Remembering revolution

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In normal times this month would be one of great celebration in Greece and throughout the diaspora, for 25 March marks 200 years since the Greeks rose in revolt against the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled them for 400 years. Of course there had been many attempts at revolt before, but all had met with failure. And the Greece that became free in 1821 was not the Greece of today. Parts of northern Greece were still under Ottoman rule until 1883, while Crete and Thessaloniki did not become Greek until 1912.

Main image: A street in Kalamata, Greece (Stelios Kontoulis/Unsplash)

It is fair to say, I think, that every society has a chain of memories clanking along behind it. But in the case of some that the chain is broken, or has a few links missing. I have a vague idea about villages in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, with firmer notions of Acle in Norfolk and Wendron in Cornwall, but they are still very sketchy.

My half-Greek children, however, grew up just down the mountain from their ancestral home, from which place seven men of their line joined the rebels in 1821. It is documented fact that their great-great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Tripoli. And what a bloody battle that was.

Even when we were still in Australia their father would hire national dress for the boys to wear on 25 March, and tell them about rebels in Kalamata leading the way on 23 March. (Kalamata was the first city to fall to the Greeks.) In Greece they took it in turns to wear the outfit that their great-grandfather had bought by dint of walking his donkey, loaded with oil, through the mountains to Tripoli, which is about 80km away.

This costume has now been worn by four generations. It consists of the pleated kilt, the fustanella, all nine metres of it (and a devil to iron), an embroidered waistcoat, and a very elaborate leather belt, tucked and folded: it was in one of the pockets that the old man’s will was found after his death in 1940. The boys recited poems, joined school marches, sang patriotic songs and danced traditional dances every year. And now my grandchildren do the same.

But not this year: student parades have been banned, while military ones will go ahead with strict safety measures in place. Politicians are, as so often, engaged in a tense juggling act, that of trying to keep the population safe while simultaneously satisfying their need and desire for this celebration, one of such importance in the national story and communal memory. One is reminded of famous Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis, and his idea that mind and heart are continually in conflict within the human psyche.

 

'Celebrations will of necessity be subdued in Greece this year, but the blue and white will be flying from every flagpole.'

 

Kazantzakis also believed that foreigners travelling in Greece often experience ‘an innocent tremor of beauty’, and that for them the journey takes place without any great convulsion. For Greeks, however, the landscape is bound up with memory, history, blood and shame, and ‘the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.’ The Greek earth, he said, is a ‘deep, twelve-levelled tomb, from which voices rise up calling… For a Greek, the journey through Greece is a fascinating, exhausting ordeal,’ for they cannot decide which voice of the twelve levels to listen to: the 1821 rebel, the Turk, the Frank, the Byzantine, the Roman, the Hellenistic, the Classic, the Dorian, the Mycenaean, the Aegean, or finally the voice of the Stone Age.

The writer died long ago, and I don’t imagine there is any debate at present: the voices of the Greek rebels must be drowning out all others. But Kazantzakis also quotes the idea of Hellenism being like a warm and mighty river. As such, it has flowed into 140 countries around the world, with 700,000 people of Greek origin being resident in Australia, the first coming to New South Wales in 1829 as convicts. They were seven sailors, who had been sentenced by a British naval court to transportation for piracy. Now there are Greek communities in every capital city in the land.

Celebrations will of necessity be subdued in Greece this year, but the blue and white will be flying from every flagpole. It will also be flying in many parts of Australia, including the place I remember best, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: A street in Kalamata, Greece (Stelios Kontoulis/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, revolution, COVID-19, communal memory, celebration, Nikos Kazantzakis, diaspora

 

 

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Existing comments

I am always grateful for your articles which are very informative. Thank you. M.G.
Mary Gleeson | 25 March 2021


Thanks once again for an interesting and informative article. Celebrations in Australia were of necessity subdued, but the Opera House was floodlit in blue and white.
Juliet | 26 March 2021


Those nations which most value their identity seem to be ones that fought hard for their independence, such as the Americans, the Irish, the Greeks and similar. Under the Ottomans every pressure was put on Christians to convert. Many did and were regarded as traitors by their former communities. The Greek Orthodox Church reveres the New Martyrs, those who did not convert under torture and death. It took an enormous effort during those 400 years to keep the Church and the Greek language alive. The Church and the language are part of being a Greek everywhere. Kazantzakis was a conflicted giant of Modern Greek Culture. Commenting on someone of his stature is a little difficult for someone such as myself, who is neither Greek nor someone who had the sort of seeming conflict with Orthodoxy which Kazantzakis did. The modern view seems to be that he fought his way through to a more personal sense of Christianity than the official Church view. He is very much part of modern Greek consciousness and was lauded as such by the late Patriarch Athenagoras. Greek culture is alive and volatile which is very Greek. Its vitality can be felt by outsiders like me.
Edward Fido | 26 March 2021


Lots of great information there Gillian. I am in two minds about celebrating historical events because they are of course very one sided and in the case of Greece show pride. I am never sure whether this is a good or bad thing. All things in moderation I suppose .
Maggie | 26 March 2021


I remember participating in at least ten student marches throughout the 1980s. Thank you for helping me revisit these memories.
Stathis | 28 March 2021


Thanks for your article Gillian. I was taken by the idea of deciding 'which voice of the twelve levels to listen to' while travelling Greece. I recently read Adam Courtenay's 'The Ghost & the Bounty Hunter" which describes the early history of William Buckley, John Batman and the theft of the Kulin Nation. Australians also have reason to be listening to voices on many levels. Familiar locations now have a new dimension. I guess because I am listening to those voices from other levels.
Stephen | 28 March 2021


What a lovely tribute to the 200th anniversary of the beginnings of Independence and so of modern Greece. And that the story began in the ancestral region of your boys paternal line is in many senses fabulous. That "innocent tremor of beauty" referred to by Kazantzakis as the feel for place by visitors measured against the deep historical levels of which "natives" are cognisant is beautiful - genius really. Interestingly as I travel once more a lot around my own land - it is impossible not to look at the landscape nor to read the history without seeing the depth of the First Nations presence. Happy Bicentennial!
Jim KABLE | 28 March 2021


Greece is an economic laggard, at 10 million with only a GDP of US$210 billion. It might choose to draw consolation from the fact that its historical enemy, Turkey, has eight times the population and only twice the GDP, but consolation is not comfort. A revolution is supposed to infuse the people with fresh, propelling motivation to reach new heights. Most revolutions, like sower’s seeds, land on thin soil or stony ground. So, it’s probably as unlikely that an event less dramatic than a revolution, such as returning the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles, will provide that fresh, propelling will to self-improvement as the same thing happening in Australia simply by declaring it to be one of those early forms of Greek government, a republic.
roy chen yee | 29 March 2021


Thanks for this article Gillian. Two hundred years later the animosity between Greece and Turkey still goes on to this day. I remember trying to cross from Turkey to Greece after Anzac Day 2004. I quite easily booked a Greek ship to take me from the Greek Isle of Samos to the Greek port of Piraeus, but both the Greek and Turkish authorities refused to be even remotely helpful in helping me bridge the short distance from Turkey to Samos. It was like discovering gold when I stumbled upon a small back waters tourist bureau in Turkish Kusidasi that took me this ‘stones throw’ distance. At the time I could not find a shipping company openly travelling between Turkey and Greece, and vice versa. That need seemed to be regarded as non existent.
John Whitehead | 30 March 2021


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