AGIA LAVRA, PELOPONNESE – Beneath a glorious sky of eternal Hellenic Blue, many hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds gathered at the renowned Αγία Λαύρα (Holy Lavra) monastery to mark the 198th Anniversary of the start of the Greek War of Independence.
The celebration – both solemn and joyous – began with peals of the monastery bells and guns being fired by the dozen or so men riding on horseback dressed as Evzones, the 19th century freedom fighters whose garb is now the official costume of the Presidential Guard of the Republic of Greece.
Children cheered as a detachment of Evzones followed the revered “lavaro”, or banner of the revolution – essentially, the first Greek flag – that in 1821 led the rebel soldiers into the nearby town of Kalavrita, the first one that was liberated from Turkish rule.
On Sunday, priests, bishops, and other officials followed the Evzones, and all gathered in front of the chapel located outside the monastery walls for a Doxology service that began with all present singing the beloved hymn to the Theotokos, Τη Υπερμάχω Στρατηγώ τα νικητήρια (To thee, Champion-General, O Theotokos).
Bishop Amvrosios of Aigialeia and Kalavryta enthusiastically welcomed the throng, noting that it was the largest crowd he had seen in 40 years. He then led memorial hymns in honor of the departed, the recent as well as the humble and famous heroes and heroines of 1821, before introducing the keynote speaker, Professor Haralambos Bambounis of the University of Athens.
“It is of the essence of human nature to live with our memories of people and events,” he said, “especially during times of danger and crisis,” when a people draws strength by meditating on commitments to excellence and values, and on acts of personal courage and patriotism.
“The revolutionary sprit flows in Greek veins,” he declared, and after a brief mention of the broader issues of 1821, he addressed the contributions of the people of the region and the Peloponnese as a whole to the struggle and the ultimate victory, noting a large number of the members of the Φιλική Εταιρεία (Society of Friends) – approximately 30 – hailed from the Kalavryta area.
The presentation ended with Amvrosios leading the singing of the song Μακεδονία ξακουστή (Macedonia Renowned) and there followed in the chapel courtyard a theatrical presentation about famous oath taking of the leaders of the 1821 rising.
Originally built in 961 AD, Agia Lavra is one of the oldest monasteries in the Peloponnese. It is referred to as the symbolic birthplace of modern Greece because of events connected to 1821.
It is said that the battle cry Ελευθερία ή θάνατος (Liberty or Death!) was first heard there after Bishop Germanos of Patras (Παλαιών Πατρών Γερμανός) presided over a doxology and administered an oath to the revolutionary leaders under the plane tree that still exists outside the gate of the monastery.
The annual celebration has a somber component because of the memory of the Kalavrita Massacre on December 13, 1943, when the 117th Jager Division (Wehrmacht) under orders from General Karl von Le Suire destroyed the town and wiped out nearly its entire male population.
Indeed, a total extermination of the population was intended when all the women and children were locked up in the school – which today is a museum dedicated to the memory of the catastrophe – that was set aflame along with the rest of the town.
The nazis then marched all the men over the age of 12 to a hill that overlooks the town and killed them with machine gun fire. More than 1175 died, but13 survived because they were under the bodies of the rest of the dead.
The women and children managed to open the school’s door and escaped, but the following day the nazis burned down the monastery of Agia Lavra, which was rebuilt after the war.