If memory is the soul of a Nation, forgetfulness or ignorance are its scourges. The National Herald spoke with several leaders in Athens of organizations representing people from Asia Minor and Constantinople about the role of those communities in the Greek Revolution – and about the dark centennial of the Asia Minor Catastrophe.
Hellenes and non-Greeks alike know that in 1821 the people of the Greek mainland rose up against their Ottoman Turk oppressors and began the process of liberating lands that were occupied for 400 years. Few non-Greeks, however, are aware of the fact that historically, Hellenism flourished on both coasts of the Aegean Sea, and that more than one million Hellenes were expelled from Asia Minor in 1923, erasing a 3000-year presence.
Few Hellenes also know that the ancestors of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the Aegean and on the Blacks Sea coasts also answered the call in 1821. While few ‘Mikrasiates’ were able to make their way west to fight in the revolutionary battles, they contributed substantially to the cause – and also paid a price by suffering deadly Turkish reprisals and terror. One hundred years after that, hundreds of thousands paid with their lives in the Asia Minor genocides – and with their livelihoods when they were not only expelled from their homes, but had to leave their possessions and savings behind, becoming impoverished refugees overnight in Greece.
We begin with an overview of Hellenism in Asia Minor.
During a period of civil wars and economic downturns the seemingly impregnable eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire were overrun. The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 opened the gates of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks and while their political successors, the Ottoman Turks, conquered most of mainland Greece after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, huge Greek Orthodox communities fell under Turkish rule for much more than the 400 years we heard about in Greek school.
The Greek Orthodox Christians of east central Asia Minor, the renowned Cappadocia region, suffered oppression from 1071 until they were expelled in 1923 – 852 years. The ancient Greek cities on the south Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Asia Minor were under Turkish rule for more than 700 years – 600 years for the people of northwest Asia Minor. Of course, the heroic Pontians held out until the fall of Constantinople, so they too lived the 400 years of oppression of the mainland Greeks – the point being that the majority of the people of Asia minor suffered for much more than 400 years.
Professor Theophilos Kontanidis, the president of Society of Pontians “Argonaftes-Komninoi” reminds that Pontians played a role in the Revolution from the start because the Filiki Eteria-Society of Friends was born in Odessa on the ‘Euxinos’ Pontos – “we should not call it the Black Sea,” he added. More concretely, they participated in a substantial way through crucial economic contributions.
“In is important to note that the town of Argyroupolis, about 50 miles southwest of Trapezounta, which, as its name suggests, was a silver-producing area, saw its silver merchants and others donate large sums of money to the Revolution.” Asked how they were able to smuggle the money out of the Ottoman Empire, he explained that the entrepreneurs utilized their business networks and also went through the Greek Orthodox metropolises, which had relationships with churches and Greek communities beyond the borders.
While it bothers him that the best-known histories of the Revolution do not mention those aspects of the endeavor – “it is understandable that they focused on the great battles in the Peloponnese and at Sea” – he said “it is important to note that the Greeks in those areas did not have much money, while those in Asia Minor were prosperous. Indeed, some collections of money took place inside the Churches… the members of our Society are working getting out this great story and we are honored that your newspaper has contacted us.”
With roots in Constantinople, biologist Antonios Lambides, President of the Society of Constantinopolitans, told TNH that after the catastrophe in 1922, the Greeks of Constantinople were in a painful and even dangerous situation. While the Greeks who were legally permanent residents were protected under the treaty of Lausanne, many feared Turkish violence in light of the atrocities in Asia Minor – and many thousands were forced to leave because they did not have residency documents. “So, they left the Polis and settled mainly in Athens.
In 1821, they also paid with their lives. “Patriarch Gregory the 5th was hanged. Many Greeks of the City were beheaded – Phanariotes and men in Ottoman diplomatic service – and there were massacres also.” He noted that the funds were raised primarily among the Phanariots who lived in Moldova and Wallachia.
Loucas Christodoulos is president of the Center for Study and Promotion of Asia Minor Civilization of the Nea Ionia municipality. He was roots in Sparti, in the Pisidia region of Asia Minor, and is president of the Union of Sparti. He bemoans the fact that the history books do not do justice “to the contributions and struggles of the Hellenes who lived beyond the borders of the Greek state, especially in Asia Minor. At some point a greater effort must begin along those lines.”
The Hellenes away from the main fighting fronts played important roles, he said. “Don’t forget that among the leaders of the Revolution, in the Filiki Eteria, was a man of Pontian descent: Alexandros Ypsilantis. Historian Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler Eleni Glykantsi Arbele says very clearly that is where the Revolution began.”
Of course, “the people who lived in Asia Minor and Pontos could not themselves rise up, because that is where Turkish miliary power was concentrated. An uprising in Asia Minor would have been illogical and had a tragic result,” he said. Nevertheless, “the Greeks of Asia Minor supported the cause as best they could, financially of course – the first shipments of ammunition that arrived in Kalamata were paid for by Mikrasiates. And 500-600 also managed to join the battles,” Christodoulos added.
All these testimonies remind on March 25 that there is a price to be paid for the right to call oneself a Hellene – the obligation to respond to calls to arms of all kinds in the defense of the culture and the liberation of the land of Hellas.
Hellenism breaths the air and light of the Aegean, but with the destruction of Smyrna and the wiping away of its Asia Minor communities, one of Hellenism’s historic lungs is gone. Nevertheless, as is the case with many of its historic centers, like Constantinople, Alexandria, and the coasts of the Euxinos Pontos, imagination, memory, but most importantly, actions and activities – politics, art, music, and literature – in the Homeland and the Diaspora will do justice to the past, ensuring that places like Asia Minor are always part of the icon of Hellas, and that everlasting are the memories of those contributed to the freedom of Hellenes today, those who paid first with gold, then with blood.