A Holiday by Any Other Date…

ATHENS – March 25, 1821 is engraved on Hellenic hearts and minds forever, but the great struggle for the liberation of mainland Greece from Ottoman rule after 400 years is founded on events marked by numerous dates. While I marvel at the wisdom of settling on March 25th, the great Orthodox Christian Feast of the Annunciation, making it a ‘Dual Feast’, it behooves us to remember some of the other important dates.

It should be noted, however, that the Hellenes in the heart of Asia Minor lived under Turkish occupation for more than 850 years (following the tragic Battle of Manzikert). They were never liberated – rather, they were expelled in 1923, later rebuilding their lives in Greece and the Greek Diaspora.

We should also remember that there were many rebellions against Turkish rule – in Asia, North Africa, and the Balkans – but it wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th century when the combination of Ottoman decline (the ‘Sick Man of Europe’) and the interests of other European Great Powers (especially Russia, which shared the Orthodox faith with Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, Bulgarians and others) converged and the cause ripened.

The First Big Dream

How many Hellenes – in the homeland or the Diaspora – know of the Orlov Revolt of 1770? It was sponsored by the Russian state as part of Catherine the Great’s ‘Greek Plan’.

The ill-conceived scheme entailed a promise to the Greeks of 10,000 soldiers along with arms and equipment from Russia. A rebellion in southern Greece was to draw the attention and a response from the Turks while the Russians attacked after Black Sea landings. The Greek revolt broke out in February 1770 in the Peloponnese and

The Orlovs were brothers – Alexey Orlov was a Russian Admiral and commander of the Imperial Russian Navy. His forces landed in Mani and his brother Fyodor Orlov went to the Morea to coordinate the Greek fighters.

Foreshadowing many events in the next 250 years, the Greeks were disappointed in their hopes as their allies did not come through with their promises. Only four ships and a few hundred soldiers, poorly armed and supplied, showed up, and the Ottomans easily crushed the revolt. Things actually got worse for the Greeks as the Turks’ Muslim Albanian mercenaries remained in the Peloponnese and often attacked them.

The broken promise caused many – but not all – Greeks to distrust the Russians to this day.

‘If You Want to Do a Job Right…’

It dawned on many Greeks that they would have to take the lead in their own liberation – though the pursuit of allies and supporters abroad remained part of the plan, efforts even reaching the young United States.

The rebellion that ultimately succeeded and is known as the Greek Revolution or the Greek War of Independence was born of the actions of the secret political and revolutionary organization, the renowned ‘Filikí Etaireía’ – Society of Friends. In light of prior and subsequent Hellenic history, what they accomplished from the time of their founding in Odessa (now Ukraine) in 1814 to the establishment of the Greek State in 1830 is astounding – if not miraculous. Perhaps tying the endeavor to the ‘Panagia’ was more than a P.R. ploy.

The Society consisted of young Phanariot Greeks from Constantinople and Balkan territories, political and military chieftains from the Greek mainland and islands, many of them successful merchants, as well as Orthodox Christian leaders from places that became Serbia, Romania, which were under Greek influence, as well as Arvanite military commanders.

Its first three founders were the revered Nikolaos Skoufas from Arta, Emmanuil Xanthos from Patmos, and Athanasios Tsakalov from Ioannina. They later initiated a fourth member, Panagiotis Anagnostopoulos from Andritsaina.

They were joined by the prominent Phanariote Prince Alexander Ypsilantis, who was offered the leadership of the Society in 1820, which he accepted in 1821. Preparations for a revolution then began in earnest, including the establishment of a military unit named the ‘Sacred Band’, echoing the Sacred Band of ancient Thebes. While the revolution was first set to begin in Constantinople, it was decided to launch attacks in Morea in the Peloponnese and the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia instead.

Actions before March 25

When Ypsilantis crossed the Prut River into Turkish Moldavia on February 22, 1821, the revolt began. Leading only a small force, Ypsilantis was quickly defeated by the Turks, but within weeks revolts began to break out in the Peloponnese, north of the Gulf of Corinth and on several islands. Amazingly, within a year the rebels had gained control of the entire Peloponnese, and in January 1822 they declared the independence of Greece.

On March 13, 1821 Laskarina Bouboulina raised the flag of rebellion on the island of Spetses – Ypsilantis raised the flag of his Secret Band in battle, but Bouboulina’s was the first commonly acknowledged flag in the War.

The Maniates declared war on the Ottomans on March 17, 1821 in Areopoli and 2,000 of them led by Petros Mavromichalis advanced on Kalamata, which was captured on March 23. On March 21, revolutionary forces besieged the town of Kalavryta in the Peloponnese.

March 25, 1821 corresponds to the date that Metropolitan Germanos of Patras raised the cross-inscribed revolutionary banner in the Monastery of Agia Lavra, near Kalavryta. While historians debate the accuracy of descriptions of this event, history confirms it was an inspired decision to select it as ‘the’ date for the beginning of the Greek War of Independence.

While gaining Kalamata was an auspicious beginning for the great endeavor, the conquest of Tripolitsa (Tripoli) is seen as a turning point in the Greek War of Independence – 32,000 Ottomans were killed on September 23, 1821 and the Greeks captured 11,000 weapons.

Events were moving quickly – for good and ill, including civil wars among the Greeks that were as devastating and demoralizing as any Turkish victories. On January 1, 1822, the first constitution of the Greek War of Independence – the Provisional Polity of Greece – was voted into force by the National Assembly at Epidaurus.

Those civil wars and disputes among the Greeks’ supporters in Europe – Tsar Alexander was conned by Austria’s Prince Metternich to abandon the Greeks as well as the age-old Russian dream of liberating Constantinople – caused the effort to drag on.

It wasn’t until 1827 when the National Assembly of Troezen elected Ioannis Kapodistrias Governor of the newly established Greek state on March 30,  but it wasn’t until October 20, 1827, when British, French, and Russian warships entered the harbor of Navarino that the war was really won. By the end of the day, the Ottoman fleet was at the bottom of the sea and support from the Great Powers was thus inevitable. Kapodistrias arrived in Nafplion on January 7, 1828 and he immediately got to work building the foundations of modern Greece – which officially became an independent nation-state in 1830 with the signing of the London Protocol. Kapodistrias had a visionary plan to base the modern Greek state on a superior education system – but the disputes among the victorious Greeks raged on, and on September 27, 1831 Kapodistrias was assassinated in front of the Church of Saint Spyridon in Nafplion.

On May 7, 1832, the Treaty of London was signed, a more detailed and formal agreement than the London Protocol of 1830, and the Turkish Sultan recognized Greek independence by the Treaty of Constantinople in July 1832.

But that was still only the beginning of the history of Modern Greece. The new Greek state was only a fraction of its current territorial extent, and the great dream and idea of including every Hellene within its boundaries… is another story. Nevertheless, what our forebears achieved was remarkable, and did have an impact beyond the infamous Arta-Lamia line that formed its first border. In the East, the huge Ottoman state still loomed, but to the West, other captive nations in Europe were inspired by the Greek achievement.

Just as Greece and other Balkan and eastern nations would continue to peck away at the Sultan’s domains, over the next century his fellow autocrats in Vienna, St. Petersburg, London, and Berlin would also face one revolt and loss of prime real estate after another. While it is doubtful any of those peoples ever ‘thanked’ the Greeks, some historians give credit where it is due, March 25 – and not only in the Diaspora – having some magic outside of Hellas, too.


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