An Entire World on Fire – Smyrna & 1922: More Than A Movie (Part One)

The borders of Eastern Europe are dynamic and fluid. They depend upon more than geography or topography. They also have expanded or contracted depending upon history and politics. A striking example of this is the current idea of what constitutes Eastern Europe. The region has been defined by the capitalism/communism divide that ran through the heart of Europe during the Cold War. Anything west of that divide was considered either part of central or western Europe. Anything east of that divide was considered part of Eastern Europe. This made for some incoherent geographical oddities. Take for instance Vienna, which happens to be further east in Europe than Prague. The Austrian capital has never been seen as part of Eastern Europe. It is considered Mitteleuropa to the core. On the other hand, Prague is still labelled by many as part of Eastern Europe because the city was located east of the iron curtain. This dividing line still defines views of Eastern and Western Europe. Unfortunately, this skews historical perspective. Eastern Europe has always been a fluid concept, one that can expand or contract depending upon how one cares to define the region. For historical reasons, I prefer to include the Balkans, Thracian Turkey and the Levant as part of Eastern Europe.

Old Smyrna – City of the Levant

The Levant – Exotic Sensibility & Eastern Sensuality
The Levant is a term that first arose in the late 15th century to denote lands around the Mediterranean Sea east of Italy. The Eastern Mediterranean region included parts of Southeastern Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East. These regions were home to some of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities such as Alexandria in Egypt, Thessaloniki, Smyrna, and Beirut in the Ottoman Empire. These port cities were hubs of trade, imperial interests, highly sophisticated cultures and ethnic complex societies. Europeans came to settle in these lands or built upon existing communities that had inhabited these areas for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, cities in the Levant enjoyed golden ages only to fall into decline due to World Wars, nationalism and anti-colonial movements that eventually led to the European populations in these cities either vanishing due to violence or fleeing to nations filled with their ethnic kin.

The Europeans who lived in the Levant came from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds. The traditional definition of Eastern Europeans must be expanded to include those living in the Levant. This means that whether they were Greek, Italian, British, French, Armenian or Jewish, they were also part of a culture that melded an exotic sensibility with an eastern sensuality. This hybrid culture was much greater than the sum of its parts. The destruction and/or dissolution of it was a loss to world heritage. Fortunately, memories of these communities still live on today in art and architecture, diaries and memoirs, cinema and theater. These sources are used to understand Levantines and their unique culture. Writers, artists, and directors have sometimes been able to recreate this vanished world and convey its history.

A new occupation – Greek troops marching in Smyrna, May 1919

A Rare Opportunity – Smyrna in Peace & War
One of the best films on a specific historical event in the Levant is Smyrna which was released in 2021. The most expensive film ever produced in Greece, it provides a window into a world consumed by flames during several horrific days in September 1922 when the Greek and Armenian communities in the city were destroyed. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to view Smyrna on the big screen this past week. European movies usually do not make it to northeastern Ohio where I currently reside. Through what can only be described as a serendipitous bit of luck, I learned that seven hundred theaters in the United States, including a local one, were showing the film on December 8th. This was a rare opportunity to see a Levantine city’s teeming exoticism brought back to life. The film tells the tragic story of the Burning of Smyrna centered around an extended Greek family. Smyrna begins during World War I when the city was peaceful while the rest of the Ottoman Empire was beset by war. Smyrna’s eventual reckoning was inextricably connected to the conflict.

While World War I may have ended on the Western Front with the signing of an armistice on November 11, 1918, in other parts of the world the war continued unabated. Across much of Eastern Europe fighting still raged. The same was true in parts of the eastern Mediterranean and near East. Many histories of the war fail to account for post-1918 conflicts that simmered and sometimes exploded for several more years. This oversight is unfortunate because important conflicts tied to the First World War transformed the European presence in parts of the Levant. This was the case with the Greco-Turkish War from 1919 – 1922 which forms much of the backdrop to the film Smyrna. The Ottoman Empire had been defeated in World War I, but this did not settle what would become of the lands and peoples it had ruled over for almost five hundred years.

The Greeks had a long and rich history along the Aegean Coast of Asia Minor. Smyrna was its most outstanding example. In the 19th and early 20th century, Smyrna was the greatest Greek city in the eastern Mediterranean. Half of its 300,000 inhabitants were Greek. The city also had Turkish, Armenian and Jewish quarters. In addition, there were communities of British, French, Italians and Americans. This reflected the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a multicultural entity. The different ethnic groups lived in relative harmony, especially when compared to what happened during and after the First World War. Nationalism unleashed pent up frustration and suppressed demons due to economic, ethnic and religious frictions.

From dream to nightmare – Greeks and Armenians trying to flee Smyrna in September 1922

A New Occupation – Beginning of the End
When the war “officially” ended in November 1918, Greece was on the victorious Entente side. Conversely, the Ottoman Empire had been defeated and faced dismemberment. Greek nationalists, led by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, espoused the vision of Greater Greece which would incorporate Greek communities separated from the homeland by geography and history. This included the Greek population of Asia Minor. Smyrna was the city most coveted by the nationalists. With the Turks thought to be on their knees in Anatolia, Greek nationalists saw an opportunity for expansion. To this end, the Greek Army sailed into Smyrna on May 15, 1919, and occupied the city. This was just the start of an attempt to expand Greek control up and down the coastlines, as well as into the heart land of Turkish Anatolia. This would lead to disaster for Smyrna, something the movie makes terrifyingly clear.

Click here to read: An All Too Real Horror Film- Smyrna & 1922: More Than A Movie (Part Two)

No Escaping “The City” – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Three)

Cities have been known to become synonymous with specific artists or writers. Think of Arles and Vincent Van Gogh’s cafes, buildings, and bridges come to mind. Think of Dublin and James Joyce’s Ulysses suddenly materializes with Leopold Bloom’s wandering the city on a single, extraordinary day. Cities can shape an artist or writer in such ways that one becomes inseparable from the other. Acting as each other’s alter ego. Artists and writers interpret a city in unique ways, offering a window into a world that most people would never see, let alone understand. This is the case with Constantine Cavafy and the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

The City – Constantine Cavafy (Credit: Amro Ali)

Contradictory Cavafy – A Contrasting Portrait
Cavafy spent almost his entire life in Alexandria. He was born and died there on the exact same day seventy years apart. In that time span, Cavafy was part of a an ethnically diverse Alexandria. A growing metropolis informed by a multiplicity of micro-cultures that have now vanished from the cityscape. The exoticism of Alexandria during this time is matched by that which Cavafy’s poetry offers to readers. Cavafy was a man of massive intellect, erudite and largely self-educated, but he also had a shadowy side that several of his poems make explicit. This creates a contrasting portrait of the poet. When I first began to learn about Cavafy, I imagined a bookish man, in his home surrounded by intellectual paraphernalia. Some of this had to do with photos of Cavafy. He looks the part of an intellectual’s intellectual with dark rimmed glasses, a quizzical, professorial gaze, wide eyed and mysterious in a slightly shabby way.

There is certainly much evidence of that, but a much more multi-faceted figure emerges through Cavafy’s poems. A portrait of a man whose passionate excesses are made explicit. The reader discovers a poet possessed with lust for his fellow man, frequenting bars and bordellos in the red-light district that was a short walk away from the neighborhood where he lived. This is the Cavafy of animal instinct and uncontrolled human passion. This deeply personal, confessional part of his poetry offers a different portrait of Alexandria from the Levantine, polyglot port city that existed during the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

It has now become all too common to see present-day Alexandria as the ruinous outcome of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism. A city that has succumbed to decadence and degeneracy, filled with seething sectarian tensions, that has buried its past beneath concrete. To be sure, there is plenty of that today, but Alexandria’s supposed belle epoque period was not all parasols, salons and garden parties. It was a deeply complex place, a European foothold on the shoreline of North Africa, a trade entrepot with a towering babel of voices haggling fiercely for their cut of the import-export proceeds, a place where animal instincts could be unleashed at all hours of the night.

Throwing shade – Modern Alexandria

The City – Wandering Among The Ruins
Cavafy’s Alexandria was not without its problems, just as the great poet was not without his flaws. For all his intoxicating verse, Cavafy has a dark side and that includes his relationship with Alexandria, which was really his relationship with himself. Cavafy’s hopes and dreams, fears and failures, darkest passions and most intimate desires were inextricably tied to the city. This is something his poem, The City, makes all too clear.

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other–
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

Cavafy found it impossible to escape from Alexandria because he could not escape from himself. The City would stalk him, hound him, hunt him down, wherever he went. Alexandria was woven into the very fiber of Cavafy’s being. There was no use leaving, because he could never escape it. The poem may have been filled with despair and despondency, but it was also a realization that the patterns of one’s life all lead back to the same place because of character traits we carry within ourselves. Cavafy understood this. He stayed in Alexandria even though he was haunted by it. Only through death did he finally depart from the city, but not quite.

No escape – Constantine Cavafy

Closing Time – A Narrower World
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser expropriating businesses and properties, the Greek community in Alexandria fled by the tens of thousands. Egypt was now for the Egyptians. Alexandria would be transformed into a very different city from the one that had existed since Muhammad Ali Pasha began to remake Egypt into a modern state during the early 19th century. The people who had made Alexandria an international city by opening it to a much wider world were no longer welcome. Alexandria went from being a cosmopolitan city of the Levant, to an insular, provincial metropolis. It looked inward, rather than outward. The fin de siècle buildings of Old Alexandria were either demolished, fell into disrepair or squeezed into the shadows by towering apartment blocks. Cavafy’s Alexandria was a memory, but still a very powerful one.

An amazing turnabout in the fortunes of Cavafy’s legacy has occurred in present day Alexandria. The apartment where he spent his last thirty-five years had been turned into a hostel following his death in 1933. In the early 1990’s the preservation of the apartment as the Cavafy Museum began. Photos taken at the time that Cavafy lived there helped with the reconstruction of period furnishings and aesthetics. The museum contains thousands of books and articles written by a wide range of international scholars about Cavafy’s poetry. Visitors get a feel for Cavafy’s life at the time. Many English speakers who visit there first learned of Cavafy from English novelist E.M Forster’s introduction of him in Pharos and Pharillon, a collection of essays written by Forster about Alexandria during the time he spent in the city during World War I. Forster famously refers to Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” Cavafy was that and so much more. Just as Cavafy was haunted by his past excesses on the seedier side of Alexandria, so too is the city now haunted by Cavafy. Only fragments of the Alexandria which Cavafy knew so well now exist. To find that Alexandria one can search the streets in vain today. Better to go back to Cavafy’s poems, which like Alexandria are timeless and eternal.

Autonomy & Dynasty – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Four)

By the late 1830’s, Mehmet Ali (Muhammad Ali Pasha) was at the peak of his power. For an ethnic Albanian, hailing from a provincial Ottoman city on the coast of Greece, who had first set foot in Egypt with 300 men and very little military experience, Ali had succeeded beyond all expectations except his own. He had achieved the impossible by taking Egypt from a dismal backwater of the Ottoman Empire to a reformed and rejuvenated, quasi-autonomous state. This made him more powerful than the Sultan in Istanbul. With his son Ibrahim leading Egyptian forces in Syria to a crushing victory over the Ottoman Army at the Battle of Nezib in June 1839, the Ottoman throne was now within Mehmet Ali’s grasp. Ibrahim wanted to march on Istanbul and take the Ottoman capital. Mehmet hesitated. He was more interested in seeing what concessions he could get from Sultan Mahmud II (1808 -1839), including territory and complete autonomy for Egypt. Forcing the Ottoman Sultan to agree on his terms would be the crowning achievements of Ali’s three-and-a-half-decade long struggle to build Egypt into a regional power whose wishes could not be ignored.

Standing tall in Cairo – Mosque of Mehmet Ali (Credit: ezzat hisham)

Dreams Deferred – A Negotiated Settlement
Mehmet was on the verge of breaking Egypt completely free of external influences, but he also knew that the Great Powers of Europe – particularly Britain – wanted to stop him from growing more powerful than the Ottoman Sultan. Following the Battle of Nezib it looked like Mehmet Ali might get everything he wanted. The entire Ottoman fleet defected to his side and Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) died. The Ottoman Empire could either collapse or become a plaything of Mehmet Ali. From the perspective of Britain, if either of these occurred than the entire European security architecture that had existed in the post-Napoleonic era would be threatened. It was in there interests along with several Continental powers to prop up the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Ali was forced into negotiations. This was what he had wanted, but with the Ottoman Sultan. Instead, he would have to deal with the Great Powers who would defer many of his dreams forever.

The truth was that Mehmet Ali had become too powerful for his own good. If he had been the Ottoman Sultan, then the Great Powers would have dealt with him as an equal. Instead, they felt the need to put him in his place. Ali was a danger to their interests, especially British ones, as well as the balance of power. His military could not be allowed to control Syria because it could render British plans to develop alternate access routes to India null and void. While Ali was more than the Ottoman sultan had been able to handle, he could not stand up to Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, all of whom were backing the Ottomans. When the British and Austrian navies blockaded the Nile Delta in 1840, Ali was forced into an agreement he had little choice but to accept. He would pull Ibrahim and the army out of Syria. The army would also undergo severe cutbacks. A force that had numbered up to 130,000 would be reduced to 20,000. This was enough to allow Ali to keep his grip on power in Egypt, but nothing more than that.,

Sign of the times – Flag of Mehmet Ali

Dynastic Cycle – The Long Goodbye
Despite those setbacks, he was able to win several major concessions. The Ottoman Sultan was forced to recognize Ali and his heirs as the leaders of Egypt. The province would now be an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, enjoying virtual independence. Unfortunately for Ali, this independence had its limits. He was entangled by the British in an Ottoman-Anglo trade agreement that opened Egypt up to cheaper British imports and powerful industrial entities. There was no way Egypt could compete with British trade and industry. This would have ramifications for government revenue. Ali’s power was weakened by his agreement with the Great Powers, but his greatest achievement was still intact, Egypt now enjoyed virtual independence. His heirs would rule over it until the mid-20th century.

By the late 1840’s, Egypt was sinking into debt and Ali into senility. There were disagreements with Ibrahim and wild fits of temper, signs of a once great leader losing his mental acuity. Ali’s cognitive decline worsened to the point that Ibrahim traveled to Istanbul and received the Sultan’s blessing to take over as ruler of Egypt. Tragically, a guilt-ridden Ibrahim succumbed to despair and failing health. He soon died of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Ali’s health continued to worsen and his grandson Abbas I became Viceroy of Egypt. In 1849, Ali died in Alexandria. Abbas, who had little use for Ali, did not even declare a period of mourning in Egypt. The man who had brought Egypt into the modern age was an afterthought. This slight did nothing to reduce Ali’s remarkable historical stature which grew with each passing decade. While Ali built up Egypt to consolidate his grip on power and out of self-interest, those actions modernized the country.

Elder stateman – Mehmet Ali in the 1840s

Lasting Monuments – Mehmet Ali & Modernity
It is hard to believe just how far Egypt came under Mehmet Ali’s leadership. Prior to Ali assuming power in 1805, Egypt was at its lowest historical point in thousands of years. The country suffered from a wide range of ills. By the time Ali died, Egypt was autonomous, administered by educated bureaucrats and contained a professional army led by a highly trained officer corps. Ali was responsible for bringing order and prosperity to Egypt. The dynasty he created would live on into the mid-20th century. It helped pave the way for independence in 1952 when the last leader of Ali’s dynasty was overthrown. Even with the rise of nationalism, Ali still held his place as the founder of modern Egypt.

Anyone who might wonder about Ali’s importance to Egyptian history should look no further than the skyline in its greatest city, Cairo. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali can be seen from most vantage points in the city. Its twin minarets rising above domes and piercing the sky. The mosque is located at the summit of Cairo’s famed Citadel, much of which was rebuilt by Ali. His mosque and the Citadel are lasting monuments that remind Egyptians of his greatness. Modern Egypt would not be the same without Mehmet Ali. As a matter of fact, it might not exist at all.  

The Empire Builder – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Two)

Visitors to the city of Karvala in northeastern Greece spend most of their time enjoying the mesmerizing waters of the Bay of Karvala and the Aegean Sea. Those hankering for a bit of history can take a short stroll to the the man who made modern Egypt. Karvala was the birthplace of Mehmet Ali who grew up in the Ottoman Empire as the second son of an Albanian tobacco merchant. His childhood home is one of the most striking examples of Ottoman residential architecture to be found anywhere in the world. It is representative of a prosperous Ottoman merchant’s home in the late 18th century. At that time, the home was the largest in Karvala. Unfortunately, Mehmet Ali’s father died when he was young. Perhaps that is why he spent the rest of his life striving so hard to make a name for himself in the world. Raised by an uncle, Ali became known for his work ethic which manifested itself in the collection of taxes in the city. His outstanding service earned him a commander’s rank in an Albanian mercenary force that was sent to Egypt in 1801. No one could have known at the time that Mehmet Ali was on the verge of modernizing Egypt.

Seizing power – Mehmet Ali looks on during the Massacre of the Mamluks (Painting by Horace Vernet)

A Series of Disasters – Egypt In The 18th Century
To appreciate the Herculean task that faced Mehmet Ali (also known as Muhammad Ali Pasha) in transforming Egypt, it is important to understand what the country had suffered through prior to his arrival. The magnificence of ancient Egypt, one of the defining civilizations in human history, could not have been more distant. The 18th century was unkind to Egypt. A series of natural disasters upended any semblance of prosperity and led to a decline in the population. Egypt was relegated to a primitive backwater. As always, the Nile Valley had massive agricultural potential, but it was no longer being realized. Politically, Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks. Their administration left a lot to be desired. The Mamluks were slave soldiers from the Caucasus and Central Asia who were brought to Egypt in the Middle Ages by the Abbayid (Abbassid) Dynasty. Their grip on power was loosening.

After the Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt in the early 16th century, they were still forced to recognize Mamluk suzerainty. The Mamluks paid a tribute to the Sultan and were largely left to rule as they saw fit. By the 18th century, the Mamluks had descended into corruption and decadence. The slow decline of the Ottoman Empire affected Mamluk Egypt. Without a strong central authority, tax farming of the peasantry was out of control. Many settlements were abandoned. Coupled with plagues and floods, the population plummeted to less than four million by the end of the 18th century. This was ten million people less than lived in Egypt when the Arab conquest occurred eleven hundred years earlier. It was a demographic disaster unprecedented in Egyptian history. Adding to Egypt’s woes, a French invasion led by Napoleon took place 1798-99. The French sought to conquer Egypt as the first step in a process they hoped would result in taking India out of British control. This did not work out as planned. Napoleon’s conquest failed and he soon returned to France.

Early beginnings – Mehmet Ali’s birthplace in Karvala

Seizing Power – An Authoritarian Streak
A power vacuum now developed with French troops, the Ottomans and Mamluks all competing to gain control.  Into this maelstrom. Mehmet Ali arrived in 1801 leading a regiment of 300 Albanian troops. His forces were to assist Ottoman troops in reasserting control. Little did anyone know that Ali had ideas of his own. Through military brilliance, a series of intrigues, shadowy machinations and personal charisma, Mehmet Ali won over local leaders while undermining two Ottoman governors. He managed to convince the Sultan to promote him to viceroy. This was quite an achievement for a man who was illiterate at the time and would not learn to read until he was well into middle age. Furthermore, Ali’s mother tongue was Turkish. He was unable to speak Arabic. None of this stopped him from gaining complete control over Egypt.

Ali dealt with the Mamluks in a masterfully sinister way. In 1811, he invited all their leaders to a ceremony where his troops proceeded to murder them.* This left Ali as the ruling authority in Egypt. His ambitions did not stop after gaining the position of viceroy. If anything, power fueled Ali’s desire to separate Egypt from the Sultan’s authority. Meanwhile, the Ottoman state was suffering through major problems of its own. Egypt was not their primary focus. Ali used this to his advantage. He was distant enough from Istanbul to where rule as he pleased. This allowed him to engineer a major overhaul of the Egyptian state. The idea that underlay all of Ali’s reforms was to create sources of revenue that he could then use to build up his military forces. This would not only cement his power in Egypt, but also allow him to conduct military campaigns throughout the Middle East.

To that end, he began by focusing on land reform and agriculture. The government confiscated the holdings of large landowners and religious foundations. Tax farming was banned. The government took control of agricultural production as peasants were told what crops to cultivate. Money soon began to flow back into government coffers. Ali also brought in French engineers to create a new network of canals. This in turn led to greater productivity in agriculture. Water storage expanded to the point that peasants were able to raise three crops per year rather than one under the traditional system of agriculture which had been in place for thousands of years. This was an extraordinary historical innovation that transformed the Nile Valley.

Transformative leadership – Mehmet Ali (Painting by Auguste Couder)

Mind Boggling –The Master Planner
It is mind boggling to think that a former Albanian tax collector who grew up in Greece and served Ottoman interests throughout his early career, could transform Egypt from a fetid backwater teeming with problems into a viable economic entity using transformative technology. These innovations not only improved Ali’s grip on power, but also led to unprecedented demographic growth in Egypt. During the 19th century, the population would more than double. This would never have happened if not for the reforms instituted by Ali. The reforms introduced by Ali were the means which he would use to build a powerful military that would soon threaten the Ottoman state.

* Note: Popular legend states that the massacre took place on a street named Al-Darb Al-Ahmar situated between Islamic Cairo and the citadel where the Muhammad Ali Mosque is located. The name translated as “Red Street” named because of the “blood that flowed there”. Archives show the street had been called this well before the massacre ever took place due to the red brick used to build the homes. (Credit: gracetheglobe)

Click here for: Arsenal of Autocracy- Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Three)

Unleashed – The Balkans: War of the Stray Dog (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #36)

Anyone who has spent time in the Balkans has almost certainly been confronted by the problem of stray dogs. In Sofia, Bulgaria a group of stray dogs became my running companions for half an hour. In Sarajevo, I came across another pack wandering around a yard just before dawn. That was ten years ago. During my last trip to the Balkans I noticed the problem continues to persist. I never made it to the waterfront in Bar, Montenegro because I came across a pack of dogs whose barks were so ferocious that I did not dare tempt fate and did a quick U-turn within 100 yards of them. Such experiences have led me to think of the Balkans as the land of the stray dog. What I could never have imagined was that the Balkans was also where the War of the Stray Dog took place. This war proved that the truth is not only stranger, but also more sublime than fiction.

Ready for war – Armed forces supporting Bulgaria (Credit: Неизвестен)

Violent Absurdities – Perpetual Contentions
Many years ago while visiting a fort on the coast of Florida, I first learned about the War of Jenkins Ear. The conflict partly resulted from a violent absurdity that occurred when Spanish sailors boarded the merchant ship of Robert Jenkins of Britain and severed his ear. The war took place during the mid-18th century and lasted nine years. At the time, I thought there could not possibly be a more absurd way to start a war. That was until I discovered the War of the Stray Dog fought between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925. It was the culmination of strained relations between the two nations. The postwar World War I Treaty of Neuilly-sure-Seine, which had awarded western Thrace to the Greeks who just happened to end up on the winning side of the war. This became a point of perpetual contention between the two sides.

This did not sit well with the Bulgarians who coveted the region. After the treaty went into effect there were intermittent, cross border incursions by fearsome groups, particularly the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and another offshoot, the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization. Both groups would use whatever means necessary to try and wrest the region away from Greece. The IMRO was notorious for violence, including between its own leader and operatives. IMRO most famously captured, tortured, and murdered the Bulgarian Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski. He had made the mistake of working with Greece and Yugoslavia to improve relations. Tensions between Bulgaria and Greece continued to fester after Stamboliski was out of the way. It would not take much of an incident to bring the two sides to blows, but no one could have imagined that incident would revolve around a stray dog.

Worth fighting for – Stray dog in Bulgaria (Credit: Melody Gilbert)

Running Wild – Going Beyond The Border
Even by the standards of the Balkans, the border region between southwestern Bulgaria and northern Greece is exceedingly remote. Strikingly beautiful, the area is covered by mountains with few good roads. To an outsider, the region seems like an improbable place for a war to start, but many parts of the Balkans continued to be contested ground, no matter how obscure, long after World War I ended. This was the case with the Demir Kapou pass in the Belasica Mountain range, which straddles the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Border sentries of both nations stared across an invisible boundary at each other. The enmity between the Greeks and Bulgars was pervasive, putting the sentries on hair trigger alert. That is probably the best explanation for what occurred on October 19, 1925 when a Greek border guard’s dog got loose and proceeded to run into Bulgarian territory. A Bulgarian soldier shot the border sentry dead. A little bit later, a Greek officer displaying a white flag went into the no man’s land between the two sides. This only made the officer and a private who had accompanied him easy targets. They were also shot dead.

Word of what happened on the border got back to Theodoros Pangolos, who had gained control of Greece through a military coup. This was just the kind of incident Pangolos could use to bolster his strongman credentials. He sent an entire corps of the Greek Army to the border where they were ordered to march into Bulgaria. They met tepid resistance. Along the way, they pillaged and burned villages. In addition, they killed approximately 50 people with this incursion. On the Bulgarian side, cooler heads prevailed. The Bulgarians appealed to the League of Nations to resolve the dispute. Panglos had demanded the Bulgarians pay a huge sum of money – six million Greek Drachmas – for restitution.

Ironically, Panglos had defeated his own cause by ordering the incursion into Bulgaria. The Greeks had gone from victim to perpetrator. They had also committed atrocities in Bulgaria. The upshot was that the Greeks were ordered to pay restitution for the damage they had caused. While the Greeks protested the League’s decision, they had little choice but to comply, since Britain, France, and Italy were in favor of this decision. The Greeks claimed they were not being treated fairly. That the League decided in favor of what the most powerful countries wanted. Of course, the Greeks were ignoring the fact that Bulgaria was a similar sized country.

A show of force – Тheodoros Pangalos

Barking Up The Wrong Tree – A Dog’s Life
The Bulgars may not have won The War of the Stray Dog on the battlefield, but they did win their case before the League of Nations. This infuriated Panglos. It also shamed him. Less than a year later, he would be ousted from his position as de facto dictator of Greece. The humiliating loss in The War of the Stray Dog did irreparable damage to his reputation. Panglos’ political career would never recover. Lost amid the diplomacy and mediation which resolved the dispute, was the fact that a stray dog had started the whole mess. Nothing is known about what happened to the dog. The incident stands as an instructive example of how misunderstandings can lead to war. This was especially true with the Bulgars and Greeks who assumed the worst about each other. A seemingly innocence action by a dog and its owner turned into an international incident. While the situation was resolved at the League of Nations, no one thought to enact another sensible option to make sure the same thing would never happen again, a leash law.

Inspiration By Attempted Assassination– Zog: The Man Who Would Be King 

There is a tendency to discount Albania’s King Zog as a rather ridiculous pseudo-monarch. His popular bio goes something like this: a foolish incompetent, bad at almost everything except for deadly feuds, miraculously avoiding assassination and corruption on a breathtaking scale. It does not help Zog’s reputation that his name is ludicrously memorable. One cannot help but think that no self-respecting king would ever allow themselves to be called Zog. He had a comic strip character kind of name, except that the joke was on whoever crossed him. Zog was lethal when it came to his enemies.

As for his real name, Ahmet Mehtar Zogolli, it was much more difficult to pronounce or remember. The name smacks of something straight out of the Orient, with the usual connotations of despotic behavior and lurid intrigues. Not since Pepin the Short has a monarch been so degraded by his name. It does not help his reputation that Zog led Albania, a nation that was perhaps the most backward in Europe at the time, into oblivion. He fled in the face of Italian invasion, never to return. Zog lived out his life abroad on the proceeds of his thievery.

Bulletproof - Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania

Bulletproof – Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania (Credit: Attila Terbocs)

A Game Of Survival – Forms of Chicanery
With the gift of hindsight, Zog’s misrule in Albania seems rather harmless in comparison to the hardline Stalinism that would come to later dominate the country. In other words, Zog’s rule was bad, but it could have been much worse. His time in power moved Albania towards achieving a national identity, with a central government and modest improvements in communications and transportation. That may not sound like much, then again considering the state of Albania at the time – rampant poverty, mass illiteracy, epidemic levels of malaria and tribal violence – Zog was something of a minor success. He was a formidable politician, despite or more likely because of his inherent flaws. Zog’s greatest success was reserved for himself, as was the Albanian treasury. He had an ability to cheat death. Most famously by surviving more assassination attempts (55), than any head of state in modern history. Zog may have survived, but leading Albania during the 1920’s and 1930’s also meant taking a few bullets. Most famously on some stairs inside the Albanian parliament in Tirana on February 23, 1924.

To say that Albania during the 1920’s was a nation in flux would be a massive understatement. Its existence was hardly assured. Albania had only been a nation-state since 1912. In the aftermath of the First World War it looked as though it would become subsumed in a greater Italy or a greater Greece or a greater Yugoslavia. Instead it was left as it was, a struggling nation surrounded by external enemies and beset by internal discord. Its politics were riven by tribalism, blood feuds and endemic corruption. In other words, Albania, was a terrible mess. Trying to bring order to this chaos would take a leader the likes of which had not been seen in the land for centuries. That leader was nowhere to be found. The man who rose to the top was Zog. He did this through every form of chicanery known in the annals of bad government. Threats, assassinations, torture, payoffs, Zog would go to any lengths in building a base of power. His enemies largely played by these same rules. The difference being that Zog was much better at it.

Take a bow - King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Take a bow – King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Crisis Management – A Moving Target
By 1923, the Albanian government was in crisis. This was nothing new, since the government during this period was always in crisis. A vote was to take place that would hopefully lead to a decisive majority that would enact constitutional reform. Zog, who was Prime Minister at the time, hoped to expand his power through this process, but first he and his allies had to win the election. The opposition’s fear was that if Zog won, he would make himself a virtual dictator. The outcome was fraught with uncertainty, as the Zogist’s came within a whisker of winning a majority. Zog took to dispensing favors in the hopes of gaining enough allies to form a new government. The vote for one would take place in late February. This was a great opportunity for Zog, as well as for the opposition which felt it was their last chance to stop him.

Assassination was politics by other means, specifically violent ones. Zog certainly knew this since he was a target for assassins throughout his political career, including on the mid-afternoon of February 23rd.  Zog was making his way up the stairs to parliament where he was to rally support in the vote for a new government. While making a turn in the stairwell, an opposition supporter fired shots at him. Two bullets struck Zog. He was hit in the wrist, abdomen and thigh. This did not detain him from making his way to Parliament. A shocked crowd of deputies watched a reeling Zog make his way to a seat. Rather than call for immediate medical care which he obviously needed, Zog instead prepared to make a few remarks. While this dramatic scene was taking place, more shots rang out. The assassin had managed to make his way to the bathroom, locked the door and fired rounds from inside of it. He would eventually be forced to surrender. The greatest drama was back in parliament.

A chestful of medals rather than bullets - King Zog

A chestful of medals rather than bullets – King Zog

A Question Of Respect – Profile In Courage
The fact that the man who had just shot him was holding out did not keep Zog from saying a few words. Amazingly, considering the situation, these were delivered in his typically laconic fashion. “Gentlemen, this is not the first time in the world that such a thing has happened in a parliament. I ask my friends to leave it alone and deal with it afterwards.” He then proceeded to stay seated for several minutes. When his personal physician arrived, Zog finally allowed himself to be treated. He then made his way out of parliament under his own power. It was a crazy display of courage that would become legend to his supporters.

Meanwhile, the opposition must have wondered how they would ever rid themselves of Zog. Fortunately for them, political missteps in the coming months by a recovering Zog would lead to him fleeing the country a year later. This was but a brief respite. Zog would be returned to power a year later by Yugoslav troops. He would rule Albania for the next fourteen years. Zog was a remarkably resilient man, both physically and politically. He may not have been a great leader, but he was not a ridiculous one either. Any man who can give remarks a few minutes after taking bullets deserves respect, both then and now.

When All Hope Is Lost – The Siege of Thessaloniki: Points of No Return (Part Fourteen)

I have always wondered what it would be like at the end of a battle or siege on the defeated side at the point of no return. What does someone do when they realize all is lost? Is it the survival instinct that causes them to fight on? Or does a sense of hopelessness bring about complete collapse? Historically – at least until modern times – death or enslavement would almost certainly be their fate. A lucky few might escape with their lives, but they would also be branded eternal cowards and/or fugitives. Life or death, victory or loss, freedom or fear, determination or surrender, these were the uncompromising situations that the unlucky citizens of Thessaloniki were faced with in the final days of the Ottoman siege in 1430.  Tragically, this was nothing new for them, Thessalonians had lived under siege for years.

The Possessed -Sultan Murad II

The Possessed -Sultan Murad II

The Possession – Getting Territorial
Sultan Murad II had always believed that Thessaloniki was Ottoman territory. A sixteen year period straddling the 14th and 15th centuries of Ottoman rule over Thessaloniki sealed the city’s fate in Murad’s mind. Though the Byzantines eventually recovered the city, it was due to internal Ottoman tensions rather than Byzantine strength. To Murad’s way of thinking, once an Ottoman possession always an Ottoman possession. The Byzantines did not help matters when they supported a rival claimant to Murad’s throne. This stiffened his resolve to conquer their territory, especially Thessaloniki. It would not be easy. Byzantine power had been evaporating for centuries, but the city’s ruler at the time, Andronikos Palaiologos, decided to gift the city to Venice. While the Republic of Venice was certainly a formidable power, they had little interest in relieving Thessaloniki’s woes. Instead, they could use the city as another barrier to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan could focus his efforts on the city rather than more important Venetian territories. And Murad certainly knew how to focus on Thessaloniki.

The Siege of Thessaloniki was a long and tedious affair that stretched over an eight year period (1422 – 1430). During much of that time, the Venetians treated the city with utter contempt. Corruption, mismanagement, waste, fraud and abuse all came at the expense of Thessalonians. The Venetians’ administrative incompetence was such that many Thessalonians began to long for Ottoman rule. Food supplies dwindled and famine gripped much of the populace. Thousands fled the city during this time going over to Ottoman territory. The only hope for many Thessalonians stuck inside the city walls was Archbishop Symeon. He fiercely resisted any calls to surrender the city to Ottoman control. Such an idea was tantamount to heresy in Symeon’s mind. His resistance was on a spiritual level, he could never stomach the idea of handing over Thessaloniki to infidels. Unfortunately, for the Orthodox Christian faithful he died in 1429.

The Holdout - Symeon of Thessalonica

The Holdout – Symeon of Thessalonica (Credit: G Garitan)

Toward A Bad Ending – Threats of Violence
After Symeon’s death the population continued to melt away. The Venetians decided to keep defending the city, but only in support of their own narrow self-interests. Mercenary troops ensured that Thessalonians were sufficiently cowed into giving up the idea of surrender. Of course, by this point the population was much easier to control. It had dropped by 75% since the siege began, from 40,000 to approximately 10,000 bedraggled, depressed and demoralized citizens. An overwhelming majority of Thessalonians wanted to surrender, but they were being held hostage inside their own city. The Venetians, who had supposedly come to defend them, made matters much worse. This was a sad irony, that turned more tragic by the day. It was a situation bound to end bad and that is exactly what happened in the spring of 1430.

During the siege’s last days the defenders repeatedly rejected offers by Sultan Murad to spare the city and its inhabitants if they surrendered. These rejections sealed the fate of thousands. Knowing that death or slavery awaited them when the Turks finally took the city, what were Thessalonians thinking when they turned down the Sultan’s offer. The reality was that they were not being allowed to think for themselves. If Thessalonians had their choice, the city would have been handed over several years earlier. It would have spared the population famine, disease and a multitude of privations. The Venetians administering the city were holding out hope that a relief expedition would arrive to lift the siege. At the same time, mercenaries were holding the city’s citizens hostage. Thessalonians had little to no say in their fate even though pro-surrender forces had been in the majority for quite some time, their voices were silenced by the threat of violence.

Thessalonians faced two foes during the siege, the Venetians who were fighting to protect their own interests and the Ottomans whose determination to take the city kept the populace in a state of perpetual tension. The final, fatal blow occurred along the northeast section of the city walls near the Trigonian Tower. The defenders were driven from their positions by a storm of arrows unleashed by Ottoman archers. Legend has it that the first Ottoman soldier to get over the walls beheaded a wounded Venetian and tossed the head to his comrades who then came over the top en masse. The Venetian administrators, in an act of cowardice characteristic of their rule, escaped by ship along with some of the mercenaries. The unlucky Thessalonians left in the city were subjected to rape, pillage and indiscriminate brutality. Their efforts to resist were hopeless, any who fought on were cut down. Those who capitulated would either be killed or enslaved.

Point of no return -Trigonian Tower along the Walls of Thessaloniki

Point of no return -Trigonian Tower along the Walls of Thessaloniki (Credit: Herbert Frank)

Collateral Damage – A Mere Footnote
The Ottomans viewed Thessalonians as either collateral damage or war booty. Their rampage lasted for three days before Murad called a halt to these excesses. He was then magnanimous, inviting property owners back and offering protection to the remaining inhabitants. The problem was that only a couple of thousand were left alive. Byzantine Thessaloniki ceased to exist. Thessalonians worst fears had finally been realized. Whatever courage they displayed in trying to survive the siege had come to naught. The courage and cowardice, heroism and hysteria they displayed for eight long years no longer mattered. They ended up on the wrong side of history, a mere footnote that no one would notice. History was written by the winners, in this case the Ottomans. As for the losers, they were all but forgotten.

An Ancient Radiance – The Walls of Thessaloniki: Fateful Encounters (Part Thirteen)

When I think of Byzantium a multitude of places, people and images come to mind. They include stunning mosaics, the architecturally unsurpassed Hagia Sophia, lewd, crude and shrewd emperors, the ferociously effective Varangian Guard, character assassinations like those found in the pages of Procopius’ Secret History, Justinian II with his prosthetically enhanced silver nose and Emperor Heraclius’ suffering from bouts of debilitating aquaphobia. These are just a few of my favorite things about Byzantium, but one image trumps all those listed above, old city walls.

For the longest time, this image usually began and ended with the magnificent remains of the Theodosian Walls which can still be admired in Istanbul. Seeing those walls provided me with a visual touchstone, a direct connection to over fifteen hundred years of history stretching from late antiquity to the Ottoman Empire’s final decades. The Theodosian Walls (Walls of Constantinople) are the first and still only relic of Byzantium that I have been able to physically touch. Reaching across the void of time to run my hands across the same stone walls that citizens of Byzantium built so long ago was an electrifying experience. One that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The City Walls at dawn - Thessaloniki

The City Walls at dawn – Thessaloniki

Marking Time – An Indispensable Asset
I was reminded of this while contemplating the Walls of Thessaloniki. Though much less well known, as well as shorter in stature and length than those of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), the Walls of Thessaloniki still evoked a significant emotional response in me. It may have had something to do with the fact that there were less of these walls than those in Istanbul. Scarcity added to my appreciation. Only half of the original 8 kilometers of Thessaloniki’s Walls are still standing today. Fortunately, these remnants are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Modern Thessaloniki has long since escaped the walls. In a utilitarian sense, the city has no need for them, but as a marker of its past the walls are an indispensable asset.

My first experience with the walls will be forever embedded in my mind. I saw them up close and intensely personal just as an autumn sunrise broke open the sky and cast a fiery light upon them. The first rays of sunlight bathed the walls in a sensational golden glory. It was one of those moments that I knew would last forever, an unforgettable gift courtesy of peoples who last lived a millennium and a half ago. The Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans may have all vanished, but each of them found the walls quite useful for their own purposes. Their purpose in modern Thessaloniki has been transformed. Today rather than offer protection, the walls are protected as a monument to the past. One that invites further exploration. I had the opportunity to do it both in person and through research.

Walled in - Thessaloniki with outline of the City Walls

Walled in – Thessaloniki with outline of the City Walls (Credit: Philly boy92)

Walled In – An Experience Of History
The power of visiting a historic place should never be underestimated. One of my favorite pastimes is reading about a place after I visit it. Only then do the words literally jump off the page since I now have a visual to go with facts and anecdotes. Understanding the significance of Thessaloniki’s walls requires experiencing them firsthand and then doing research to place them within the context of history. The walls were a long time in coming to fruition, a product of several empires that built upon the foundations left by their predecessors. The first semi-permanent wall was built by the Romans. Though this was much smaller than what would later be constructed, it did help to repel the Gothic invaders twice during the 3rd century.  As the later Roman Empire was riven by crisis, the need for security grew, as did the city walls in response to external threats. The walls would have to be expanded.

In the latter part of the 4th century this was exactly what happened. The Byzantines built upon the existing infrastructure. The walls grew in depth, breadth and height to offer much stouter resistance. Any barbarian tribes contemplating a takeover of the city were going to be forced into mounting a major military operation. The expansion of the walls proved a useful form of defense. They also served to proscribe the city’s development until the late 19th century. Though they would eventually prove far from insurmountable, the walls provided effective protection to Thessalonians in an age of strife. The Walls of Thessaloniki kept the Dark Ages from descending upon the city. Any invader hoping to take Thessaloniki was forced to find a way over them. This proved a difficult task, one that barbarian tribes skilled in raiding expeditions and rural warfare found difficult to overcome.

In 904 the Saracens were able to enter the city by going over the sea wall with predictably dire consequences. They pillaged, murdered and looted while thousands of Thessalonians died in the process. The Normans sacked the city again in 1185. And in 1430, the Ottoman Turks dealt a fatal blow to the Byzantines in Thessaloniki when they surmounted the walls, entering the city in mass numbers. Thessalonians suffered three days of depredations before Sultan Murad called a halt to the pillaging. One of the first things the new Ottoman government did was build up the city walls once again. The Ottomans did not want to suffer the same fate they had just inflicted upon the Byzantines. It was not until the latter half of the 19th century with the city’s modernization that the walls began to be pulled down. At that point, expansion was more important than history. Fortunately, preservation has now trumped expansion with what is left of the Walls of Thessaloniki.

A constant reminder - The City Walls of Thessaloniki

A constant reminder – The City Walls of Thessaloniki (Credit: Julian Nyca)

Experiencing Eternity – Going Beyond The Limits
The morning I set out to see the Walls of Thessaloniki, dawn was just beginning to break over the city. I made my way up through the steepening streets of Ano Poli (Upper Town), passing by Byzantine churches and beneath cantilevered Ottoman era homes. Labyrinthine passageways led into small squares or corridors that wove their way into and out of elaborate mazes. I noticed that many of the walls had more graffiti than paint or plaster. The only true north seemed to be ever upward. Sweat beads began to form upon my brow despite the cool morning air.

After twenty minutes I finally caught my breath, as well as sight of the Walls of Thessaloniki rising above what had been the old city’s northern extremity. As the sun began to transform the walls into a towering monolith of ancient radiance, I realized just how lucky I was to see these walls still standing at this very moment. The walls marked the limit of my morning walk, just as they had marked Thessaloniki’s limit for centuries on end. It was hard to believe anything could last so long. If it is true that nothing will last forever, then the Walls of Thessaloniki are as close as I will ever get to experiencing eternity.

Click here for: When All Hope Is Lost – The Siege of Thessaloniki: Points of No Return (Part Fourteen)

 

Lost In Time – The Siege of Thessaloniki: Too Much History (Part Twelve)

Time changes everything, including our view of historical events. The further an event recedes into the past, the less important it may seem to be. Time has a way of limiting our understanding of the passions that gave rise to memorable events. If it is true that time heals all wounds, then history offers plenty of examples. Of course, time can also harden and solidify attitudes that carryover from one generation to the next. The popular media’s tendency is to focus on current events in places where historical grievances have been allowed to fester. Places that have become marginalized in geographic, economic or political importance often get little attention despite important events that may have happened there in the past. Without media or politicians to remind the inhabitants they often lose sight of the notable historical events that occurred in their own backyard. There are plenty of events – while transformational at the time they occurred – that are hardly remembered today. The Siege of Thessaloniki comes to mind in this regard.

A massive amount of blood and treasure was expended during the siege. It was a test between human endurance (Greeks and Venetians) and the military might of an expanding empire (Ottoman Turks). Thousands died in the fighting. Just as many or more suffered in the horrific aftermath. Of course, when the perpetrators and victims have been dead for centuries, the memory of such events becomes increasingly hidden away in dusty archives or is relegated to the pages of obscure history books. Such an event will never attain the fame of a Waterloo or the infamy accorded the bombing of a Pearl Harbor. That is because the Siege of Thessaloniki is not considered of great historical importance. Perhaps that is true, but the siege also ushered in five hundred years of Ottoman rule in Greek Macedonia.

Ottoman Thessaloniki - Oldest photograph of the city from 1863

Ottoman Thessaloniki – Oldest photograph of the city from 1863 (Credit: Josef Szekely)

A City Under Siege – Repeatable Offenses
The final conquest of Thessaloniki would have ramifications for centuries to come, some of which can be still be felt today. The conquest was a landmark event in the history of the city and region. It marked a break with eleven hundred years of history. Thessaloniki had been a Christian city in the Byzantine Empire, but the sword of Islam would conquer and occupy one of Byzantium’s last outposts. After spending four days walking around the cityscape of Thessaloniki, visiting several of its most famous museums and taking in historical attractions, I learned next to nothing about the siege that ended in complete Ottoman control of the city in 1430. I imagined this lack of focus had something to do with the fact that the city is almost totally Greek today. The only Turks to be found are tourists that come to visit the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a handful of Ottoman monuments still standing.

The Siege of Thessaloniki likely gets little recognition these days for another reason, so much history has happened in the city that it is easy to overlook some important events. In the 20th century alone, Thessaloniki went from being part of an empire to a provincial city in a small struggling nation. A few years later it was occupied by one of the largest armies in the First World War. Twenty-five years later its vibrant Jewish population was wiped out by the Holocaust, while the Greek population suffered a horrendous famine and capricious violence during World War II followed by a nasty civil war. Fascinating and horrifying would sum up the city’s recent history. The same might be said of the siege that occurred almost six hundred years ago.

Building an Empire - Ottoman & Byzantine Imperial Territory in 1410

Building an Empire – Ottoman & Byzantine Imperial Territory in 1410 (Credit: Constatine Plakidas)

Many Years In The Making – Imperial Endings & Beginnings
While walking the streets of Thessaloniki I was struck by the inescapable thought that this was a place so rich in history, that it would not only be impossible to know all the historical events that happened here, but the most important ones might get overlooked as well. For reasons that I cannot now remember, I began to focus on the Siege of Thessaloniki. This seemed to me fertile ground for study. The siege was not one clean event, it was a messy multi-year affair filled with defiance, heroism and cowardice. Though it ended in 1430, it was many years in the making. Furthermore, a crucial event in the final stages of the siege happened along one of the remaining portions of the old city walls. The siege might become a personal staging ground for another trip to Thessaloniki. I could become one of the few to stand in the footsteps of history, both inside and outside the walls.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of studying centuries old history is that it allows the student a more detached perspective. I did not have any strong feelings for or against the Ottomans and Byzantines. As I was soon to discover, the siege was a highly complex affair that involved more than the peoples and soldiers of two empires, it was also fatally influenced by the Venetians. The Siege of Thessaloniki was a long time in coming. Its gestation period was over decades rather than years. The siege is usually dated from 1422 to 1430, but the events which led to it go all the way back to the late 14th century. The first siege by Ottoman troops of Thessaloniki took place from 1383 – 1387. It was successful with the Ottomans spending the next 16 years ruling over the city. In this case, Ottoman rule was anything but heavy handed. The citizenry was able to keep their privileges. Property was respected and Christians allowed freedom of worship. Churches remained intact and open. This first occupation by the Ottomans could best be termed as soft rule.

Staging ground - City walls of Thessaloniki

Staging ground – City walls of Thessaloniki (Credit: The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

Outside Influences – Venice Fills the Vacuum
Despite the relatively benign oversight of the Ottomans, the locals chaffed at their rule. An invasion in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) by the forces of Timurlane pulled the Ottomans away from Thessaloniki, allowing the Byzantines to recover the city. The Byzantines turned out to not be any better than the Ottomans as the empire was entering its final death throes. Central authority and administrative control were lacking. Thessaloniki was extremely vulnerable to outside influences. This was when Venice, another great Mediterranean power, arrived on the scene. The consequences of their involvement would have vast ramifications for Thessaloniki’s future. Those consequences inform the centuries to come.

Click here: An Ancient Radiance – The Walls of Thessaloniki: Fateful Encounters (Part Thirteen)

Holy Warrior – Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: Veneration & Vindication (Part Eleven)

The list of famous Thessalonians is long and storied. It includes such famous historical figures as Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet and brought Christianity into the consciousness of Slavs, masterful poets both ancient and modern such as Antipater of Thessalonica and Nazim Hekmat, fabulously wealthy merchants and bankers like Ioannis Papafis and Jacob Modiano. These are just a few of the notables who made their mark on history and the city. As I learned during my time visiting the city, there is one native son who rises above all the rest. Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki is the city’s superstar. No other Thessalonian, living or dead, can come close to Demetrios’ influence on the city’s history and its citizenry today. This is particularly amazing, considering that Demetrios died over 1,700 years ago.

Veneration & Vindication - The Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessaloniki

Veneration & Vindication – The Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessaloniki

Hidden Faith – A Secret Life
Long before he was revered as a Christian saint, Demetrios was a member of the Roman nobility and son of the proconsul (governor) of Helles province. During his upbringing, Demetrios showed a great deal of athleticism, intelligence and martial skill. This was recognized by the Emperor Galerius Maximian who believed Demetrios would be able to protect the city from barbarian attacks. Demetrios was soon following in his father’s footsteps when the Emperor appointed him as the next proconsul and given command of Thessaly’s military forces. Demetrios turned out to be an excellent choice, possessing strong leadership skills, personal bravery and a keen grasp of military tactics. Little did the Emperor know that Demetrios came from a Christian family that had practiced the faith in secret for years.

Once in power, Demetrios proved adept as both an administrator and soldier, but he kept his Christian practices out of the public eye, knowing that this could lead to deadly consequences. He was still intimately involved in propagating the faith. Soon word of his activities leaked out. This was the cause of great consternation among the pagan populace. After a series of military triumphs in the East, Maximian returned to Thessaloniki which he had declared as his seat of power. He was soon informed by pagans in the city that Demetrios had been preaching the Christian faith in direct contravention of Roman law. To make matters worse, Demetrios had done this while having a mandate to rout out and persecute Christians.

To say that Maximian was furious would be an understatement. He thought his visit to the city was going to be a celebration of his recent military triumphs over the Scythians. This was to include offerings of thanksgiving to the pagan gods. Instead, he learned that Demetrios was using his official imperial position to promote Christianity. Maximian had made it clear that he detested Christians, was involved in actively persecuting them and had ordered that anyone practicing or professing their faith in Christianity must be put to death. Demetrios was supposed to have been enforcing this imperial policy, Instead, he not only had failed to enforce it, but was doing the complete opposite. Such an act of faith-based insubordination would not be tolerated by Maximian.

The spirit still lives - Frescoes at the Church of St. Demetrios

The spirit still lives – Frescoes at the Church of St. Demetrios

Miracles & Martyrdom – The Spirit Still Lives
Maximian summoned Demetrios to explain his proselytizing. Rather than deny his actions, Demetrios admitted them to the emperor. Furthermore, he told Maximian that the idolatry and worship of pagan gods was wrong. Maximian proceeded to have Demetrios imprisoned in a basement cell below a Roman bath complex. He then ordered celebratory games in the circus to commemorate his military victories in the East. The emperor had brought along with him to Thessaloniki his favorite gladiator, Lyaios, a barbarian of towering height and unrivaled strength. He offered to fight any Christian. At first no one dared take up Lyaios on his offer, because it would have meant almost certain death. Then one of the faithful took up the challenge. As the story goes, a Christian acolyte of Demetrios, by the name of Nestor, believed that the power of Christ could defeat the emperor’s chosen gladiator. Nestor needed Demetrios assistance to make this a possibility.

Nestor was a small man who lacked the requisite physical toughness to take on Lyaios. Nevertheless, Nestor visited the imprisoned Demetrios who blessed him with the sign of the cross. Boosted in confidence by this visit, Nestor took up the challenge of opposing Lyaios. When the giant barbarian rushed at him, Nestor was able to sidestep the hard charging Lyaios. Nestor then managed to kill Lyaios. This came as a profound shock to everyone who witnessed the event. It confirmed for many the power of Christianity. This turn of events enraged Maximian who believed the Christians were employing the darkest of arts to thwart imperial rule. He had Nestor arrested and beheaded outside the city walls. He also sent soldiers to Demetrios’ cell where they surrounded and ran him through with spears.

Hidden Faith - Crypt at the Church of St. Demetrios

Hidden Faith – Crypt at the Church of St. Demetrios

Festive Findings – A Symbolic Savior
Varying accounts state what happened next. One story relates how Roman soldiers threw Demetrios’ body in the street to be devoured by wild dogs, but his followers were able to save his remains from despoilment. Another account states that Christian followers of Demetrios were first-hand witnesses to his murder and were able to recover the body for burial. In the centuries after his death, Demetrios fame grew in Thessaloniki. When the Edict of Milan in 313 AD was proclaimed allowing for religious toleration across the empire, a small place of worship was set up over the site of his martyrdom. Later, a Christian church would be constructed on the same spot. The magnificent Church of Saint Demetrios (Hagios Demetrios) stands there today. After Thessaloniki became the main Roman military base in the area during the mid-5th century, the veneration of Demetrios was credited with saving the city from numerous attacks by Slavs, Saracens and Arabs.

When myrrh began oozing from below Demetrios’ tomb, acolytes gathered this substance in small vials. Soon fountains were setup for the many pilgrims who would come to visit the site. They began to collect myrrh and attest to Demetrius miracle working powers. The Feast of Demetrios brought traders from as far away as the Middle East and Africa to the city. Festivities are still celebrated each year in Thessaloniki on October 26th, the date of his martyrdom. Through the ages, Demetrios has become more than a martyr to the city, he is its symbol and savior, a holy warrior offering divine blessings to those Thessalonians who invoke his spirit. He has become one of them and part of them.

Click here for: Holy Warrior – Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: Veneration & Vindication (Part Eleven)