By Elizabeth and Demetrios Giannaros, Special to the Hellenic News of America
Απ’ τα κόκκαλα βγαλμένη.
Των Ελλήνων τα ιερά,
Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη,
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε, ελευθεριά!
Hymn to Liberty, 1823 by Dionysios Solomos, part of Greek National Anthem
This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the heroic Greek War of Independence from the Ottomans, on March 25, 1821. The fight for Greek independence was a monumental struggle that culminated in the emergence of the modern-day state of Greece. Not only was it a fight for independence but our very identity as Greeks, our religion, our culture and traditions, and language were at stake.
Along with commemorating the start of the Greek War of Independence, this bicentennial anniversary reminds all of us of the immeasurable contributions that Greece, the birthplace of democracy, has given the world in philosophy, government, history, sciences, language, math literature, theater, and the arts, just to name a few. In particular, the Greek ideals of freedom and democracy had ignited the minds of educated people in America and Europe who felt genuinely indebted to Greece and lent their support to this noble cause.
This small country, where the very foundation of western civilization and democracy took root, inspired the Founders of our great country. The Founders valued Greek history, philosophy, government, and language. Thomas Jefferson was said to have read Homer in Greek. John Adams wrote in a letter to Lafayette (a great Philhellene himself), “Two republican powers, Athens and Rome, have done more to honor our species (humankind) than all the rest of it. A new country can be planted only by such government.” Likely many American supporters of Greek independence saw the United States as a direct inheritor of the ancient Greek ideals of liberty and self-government.
The Greek War of Independence officially began on March 25, 1821, when Archbishop Paleon Patron Germanos called all Greeks to arms under the standard of the cross. In fact, the Orthodox Church was the one institution binding all Greeks together and preserved Greek religion and language for the four hundred years Greeks were under the yoke of Ottoman Turks. If not for the courageous efforts of priests and monks who kept the Greek Orthodox religion and language alive, the very essence of what distinguished a Greek from others would have been lost. Under penalty of death or torture, innumerable priests and monks taught generations of Greeks in underground “secret schools” to keep our very identity as Greeks alive. Although many of the names of these religious leaders and teachers have been lost to time, they belong to the list of known heroes of the Greek revolution.
Archbishop Germanos’ call to action ignited the fire for freedom and Greeks began to organize and fight. Among those who answered the call were Petrobey, whose real name was Petros Mavromichalis, a chieftain in the Peloponnese; and Theodoros Kolokotronis one of the most successful klephtes fighters in southern Greece. Klephtes were guerilla fighters, many of whom took refuge hiding in the mountains, and striking surprise attacks on the Ottoman Turks. To compensate for the Ottoman Empire’s many advantages, Greeks used their ingenuity. On land that took the form of guerilla warfare and, on the sea, they used their sailing expertise combined with tactics like fire ships (smaller ships packed with combustibles, directed at the larger Turkish ships and then ignited) that were used as weapons. Other heroes of the fight for independence include Makrygiannis, Diakos, Papaflessas, Bouboulina, Androutsos, Miaoulis, Karaiskakis, Mavrokordatos, and Kapodistrias to name a few.
Greeks of the Diaspora who wanted an independent homeland for Greece also helped lay the groundwork for revolt and did much to support the movement for independence. The secret Filiki Eteria, the “Friendly Society”, was founded in Odessa in 1814 with the goal of overthrowing Ottoman rule and establishing an independent Greek state. Alexandros Ypsilantis, who took leadership of the group, declared in 1821 that the Greek revolt had indeed begun.
Along with Greeks from the Diaspora who fought or sent financial and material help, numerous Philhellenes who admired the genius of ancient Greece and its contributions to the world stepped up to help the revolution. Philhellenes came from all backgrounds. Many were well educated like Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Harvard Medical School graduate, who raised funds and supplies for the Greeks and served as a surgeon in the fight. Others were well-known romantics. Lord Byron was the most famous and brought much publicity and sympathy to the Greek cause. He fought and died in Messolonghi in 1824 and is still considered a hero today in Greece. Another poet who created sympathy for the Greek cause was Percy Shelley who wrote in his 1822 poem, Hellas (dedicated to Prince Alexander Mavrokordatos) “The world’s great age begins anew, The golden years return…”
Key centers in the US for organizing aid to assist Greeks during their fight for independence were in Philadelphia (Greek for City of Brotherly Love) and Boston. There were many presentations, debates, and organized efforts in these and other cities to raise funds to assist the suffering Greeks and their families. Even after the war of independence was over, aid was sent to help educate young people in the newly established country.
For American Philhellenes who helped Greeks break their bondage, it was hard not to see the irony when it came to the issue of slavery in their own country. Many transferred their anti-slavery sentiments forged in support of Greek liberation to the abolitionist movement. Photius Fisk, a bright orphan from Smyrna who was brought by missionaries to the US to be educated, later became a famous abolitionist. It is interesting to note that the first country to recognize Greek independence was Haiti, a country of formerly enslaved people who fought twelve years for their freedom from France and now ruled themselves.
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the successful fight for Greek independence, we cannot help but remember that Cyprus is still divided. It is unconscionable that almost a half-century has passed since the Turkish invasion resulted in a human calamity of lost lives, lost homes, and lost independence. The international community has a moral obligation to prioritize finding a solution to this injustice.
Ζήτω η Ελευθερία!
Elizabeth Giannaros, MA, in Political Science and International Relations, Tufts University, (thesis: Cyprus, A Study in National Self-Determination). Former Development Officer of Harvard University, Clerk of the CT State Senate, and Adjunct Professor of American Government. Demetrios Giannaros, PhD in Economics. Former Professor of Economics, CT State Representative, and President of the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association.