This Week in Greek History

May 29: On this day in 1453, Hellenism changed forever as the Ottoman Turks successfully captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Turks and neighboring Muslim empires had Constantinople, the crown commercial and strategic jewel of the old world, firmly in their crosshairs.

The strategic position of Constantinople straddling both Europe and Asia with control of the Bosporus allowed the Byzantine Empire to grow and thrive for centuries. However, the signs of decline were already starting to show for the Byzantines as early as the 13th century when crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 captured and pillaged Constantinople.

Through the rise of Islam and a poorly managed government that suffered continuous coups and corruption, the Byzantine Empire slid into perpetual decline while the neighboring Ottoman Empire was continuously capturing former Byzantine territory, most important of which was Anatolia.

Sultan Mehmed II ascended to the Ottoman throne in 1451 and was at first not deemed capable of the enormity of running the empire on a day-to-day basis, but quickly proved his doubters wrong and in 1452 built an Ottoman fortress called Rumelihisari (Rumelian Castle) on the European bank of the Bosporus. This castle was built directly across from the Anadolu Hisari (Anatolian Castle) by Mehmed’s great-grandfather Bayezid I, when he unsuccessfully sought to conquer Constantinople from 1394 to 1402, but the Byzantines held out. Mehmed wished to carry out the Ottoman and Muslim dream of the final destruction of the Roman Empire and the expansion of Islam to Europe without a Christian adversary in the way at the gateway of Europe in Constantinople.

Byzantine Emperor Constantine Palaiologos XI recognized Mehmed’s ambitions remarkably early and sought to swiftly secure assistance from Western Europe to unite against yet another Muslim incursion into Christian lands. Unlike with the crusade that was gathered to stop Bayezid I years earlier, where they defeated the Ottomans on the Danube River deep in Europe, this time no assistance was on the way for the Byzantines. There had been bad blood that was not forgotten on the Byzantine side for the Crusaders conquering their capital, and on the Latin side for the Latin executions by the Byzantines following the occupation by the Crusaders. Genoa responded with 700 soldiers with 300 of those from their colony of Chios and three Venetian ships that were in Constantinople’s general vicinity offered to help. The 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed set out to conquer Constantinople with a force that was about 50 to 80 thousand soldiers and among them between five and ten thousand Janissaries, which were elite infantry soldiers. The Ottomans had a secret weapon made by Hungarian forger Urban, which was a cannon nicknamed “Basilica,” 27 feet long and could project a 600-lb. stone ball a little over a mile. The cannon did take three hours to reload, but the Ottomans had other cannons made by Urban that were medium-sized, which bombarded the Byzantine walls nonstop.

The Byzantines, in contrast, had only about 50,000 citizens living in their capital at the time of the siege of Constantinople and so their force was likely around 7,000 soldiers. The Ottomans began to lay siege to the city on April 6, 1453 one day after the sultan arrived with the last soldiers in his army. On May 23, the Byzantine defenders captured and tortured two Ottoman soldiers that revealed the locations of secret tunnels the Ottomans constructed so to dig their way underneath Constantinople and surprise the defenders from within the city walls. The tunnels were snuffed out following intense fighting, and so on May 21 Mehmed sent a diplomatic mission to the gates of the city promising to lift the siege and spare Constantinople utter destruction and allowing the Emperor to go back to the Peloponnese where his brothers were and be the governor there.

Constantine Palaiologos XI wished to recognize all conquered lands from the Byzantines as officially Ottoman and all the surrounding defenses of Constantinople as Ottoman. The Emperor refused to give up the holy city of Constantinople and said the immortal quote (translated into English here): “Giving you though the city depends neither on me nor on anyone else among its inhabitants; as we have all decided to die with our own free will and we shall not consider our lives.” Following this message and seeing no more could be done diplomatically, Mehmed I’s forces launched their final general assault between 1 and 2 AM, where the Byzantines bravely repelled the waves and waves of the numerically superior Ottomans. Only after the Genovese commander Giovanni Giustiniani was seriously wounded and departed the battlefield did Byzantine morale begin to finally collapse. When Giustiniani was evacuated by his men to nearby ships, Palaiologos and his Greek soldiers were left alone to defend the Meseontoichon (middle wall) where the brunt of the Turkish forces were attacking from.

It is said that during the final battle of Meseontoichon, the Emperor threw off his imperial regalia and took the appearance of a common soldier so as to die as a simple soldier among his fellow Byzantines. Finally, the defenders were overwhelmed by the sheer number of the Ottomans and Mehmed I triumphantly entered the city’s Charisian Gates and thusly became known as Mehmed the Conqueror.

The body of Constantine Palaiologos XI was never recovered and a common Greek legend stipulates that the emperor is encased in marble somewhere within the confines Hagia Sophia and will return to rule over Constantinople and the Hellenes when the capital of the Byzantine Empire is Christian again. For this reason, Palailogos is known as the “Marmaromenos Vasilias – “Marbeled King.” The Byzantine Empire, the last bastion of the Roman Empire which lasted for 1,500 years collapsed and effectively ended the Middle Ages.

May 29: On May 29, 2017, former Prime Minister of Greece Constantine Mitsotakis passed away in Athens at age 98. Mitsotakis was born in Halepa, Chania, Crete on October 18, 1918 to a family with a deep political tradition. The home where Mitsotakis was born belonged to his grandfather, Konstantinos, where the Pact of Halepa was signed between the Ottoman Empire and the Cretan Revolutionary Committee in 1878. Mitstoakis’ father was Kyriakos, a member of parliament and his mother was Stavroula Ploumidakis. Mitsotakis’ uncle Kostis on his father’s side founded the Party of the Barefoot, a political party that Greek ethnarchEleftherios Venizelos would come to lead and rename as the Liberal Party. Mitsotakis studied law and political science at the Law School of the University of Athens.

At the outbreak of World War II, Mitsotakis was enlisted into the Greek Army and served as a Second Lieutenant on the Macedonian front against the advances of the Nazi Germans. He became a forceful leader of the Greek resistance against the Axis occupying powers and was a key member of the National Cretan Organization, a position for which he was jailed and sentenced twice to death by the Germans. He was spared when there was an exchange between English and German prisoners of war and for his bravery in the resistance, Mitsotakis was awarded a medal of courage by the British Parliament in 1986.

In the March, 1946 elections, Mitsotakis became a member of Parliament as a member of the Liberal Party and was staunchly committed to Greece being a republic rather than a monarchy. At 32, in the government of Venizelos’ son, Sofoklis, Mitsotakis became the alternate finance minister and in the next cabinet reshuffle he became minister of transport and public works.

In 1961 under the leadership of Georgios Papandreou and Sofoklis Venizelos, a new party was created to continue the ideological practice of the Liberal Party called the Center Union. Mitsotakis supported Papandreou to lead the party much to the chagrin of his uncle Sofoklis, and when Papandreou became Prime Minister in 1963, Mitsotakis became the Finance Minister for 1963 and 1964. Due to disagreements in 1965, the political “apostasia” took place where there was a resignation of the Papandreou government on July 15, 1965 due to a disagreement with the young King Constantine and a failure to support a vote of confidence from members of Parliament. The “apostasia” led to political instability for two years and with the instability as a pretext, a regime of colonels took over the government set up the military junta that ruled the country from 1967-1974, with Mitsotakis banished from Greece during that time.

During his time in exile, Mitsotakis worked extensively with Constantine Karamanlis, who was also in exile in Paris. In 1973, Mitsotakis returned to Greece, where he thought that laws allowed for such an opening but instead he was imprisoned by the Ioannidis regime and would remain jailed until Karamanlis returned to Greece and restored democracy. It is worth noting that Mitsotakis was the last political prisoner freed following the fall of the junta. Mitsotakis became involved with Karamanlis’ newly founded New Democracy Party and in 1980 he became Foreign Minister in the Georgios Rallis government. In 1984, he was elected to be President of New Democracy as he was deemed as the most appropriate candidate to go against PASOK’s Andreas Papandreou, since he had come into conflict with him so many times previously. He was defeated by Papandreou in the 1985 elections with PASOK winning a decisive majority in Parliament, helped by the use of a forged image by Stasi operatives who depicted Mitsotakis fraternizing with two Nazi German commanders during World War II.

In 1989, the story was different and New Democracy with Mitsotakis at the helm was victorious in the elections, winning and becoming Prime Minister in 1990 with 46.88% of the vote, which was not enough to give him absolute majority in Parliament. After the defection of a few centrist MPs from other parties, Mitsotakis received two more seats and finally achieved his majority of 152 in the 300-seat parliament.

In 1992, Mitsotakis’ Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras was given the portfolio on how to handle the naming situation arising with the new state of FYROM following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Unsatisfied with Samaras’ repeatedly hostile and renegade behavior, Samaras was removed from that role and Mitsotakis took over the post himself, fostering positive relations with the United States.

Samaras, distanced from New Democracy, founded his own party called Political Spring on June 30, 1993. In that same year in September he called on other dissatisfied members of New Democracy to join him and four MPs did so therefore toppling the Mitsotakis government.

In 2004, Mitsotakis retired from active politics and remained the honorary president of the party with his son, Kyriakos (the current head of the party), winning his father’s seat in Parliament. In 2009, his daughter Dora Bakoyannis unsuccessfully ran for the Party’s leadership following the resignation of Karamanlis’ nephew Costas as prime minister, but was defeated by Samaras.

Mitsotakis was married to Marika Giannoukou from 1953 until her death in 2012 at age 81. They have four children; Alexandra, Ekaterini, Dora Bakoyannis (Widow of Pavlos Bakoyannis,Former Mayor of Athens and Foreign Minister) and Kyriakos.

Mitsotakis was heavily criticized during much of his life by the media-created fabricated stories that ran in newspaper, radio and television outlets owned by known Andreas Papandreou supporters. He is retrospectively remembered as a politician clearly ahead of his own time as he called for austerity and financial reform as prime minister in the early 1990s, warning that the path Greece was on with burdensome debt would lead them to begging the IMF for loans, something that Greece has been doing for the past decade since the Eurozone crisis began.

Constantine Mitsotakis undoubtedly was one of Modern Greece’s most consequential statesmen.


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He wasn’t the first one to think about it but a humor columnist for POLITICO suggested - ironically, of course - that if Greeks want back the stolen Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum that they should just steal them back, old boy.

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