy’s armed forces through singular acts of valour. The Greek Revolution of 1821, notwithstanding the noble and often confused and contradictory ideals that underpinned it, with various of its protagonists not being able to agree whether its aim was to re-establish the Byzantine Empire or to introduce a liberal enlightened system of the rule of law, it was an exceedingly bloody business, fought with equal ferocity between two armed groups who, save for religious differences, were not culturally dissimilar, allowing Christians and Muslims within Greece to switch sides frequently. Armed captains, such as Odysseas Androutsos, were more concerned with carving out their own independent region of rule rather than adhering to any larger concept of a Hellenic nation state, knowing that the loyalty of most Greeks was a personal one to the leader of the moment who could pay them. Some things never change. As a result he did more deals with the “enemy” than actual fighting.
The flash of swords, the gunpowder smoke of the blunderbuss and the swirl of the foustanella cannot disguise two disturbing facts: with a few notable exceptions such as General Makrygiannis, the Greek protagonists of the Revolution were concerned to a large degree with perpetuating and abrogating to themselves the trappings of Ottoman rule, rather than ruling benignly and inclusively over a “Greek nation.” This is why it is a little known fat that there were at least two bouts of civil war between rival "heroic" captains during the Revolution. Further, our mythologized narrative supposes that the Greeks merely overthrew occupying Ottoman armies. It generally glosses over the often tragic fate of a Muslim civilian population that had, at the time of the great Revolution, been settled in Greece for centuries and which, to put it plainly, was generally massacred by the valorous and humane Greek freedom-fighters.
Take for example, one of the early successes of the revolution, the capture of Navarino in the summer of 1821. After a long siege and through the mediation of General Gordon, it was agreed that the unarmed muslims in the town would give up their property and be offered safe passage to Egypt. When the surrender took place however, it soon became apparent that the Greeks had neither the intention nor even the means of providing this promised secure passage. When the gates of the city finally opened, a Greek priest, Phrantzis bore witness to an appalling crime:
“Women, wounded with musketballs and sabre-cuts, rushed to the sea, seeking to escape, and were deliberately shot. Mothers robbed of their clothes, with infants in their arms plunged into the sea to conceal themselves from shame, and they were them made a mark for inhuman riflemen. Greeks sized infants from their mother's breasts and dashed them against rocks. Children, three and four years old, were hurled living into the sea and left to drown. When the massacre was ended, the dead bodies washed ashore, or piled on the beach, threatened to cause a pestilence...”
This was not an isolated occurrence. A month later, in September, a combined force led my Kolokotrones and Petrobey Mavromihalis captured Tripolitsa. Historian W Alison Philips tells a horrific tale of mutilation and slaughter “For three days the miserable inhabitants were given over to lust and cruelty of a mob of savages. Neither sex nor age was spared. Women and children were tortured before being put to death. So great was the slaughter that Kolokotronis himself says that, from the gate to the citadel his horse’s hoofs never touched the ground. His path of triumph was carpeted with corpses. At the end of two days, the wretched remnant of the Mussulmans were deliberately collected, to the number of some two thousand souls, of every age and sex, but principally women and children, were led out to a ravine in the neighboring mountains and there butchered like cattle."
Based on the accounts of one hundred European officers who were present at the scene, and did nothing to intervene, William St. Clair wrote:
"Upwards of ten thousand Turks were put to death. Prisoners who were suspected of having concealed their money were tortured. Their arms and legs were cut off and they were slowly roasted over fires. Pregnant women were cut open, their heads cut off, and dogs' heads stuck between their legs. From Friday to Sunday the air was filled with the sound of screams... One Greek boasted that he personally killed ninety people. The Jewish colony was systematically tortured... For weeks afterwards starving Turkish children running helplessly about the ruins were being cut down and shot at by exultant Greeks... The wells were poisoned by the bodies that had been thrown in…”
Although the total estimates of the casualties vary, the Turkish, Muslim Albanian and Jewish population of the Peloponnese had ceased to exist as a settled community after the early massacres. Some estimates of the Turkish and Muslim Albanian civilian deaths by the rebels range from 15,000 out of 40,000 Muslim residents to 30,000 only in Tripolitsa. According to historians W Alison Phillips, George Finlay, William St. Clair and Barbara Jelavich, massacres of Turkish civilians started simultaneously with the outbreak of the revolt, while Harris J. Booras considers that the massacres followed the brutal hanging of Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople.
Finlay has claimed that the extermination of the Muslims in the rural districts was the result of a premeditated design and it proceeded more from the suggestions of men of letters, than from the revengeful feelings of the people. St. Clair wrote that: "The orgy of genocide exhausted itself in the Peloponnese only when there were no more Turks to kill."
There were also calculated massacres towards the Muslim inhabitants of the islands in the Aegean. This is because one of the aims of the Greek revolutionaries was to embroil as many Greek communities as possible in their struggle. By engineering some atrocity against the local Turkish population, diverse Greek communities would have to ally themselves with the revolutionaries fearing retaliation from the Ottomans. In one case, in March 1821, Greeks from Samos landed on Chios and attacked the Muslim population living in that island. Among the Samian belligerents was an ancestor of mine, Dimitrios Kalymnios. When the Samians withdrew to the safety of their island, the Ottomans descended upon defenceless Chios and carried out an atrocity that horrified the rest of the world: the massacre of Chios.
Understanding the massacres and brutalities inflicted upon the civilian Muslim population of Greece in no way diminishes the right of the Greek people to take up arms to liberate itself. However, the inclusion these into our national narrative of the Revolution would be the mark of a mature nation that rather than demonising others, accepts that all people, regardless of race, or history, are capable of depredations against their fellow humans. Our revolutionary leaders can be admired for their determination, fearlessness, strategic acumen or valour. However, they were not supermen and unless their virtues are considered in conjunction with their greed, lust for power, self-interest, duplicity and cruelty, then we are viewing them out of context and not contributing in any way towards understanding how we are the fractious, anarchic, corrupt and yet amazingly endearing and tolerant nation we are today.
Recognising the massacres of the Greek Muslims, rather than tallying up Ottoman atrocities and seeing who committed more crimes and is thus ultimately “worse” has another effect. By decrying brutality in all its forms and not seeking to justify or excuse it, we pull the rug under the feet of those nations who would deny large scale massacres and genocide by blaming the victims of similar activities. Greece today, despite its troubles is a nation that embraces its minorities in a way that its rivals are unable to do so, simply because while historical complexes exist, these do not stand in the way of humanity and compassion.
The final word, if there is one, goes to Theodore Kolokotronis, who in his account of the fall of Tripolitsa, was unrepentant to the last: “When I entered Tripolitsa, they showed me a plane tree in the market-place where the Greeks had always been hung. "Alas!" I said, "how many of my own clan — of my own race — have been hung there!" And I ordered it to be cut down. I felt some consolation then from the slaughter of the Turks. ...”
First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 April 2013.