“From the graves of our slain,
Shall thy valor prevail,
As we greet thee again,
Hail, Liberty! Hail!”
– Rudyard Kipling’s translation of the Greek national anthem: Ύμνος εἰς τὴν Ἐλευθερίαν
Greece is 200 years old. Greece is 3,000 years old. Which of these statements is true? This year the Hellenes celebrate the bicentennial of their 1821 liberation. Two hundred years of independence – freed from the Ottoman empire. Turkish rule (1453 – 1821) was brutal, but at the same time incompetent, lethargic and occasionally laissez-fair. The great intellectual debates and advances of science and mathematics, and the development of Arabic algebra were all happening elsewhere – in Persia, in India and in the Enlightenment of Europe. Nothing comparable to the achievements of Newton or Galileo (both contemporaries of this era) was ever dreamt of in the philosophy of the Turks.
Nevertheless, there were glimpses of mature and enlightened thinking among the sultans and the aghas (civilian or military leaders). An example being a letter, that I saw framed at Varlaam monastery, in Meteora, Northern Greece. The letter was from the ruling regional agha ordering the neighbouring tribes and villages to leave the monastery in peace, to refrain from attacking it, and to respect its land and borders. This tolerant attitude, amongst the brutality, is one of the reasons why the Greek language and religion was allowed to survive such a long colonial period. Would that today’s Anatolians could exhibit such magnanimity.
Birth of the modern world
Roderick Beaton, formerly Professor of Greek and Byzantine Studies at King’s College, London, recently wrote in the Kathimerini newspaper: “Greece’s independence uprising changed everything. The French Revolution, of 1789, transformed the world. But after the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Congress of Vienna established an international order for Europe, in 1815, the clock seemed to be turned back to before 1789. The Greek Revolution of 1821 rocked the map of Europe, away from 18th-century multi-ethnic, autocratic empires, towards the 20th-century model of self-determination and nation-states.”
Looking beyond these 200 years, the heritage, legacy and lineage from Classical Greece is still felt strongly today. The language has evolved, but the traditions are hugely recognisable across these bygone eras. My favourite element of this DNA is, of course, food. The way Homer describes how meat was cut, skewered and roasted over open wood or ashen fires, is exactly how we Greeks cook lamb to this day: “Spring-footed Achilles slaughtered a gleaming sheep, and his friends cut up the meat expertly into small pieces, and spitted them, and roasted all carefully. And thereon they put their hands to the good things that lay ready before them” – The Iliad, Book 24
This connection and pedigree is felt throughout the Greek national anthem, in all its 158 verses (only the first two are ever sung!). The anthem’s writer, Dionysios Solomos (1798 – 1857), has always been on the “A” Level Modern Greek reading list – I remember struggling through his collected works, during my Tuesday evenings at Greek school (1982 – 1984).
Inspiringly, like Cavafy a hundred years later, Solomos blends the heroic Hellenic past with the present – particularly in the following rousing call to the Spartans at Thermopylae, in Verse 78. It hails kindred taking up of arms against a sea of troubles, and it can be sung to the national anthem’s tune.
Ω τρακόσιοι! Σηκωθείτε
Και ξανάλθετε σ᾽εμάς.
Τα παιδιά σας θελ᾽ιδήτε
Πόσο μοιάζουνε με σας.
“Oh 300! Arise,
And walk among us anew,
Your descendants desire your gaze,
To stress their resemblance to you”