Monday, January 26, 2009


"When the Greeks want to boast, they will say that such people are produced by our nation," wrote Cavafy. It is a telling quote and one that guided me as I prepared for a talk I gave last NOvember, for the Panepirotic Federation of Australia and the Pneumatiki Estia of Greek Women, on the topic of the benefactors of Greece. According to the official historiography, a distinct group of Greeks, living abroad and before and just after the Greek Revolution, exercising the "traditional" Greek values of frugality, industry and ingenuity, amassed large fortunes, a significant portion of which they gifted to the Greek nation either to fund the armed struggle against the Ottomans or to provide valuable structure for the creation of a new State ex nihilo. They are eternal stakeholders.
The vast majority of these "benefactors" (or ευεργέτες in Greek), came from Epirus, not, as most Epirots would have it, because there is anything inordinately more innate in the "Epirote character" than that of the rest of the Greeks that makes them more susceptible to the disbursement of largesse but probably because the mountainous terrain of that region could not support a large population and produced a larger percentage of immigrants. These immigrants enacted the precursor of the "American dream." Fleeing to "virgin" lands relatively free of the Ottoman control, such as Romania and Egypt or Russia, they made use of the resources of those countries in order to become fabulously rich. Then, inspired by their love of country, according to conventional Greek history, they set about rebuilding Greece. For example, Evangelos Zappas rebuilt the Panathenean Stadium and the Zappeion mansion, Arsakis, who also served as foreign minister and prime minister of Romania, built a women's college on Panepistimiou, the "Arsakeion," Tositsas built the Athens Polytechnic, scene of the famous uprising, the Eye Hospital, George Stavrou founded and directed the National Bank of Greece, the Zosimades brothers built the Athens Numismatic Museum and Evangelos Averoff, donated moneys towards the refurbishment of the Panathenaean Stadium, built the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, the military academy, a jail, horticultural schools in Larissa, the Athens Odeon and most famously, the warship Georgios Averoff, which saw service during the First World War. In his adopted home of Alexandria, he also built schools, hospitals and churches for the Greek community there. Baron Sinas, who was established in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, built the Vienna Chamber of Music, a bridge across the Danube in Budapest, the first train-tracks across the Empire (in order to speedily transport his products from the East), as well as the Athens Astronomical Observatory. The monies bequeathed to the institutions founded by these benefactors were indeed astronomical. Most of them, all in operation today, do so upon the interest accumulated from the original cash deposit.
That the Greek state honours these remarkable men as "benefactors" is notable in several respects. Firstly, they all started their lives in impoverished conditions and through sheer perseverance and pluck, became possessors of untold riches. This is the dream of every Greek migrant and is also the reason why, especially here in Australia, we scour the BRW Rich list to identify which of our compatriots can be numbered as their peers. Wealth conveys legitimacy to the dispossessed and justifies the traumatic process of migration, in ways that strictly humanitarian pursuits never could. Devoting your life to teaching and enlightening others, as in the case of Adamantios Korais, does not make you a benefactor in the Greek sub-pantheon. It makes you a "Didaskalos tou Ethnous." Sacrificing your life so that others can enjoy freedom of conscience, religion and education, instead of making you a benefactor, makes you, at least in the case of St Kosmas the Aetolian, a Saint. Benefactors are money men.
What is pertinent about the nature of money men as benefactors is that the official hagiography and panegyrics turn a blind eye to the method in which their fortune was made. What the Greek nationalistic narrative views as ingenuity and hard work, the Romanian narrative views as exploitation, whereby the Greek migrants who established themselves in Romania, did so aided by a Greek regime that ruled that land as a personal fiefdom to be exploited and plundered at will (ignoring of course the many institutions that Greek rulers and migrants founded in Romania for the benefit of all). Similarly, a Nasserite approach would perceive the Greek businessmen of Egypt as alien capitalists, exploiting the native fellahin and the natural resources without regard for their welfare, purely for a profit that was applied to benefit the land from which it was extracted. Obviously the industrial practices of 18-19th century capitalists have to be viewed within the context of the times but nonetheless, this is an aspect of the benefactor's endeavours that is assiduously ignored by us.
The official narrative would have it also, that the benefactors' sole motivation for conferring their benevolence upon us was sheer love of country. In many cases, this is in fact true. In the case of the Epirot benefactors, many neglected their own villages or regions in order to endow the newly renascent Greek state with institutions it otherwise would struggle to create. They created a precedent that is followed today by the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, with its fund-raising for the construction of technical colleges, medical centres, schools and other educational facilities for the Greeks of Albania, today.
Yet the underlying ideology behind most of the bequests: a museum, a bank, an academy, a university, an observatory, sports facilities - all things that had no counterpart under the former Ottoman regime - was their very European and progressive nature. The benefactors did not just want to make a gift to the Greek nation. They wanted to contribute to it in such a way as to ensure that the fledgling nation would espouse the values and practices of Western Europe, thus creating an environment where the free market could reign untrammelled by the instability of Oriental despotism. In short they wanted to create a society akin to those that had facilitated their own personal success. Averoff's construction of penitentiary institutions, a military academy and a battleship also point to other perceived priorities and aspirations.
In some cases, benefices were conferred in order to divert attention away from the benefactor's more unsavoury pursuits. For example., while the Constantinopolitan Andreas Syggros largely financed the construction of the Corinthian Canal, the museum at Delphi and Olympia, the municipal theatre of Athens, the Syggrou jail, a number of hospitals and orphanages, he was also implicated in one of the largest Greek financial scandals of the nineteenth century, involving the illegal sale of tailings from the Laurion silver mines to a French company and encouraging Greek middle-class investors to purchase shares in dud mines at over-inflated prices. Through his control over the Epirus-Thessaly Bank, the credit Bank of Greece and other financial institutions, Syggros is said to have deliberately manipulated the Greek credit crisis so as to bring about the bankruptcy of Greece in 1893 and the fall of the Trikoupis government. It is evident then that there were ulterior motives behind his donations.
Nonetheless, regardless of their own political and social viewpoints, an abiding concern of most of these benefactors must have been a feeling of burning concern and love for their country. I remember some years ago, sitting in a hallway at the Ecumencial Patriarchate, awaiting an audience with the Patriarch. Two Greek businessmen rounded the corner, being ushered out by Patriarch Bartholomeos. They had just been appointed archons of the Ecumenical Throne because they had donated money towards the upkeep of the patriarchate and for its missionary work. Their faces flushed with excitement, they begged the Patriarch to let them know what other assistance they could confer. As they explained to me later, the title of archon conveys no financial benefit upon its recipient. Nor is it really a title that confers kudos, since it is relatively unknown. Instead, these wealthy Greek businessmen were thrilled to the core at being provided with the opportunity to support an institution that they believe in. This notwithstanding, it says much again for our Hellenic concept of the benefactor, that it is exceedingly rare for one to be granted the title of archon without having demonstrated a commitment for the betterment of the Church and the community as a whole.
The concept of the benefactor seems to have been ingrained within us from times mythological. Prometheus the Titan was out first benefactor, as he stole the gift of fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Athena in turn, bestowed upon the Athenians the precious gift of the olive. In ancient Athens, rich citizens were compelled by the state to fund public processions, theatre performances and warships at their own expense. Kimon, according to Plutarch, pulled down the fence around his orchards and allowed the poor of Athens to nourish themselves upon his fruit. Herod Atticus, a rhetor during Roman times, gifted a Stadium and Odeon to Athens (where all the highbrow Greek musicians still give concerts), a theatre to Corinth, a stadium to Delphi, baths to Thermopylae, an aqueduct to Canusium in Italy and Troy, a nympheum to Olympia and various cash subsidies to the cities of Epirus. Such gifts were expected and were a way of life for wealthier Greeks, conferring kudos and status upon them and reinforcing their identities as «ευγενείς.» Even during Byzantium, Greek philanthropists were exhorted to give generously, having as their starting point Christ as the Good Shepherd and His injunction to love one another. St Basil the Great, whose tireless work in founding hospitals, hospices and orphanages is reflected in the name of the Archdiocese's Aged Care facility in Melbourne: Basileiada. Other benefactors, such as Constantine Libs, George of Antioch and Theodore Metochites expended vast sums in the construction of churches that today are highlighted as seminal points in Byzantine art. Whatever the reason for the gift, these are at least enduring ones.
The same cannot be said of course of all gifts. I will never forget chancing upon shut, boarded up or locked Greek institutions in Egypt, Constantinople and Northern Epirus and then, seeing photographs of them in their heyday, buzzing with life. They are phantasmagoric premonitions of a past that could possibly become a future here, though our own institutions were created on a much broader base and thus arguably are more susceptible to adaptation and change, since they supposedly reflect the consensus of those who founded and run them. However, in the least they appear to be appreciated more than the unplanned benefices of individual donors. The effects of Zisis Dardalis' extensive financial support of EKEME and the Stamoulis Family's laudable foundation of the Hellenic Museum upon the Greek community of Melbourne are yet to be assessed though there seems to be an illogical suspicion of modern day benefactors bordering on the hysterical, within our community. Yet it was under the presidency (and financial backing) of Spiros Stamoulis that the Panepirotic Federation of Australia was able to bring about the construction of a technical college in Argyrokastro that provides vocational training to the youth of the region, so that they can find jobs or set up businesses in their homeland without having to emigrate. Evangelos Zappas mansion in his hometown of Lambovo today lies in ruins but his gifts to the Greek state are thriving. As I concluded my talk, the question now remaining within my head was this: in the wasteland of suspicion, departed and embittered benefactors, shall we also put to bed in turn the rubble of our own mouldering founations? Or will a celestial benefactor appear, clothed in Bosra purple to build for us a tower that will take us to the sun? Who knows. Only one thing is for certain. The benefices of the Greek benefactors (except for Olympic Airways) endure.


First published in NKEE on 26 January 2009