Monday, July 28, 2008


It is a singular fact of history that at any given moment, Greeks will make their presence felt in the most unexpected of places and in the most incongruous of manifestations. Undoubtedly, one of these would have to be Savitri Devi, the pseudonym of the French-Greek writer Maximiani Portas, philosopher, occult thinker and deluded doyen of discredited beliefs. Hacing become, at an early age, enamoured with Hinduism and Nazism, she spent most of her life trying to synthesise the two. In doing so, she ended up proclaiming Adolf Hitler an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. Her strange writings have done much to influence Neo-nazism and the trash that masquerades as Nazi mysticism. Although hysterically mystical in her conception of Nazism, Savitri Devi saw Nazism as a practical faith without the requirement of metaphysics. Among Savitri Devi's novel ideas was the classifications of "men above time", "men in time" and "men against time". She is credited with pioneering neo-Nazi interest in occultism, Deep Ecology, and the New Age movement. Her works have been major influences on the Libertarian Nationalist Socialist Green Party and activist Bill White. Far-rightist Italian and self-described "Nazi Maoist" Claudio Mutti was influenced by reading her book: Pilgrimage as an idealistic teenager. As a young bodyguard for British fascist leader Colin Jordan, former fascist David Myatt was enthralled by one of her other books: The Lightning and the Sun. In the U.S., James Mason, whose Universal Order movement bears strong resemblance to her views, has paid tribute to her in his book Siege. The Lightning and the Sun has also earned the dubious recommendation by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, formerly of the Charles Manson gang. So profound an influence has she exercised over such writers of the lunatic fringe as the Chilean diplomat and neo-Gnostic philosopher Miguel Serrano, that Professor Revilo Oliver was prompted to write that he saw the potentiality of a future religion venerating Adolf Hitler "in the works of a highly intelligent and learned lady of Greek ancestry, Dr. Savitri Devi." Perhaps her dubious role in history is best summed up by far-right Italian intellectual Francisco Freda, who in 1982 published a German translation of her book Gold in the Furnace. In the fourth volume of his annual review, Risguardo, he referred to Savitri Devi as the "missionary of Aryan Paganism".
Born as Maximiani Julia Portas, in 1905 in Lyon, Savitri Devi was the daughter of a Greek father and an English mother. She was born two and a half months premature, weighing only 930 grams and was expected to not live. From a young age, she formed extreme political views. From childhood and throughout her life, she was a passionate advocate for animal rights, which was related to her views of Jews as the practitioners of Kosher slaughter. Her earliest political affiliations were with Greek nationalism. She supported the incorporation of all lands inhabited by Greeks into a single entity, as well as the incorporation of various elements of the Spartan constitution in governments. During World War I, she was so outraged by the Triple Entente's invasion of neutral Greece that she committed her first overt political act: At age eleven, , she chalked anti-Entente slogans on the Lyons railway station: "Down with the Allies, Long Live Germany."
Portas studied philosophy and chemistry, earning two Masters degrees and a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Lyons. Her first two books were her doctoral dissertations: Critical Essay on Theophilius Kaïris and Mathematical Simplicity (1935). Portas impressed her teachers with her vibrant, penetrating mind. Fascinatingly, she was the tutor of the famous philosopher and psychoanalyst Cornelius Castoriadis as he revealed in a French radio interview, just before his death in 1997.
In 1928 Portas renounced her French citizenship and became a Greek national. While studying in Athens her political nationalism, along with a fascination with Greco-Roman antiquity and a mistrust of Christianity, evolved into a broader pagan racialism, and a visit to Palestine in 1929 convinced her that Judeo-Christianity, whose outward observances in the Holy Land repelled her, was an alien intrusion into the West, distorting its natural spiritual evolution and imposing upon it a sterile monotheism and a servile philo-Semitism. It was in Palestine, she later said, that she first realized she was a National Socialist.
In 1932 she traveled to India, in search of the Aryan paganism that Judeo-Christianity had supplanted. On the subcontinent she sought "gods and rites akin to those of ancient Greece, of ancient Rome, of ancient Britain and ancient Germany, that people of our race carried there, with the cult of the Sun, six thousand years ago." Her exemplar was Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century Byzantine emperor who briefly restored paganism and the cult of the Sun to the Empire. She studied Hindi and Bengali at Rabindranath Tagore's Shanti Niketan school and travelled around the country. Feeling ready to face Indian audiences, she offered her services as an anti-Christian preacher to Swami Satyananda's Hindu Mission in Calcutta, a lineal ancestor of the modern Indian People's Party. In 1937-39, under her given Hindu name Savitri Devi, adopted in honour of the Indo-Aryan sun-god, she toured the tribal villages and had the chiefs organize public debates between herself and the local missionaries. Thoroughly familiar with the mentality and methods of her adversary, she could destroy the credit of the imported religion in the minds of the villagers, and prevent or undo many conversions. Her new racialist Hinduism was a reflection of her National Socialist beliefs: In the swastika, the Aryan sun-wheel, she saw "the visible link between Hitler and orthodox Hinduism."
In 1940, largely to avoid deportation for her pro-Axis activities, Devi married the Bengali Brahman Asit Krishna Mukherji, editor of the openly Nazi journal New Mercury. During the war the couple gathered intelligence on behalf of the Axis, and Mukherji put militant nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, then in Berlin, in contact with the Japanese, who would later support his Indian National Army in its abortive campaign against the British.
Devi was overwhelmed by Germany's defeat and post-war dismemberment. She returned to Europe in 1945 determined to propagandize on behalf of her now reviled Nazi beliefs, staying briefly in London where she published "Son of God", her study of Akhenaton's solar religion, France, Iceland wqher she viewed the eruption of Mount Hekla, Scotland, where she began her most influential work, Lightning and the Sun, and Sweden, where she met Sven Hedin, the famous Tibetan explorer and committed national socialist.
In 1948 and 1949, at the height of de-nazification, she conducted a series of clandestine propaganda missions into a prostrate Germany still devastated by mass starvation and the Allied terror bombing, distributing leaflets and posting handbills urging resistance to the often brutal occupation:
"Men and women of Germany! In the midst of untold hardships and suffering, hold fast to your glorious National Socialist faith and resist! Defy our persecutors ... Nothing can destroy that which is built on truth. We are the pure gold put to test in the furnace. Let the furnace blaze and roar. Nothing can destroy us. One day we shall rebel and triumph again. Hope and wait. Heil Hitler!"
Devi was eventually arrested along with a comrade in February 1949, convicted of promoting national socialist ideas, and sentenced to six years imprisonment, of which she served only six months, returning to Lyons in the summer of 1949. There she wrote Defiance and completed Gold in the Furnace, both based on her experiences in occupied Germany.
In April of 1953, she obtained a Greek passport in her maiden name in order to re-enter Germany, and she began a pilgrimage, as she called it, of Nazi holy sites. She flew from Athens to Rome then travelled by rail over the Brenner Pass into " Greater Germany" (Austria) which she regarded as "[t]he spiritual home of all racially conscious modern Aryans," despite the fact that, the Avesta makes no mention of Europe as a part of the Airyana-shayana ("abode of the Aryans") nor do the Vedas, or other Hindu scriptures. She travelled to a number of sites significant in the life of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party), as well as German nationalist and heathen monuments, such as the Hermannsdenkmal and the Externsteine, the former a monument honoring Hermann's defeat of the Romans in A.D. 9, the latter a reputed pagan solar temple, where she supposedly experienced a mystical revelation of eventual Aryan victory, as recounted in her 1958 book Pilgrimage.
Savitri Devi exalted Hitler as a "man against time" who tried to uphold "Aryan" virtues against the degeneracy of modern times. In her most important book, The Lightning and the Sun (1958), she saw him as the third member of a historic trinity: Akhenaton, the first monotheist, the "sun"; Genghiz Khan, the greatest conqueror, the "lightning"; and Hitler, who combined the Pharaoh's philosophical depth with the Khan's martial prowess. One observation which emerges from Savitri Devi's ideological writings, is that she had a rather confused view of religion. If she opposed the Christian destruction of Pagan temples, why did she venerate Akhenaton, the first known temple-destroyer, the first known believer in a single god intolerant of others? Why did she extol Genghiz Khan? Why did she persist in her anti-Semitism, when the last Pagan Emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate (to whom she dedicated her A Warning to the Hindus), preferred the Jews to the Christians and planned to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem? Savitri Devi's view of the religious dimension of Hitlerism was equally fanciful. She wrote that Nazism had the "capability of becoming very fast, once associated with rituals, a real religion." But Hitler himself opposed those among his fans who dreamed of a new religion. In Mein Kampf, he affirmed that the Nazi movement "is not a religious reform but a political reorganization of the German people", and that "it is criminal to try and destroy the accepted faith of the people as long as there is nothing to replace it".
Devi a sorely troubled and confused woman, returned to India in 1957, but was back in Europe three years later. The friendships she had made during her imprisonment with former guards of the women's sections of Nazi concentration camps. provided her with an entrée into the murky world of post-war national socialism - she was already on friendly terms with such fascist luminaries as Hans Rudel, Otto Skorzeny, and Leon Degrelle --and while living in London she became involved with the politics of the British Racial Right, attending, along with George Lincoln Rockwell, the international World Union of National Socialists conference in the Cotswalds in 1962, site of the famous Cotswalds Declaration.
In 1960, after a decade of wandering, often using her maiden name to enter countries where "Savitri Devi" was blacklisted, she settled down in France, where she eked out a living as a schoolteacher, occasionally causing trouble for herself by voicing denials of the Holocaust in class. After 1969, she was entitled to a small pension, just enough for her to live in India. In 1971, she flew from Paris to Bombay. In August she moved to New Delhi, where she lived alone, with a number of cats and at least one cobra. She spent most of the 1970s, corresponding with her comrades abroad and influencing a number of young fascists who visited her in Delhi. In 1982, already unable to read or to walk unaided, she prepared for a lecture tour as an invitee of the American Nazi Party. On her way to the US, she stayed in a friend's house outside London, where she took ill and died from heart failure during her sleep. Her ashes were transferred to Arlington, Virginia, where the Nazi Party gave them a place of honour in its shrine.
Perhaps Devi's greatest tragedy was that she did not, Maxwell Smart-like, exercise her powers for good instead of evil. Some of her early work, notably the 1940 work: The Non-Hindu Indians and Indian Unity was profound in that it promoted the idea that India must put aside social prejudice and communal hatred to create the political unity to achieve independence. Had her world view been not so skewed, she may have been remembered as a significant social theorist rather than a demented lunatic with a sordid legacy. Her sorry life only confirms the old agage that a mind, truly is, a terrible thing to waste.

First published in NKEE on 28 July 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008


It is invariably the case that life-threatening danger looms largest at moments most unsuspect. In my case, total annihilation took me by the hand as I was sitting in the kitchen, examining the flames of the gas stove licking my briki, musing at how such a humble object can be possessed of the most perfect shape.
Without warning, my wife turned to me, exclaiming: "You know what? Let's make pita!" Now my wife tells me that try as I might, I am unable to mask my emotions. Sure enough I can subsequently enshroud them in mind-numbing sophistry and casuistry but the first fleeting contortions of my face before I regain wit enough to bend them into shapes aloof and disinterested are apparently, the key to my interior world. The look of horror on my face as she spoke those words must have therefore been so startling that she repeated her suggestion. "Pita, you know? Let's make some."
Repetition is a godsend. It gives me time to regain my composure. "Why do you want to make pita?" I scowled. "There's no need. And anyway it's too late. I'll miss the ERT news bulletin." She looked into my eyes searchingly as I pursed my lips and clasped my hands tightly upon my legs, determined not to betray any discomfort. "Fine, you're right it is late." As she sailed past me into the living room, I made the sign of the cross and breathed a sign of relief.
Yet my reprieve proved illusory. For the very next night, at exactly the same moment when I had coaxed our dishes into a state of anhydration and had placed them lovingly away, she sprung upon me one more. "Come on. Let’s make pita." "But you don't know how to make pita," I stammered. "The making of pita is an art from passed down the generations from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter. You've never made it before. Your mother has never made it before. There is no causal link." When my wife's eyebrows are at rest, they have the gentle parabola of the dome of St Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople. When they are raised, however, they are as arched as the arched-window in Playschool on steroids. When those eyebrows are on the loose, no one is safe.
"No it's fine," she smiled. Reaching into her handbag, she retrieved a bundle of papers. "Have a look at these." Unfolding them, my jaws slackened and my mouth hung open listlessly in resignation. For my wife, in gross disregard for precedent and in total breach of protocol, had downloaded sundry pita recipes from questionable websites and it was upon the dubious authority of these scraps of paper of unverified pedigree that she now proposed to embark on the most hallowed manifestation of Epirotismus: the making of pita.
"We've got everything, I think," she mused. "Can you run to the supermarket and get me some spinach?" Our local supermarket is only a street away and opposite it stands the local Greek church, though without the Greek and Byzantine flags flying in front if it, it would not be that easy to tell, given that it seems, for reasons unknown, to have been designed in the form of a Buddhist pagoda. The door was open, for it was time for vespers and I walked in. As I gazed up t the icons on the iconostasis, shrouded in the mysterious vesper half-light, I pondered my predicament.
There was no way that I could assist my wife in making pita. Her plans had to be thwarted, for it she was to be permitted to make this delectable delicacy at her own discretion and whim, then the whole cosmic order forged in the mountains of Epirus over aeons would come crashing down over my head. For pita is not just a delicious foodstuff, a mouthful of which, when properly executed, transports one, in throes of ecstasy, to an Epirotic paradise (which consists mainly of rocks, and fat, large-headed middle-aged men playing the clarinet, accompanied by other not-so-fat but bald middle aged-men signing mournful songs in a nasal voice). It is the means by which the matriarchy is enforced within Epirotic families, a patent to power. "Ku eshtë pita, eshtë feja," (where there is pita, there is the faith,) as the Albanians say. Such power cannot be usurped but must be delivered only to those who prove themselves worthy. Thus, one of my aunts, who has pretensions to matriarchy, fails to command the requisite fealty that determines her status, simply because she cannot or has never attempted to make pita. My sister, on the other hand, has and that is why I fear her more than anybody else in the world. Like Lord Voldermort, my sister adheres to the school of thought that holds that pita recipes can only be passed down to females of the same bloodline. According to the commentaries of several authoritative scholars of this school, I may be permitted to know the recipe but I am not permitted to execute it, or pass on its secrets to any other female not of the blood. Interestingly enough, this is not an Epirotic school, but a Samian one. My late yiayia Kalliopi would never reveal her recipes to her daughter-in-law, my mother. Whenever asked about ingredients, she would invariably reply "έβαλα σάμθινγκ." As a result, the secret of her tear-jerkingly captivating tiganites, which inspired my first failed business idea (to use them instead of buns on hamburgers and market them as "Ionian burgers"), has gone with her to the grave.
Leaving the church, I glanced at my mobile phone. Sure enough, there was an sms message that jolted me from my reverie: "Where are you? Is everything ok?" Quickly I ran to the supermarket. As I approached the spinach, a TARDIS cloister-bell, signalling the end of the universe began to boom inside my head. I circumambulated the aisle until I came upon some silver-beet. Firm in my resolution, I took it to the counter. There was no other choice. The space-time vortex had to be preserved. Doctor Who would understand. As I drove home, the cloister bell still ringing in my ears I mused upon the situation. Since my wedding some months ago, my mother, giver of life, protector of the powerless and periodic assuager of my ego, no longer had the influence of proximity upon me that she once enjoyed. Indeed, there is nothing like a wedding to drive home to the progenitor of the species the awful suspicion that they are not as irreplaceable as commonly held previously. My mother's claim to irreplaceability was based tenuously upon her being able to read my thoughts - (something at which my wife is also curiously adept) but more firmly upon her being the only provider of pita in our household. And she who commands the pita must be obeyed. Any apparent impingement or alienation of her exclusivity would surely have cataclysmic consequences upon the clan, too calamitous even to consider.
As I walked through my front door, my wife was in the kitchen chopping spinach. "You took your time," she said. "Did you get lost? I had to go out and buy some on my own. What's this? Silver beet? Don't you know what spinach is?" I feigned total surprise in the manner perfected by Austin Powers when accosted by Miss Kensington about his Swedish penis pump. Before my very eyes, at each downswing of the titanium knife, the established harmony of the intelligible spheres was being ripped asunder. "It's not going to work," I ventured. You can't just put spinach. You need to add μπαλάσες." "What are they?" my wife asked. "I don't know what they are called in English," I responded. I only know that they grow in my great-grandmother's garden and that you can't make decent pita without them." "Never mind," she sighed. "We will make do without. By the way, does your mum mix egg in with the spinach? It says here that you should but I'm not sure." "I don't know," I answered like an automaton. However, my facial expression gave me away once more. "Right," she pronounced triumphantly. "No egg. By the way, can you call your mum and ask her whether she just uses feta cheese or a mixture of feta and ricotta? My hands are dirty." I felt all the blood drain away from my face in an instant. "No, I can't. She is not home." "But how do you know?" she enquired, giving me a quizzical look. "Because she told she would not be home at exactly this time," I offered.
By this time, the filing was ready. In order to assuage my guilt in being a duplicitous husband, I secretly drained the spinach some more, added some more cheese and salt. I then stood back and vowed not to offer any further assistance, in order to assuage my guilt at being a duplicitous son. "Where are you going to make the filo?" I asked. "The bench is too small and we don't have on oklai to roll it out with." "No, there's no time for that. I'll just use filo pastry."
I jumped. "You can't use filo pastry!" I wailed. "Filo pastry is used only by those who don't know how to make pita, like Peloponnesians and Islanders! You might as well not make pita at all. This is heresy. This house will not bear the shame of filo-pastry encrusted pita. The roof-rafters will collapse upon our shoulders." In the meantime, my wife was unwrapping the defrosted filo pastry. In an effort to stall her, I diverted her with my story about the time I visited the Pampas plant and the machines broke down, causing tonnes of pastry to be exposed to the open air and thus ruined. It seemed to have an effect, for as she unrolled the pastry, she exclaimed: "My God, I only bought this a few days ago! It's well within the use-by date and it's mouldy." "Thank you God of the Epirots," I whispered. "You stay here," my wife continued. "I'll just nip out and get some more."
While she was gone, I envisaged my imminent demise in the form of me surrounded by linear descendants of the matriarchal line throughout the ages, brandishing slabs of pita and preparing to stone me with them. I saw also the sorrowful countenance of my wife, rushing around the supermarkets at all hours, endeavouring to reconstitute a favourite food for an unappreciative husband possessed of dangerously oscillating, rather than linear logic thought processes. It was then that I decided to do the unthinkable. I would make the filo in her absence, for this was a skill I had been taught in Greece, by my mother's teacher and secretly harboured for years, in case I should ever be stranded alone, and the yearning for pita became too great.
So engrossed was I in my task, that I did not notice my wife sneak up behind me and put her arm around me. "I thought we didn't have an oklai," she whispered. Pirouetting like a disoriented adagio dancer, I faced her: "I found one. But apparently we are all out of flour. Bring the filo pastry here."
I knew I was beaten. Resigning my fate in her hands, we buttered the filo pastry, whose sheets seemed mostly to fall to pieces in our hands (a sign, a sign!), placed the pita in a tapsi and commended it to the oven, which at the last minute, I had forgotten how to operate. "I know it's not like your mum's pita," my wife apologised, "but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. I'll call her and tell her to come over to try some." "No!" I shouted. My voice softening at her shocked expression, I explained: "No. Last time she made pita, they didn’t keep me any. So let’s eat this one ourselves."
It took me only two days to complete the consumption of the pita, a task to which I set myself to accomplishing with the ravenousness of several wolves, for filo pastry aside, it was akin to the state of sleep of the souls of the righteous before the Apokatastasis of the cosmos. It took two weeks for me to approach the matriarchs who have direct responsibility over me and inform them of what had transpired. Quoth my sister with one eyebrow raised: "Whose recipe?" "Oh, an internet recipe." Then she visibly relaxing: "Was it good?" Quoth I: "Well it was a first attempt." Quoth she, totally at peace now: "Well, you should stick to carrot cake. It was always your thing, you know."
A few days later, I approached my great-grandmother: "You know yiayia, my wife made pita the other day." Her head snapped, back, her eyes bored piercingly into me: "How? Why? Was she shown? Who showed her?" "No one, yiayia. It was her own recipe." Yiayia is far too tactful and merciful to have me stammer around her for too long. "Well, anything your wife cooks you should eat. There is nothing worse than a husband who doesn't eat his wife's food."
A week later, I haltingly approached my mother, stumbling around like a modern day terrified Emperor Claudius with his formidable mother, Livia. "Did you know, my wife made pita the other day." "Whaaaat?" my mother exclaimed, her facial muscles tightening into a knot so Gordian that even Alexander (whose mother was from Epirus) could not unravel it. "Why are you torturing the poor girl? If you want pita, just let me know and I'll make it for you. How was it? She must have used filo pastry, nai? How was it? Never mind. (Relaxed and taking deeper breaths at this point). You know, I did an apprenticeship with yiayia for fifteen years before I got it right. It's a cumulative process. Let me know when you want some."
I'm over pita, at least for the moment. But try as I might, for the last couple of weeks, I cannot for the life of me, divest myself of that inconsolable longing for a good, crisp Samian tiganita………..

First published in NKEE on 21 July 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008


"There was a Young person of Crete,

Whose toilette was far from complete;

She dressed in a sack,

Spickle-speckled with black,

That ombliferous person of Crete."

I first fell in love with Edward Lear, artist, illustrator and poet, known for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularized in Victorian England, when I read the above snippet. Enthralled that this English poet, who had penned the immortal: “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” (a nonsense re-telling of Nausica’s love for Odysseus) and had inspired geniuses like Spike Milligan to further nonsense efforts, would gain such inspiration from Greek geographical toponyms, I was thrilled to discover that Lear’s poetic had also applied itself to Smyrna, (there was a Young Person of Smyrna, whose Grandmother threatened to burn her; ), Thermoylae: (“There was once an old man of Thermopylae, who never did anything properly,”) and Rhodes: (“There was an Old Person of Rhodes, Who strongly objected to toads; He paid several cousins, To catch them by dozens, That futile Old Person of Rhodes”.)
Born in London in 1812, Lear started work as a serious illustrator and his first publication, at the age of 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favorably compared with Aubudon’s Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson’s poems, Tennyson being a close personal friend of his; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published, but his vision for the work was never realized. Lear briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe proper court protocol. Throughout his life, Lear travelled Europe and Asia, sketching landscapes that he felt would appeal to the English public. Though merely reproductions from nature without interpretation, despite Lear’s close friendship with the eminent Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (whom he called “Daddy”), Lear’s watercolours did much to popularise the Greek countryside in England.
Lear found it fitting that his surname, anglicised by his Danish grandfather from Lør, is also the transcription of the Greek «λήρος,» meaning nonsense. Lear’s nonsense poems are his enduring legacy. Penned at the outset to amuse the children of his wealthy clients, the affable Lear, a great favourite with children and the life of the Victorian party, they are his most enduring legacy, long after his paintings lie forgotten. In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks which went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous: “The Owl and the Pussycat”, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby.
The Greek gloss is also fitting because throughout his life, Lear was a fervent hellenophile, who traveled the length and breadth of Greece at a time when owing to the lawlessness of the Ottoman Empire, it was unsafe to do so. “If I had my way,” he wrote, “I would cause it to be understood that Greek is (or knowledge of it), the first of all virtues, cleanliness the second and Godliness - as held up by parsons generally, the third.” Indeed, throughout his life, which was planned to the hour, his first activity would be to study Greek for an hour. He became fluent in the language, conversing with his servant, the Souliote Georgos Kokkalis, always in Greek.
Between 1848-1849, Edward Lear traveled to Greece, in order to draw inspiration from its classical landscape. During the two months of his tour, he traversed the whole of the Peloponnese, visiting Bassae, Sparta, Mycenae, Corinth, then to Athens, then Aegina and Sounium; then northwards to Thebes and Delphi and back to Athens. Arriving from Brindisi in Patra, he wrote of that town: “ A sleepless night, dogs out of doors, goats and fleas innumerable.” The tour was a great success. To see more of Greece, whose ‘divinest beauty’ had already charmed him, produced what were probably the happiest weeks of all his life. Among his journeys, this one stood out always as the best. He was passionately interested in every detail, whether of landscape or flowers, or peasant’s costumes and came back with two hundred sketches, large and small.
In Greece, Lear stayed with Strafford Canning, British Ambassador to Turkey and Sir Richard Church, ,arxistratigos and hero of the Greek War of Independence. His first trip to Greece was marred by mishapThe first day, Lear’s horse fell and he was thrown over its head, hurting his arm and shoulder. He refused to go back to Athens and visited Marathon, Chalcis, Thermopylae and other places, Lear indomitable drawing and sketching all the time, in spite of the continued pain of his sprained shoulder – in extreme discomfort of the ‘khan’s in which they stayed (and which provoked him to a characteristic bad pun: “khan” – so generally called because one tries to live there but can’t). Then he was bitten by a ‘centipede or some horror’ which caused a great swelling on his leg. Then he went to Plataea, ‘forgetting my umbrella, where the sun finished me.’ By the time they had reached Thebes he was in a high fever: He remained there for ten days, dangerously ill, and was brought back to Athens ‘by 4 horses on an indiarubber bed.’ But his spirit was unbroken by all these misfortunes, and even in spite of them he had managed to extract a large amount of enjoyment and profit from his tour. ‘I have made many drawings of great value, and hope my time and money are well spent in ensuring me a stock of classical subjects for future paintings,” he wrote.
Frank Lushington, Corfu and then Thames Magistrate, who accompanied Lear on his tour wrote of his indefatigable friend: “I remember one night in Greece, when after scrambling for fifteen hours on horseback over the roughest mountain paths, we had dismounted and were waiting in a black darkness for our guide to find a few huts a tolerably weather-tight shelter for us to sleep in, Lear, who was thoroughly tired, sat down upon what he supposed to be a bank; but an instant grunt and heave convinced him of his error as a dark bovine quadruped suddenly rose up under him and tilted him into the mud. As Lear regained his feet, he cheerily burst out into song: “These was once on old man who said, Now/ I’ll sit down on the horns of that cow.”
Lear was back a few months later. In his various tours during 1848-9, he covered the whole of the Greek Peninsula. During the next two years, he busied himself in drawing out lithographs from his sketches and in writing up the diaries which he had kept on the spot. ‘Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Athens’ was published to great acclaim in 1851. His oil-painting “Bassae” was bought by the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, while his view of Marathon and Sparta were hung in the Royal Academy and in 1851, “Argos from the citadel of Mycenae” was bought by Trinity College Cambridge.
His Journal is fascinating because in it he not only includes his paintings of a rural, idyllic Greece but also detailed descriptions of the conditions prevailing in the country. His travels through the remote mountain fastnesses of Epirus and Albania are particularly interesting, as he traversed territory that no westerner had seen for hundreds of years. Starting from Preveza, he went up to Ioannina, into Northern Epirus, then down into Thessaly, to Larissa and the Valley of the Tempe. His travails were not without humour. Of the lake at Ioannina he wrote: “I enjoyed the walk immensely… only my feelings were hurt by passing so many flocks of geese, who all saluted me and evidently recognised me as a fellow creature of the same mental calibre as themselves. The ducks said not a word and I think it was not kind of the geese to compromise me so openly.”
In Cheimarra, haven of refugees and freedom-fighters he: “lived on rugs and ate with gypsies and unclean persons and performed frightful discrepancies for 8 days,” and I found his description of Krujë, outside Tiranë ringing in my ears, when I first visited it: “Croia – the once famous city of the Greek Scanderbeg who resisted the Turks for so long, is a charming town , all up in the sky.” In Monastiri and Elbasan, he almost came to grief by unruly Albanians who could not understand the concept of painting and wanted to kill him: “Knots of the Elbassaniotes pointed with angry gestures to me and my ‘scroo’ (drawing.) “We will not be written down” said they. “The Frank is a Russian and he is sent by the Sultan to write us all down before he sells us to the Russian Emperor.”
Lear’s wit and sarcasm was particularly caustic when he surveyed the dysfunctional state of Greek politics and the system of patronage and corruption that underpinned it. In doing so, he even created new Greek words. Writing to his friend, Baron Carlingford, he requested: “I want you to write to Lord Palmerston to ask the Queen to ask the King of Greece to give me a “place”… I wish the place to be created a-purpose for me and the title to be «ο Αρχινοησιαφλυαριαποιός» (Lord High bosh-and nonsense-maker) with permission to wear a fool’s cap (or mire) - 3 pounds of butter yearly and a little pig and a small donkey to ride on. Please don’t forget all this, as I have my heart set on it.” That the Greek language informed and inspired his nonsense poetry is beyond doubt. Characters such as Mr and Mrs Discobbolus and the new species of Greek mushroom: “Pongchambinnibophilos Kakokreasophoros.”
As a devout Anglican, Lear was fascinated by Greek priests and his record of his first sighting of one is memorable: “Gracious! a clergyman with large black moustaches and a long beard. I never saw such a one before - but there he was and moreover, he preached a very good sermon… and everyone agreed how manly and how like better times he looked, in contrast with the nasty, effeminate, woman-imitating, shaved men who have, since the days of Charles II, distorted the human face out of its natural state.” This admiration did not however translate to the “various mucilaginous monx,” of Mount Athos, among whom he sojourned for two months: “The worst was the food and the filth, which were the worst to bear. But however wondrous and picturesque the exterior and interior of the monasteries and however abundantly and exquisitely glorious and stupendous the scenery of the mountain, I would not go again to the Άγιος Όρος (sic) for any money, so gloomy, so shockingly unnatural, so lonely, so lying, so unatonably odious seems to me all the atmosphere of such monkery. That half of our species which it is natural to every man to cherish and love best, ignored, prohibited and abhorred… These muttering, miserable mutton-hating, man-avoiding, misogynic, morose and merriment-marring, monotoning, many mule-making, mocking, mournful, minced-fish and marmelade masticating Monx…”
In years to come, Lear would settle on Corfu, falling in love with a native girl Helen Kontatzi and braving the natural phenomena of that island: “No winter here in Corfu but (en revanche), 43 small earthquakes. My house was cracked in 3 places, a series of brutal earthquakes having spifflicated my old rooms.” Returning to London, he published his “Views of the Seven Ionian Islands” again to popular acclaim.
Lear restricted himself not just to Greece but also explored areas of the wider Ghreek world. In 1868 he visited the Greek settlement at Carghese in Corsica and also spent seasons visiting Greek ruins in Calabria and Sicily, looking for "rox and oax were of the proper Greek kind” in order to paint various ancient scenes. His “The Quarries of Syracuse” - “with ½ starved Athenians judiciously introduced” received the Art Union Prize at the Royal Academy.
Edward Lear, hellenophile, eccentric and immortal poet did much to create continued sympathy among the British populace for an increasingly beleagured Greek state. His Greek landscapes catered to a craving for all things Greek that has long since subsided. Dying alone in 1888 in San Remo, this sad, endearingly affectionate old man had himself penned how he would have liked to be remembered and we cannot but concur: “How pleasant to know Mr Lear, who has written such volumes of stuff. Some think him ill tempered and queer, but a few think him pleasant enough.” Until next time: “There was a young person of Janina, Whose uncle was always a fanning her; When he fanned off her head, She smiled sweetly, and said, ‘You propitious old person of Janina!”


First published in NKEE on 14 July 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008


I first learned that there were Greeks in Romania from an Epirot folksong that told the story of Rovas, (the rover), who set off for Wallachia (southern Romania), with horses that had golden horseshoes. «Ο Ρόβας εξεκίνησε μεσ’ την Βλαχιά να πάει.» In years to come I also learned that my grandmother was a fluent Romanian-speaker, as she had attended a Romanian school in her youth. Further, I learned very early on in the piece that a «Βλάχος» was not an uncultivated villager, because my grandfather was one and his meticulously trimmed moustache refuted all allegations of uncultivation, but an Aromanian-speaking Greek. Indeed, the links between Romania and Greece are many and ancient. For example, most of the leaders of the Greek Revolution organized their plans and actually commenced the Greek Revolution in the relative safety of Romania. Greeks ruled over Romania as suzerains of the Turks for hundreds of years and interestingly enough, to the Greeks of two hundred years ago, Romania was the equivalent of Australia or the US, a place of migration, in the perennial quest for better living conditions and foreign currency.
The Greek presence in what is now Romania dates back as far as the apoikiai and emporia founded in and around Dobruja, beginning in the 7th century BC. Starting with the Milesian colony at Istros, the process reached its height after Tomis was founded in the 5th century BC. Although forever subject to the Dacian interference and easily disrupted by changes in the politics of neighbour tribal chieftains, these colonies prospered until being briefly submitted in various forms by King Burebista in the late first century BC. Immediately after, and for the following centuries, they were stripped of their privileges by their new Roman masters. During the Byzantine Empire a living presence north of the Danube, was maintained, retaining a cultural hegemony over various Romanian lands virtually until its disappearance, along with certain periods of political dominance in such places as Tomis and Tyras.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans needed skilled administrators and diplomats to run the various sections of their vast Empire. They turned to the Byzantine nobility in Constantinople, the Phanariots, named after the suburb of Fanari, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is now situated and which up until the 1955 pogrom was the seat of the Greek presence in the City, who had a long mercantile and educational tradition. They thus appointed members of this group as Hospodars or Princes of Moldavia and Wallachia, which were the two principalities comprising modern day Romania. To them was added the exodus of Byzantine officials and commoners to the two countries, which were at the time under a rather relaxed Ottoman tutelage. They took opportunities to advance in office, and from early on included themselves in the inner circle of power. This meant not only the reliance of Princes on a new elite (more often than not, also one to provide it with the funds needed by the administrative effort), but also the gradual ascendancy of Greeks to the highest positions in the principalities themselves.
By the eighteenth century, the Ottomans, who lacked experience in foreign diplomacy, came to rely increasingly on the Phanariotes to identify and keep at bay Russian designs over the Danubian principalities. Greek culture became the norm, and the Greek language was officially used in government and education. On one hand, this meant a noted neglect for the non-Greek institutions inside the principalities; on the other, the channeling of Princes' energies into emancipation from Ottoman rule, through projects that aimed for the erasing of inner borders of the Empire, moving toward the creation of an all-Balkan, neo-Byzantine state, seen as the extended identity of Hellenism.

Although rarely occurring, reigns of local Princes were not excluded on principle. Two arguably hellenized Romanian noble families, the Callimachis (originally Călmaşul) and Racoviţăs, managed to penetrate into the Phanar nucleus, in order to facilitate and increase their chances to occupy the thrones, and later to successfully maintain their positions.
The Phanariote raised to the office of Prince was usually the chief Dragoman of the Porte, and was consequently well versed in contemporary politics and the statecraft of the Ottoman government. The new Prince, who obtained his office in exchange for a heavy bribe, proceeded to the country which he was selected to govern, and whose language he usually did not know. Once the new Princes were appointed, they were escorted to Iaşi or Bucharest by retinues composed of their families, favourites, and their creditors (from whom they had borrowed the bribe funds). The Prince and his appointees counted on recouping these in as short a time as possible and in collecting an among sufficient to live on after the termination of their brief time in office.
Taking the two principalities together, 31 princes from 11 different Greek families ruled during the Phanariote epoch. Many times they were exiled or even executed: seven suffered a violent death. Often rulers would be shifted from one principality to the other by the Turks. The Prince of Wallachia, the richer of the two Principalities, would pay certain sums in order to avert his transfer to Iaşi, while the Prince of Moldavia would bribe supporters in Constantinople in exchange for his appointment to Wallachia. Constantine Mavrocordatos ruled a total of ten different times in Moldavia and Wallachia. The debt was, however, owed to various creditors, and not to the Sultan himself. In one early example, Ahmed III even paid part of Nicholas Mavrocordatos' bribe debt.
The Phanariote epoch was initially characterized by excessive fiscal policies, driven by both Ottoman needs and by the ambitions of some of the Hospodars who, mindful of their fragile status, sought to pay back their creditors and increase their wealth while they still were in a position of power. In order to make the reigns lucrative while raising funds that would satisfy the needs of the Porte, Princes channeled their energies into spoliation, and the inhabitants, liable to increasing and diversified taxation, were in many instances reduced to destitution. However, the most odious taxes, mistakenly identified with the Phanariotes in modern nationalist Romanian historiography, were of much older provenance, such as the văcărit, first imposed by Iancu Sasul in the 1580s.
The mismanagement of many Phanariote rulers stands in contrast with the achievements and projects of others, such as Constantine Mavrocordatos, who abolished serfdom in 1746 in Wallachia, and in 1749 in Moldavia and Alexander Ypsilantis. Ypsilantis tried to reform the legislation and impose salaries for administrative offices. His Pravilniceasca condică, a rather modern legal code, met stiff boyar resistance.
Greek rulers often tried to improve state structures against the wishes of the conservative Romanian boyars. Contemporary documents show that, despite the change in leadership and boyar complaints, around 80% of those seated in the Divan were members of traditionally local families. This tended to render endemic the social and economical issues of previous periods, as the inner circle of boyars not only managed to block initiatives such as Alexander Ypsilantis', but also pressured for tax exemptions — which they obtained, extended, and successfully preserved.
After the end of the Phanariote epoch, various families of Phanariote ancestry in both Wallachia and Moldavia identified themselves as Romanian, and remained present in Romanian society — among them, the Rosetti family, whose member C. A. Rosetti represented the radical and nationalist cause during and after the 1848 Wallachian revolution. Also notable were the Ghicas (who, despite direct Phanariote lineage, held the throne in Wallachia with Grigore IV and Alexandru II as the first "non−Phanariote" rulers after 1821 . Finally the Vacarescu family, of Greek Phanariote origin, provided some of the first poets to Romanian literature.
The active part taken by the Greek Princes in revolts after 1821 together with the disorder provoked by the Philikí Etaireía, of which the Ghica, Vacarescu and Golescu families were active members, following its uprising against the Ottoman Empire in Moldavia and Tudor Vladimirescu's Wallachian uprising, led to the disappearance of promotions from within the Phanar community, as the Greeks were no longer trusted by the Porte. Notably, Vladimirescu's revolt was, for most of its duration, just an attempt to block the ascension of Scarlat Callimachi, the last Phanariote ruler in Bucharest.
Most Phanariotes acted as patrons of Greek culture, education, and printing. They founded academies which attracted teachers and educated pupils from throughout the Orthodox commonwealth, and there was some contact with intellectual trends in Habsburg central Europe.
Nonetheless, condemnation of the Phanariotes is a particular focus of Romanian nationalism, usually integrated with the resentment of foreigners as a whole. The tendency unifies pro− and anti−modernising attitudes: Phanariote Greeks are painted as reactionary elements (as their image was presented by Communist Romania), as well as agents of brutal and opportunistic change (as presented in Mihai Eminescu's Scrisoarea a III-a).
With new trends of migration, Romania became a less important target for exiled Greeks, and this became limited to people of lower social status—with ethnic Greeks being most visible as entrepreneurs, middlemen traders, and especially sailors both on the Danube the Black Sea—in the case of the latter, after the integration of Dobruja in 1878, which also gave Romania a new population of Greeks, already on the spot.
The communities were largely prosperous and maintained specific cultural institutions; they attracted a new wave of arrivals when Greece was hit by the Civil War, in the late 1940s. This situation was challenged by Communist Romania, with the properties of most organizations and many individuals being confiscated, and hundreds of Greek ethnics being imprisoned on sites such as the Danube-Black Sea Canal.
According to the Romanian census of 2002, the Greek community numbered 6,513 persons, most of whom live in Bucharest and its surrounding area. Next in line come the Dobruja counties of Tulcea and Constanţa, and the Danube-facing ones of Brăila and Galaţi. The 1992 census however found 19,594 Greeks; this shows the tendency of ethnic Greeks outside of Greece to acquire Greek citizenship and immigrate to Greece as homogeneis . According to the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad the Greek community in Romania numbers 14,000. The Hellenic Union of Romania, founded in 1990, continues to represent the political and cultural preservation interests of the community, notably by providing its representatives in the Chamber of Deputies of Romania.
Rigas Feraios, writer of the Thourio, the call to arms that inspired many to revolt against the Ottomans, was for a time, secretary to the hospodar of Wallachia and defended the province against the Russians at Craiova, dreamed of a Balkan federation emancipated from Turkish rule, in which all would enjoy equal rights. We all know what came of that idea. But for the life of me, I was never able to find out what whether Rovas actually ever got to Romania and indeed, what he did when he arrived there. Most probably, he has a lot to answer for.


First published in NKEE on 7 July 2008