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Society

The Garden of the Heroes Awaits in Messolonghi

For Hellenes and Philhellenes, there are a variety places, sentiments, and ideas that draw them to different parts of the Hellenic world. Sometimes the pull is the expectation of pleasure – the warmth of the sand and sea, the cool breezes on the shore and in the mountains, the culinary delights of the table, the strains of music old and new. At some point in our lives, however, there are deeper forces that rise to the surface of our souls, urging us to take a special journey. Some of those feelings are of a religious nature but others have different sources – a sense of history, a feeling for ancient Greece as the foundation of Western Civilization whose roots must be experienced. And there is a more familiar pull, a urge to honor the people from just a few generations ago to whom a more palpable debt is owed, those who dedicated their fleeting youth, large amounts or the entirety of their fortunes, some or all of their lives… to the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman yoke.

In Western Greece there are numerous sites that are literally places of pilgrimage, spiritual or secular, ancient Olympia, like the modern churches of St. Andrew, or both – Agia Lavra. There is another that evokes particularly powerful emotions for those who get there – but it is not as well known. In this space we extend an invitation to all of you to the Garden of the Heroes in the town heroic and tragic town of Messolonghi.

Each year on Palm Sunday, there is a Memorial March in Messolonghi. The procession starts from the church of Agios Spyridon and ends in the Garden of the Heroes. The event commemorates the Exodus of Messolonghi in April 1826, when the Greeks enduring a brutal siege by the Ottoman forces attempted an outbreak.

That was actually the Third Siege of Messolonghi – it is sometimes mistakenly called the second siege – and it lasted from April 15, 1825 to April, 10 1826. The Ottomans had tried and failed to take Messolonghi in 1822 and 1823, and returned in 1825 with a stronger force. The Greeks held out for a year but they ran out of food, and the attempted a mass breakout resulted in a disaster – most of the men were killed and many women were sold into slavery.

There is a song from an American movie titled ‘From the Ashes of Disaster Grow the Roses of Success’ and so it was with Messolonghi. The cruel siege was made even more awful in the eyes of Western Europe by its association with the death of the beloved English poet Lord Byron, who journeyed to Greece to contribute to the great cause of freedom for Greece but who became ill and died during the second siege in 1824. The tragic end of the siege roused public opinion and generated sympathy for the Greek cause and led to intervention by the Great Powers – most importantly Great Britain, France, and Russia.

Today, one can visit the walls, the main gates, and even the house where Byron lived, but there is one spot, just inside the gate, where the Spirit of ’21 lives and reigns, the beautiful park named The Garden of the Heroes.

The heroes and heroines of the Revolution have their grave elsewhere, but there are plaques and monuments dedicated to individuals, as well as the nations the foreign fighters came from – there is an especially impressive monument for the Philhellenes who came thousands of miles from the recently born United States of America.

There are, however, at blessed spots where there are human remains, like the body of Markos Botsaris. There is a marble statue of Byron, and while according to his will his body was sent back to England, his heart was buried in Messolonghi.

The Garden of Heroes has been called the Elysian Fields of modern Greece, a place that is a home for the spirits, if not the bodies, of freedom fighters of Europe and Amerika who died for the freedom of Greece alongside the Hellenes.

The siege of Messolonghi is also the topic of an unfinished epic of Dionysios Solomos, the revered author of the Greek National Anthem. The work, titled ‘The Free Besieged’ – ‘Οι Ελεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι’ is considered one of Solomos’ greatest poems.

Bring a copy to read when you make your sacred pilgrimage to Messolonghi.

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