ATHENS – Every Greek School refugee or graduate carries with him at least this one piece of Greek historical knowledge for the rest of his life – that the Greeks were oppressed for 400 years by the Turks.
While that is a good round number for the Ottoman occupation of mainland Greece, depending on where they lived Hellenes were subject to Turkish government and abuse for far longer periods than that – and the rule of their fellow Christians from the West, including the Venetians who controlled most of the Greek islands and mainland ports for long stretches of time was often just as cruel.
Leaving the Frankish occupation for another day – except to note one remarkable fact, that against all odds and the rest of human history, it is fascinating that rather than converting the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians of the Aegean and Ionian Seas and Cyprus into Italian-speaking Roman Catholics, over their hundreds of years as occupiers almost all the families from Venice, Genoa and other Italian City states embraced Orthodox Christianity and became speakers of Greek!
In many cases, like my own, remove the “s” or the “ou” and you have a name right out of a Fellini movie. Marcello, is there a Giannis Mastrogiannis in the house? Mr. Koukouzis, do you know any Father Cocuzzi jokes?
Back to the Turks. After hundreds of years of Byzantine civil wars in Asia Minor, the Seljuk Turk chieftan Alp Arslan picked the right time to attack. Someone in Constantinople came up with a bright idea for weakening the powerful landowners that continuously rose against Emperors trying to get them to pay their taxes – we are not talking about fighting “soak the rich” types of taxation. The Δυνατοι – The Powerful, as the landowners were known, often refused to pay any taxes.
The bright idea was to dismantle the armies of many of the Themes – which is what Byzantium’s provinces were called – that The Powerful often commanded. Those theme armies in the interior as well as on the borderland of the Empire backed up the frontier forts and the standing army under the command of the Emperor or his leading generals.
It did not seem like a crazy idea because Byzantine armies turned the tide against the Moslems states of the Middle East more than 100 years earlier. There were no dangerous armies on the block – but the Seljuk Turks were around the corner.
Actually, when the Seljuks began to knock on the door – they had sacked Caesarea in 1057 – some Byzantines came to their senses and tried to rebuild the armies and put competent generals on the Imperial throne – but more civil strife delayed the process.
The Emperor Romanus Diogenes made great progress. He proudly marched his shiny new army against Alp Arslan with success a number of times – but the glue had not fully dried, and there were some missing pieces to the war machine – like the scouts generals must send out to know exactly where the enemy is. On August 26 1071 – remembered forever by Hellenes as “that terrible day” –Romanus lost track of where Alp Arslan was, and the Byzantines suffered a crushing defeat.
Amazingly, Seljuks made peace and went home, unable to believe the great Byzantine state was done for – but when they saw from afar that a fresh round of civil wars left the empire defenseless, the Turks’ regular and irregular forces swept across all of Asia Minor, almost to Constantinople – remember, the Theme armies that would have checked them in the past were gone as Romanus only had a chance to build an expeditionary force.
Because Greek history is filled almost equally with good and back luck, there was one opportunity to recover all of Asia Minor – and then some. The Comnenian Dynasty founded by Emperor Alexios Comnenos used astute generalship and shrewd diplomacy – yes, the plan to get the Crusaders to help them backfired, but Alexios and his son John learned how to handle them – to regain vital territory. The latter had an excellent opportunity to crush the Sultanate of Iconium in Central Anatolia, but he died accidentally.
He had competent sons however, except for one – distractible Manuel – but superstition in the form of the AIMA (Blood of Christ) prophecy placed him on the throne. Wasting time and treasure on a Pyrrhic victory in Ancona, Italy, when he finally focused on Asia Minor he led his forces into a trap at the Battle of Myriocephalum. On September 17, 1176, almost 100 years after Manzikert, the last chance to reverse that catastrophe was squandered, and Asia Minor was truly lost forever.
Within a few years the great ancient cities of Southeast Asia Minor – including St. Nicholas’ Myra, passed under the Turkish yoke. By 1821, their period under occupation reached almost 650 years.
The Fourth Crusade which led to the sack and occupation of Constantinople is the event that really shattered the Byzantine Empire. The City was recovered less than 60 years later, but the state was so weakened that by the early 14th century, Northwest Asia Minor was lost. Its noble citizens – yes, that is when Troy was finally lost to Hellenism – heard about the rising in 1821 after 500 years of occupation.
The Hellenes of parts of Thrace and Macedonia also endured almost 500 years of oppression. The sad story of how the Turks got there should be familiar by now: the Byzantine Emperor John Cantacuzene had another bright idea during a civil war – he ferried Ottoman Turks across the Hellespont to attack his enemies. The Ottomans liked the neighborhood so much they decided to stay. About 500 years later the Greeks of that region learned the names Kolokotronis, Bouboulina and the other heroes – but only those of Western Thrace were eventually liberated.
The Greeks of Eastern Thrace, like those of Asia Minor, only rejoined the Greek state as refugees following the horrific genocides.
That is a long way of saying it was not really 400 years of Turkish oppression. It was 850 years for the Greeks of Cappadocia, 750 for Southwest Asia Minor, and almost 600 for Northwest Asia Minor and Thrace.