Georgios Karaiskakis (January 23, 1780 – April 23, 1827) was a famous Greek ‘klepht’, ‘armatolos’, military commander, and a hero of the Greek War of Independence.
Klephts were bandits, warlike mountain folk who lived in the Greek countryside when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Armatoloi were irregular Greek Christian militia, brigands who were sometimes commissioned by the Ottomans to enforce the Sultan’s authority in regions which were difficult for Ottoman authorities to govern due to inaccessible terrain.
Both groups switched allegiances according to circumstantial demands. Some were traitors, but many were heroes who helped liberate Greece from more than 400 years of Turkish oppression.
Karaiskakis was one such hero. He was born in a monastery near the village of Mavrommati in the Agrafa mountains, located near the town of Karditsa in the Prefecture of Thessaly. His father was the armatolos of the Valtos district, Demetris Iskos or Karaiskos. His mother, Zoe Dimiski, was a local nun and cousin of Gogos Bakolas, captain of the armatoloi in Radovitsi.
Known as ‘The Nun’s Son’ and ‘the Gypsy’ (because of his dark complexion), he became a klepht at a very early age in the service of Katsantonis, a famous local brigand. Karaiskakis excelled as a klepht. Agile, cunning, brave, and reckless, he rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming a ‘protopalikaro’, or lieutenant.
He was captured by Ali Pasha’s troops at 15 years of age and imprisoned at Ioannina. Impressed by Karaiskakis’ courage and intelligence and fighting spirit, Ali Pasha released Karaiskakis from prison and made him one of his personal bodyguards.
Karaiskakis served as a bodyguard to Ali Pasha for 12 years (1808-20), before losing favor with the Ottoman warlord and fleeing back to the mountains to continue his life as a klepht.
During the early stages of the war, Karaiskakis fought in the Morea (Peloponnese), where he was drawn into the intrigues which divided the Greek leadership. He nonetheless recognized the necessity of providing Greece with a stable government, and was a supporter of John Capodistrias, who would later become Modern Greece’s first head of state.
Karaiskakis’ reputation grew during the middle and latter stages of the war and he helped to lift the first siege of Messolonghi in 1823.
Messolonghi first revolted against the Turks on May 20, 1821, and was a major stronghold of the Greek rebels during the Revolution. Its inhabitants successfully resisted a siege by Ottoman forces in 1822. The second siege began on April 15, 1825 by an army of 30,000 men, and was later reinforced by another 10,000 men led by Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt.
After a year of relentless enemy attacks and facing starvation, the people of Messolonghi decided to leave the beleaguered city in the ‘Exodus of the Guards’, a sortie on the night of April 10, 1826. At the time, there were 10,500 people in Messolonghi, 3,500 of whom were armed. Very few people survived the ensuing Ottoman pincer move after their plan was betrayed.
Due to the heroic stance of the population and the subsequent massacre of its inhabitants by the Turkish and Egyptian forces, the town of Messolonghi received the honorary title of ‘Hiera Polis’ (Sacred City), unique among other Greek cities. The famous British poet and Philhellene George Gordon (Lord Byron), who supported the Greek struggle for independence, died there in 1824. Byron is commemorated by a cenotaph containing his heart, and a statue located in the town.
Karaiskakis also did his best to save the town in April 1826. As commander of the armatoloi, he attempted to relieve the second siege, but he got sick, and his illness and the lack of discipline among the armatoloi prevented him from providing effective support in the attempt to break through Turkish lines. Few of Messolonghi’s defenders survived.
That same year, however, Karaiskakis was appointed commander in-chief of the Greek patriotic forces in Rumeli, achieving mixed results: While failing to cooperate effectively with other leaders of the independence movement or with foreign sympathizers fighting alongside the Greeks, he gained military successes against the Ottomans.
He also participated in the failed attempt to raise the siege of Athens in 1827, and attempted to prevent the massacre of the Turkish garrison stationed in the fort of Saint Spyridon.
Karaiskakis was a brave warrior and one of the few Greek commanders the Turks actually feared. Pardoned by the Greek central government at Nafplion, he put down a regional revolt in the Peloponnese in the autumn of 1824.
His most famous victory was at Arachova, where his army crushed a force of Turkish and Albanian troops under Mustafa Bey and Kehagia Bey in November 1826. Victories such as the one in Arachova were especially welcome amid the losses and disasters occurring elsewhere.
Karaiskakis was killed in action on his nameday, April 23, 1827, after being fatally wounded by a rifle shell during the siege of the Acropolis. Karaiskaki Stadium in Neo Faliro, Piraeus is named after him, as he was mortally wounded in the area. He was buried on the island of Salamis at the Church of Saint Demetrios, according to his wishes.