During their long history, one of the worst disasters to befall the Greek people was their gradual loss of the Byzantine Empire and, finally, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, on May 29, 1453. A people whose civilization, from ancient times, had symbolized progress and enlightenment and whose sacrifices, from the dawn of history, had ennobled the very concepts of freedom and democracy, were suddenly enslaved by a people whose greatest achievement had been the ruthless destruction and plunder of the thriving civilizations of Asia Minor, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Taxed ruthlessly, their freedom stolen, their schools closed at whim, their churches defiled at will, their young boys abducted, Islamized and induced into Janissary legions, their servile existence lasted four centuries while their periodic brave revolts were crushed in savage blood baths.
However, the gunshots of Concord, Massachusetts in 1775 and the storming of the Bastille in France in 1789 echoed loudly in the ears of some Greeks who had dreamed a free Greece. Notable among them was Rigas Feraios, a teacher who worked tirelessly organizing an uprising of the enslaved people of the Balkans. He labored in inspiring and motivating the declining Greek race to reach its former heights by raising its morale and education as essential to a successful revolution. He boldly published and distributed poems and practical books to that effect. Sadly, he was betrayed, arrested, and delivered to the Turks in Belgrade, who tortured and strangled him to death on June 24, 1798 at the age of 41. He was the spark of the revolution and its gallant protomartyr. But the Turks could not strangle Rigas' vision; it was embraced by Nikolaos Skoufas from Arta, Emmanuil Xanthos from Patmos, and Athanasios Tsakalov from Ioannina, three Diaspora Greek merchants. In 1814 in Odessa, Ukraine, they formed the Filiki Eteria, or the Society of Friends, a secret organization whose goal was the overthrow of Ottoman rule in Greece and the establishment of an independent Greek state – a mission impossible at the time, especially coming on the heels of the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna with the great powers banning uprisings and revolts. Other Greek patriots embraced the same goals but felt it was too early. However, by the time of the Society's formation, the idea of freedom from the Ottoman Empire was stirring in the hearts of all Greeks whose sense of national pride had been kept alive by their Greek language, their Orthodox Church, and their ancient history, with reminders of their glorious past everywhere in glimpses of ruined temples with their time-darkened marbles and broken statues – often barely rising above the ground that had buried them for centuries. These too craved liberation!
Most of Filiki Eteria's recruits were Phanariot Greeks from Constantinople living in Russia, local chieftains in Greece, and Serbs. Prince Alexandros Ypsilantis and future leaders, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis, Odysseas Androutsos, bishop Germanos of Patras, and others, soon became prominent members of Filiki Eteria. Well-educated Ypsilantis spoke fluent Romanian, German, Russian, and French and in 1808 was invited to Russia by Tsar Alexander I, enlisted in the Imperial Russian Army, became general at 25, and fought Napoleon's Russian invasion, losing his right arm.
In 1818 the Filiki Eteria moved to Constantinople, amazingly under the Sultan’s nose, and Patriarch Gregorios V became a secret member. In 1820 Ypsilantis became the society's leader and immediately began appealing to the Diaspora Greeks to contribute to the liberation struggle by any means possible. His stirring letters used phrases like, “Future generations will bless your names and they will praise you as precursors of their freedom and bliss.” His grand strategy was to support a revolt of Montenegrins and Serbs, spark a revolt in the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (now Romania), provoke civil unrest in Constantinople, and burn the Ottoman fleet in its port, then go to Greece and start the revolution in the Peloponnese. Ypsilantis was betting that with renegade Ali Pasha of Ioannina fighting the Turks in Epirus, a revolt in the Balkans would stretch the Turkish army’s capabilities and help the revolt in the Peloponnese. In October 1820 Ypsilantis declared that he would soon be starting a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. His declaration began by praising ancient Greece: "Aim your eyes toward the seas, which are covered by our seafaring cousins, ready to follow the example of Salamis. Look to the land, and everywhere you will see Leonidas at the head of the patriotic Spartans."
However, following the betrayal of the Society's activities to the Ottomans, he hastened the revolt in the Principalities, expecting more local fellow Orthodox recruits. On February 22, 1821 he and a company of about 500 men of Greek descent, which he named the ‘Sacred Band’, entered Iasi, the capital of Moldavia, and declared that they had a great power's support, ostensibly Russia, counting on Orthodox Tsar Alexander’s support. But Alexander's commitment to the Congress of Vienna drove him to denounce the revolution and strip Ypsilantis of his rank.
Ypsilantis then marched to Bucharest, where he was disheartened to discover that, even though the Principalities shared the same Orthodox faith, they would not support him because, by then, they were more interested in Romanian nationalism. The Ottomans, emboldened by Ypsilantis’ Russian rebuke, crossed the Danube with 30,000 trained troops in pursuit of the Sacred Band. Here Ypsilantis made a fatal tactical error; instead of moving to Braila to benefit from the treaty that forbade Ottoman armies in the demilitarized Principalities, and Tsar Alexander’s possible acceptance of the fait accompli of his revolt, he retreated to Iasi where his small army fought against a far larger enemy and lost a series of major battles.
Finally, suffering a decisive defeat at Dragatsani on June 19, and losing many of his young recruits, instead of going to Greece as planned, he fled north where, after four months of intense campaigning, failed to stir sufficient support. He was eventually arrested by Austro-Hungarian agents and imprisoned in the present-day Czech Republic until 1827, when Tsar Nicholas I mediated his release. Sadly, by then, Ypsilantis was too sick and, two months later, died in Vienna in January, 1828, at 36, in object poverty. The last wish of this brave lover of liberty was to have his heart sent to Greece, where it has been entombed at a chapel near the Presidential Mansion, in Athens. In 1964 his remains were brought from Vienna to Athens and interned in the park of heroes, the ‘Pedion tou Areos.’
Even though Ypsilantis’ revolt had failed, the spark of his revolution had already touched every Greek town and the rallying cry, ‘Freedom or Death’ was on the lips of Greeks everywhere; the torch of revolution had already passed to the Greek rebels (armatoloi and klefts). The privately owned Greek merchant ships, which carried cannons to defend against pirates, answered the clarion call of the revolution and became its war navy. Against all odds, the ancient lands of Greece, and most Diaspora Greeks, had made the fateful decision to fight to death for liberty! March 25, 1821 is recognized as the official launching of the Revolution at the monastery of Aghia Lavra, in Peloponnese (Morea), where Bishop Germanos of Patra, and several rebel chieftains, raised the flag of the revolution and took the oath for ‘Freedom or Death,’ which became the battle cry of the struggle and, like the gunshots of the American and French revolutions, it was heard around the world! A small ethnic minority in the vast Ottoman Empire astonished the world with its determination to win its freedom with its blood! Now, the herculean struggle was on and the revolution entered its ‘victory or death’ stage. As the news of the uprising spread, so did the Turkish persecutions and atrocities against Greek cities throughout the Ottoman (previously Byzantine) Empire. Brutal reprisals began during Holy Week and on April 10, 1821 Patriarch Gregorios V was arrested, during his Easter service, and hanged in the front gate of the Patriarchate, in his full vestments (this gate has remained locked shut ever since). After hanging for three days to the jeers of passing Turks, his body was dragged around the streets and thrown into the Bosporus; it was recovered by a Greek seaman and secretly taken to Odessa and interned with honors at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Similar Turkish atrocities were committed in July 1821 in Cyprus where the archbishop and all of the high-ranking clergy were savagely murdered. Clearly the struggle was fought not only on national but also on religious grounds, i.e., a war between Turk-Muslims and Christians! Thus, the cross became the symbol of the revolution and later part of the flag of Greece and its coat of arms. Patriarch Gregorios' relics are now enshrined in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. He and Rigas Feraios – their statues standing outside Athens University – are honored as great martyrs of the Revolution. The revolution went on for several years and produced great commanders, heroes, and heroines. Kolokotronis, who had served in the British and Russian land and sea forces, became the commanding general of the various rebel units and began to train them. Within the first year, the Greek rebels gained control of the Peloponnese, areas in Central Greece, and a few Aegean islands. In January 1822, they declared the independence of Greece. Between 1822 and 1824 the Turks made three major attempts to regain the liberated territories but failed. The usually smaller Greek armies engaged the larger Ottoman hordes and often inflicted heavy casualties on them. On other occasions the Ottomans had the upper hand and were ruthless against the vanquished, or any prisoners, subjecting them to most inhumane and cruel tortures before murdering them. Their terror tactics included the burning of entire villages, indiscriminate killing of helpless old folk, women, and children, and raping, plundering, and starving whole towns.
The Greek bands retaliated with ferocity against the Ottoman armies and, occasionally, against Turkish settlements in Greece. Following the Greek gains in Peloponnese and Central Greece, the uprising spread to several Aegean islands, with Hydra, Spetses, and Psara playing a leading role in the naval war. Rebellions also erupted in Epirus, Thessaly, western Macedonia, Thrace, and Chalkidiki; however, these isolated revolts were quickly crushed. Unfortunately, antagonism among the Greek leaders prevented them from consolidating and extending their gains and, sometimes, risked the revolution’s outcome. In 1823 civil war broke out between Kolokotronis and Georgios Koundouriotis, President of the new government, forcing him to flee to Hydra. After a second civil war in 1824, Kountouriotis became the accepted President. In 1825 the revolution faced a new existential threat. Late in February of 1825, 17,000 Egyptian troops landed near Methoni in southwest Peloponnese, commanded by Ibrahim Pasha, son of the nominal viceroy of Egypt – then part of the Ottoman Empire – who was promised the Peloponnese and the island of Crete for his assistance. This French-trained, modern-equipped army became a major challenge to the Greeks, who began to lose territory and towns to Ibrahim as he crossed the Peloponnese. Failing to capture Corinth, he and his navy moved to join the Turks then besieging Messolongi, thus cutting off the city's supplies from land and sea and causing its extreme starvation. This third siege of the city began on April 15, 1825 and when, on April 10, 1826, the defendants launched a desperate exodus, most of them died gallantly fighting an uneven battle; those who had remained in the city blew themselves up rather than become Turkish prisoners. Athens fell in August 1826, followed by the Acropolis stronghold in June 1827.
Messolongi, which had a number of philhellenes among its defenders – the most prominent had being Lord Byron, who died there in 1824 – became a symbol of the entire struggle and a political turning point, triggering strong emotional reactions in Europe and the United States, stronger than even the barbaric Turkish massacre of Chios.
The public in Europe and the United States supported the Greek cause and helped it with supplies and volunteers. The Congress of Vienna protocols and their own political calculations had kept the governments from involvement, but after Messolongi, the great European powers began to think of helping the Greek revolutionaries. The Russian Empire's expansionist policy at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire and Europe’s concern over Russia's potential geostrategic threat, following the expected demise of the Ottoman Empire, were the catalysts for allied intervention. In this political climate, three important factors favored the Greek cause: a) The Russian-Greek Orthodox religious connection, b) The British public's strong support of the Greek cause, in spite of official British policy of preserving the Ottoman Empire, and c) The deep philhellenism of the French public, including Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Greek-born Colonel Joseph Baleste, who died heroically for Greece’s liberation. Through the 1827 Treaty of London, Britain and France skillfully coopted Russia into an allied intervention to assure Greek autonomy, thus preventing a unilateral Russian action, while preserving the Ottoman Empire as a check on Russia. Clearly geopolitical considerations, rather than altruism or magnanimity were their drivers. To enforce their decision against an obstinate Sultan, the allies sent a naval squadron to the east Mediterranean which met the Turkish-Egyptian armada in the bay of Navarino. On October 20, 1827, whether by accident or design, a battle ensued and the allies destroyed the Ottoman fleet. The Russo-Turkish war of 1828-9, the dispatch of French troops to the Peloponnese, and the pressure of the Greek bands, forced the Ottoman troops out of central and southern Greece, thus securing Greece’s independence!
In 1827 Ioannis Kapodistrias, former Foreign Secretary of Russia, was elected as the first head of independent Greece and is considered the architect of its independence and founder of the modern Greek state. The February 3, 1830 London Protocol imposed a settlement by the allies declaring Greece an independent monarchical state. In mid-1832 its northern border was along a line extending from south of Volos to south of Arta. In 1831 Kapodistrias’ assassination shook the confidence and the outlook of Greece. On May 27, 1832 the Bavarian Prince Otto became king and with the July 1832 Treaty of Constantinople, the Sultan accepted the independence of Greece!
It took several more wars and many more sacrifices before Greece secured its present borders, however, it all started with Rigas’ and Ypsilantis’ rallying-cry of ‘Freedom or Death!’ The Greek Revolution of 1821 was the first national liberation movement in Europe and worldwide – after that of the United States – and played a crucial role in the subsequent creation of nation-states which redrew the map of Europe and, in time, the world. Thus, the Greek Revolution had a worldwide impact! It also signaled the beginning of the end of the oppressive and corrupt Ottoman Empire, which convulsed and expired in stages over the next 100 years. Though in the 1700's Western intellectuals had pondered the idea of nation-states, it was in Greece that this revolutionary concept first succeeded in Europe! Following the French revolution of 1789, and the rise and fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna had established order in Europe by simply regressing to pre-1789 geopolitical paradigms of empires and autocratic rule. The Greek Revolution of 1821 changed all that and became the turning point for the creation of modern, autonomous nation-states. Perhaps this was history’s manifestation of gratitude to the birthplace of democracy and Western civilization!
Ernest A. Kollitides is a Professional Engineer and Historian, was executive in two Fortune-500 international engineering firms, and President-CEO of an environmental engineering company.