Military history

CHAPTER TEN

Learning to Hate

I HAVE NO INTEREST IN PROVIDING AN APOLOGIA FOR THE OTTOMANS. But making them the fons et origo of all evil is only a convenient myth. For the West, cruelty and the Turks had become more or less synonymous. The Turks exhibited all the traditional Muslim flaws. So however much the Ottomans might intrigue and preoccupy their European neighbors, however much admiration and envy they might inspire, the Turks’ evil heritage was unquestioned. The Venetian ambassador to the Grand Signior Murad IV wrote of this mighty seventeenth-century prince that “he turned all his thoughts to revenge, so completely that, overcome by its seductions, stirred by indignation, and moved by anger, he proved unrivalled in savagery and cruelty. On those days he did not take a human life, he did not feel that he was happy and gave no sign of gladness.”1 A century later another Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Emo, wrote of the vizier Topal Osman’s courage and generosity; however, he was also flawed by the inherent defects of his faith. “Cruelty and avarice were his vices; strong will, mental capacity and practical knowledge his virtues.” Osman “punished every light transgression of the law with death, which covered his cruelty with the mantle of justice.”2

This presumption, that Turkish or Muslim virtue was outweighed by vice, had distant origins, as I have outlined in earlier chapters. In plays, novels, and poems all through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Muslim world, usually depicted as the Turk, became the natural locus for portraying unbridled passion or ingenious cruelty.3 Even the enthusiastic eighteenth-century Turcomania, which reveled in Oriental costumes and exotic scenarios, had an echo of these darker aspects. However joyous and lighthearted Mozart’s Flight from the Seraglio appeared, its audience did not fail to feel the frisson of Turkish tyranny. Often Westerners seemed willing to believe any tale of injustice without question. “History shows us that Europe is always brave and always jealous of her freedom; it also shows us by contrast that Asia is always a slave and as feeble as a woman [efféminée].”4 This Western belief, that the East could escape from its essential flaws only if it became like the West, was also adopted by some Ottoman reformers. (Muslims who first visited western Europe in this period either were shocked by what they saw or might just as easily have become passionate Europhiles through the experience.)5

It was extremely hard to negate attitudes that had been inculcated from the first lessons of childhood. In 1853, “A British Resident of Twenty Years in the East” (a diplomat called J. H. Skene) traveled along what he called “the Frontier Lands of the Christian and the Turk.” His account is lively and full of interest. Skene’s warm personality opened many doors. He met with a well-known general, Mustapha Pasha. They got on famously, and the general sent for his children to meet the visitor. Skene found them delightful, and “asked their father if they were all born of the same mother, which I thought a natural enough question [the children had the same features, but different-colored eyes], but it did not please the pasha, who answered dryly that he had been only once married and that his children were consequently all of the same mother.”6

Was it a “natural enough question”? It violated both Western and Ottoman codes of courtesy. Skene would never have asked so indelicate a question of a fellow Englishman whom he had just met.7 But to ask such a question of a Muslim trespassed into the private domain of the family, which was definitely out of bounds. However, it was natural to Skene because he thought that all well-bred Ottomans would be polygamists, indulging themselves with more than one wife at a time. His question was a solecism and not a crime, and Skene certainly did not assume that all Ottomans were cruel or vicious. Indeed, he held many whom he met on his travels to be fine men. But perhaps “A British Resident of Twenty Years” should have known better before following his knee-jerk response.8 Western travelers who did not have his wealth of experience in the region could not be blamed for coming to a similar conclusion: their upbringing and Christian culture had given them preconceptions about what they might see and hear.9

The essential moral behind Skene’s little story was that he had a typology in mind, and believed the Ottomans would invariably revert to type. This same theme of reversion runs through Kaplan and others who present the history of the Balkans as a kind of collective psychosis. The Balkan peoples of the 1990s, in the Balkan Ghosts scenario, were simply reliving their brutal heritage. Or rather, they were enabled to regain this contact with their past, their collective cultural memories, through the efforts of propagandists. These were recovered memories, which recalled their ruination or perversion by the Ottoman occupation.10 Then, in some unspecified manner, Serbs and Croats, distant descendants of those who had been violently abused by the Turk, somehow became violent abusers themselves. The tangle between myth and reality is almost inextricable.11

What was the source of these social memories? We need to begin (at least) with the seventeenth century, if not further back. In 1683, the Ottomans, supposedly in a state of “declination,” suddenly surprised western Europe by launching a huge army toward Vienna and threatening the city. Their bold effort failed and they were driven off. Thereafter the Austrian Habsburgs took full advantage of the Ottomans’ disarray. In a series of campaigns extending over thirteen years, they pursued them, first through Hungary, then beyond the Danube, and ultimately far south into the heart of the Balkan archipelago. In 1689, an Austrian army even pushed into the region of Kosovo and proclaimed that Christianity had triumphed over Islam. The Serbs of Kosovo were happy to swear allegiance to the emperor Leopold, only to see the Austrians retreat in the following year, leaving them at the mercy of the returning Ottomans.

As an Ottoman army and their Tartar allies reentered Kosovo, they regarded many of the Serbs as traitors and rebels who had sided with their enemy. Village after village was ravaged, and, wisely, many families decided not to take the risk of remaining under Turkish rule. Led by the respected Patriarch Čarnojević of the Orthodox holy sites at Pec, they abandoned their farms and villages to trek north, then crossed the Danube with the retreating Austrians into Habsburg-ruled Hungary. In what was thereafter called Vojvodina, from the Slavonic for “duchy,” the emperor gave the Serbs a charter to establish their own community. The Habsburgs used these exiles as the first line of defense against Ottoman incursions. The “Great Migration” became the mythical equivalent of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. The patriarch was their Moses.12 Like the children of Israel, whose identity was forged first by their slavery in Egypt, and then annealed by their later Babylonian captivity, their lost lands became a totem of a vanished golden age for the Serbs in exile.

The migration of 1690 was the second great Serb loss at the hands of the Ottomans. Exile and defeat joined to form a diptych of Serb identity, with catastrophe becoming a necessary prelude to triumph. As mentioned earlier, three centuries before, in 1389, in the heart of Kosovo, at Kosovo Polje, the army of the Serbs had been massively defeated by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I. The precise factual history of the battle and its aftermath was less important than the dense network of legends and epic poems that was woven around it. From the early eighteenth century onward, few children in the Vojvodina cannot have known of saintly Prince Lazar who led the Serbs and of the many fine men slaughtered after the fight by the cruel and implacable Ottomans. They would also have learned of the evil Turkish sultan stabbed on the battlefield, in an act of divinely inspired retribution. An early Serbian chronicler began his account of the “noble and gentle Lazar” with how he

Fought the good fight

For the godliness of the land

Not allowing during his lifetime

The cursed, arrogant and cruel beast

To destroy your [Christ’s] flock

Which you gave him.

Then Lazar himself declared,

I’d rather shed my blood

Than draw near to or bow down

To the cursed and evil

Murderer, Hagar.13

The traditional language used about Islam since the seventh century—“Hagar,” “the cruel beast”—was the natural idiom to describe the Turks. The trope of triumph through martyrdom, where defeat was transmuted into a glorious victory, becomes a recurrent theme and inspiration for the Serbs’ future. The patriarch Danilo, in his late-fourteenth-century Narrative About Prince Lazar, summed up the future for the army of the Serbs in the face of their monstrous enemy: “We have lived for a long time for the world; in the end we seek to accept the martyr’s struggle and live for ever in heaven. We call ourselves Christian soldiers, martyrs for godliness to be recorded in the book of life … Suffering begets glory and labours lead to peace.”14

Such myths were first rooted in oral folktales. Later the account of these events was written down, but existed only in very few manuscript copies. In 1601, a Carthusian monk called Mavro Orbini in the Adriatic city of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) published the story of Lazar in Kingdom of the Slavs (Il regno degli Slavi).15 In 1722, on the orders of Peter the Great, this powerful advocacy of “the Slavic nation and language” was translated. 16 It was not, it seems, a full or faithful translation, but the Kosovo story had an increasing impact, especially among the Serb communities in the Habsburg lands whose ancestors had left in 1690.17

Balkan Muslim communities, although they did not use written or visual materials to the same degree as the Christians, also developed their sense of cultural identity. These Muslim communities were as deeply rooted in the land as their Christian counterparts, for most of them were the descendants of local converts and not of migrants. As a result, Islam in the region developed many characteristics not found elsewhere in the Islamic world. These lasted to the end of the twentieth century. It was considered “being Muslim the Bosnian way,” according to Tone Bringa, who interviewed Bosnians in the 1980s. She describes an incident during the mandatory fast of Ramadan (Ramazan), which in Bosnia was thought suitable for women and old men, who did not have to work hard.

One evening a couple had a rather typical dispute during Ramadan. The quarrel started when the wife urged her husband to come along for evening prayers in the mosque. It then developed into a row about past events of their twenty-year marriage, the husband asking his wife why she had not married a hodza [imam, or Islamic teacher] if that was what she wanted. He then summed up his miseries: “…   I had no coffee all day and it is Ramadan, and [so] I may not drink brandy.”18

Nor was this just a twentieth-century development. In 1897, H. C. Thomson, visiting Bosnia, had also noted this characteristic of Bosnian men: “He will not drink wine, but will drink beer, or brandy or whiskey, or any other form of alcohol, because the Prophet only forbad the drinking of wine.”19 Plainly, in many of these Muslim communities the strict religious law was quietly put to one side.20

Storytelling reinforced the sense of community. Both Christians and Muslims shared a common tradition of stories, often about similar themes. But they had very different messages, each version changing subtly and distinctively over time. Some Christian tales were profoundly anti-Turkish: “The songs of the hajduks and the klephts have no substance or meaning without the Turks, and the Moslem counterparts would not have meaning without the hajduk songs. This whole genre depends upon the Turks. The Kosovo cycle is patently impossible without the Turks.”21 The Muslim tales were usually much longer than the Christian ones. Relating them might extend over several days. As with the stories told until recent times in modern Turkey, the entire village would settle down to listen, would interrupt, comment on the quality of the storytelling, and even add to the speaker’s account. These were oral epics in the Homeric style, experienced by the whole community. And in Bosnia this tradition of community was strong in other respects: Bosnians would rally to repel any enemies from outside. They resisted the armies of Austria who invaded the provinces in 1878 just as they had attacked marauding Ottoman janissaries a few years before.

A sense of place and community was often as significant as language and religion. The people of one valley or one hillside would be set against those of another, even if they used the same language and shared the same faith. Moreover, while outsiders might see a unitary community defined by a common language and a common faith, those inside the community would more often perceive stark and unmistakable distinctions within these broader categories. The reality (if not the theory) of the Balkans was polysemic. Straightforward ethnic and religious differences—as between Slavs, Bulgars, Albanians, and Vlachs, or between Christians and Muslims—invariably noted by foreign writers, were not in practice the only marks of difference. Locals talked more readily of a plethora of distinct communities, each of which saw itself as separate from its neighbors. Individual communities also constructed their own versions of the traditional heroes.22 This endless process of fission was partly determined by geography. Even if the landscape was not Alpine in scale, the succession of hills, ridges, and valleys divided one settlement from another. Places separated by only a few miles in distance were often much farther apart in journey time over rough paths, and therefore contact was often limited. A remarkable diversity in language was one consequence. The Slavic languages used by Serbs and Croats were divided into a great variety of dialects: Ivo Banac identified ten main dialect groups in the period after 1700.23

THIS MULTIPLICITY UNDERMINED ONE OF THE STRONGEST “PRESUPPOSITIONS” among Westerners about the Balkans.24 They assumed that for all purposes Muslims formed one community and non-Muslims another. It was a logical conclusion to draw, for this was the principle on which the Ottomans appeared to base their political structures. They divided their populations along simple pragmatic lines into millets, or religious communities, rather as other empires defined their subjects in terms of color or tribe.25 It was an effective and extremely economical arrangement. The non-Muslim millets policed themselves: Christians and Jews were largely self-governing, under the authority of their religious leaderships. Thus the patriarch in Constantinople was responsible for the good behavior of the Orthodox Christians anywhere in the Ottoman domains. If they rebelled, he might pay with his head. It was a refinement of the ancient Turkic nomadic practice of hostage taking.26 One consequence of this structure was that the Ottoman subject peoples, or raya, were, within set limits, permitted to run their own affairs. All who were not members of the Ottoman ruling caste were raya, whether they were Muslim, Christian, or Jewish by faith. It is very clear that Muslim raya were oppressed by the Ottoman authorities almost as much as non-Muslims. The burden of Ottoman rule often lay heavily on all its subjects.

However, the non-Muslims suffered more. There were infinitely greater, almost endless, opportunities to wheedle money for fees, licences, and bribes from Christians and Jews than from Muslims. Wherever Christians or Jews came into contact with officialdom, money usually changed hands. Repairs to non-Muslim religious buildings required a licence, and invariably officials profited from this. The right to build a new church or synagogue could sometimes be purchased, but at a high price. This pressure was not unique to the Ottoman domains: Protestants in Catholic European countries and Catholics in Protestant countries were frequently subject to even more systematic and opprobrious official sanctions, and the treatment of the Jews in Christian Europe had always been notorious. And there is little evidence that the central Ottoman state had any consistent policy of oppression. There was no gain for the Ottoman authorities in terrorizing the non-Muslim faiths in the Balkans. They wanted to take as much as possible in levies and taxes from the “flock.” Beyond that, they were usually content to leave the raya alone.27

In areas of the Balkans where the communities were mixed, Muslims sometimes had a better chance of seeing their Christian neighbors at first hand, and they shared a language and a communal life. But how great a part their religious identities played in everyday life is hard to say. There is little evidence one way or another. Violent antagonisms between the different communities do not seem to have been common, or at least they went unrecorded. Neither population had much incentive to disturb the other since it would only bring down the unwelcome attention of Ottoman officialdom. Often when disputes appeared to be between Muslims and Christians, the real causes were rooted in more mundane issues: money, land, jealousy, and avarice.28 When arguments moved into the area of officialdom, courts, and legal decisions, non-Muslims were certainly at a disadvantage; yet a rich and powerful Christian or Jew might still secure a positive decision against a poor Muslim. However, given that the courts were stacked against them, Christians had even less interest than their Muslim neighbors in attracting the intrusive attentions of the authorities. There is no doubt that many Balkan Christians felt oppressed. In part this was because there was a sense of underlying resentment that developed from the late eighteenth century onward that the land and all its resources, which had once belonged to their people alone, was now occupied by Muslims.

As they were told more and more about their noble heritage, of the great Christian rulers and heroes of the past, of a time before the coming of the Turks, the instinctive response of the Christian peasants was to think that their Muslim neighbors’ possessions should rightly belong to them. Paper icons in the home, patriotic legends retold in the family and the village, books and pamphlets, even education itself, all helped to foster a sense of identity. This turned into a sense of injustice feeding upon deeply rooted (if latent) antagonisms. Christians resented that they had to pay a capitation tax, although they were exempted from paying the zakat, the religious charitable tithe due from all Muslims. There were other duties that fell upon the Muslim raya, and not upon the Christians and Jews, just as there were payments that the latter had to make and their Muslim neighbors did not. Some of the inequities were either imaginary, or tales from the distant past.29

However, the financial burden on the subject peoples of the Balkans increased inexorably through the eighteenth century. Little of the money reached the central state treasury. Instead, it stuck to the hands of intermediaries. Since the conquest, the Ottomans had ruled their Balkan provinces by using various forms of indirect rule and a small body of state officials.30 They had co-opted many of the leaders of the various Christian communities into the governmental system, so that the most senior figure, the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople, had the exalted status of a pasha and was entitled to an official Ottoman standard. But indirect rule functioned effectively only when it was controlled and constrained by honest governors sent from the capital, with the power of life and death over local officials. It was these who were ultimately responsible for enforcing the law, and ensuring that the highways and public buildings were kept in repair. Terrorized from above, they terrified those below them, and by such means the apparently ramshackle structure functioned with a degree of equity.

From the early eighteenth century the whole system began to fail. Powerful regional interests, both Muslim and Christian, sensed a weaker hand in Constantinople and began to treat the law with impunity, increasing taxes and requisitions on peasants of all faiths. In Bosnia, local lords known as beys ignored the authority of the state officials. They even prevented the pasha of the region from residing in the capital, Sarajevo, and made him stay in the smaller town of Travnik. The janissaries, who had originally been stationed for limited periods in the Balkans to defend the sultan’s realm, refused to return to Constantinople and acquired land and property, as well as a fearsome reputation among the Christian villagers around their camps. They turned a deaf ear to commands issued from Constantinople, becoming in the regions the effective power within the state, like their fellow janissaries in the capital, who deposed and even murdered sultans. The janissaries based in the fortress of Belgrade were especially notorious for their exactions.

Eighteenth-century Ottoman rulers were concerned not with the internal condition of the Balkans (provided the tax revenues were remitted) but with the increasing pressure from the Habsburg empire and Russia on the borders of their domains. In the East, Iran had once more become a competitor for local loyalties where previously Ottoman power had been unquestioned. In the period of Ottoman expansion, warfare had been productive, bringing booty, territories, slaves, and taxes. In the eighteenth century the pattern was reversed. War now drained away the state’s resources. It also made increasing demands on manpower, with villagers taken away under guard to fight the Russians or the Austrians.31 The pressures on the empire grew steadily, and leading Ottomans came to believe that they would need to adopt the military systems of the West if they were to defend their domains.32

We should not exaggerate Ottoman incapacity, since it was often a metaphor for their perceived moral inadequacies rather than real military weakness—the Ottomans could still surprise Western armies with their skill and tenacity. The Turks had been consistently portrayed as in a state of precipitous decline since the late seventeenth century. Many of the eighteenth-century writers who presented the same picture were revealing their own frustrations at the impenetrable veneer of Ottoman conservatism. In reality, the process of decay was quite slow. Ironically, it was the strongest autocratic state of western Europe, France, which first imploded, rather than the allegedly decrepit Turkish empire. But thereafter the Turks could no more resist the shock waves emanating from the French Revolution than any of the countries of Europe. Blown away in a Napoleonic whirlwind, small states reemerged as new republics under French tutelage. Even empires such as Austria and Russia were forced to accommodate the new French imperial power. France first intervened in the East with the invasion of the Ottoman pashalik of Egypt in 1798, which led to the defeat of the ruling Mamluks at the battle of the Pyramids outside Cairo. French action ultimately brought about the dominance of Mehmed Ali, the Albanian pasha appointed by Sultan Selim III. Egypt under Mehmed Ali created a powerful army and navy and became the greatest buttress for the Ottoman state but also the greatest threat to the continuing power of the sultans.

French involvement in the Adriatic had a more immediate influence. Centuries of Venetian occupation on the Adriatic coast of the Balkans was replaced by French domination, first (briefly) in the Ionian Islands, and later, after 1809, in the Illyrian provinces, from the head of the Adriatic to the south of Dalmatia, creating a single state from former Habsburg and Venetian possessions.33 Revolutionary France undermined the Ottoman position.34 In 1797 Napoleon ordered his commander in the Ionian Islands to “flatter the inhabitants … and to speak of the Greece of Athens and of Sparta in the various proclamations that you will issue.”35 This approach appears very similar in intention to the French attempts to pander to Muslim opinion in their first proclamations in Egypt in 1798. But in the case of Greece it had a deeper resonance. The identification of the people of Greece with the civilization of ancient Hellas was common among educated circles in many western European countries, but especially so in France, Britain, and many of the German-speaking states. It was a connection actively fostered by what has fairly been called the “Greek intelligentsia”—mostly expatriate Greeks living outside the Ottoman dominions, or in the independent principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, north of the Danube. Revolutionary France had an important lesson for these Balkan protoliberators. There could be no limits to the pursuit of liberty.36 No sacrifice was too great if it led, ultimately, to the nation.

I DO NOT PROPOSE TO FOLLOW ALL THE TWISTED PATHS THAT LED toward national liberation for the different peoples of the Balkans.37 Over the century from 1804, when the Serbs rose against the banditry practiced by the janissary garrison of Belgrade, until the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913, the Balkans were in a more or less steady state of strife. Sometimes the Balkan peoples fought against one another, sometimes they battled against the Turks, either singly or in alliance. The other major European states played an active role, backing one party or another. But in that long conflict two horrific episodes epitomized “the Balkans” for all outsiders: the massacres that accompanied the beginning of the Greek Revolution in 1821–2 (which I shall discuss here), and the “Bulgarian Horrors” of 1876 (which will be looked at in detail in the next chapter). In both cases, what actually happened and what was written at the time diverged sharply. We can see how the new Balkan myths were formed and then disseminated like the dragon’s teeth of Greek mythology.

It is indisputable that, like most highland zones, the lands south of the Danube had inherited long traditions of social violence. Life seemed cheap. In Montenegro taking heads was a common practice, as it was among the Ottomans. This was a world in which individual life expectancy was short, but where the community lived on in all its members, bound together by common bonds. The demands of honor extended throughout a whole family, or in the mountains to an entire clan. In highland Albania, honor crimes, feuds, and vendettas would survive through many generations until the wrong was avenged.38 The only security against a knife in the back or an unexpected bullet lay in killing anyone who could be linked into the chain of vengeance. This was the unspoken thought behind the cry “Kill all the Turks in the Morea” that echoed in Greek village after village in the spring of 1821.

The Ottomans too had a culture of revenge. Justice was based on summary punishment and terror. One man or a whole community would die to expiate a crime. Individual responsibility and collective responsibility were equally valid justifications for capital punishment. If a miscreant had fled, a judge would order the punishment of someone from the same family, the same village, or even from the same millet.39 This was the case when Suleiman Pasha, the governor of Belgrade, was restored to his capital after the Serb revolt in 1807. He had “men roasted alive, hanged by their feet over smoking straw … castrated, crushed with stones, bastinadoed … Outside the Stamboul Gate in Belgrade … [were] corpses of impaled Serbs being gnawed by packs of dogs.”40 When Belgrade had fallen to the insurgents, most of the men had been killed. But Muslim women and children were kept alive, to be forcibly baptized.41 It is highly unlikely that the Turks tortured to death the actual men who had committed the offenses, firing buildings and burning all inside alive. Others suffered for the community’s crimes, to discourage further acts of rebellion. Ottomans, Slavs, Greeks, and Albanians all observed the unwritten law of slaughter and reprisal.

There are many candidates for the “precipitants” and “triggers” of the Greek Revolution but none of them fully explain why, suddenly, around Easter 1821, the Greek peasants of the Peloponnese began to kill all the Muslims in the land—men, women, and children alike. Almost 20,000 were slaughtered in a few months. This killing of Muslims, and not the Turkish massacres of Christians on the island of Chios in the following year, was the starting point of atrocity in the War of Liberation. There were antecedents for slaughter on this scale, but not in the Balkans. In the three decades before 1821, indeed, it was western Europe and not the torpid East that provided the most fearsome examples of mass murder. “Terror” was elevated to a principle of government during the first years of the French Revolution. The Paris mob hideously mutilated some of its victims, while in the French provinces ingenious means, such as mass drowning, were devised to speed up the process of disposing of the enemies of the people. Goya’s etchings of the Disasters of War, showing the incomparably savage cruelty of Spain’s Peninsular War guerrilla, were long considered too shocking to publish. In the early-nineteenth-century Balkans, killings were on a lesser scale, until, that is, the sudden and unparalleled atrocities of 1821–2.

The bloody hands of the Greeks were an uncomfortable fact for the Western supporters of Hellenism. No one epitomized this acute dilemma better than the courageous soldier and fine writer Thomas Gordon. In his preface to the History of the Greek Revolution, published in 1832, he apologized for writing on a “hackneyed and apparently exhausted subject.”42 Forty writers, he said, had published on the topic, of whom he judged only three or four worthy of attention. His own book was a model work of history: Gordon had researched it thoroughly, with the added advantage of knowing the ground and many of the participants. He wrote while the events were still fresh in his mind. The Turks disgusted him but not to the point of obsession.43 The “grand causes” of the revolt in Gordon’s eyes were “religious zeal, patriotism, and national pride, deeply wounded by insult and injury.”44 He recorded how in 1821 the Greeks were shipping arms and gunpowder into the Peloponnese and rebellion was in the air. To some later historians it seemed as though the rising had been planned.

Everywhere, as though at a preconceived signal, the peasantry rose and massacred all the Turks—men, women and children—on whom they could lay hands.

In the Morea [Peloponnese] shall not Turk be left,

Nor in the whole wide world.

Thus rang the song, which from mouth to mouth, announced the beginning of a war of extermination.45

It was neither planned nor organized. Once Bishop Germanos and the leaders of the Orthodox Church had “raised the standard of the cross” in April 1821, the insurrection

gained ground with wonderful rapidity, and from mountain to mountain, and village to village, propagated itself to the farthest corners of the Peloponessus. Every where the peasants flew to arms, and those Turks who resided in the countryside or in unfortified towns, were either cut to pieces or forced to fly into strongholds.46

Gordon made rather more of Greek deaths. Several Greek hostages were, by order of the Turkish general, “led forth and beheaded; their blood tinged the threshold of his residence, and their bones were long allowed to bleach in the court.”47 Others they threw “naked and headless” over the battlements of the Acropolis in Athens.

But Gordon was horrified at what he saw of Greek barbarity. At the city of Tripolitsa, crammed with Muslim refugees from the surrounding countryside, he watched as the Greeks stormed the walls.

The conquerors, mad with vindictive rage, spared neither age nor sex—the streets and houses were inundated with blood, and obstructed with heaps of dead bodies. Some Mohammedans fought bravely and sold their lives dearly, but the majority was slaughtered without resistance … Flames blazing out from the palace and many houses lighted up after a night spent in rapine and carnage.48

Gordon, as a soldier, could understand the bloodlust of the first moment of victory, but vengeance went far beyond that.49

It was the image of Tripolitsa—of 2,000 women and children “massacred in a defile of Mount Maenalion,” where their bloated corpses filled a vast open grave—that filled Gordon’s mind when he described the subsequent Ottoman atrocities on Chios. He wrote of an idyllic island, seven miles off the coast of Asia Minor, with sixty-eight villages, 300 convents, 700 churches. Chios had a population of 100,000 Greeks, 6,000 Turks, and a few Catholics and Jews. It was notable for its fine climate, the mutual tolerance among its various communities, and (Westerners averred) the easy morals of its women. It was also a center of Greek education and literature, with a college, library, printing presses, and a museum.

A small raiding party of Hellenic revolutionaries from Samos had briefly brought the insurrection to the island. They had burned buildings and looted all the movable property they could find. Then they left. But a few weeks later, a larger invading force arrived and then the revolution began in earnest. Local Muslims were killed and mosques burned. When the news arrived in Constantinople, the government feared that the rising would spread to the other Greek-dominated islands close to the Turkish coast, and then across the water and on into the cities of Asia Minor. In this crisis the Ottoman ruler called for a general levy among the Muslim raya to recapture Chios.50 Yet, as Gordon observed, the sultan hinted the island was to be attacked not only because of “affection for … religion and empire”; there was a baser motive: Christian Chios promised rich plunder.

A motley horde of Anatolians crossed over the calm sea in an armada of small boats. Ottoman soldiers broke into the island’s capital, and the scene, as the Scot put it, “might be aptly compared to the sack of Tripolitsa. Nine thousand were massacred in a single day. Every Greek they could find was put to the sword, even the inmates of the madhouse, the patients in the hospital, and the deaf and dumb institution.” More than 30,000 Muslims from Asia Minor swarmed into the island, killing and plundering as they went, capturing women and children for the slave markets. By the end of May 1822, 25,000 had been killed and 45,000 taken captive. The huge number of slaves swamped the markets of Constantinople, and many who were not sold easily were simply killed off like old sheep, and their bodies left on the streets to rot.

Yet Gordon still refused to damn one side and condone the other. “Did we write,” he observed, “for the purpose of rendering exclusively odious one nation or party, it would be easy to prolong this catalogue of slaughters, sometimes springing from the systematic cruelty of a barbarous government, but oftener from the blind rage of an infuriated populace.”51 I have concentrated on his account partly because he was an accurate and truthful witness, but also for this rare capacity to judge dispassionately, despite favoring the cause of Greece. But while he could understand the Turkish cruelties, the callous butcheries of the Hellenes were more disturbing to him. Eventually Gordon came to the conclusion that true Greeks of his day had inherited their finer feelings from their ancient ancestors, while those who had been corrupted by Eastern barbarism exhibited its cruelty and treachery.52 This process had begun, he suggested, with the Easterners perverting the Greeks in the age of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s men were already no angels, but “their native vices were aggravated by Oriental softness, and by mingling with subjects still more corrupt than themselves.”53 By this circular logic, the Greeks of his own day had become “like the Eastern nations in every age.”54

If Thomas Gordon became the Clio of the revolution, another Gordon was its Calliope, its muse of eloquence. No individual did more to alert the West to a kind of new crusade in Greece than the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage(1812), Byron’s pyrotechnic gallop through Western art, philosophy, and history, he first presented Greece as a land of epic struggle. The rebirth of ancient Hellas in a new Greece would usher in a wider, universal revolution:

A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;

An hour may lay it in the dust; and when

Can man its shatter’d splendour renovate,

Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate.55

This conflict transcended all the earlier struggles. In Byron’s eyes the obstacle to this new age was Ottoman rule, the infidels “whose turbans now pollute Sophia’s shrine,” and who had made the “path of blood along the West.”56 But his attitude to the East moved beyond the traditional stereotypes. His Turkish Tales, published following the astonishing success of the first canto of Childe Harold, were filled with “noble Turks” such as Hassan in The Giaour (1813) or the unlucky Selim of The Bride of Abydos (also 1813). Although Byron’s tragic characters contained, in their externals, the typical eighteenth-century typology of the Turk, they were more human and vulnerable than any of the usual lay figures.57 Hassan and Selim were Western in their passions, hopes, and fears. What destroyed those hopes was the brutal harshness of the pashas and sultans, and what destroyed human life on an individual level was even more lethal to human aspirations on the national scale.

From the beginning of the Greek revolt in 1821, books and pamphlets had begun to appear against the “cruel Turks” and their savagery in Greece. After Byron’s “martyr’s death” at Easter 1824 in the citadel of Missolonghi, in western Greece, there was a sudden increase in the publications devoted to the Greek cause.58 France in particular was gripped by the drama of the Greek revolt. Paris had for many years been a gathering point for expatriates and exiles, including the pioneer of the revival of the Greek language Adamantios Korais, who spent most of his adult life in the city; he died there in 1833. Some, like Grigorios Zalykis, were closet revolutionaries who also served the Turks—he was first secretary at the Ottoman embassy in Paris from 1816 to 1820. Minas Minoidis taught Greek in the city and also acted as an interpreter to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Paris was the first European capital to receive news from this Greek “colony.”

The emotional appeal of Hellenism was powerful, but we should not forget that French artists had more mundane motives for the sudden flood of images of the war in Greece that they produced. Napoleon’s empire had provided a multitude of commissions for artists, while printmakers and retailers had made a living from selling copies of famous paintings to a wider public. After 1815, artists who had found a ready market for battle scenes were looking for new subjects. The outbreak of the revolution in Greece itself was much more stirring than a rising in the Danubian principalities.59 All the political factions in France, from Ultramonarchists to Liberals and former Bonapartists, supported the Greek cause. Those who hated revolution quelled their misgivings: the Ultramonarchist newspaper Le Drapeau Blanc concluded that “they [the Greeks] are Christians who want to shake off the Islamic yoke, therefore it is good.”60 It was also a wonderfully romantic cause, exotically Oriental. Women dressed à la Turque once again, but now in the politically correct Greek colors of blue and white.

The sudden efflorescence of paintings and prints that followed the start of the war in Greece thus had a variety of “triggers.” The French press presented highly colored accounts of Ottoman atrocities. On May 27, 1821, Le Constitutionnel reported that it had been officially decided in Constantinople “to slaughter all the Christian subjects of the Ottoman empire”; by July 24 this had become a plan of the Ottomans to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. The Gazette de France of May 25, 1821, had compared the Turks to bloodthirsty wild beasts, a “mob attacking every Christian without any distinction.” Ironically, at that time, in the Peloponnese, the Greeks fitted this stereotype better than the Turks. There were one or two depictions of Turks being killed, and an ode by Alphonse Dupré on the capture of Tripolitsa by the Greeks on October 5, 1821. But the vast majority of the images presented the conflict in very simplistic Hellenophile terms. The cross was omnipresent, set against the emblem of Turkish power, the pasha’s horsetail standard. Usually the latter was cast down into the dust, as in an unfinished sketch by the Lyonnais painter Pierre Revoil. His War in the Morea or, The Triumph of the Labarum (a labarum is a cross and flag combined) showed the pasha’s standard lying at the feet of the fierce-eyed Greeks, with the cross looming above. Conversely, in the Disaster at Missolonghi, Charles Langlois’ painting depicts the horsetails advancing on the fleeing Greeks.

The symbolism proliferated as time went on. After the invasion of the Peloponnese by the well-trained Egyptian troops commanded by Mehmed Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha, acting for the sultan Mahmud II, the Greek armies were shattered and their strongholds taken with great bloodshed. A print by Ducarme of 1828 presented “Greece sacrificed” (La Grèce immolée). An old man with a young boy clutching his knees stands before the cross. A woman, her arms wrapped around the cross, has a naked child grasping her hand, while to the side another Greek is dying, an arrow through his heart, while yet another lies already dead close by. In the background, a classical column has fallen over. Riding toward them on rearing stallions are a group of Turks, armed with bows, pistols, and a long yataghan. Behind, a standard-bearer brandishes the horsetail pennant. There is little doubt about the fate of the old man and the children. For the woman, sexual violation seems certain, as she raises her eyes to heaven. No one in Paris in 1828 who saw this print could have had any doubt as to its meaning.

These tropes appeared time and again on canvas: the cross, the heroic Greeks on foot fighting against expressionless Turks on horseback, women with children at the breast, maidens praying to the Virgin. They were just as omnipresent in the images sold on the streets of Paris as in the paintings shown in the salons and in aid of the Greek cause. They presented a strong single image of “good” fighting “evil.” Many of the themes were already familiar, from earlier paintings, such as Gros’ 1806 Battle of Aboukir, where the horsetails were reeling toward the ground as the vanquished Mamluk commander offered his scimitar to General Murat. But the mixture of pathos, Christian pride and heroism, and Ottoman arrogance was a new combination. Eugène Delacroix’s Massacre on Chios, exhibited in 1824 and then bought by Louis XVIII for the Louvre, was the quintessence of these themes. Criticized at the time for being muddled and chaotic, it drew upon Delacroix’s skill in satirical cartooning, which at that point provided his main source of income. It was not art but propaganda.61 The exhausted Christians herded together to be shipped to the capital as slaves are languidly guarded by two Turks. A cold and expressionless Ottoman, on a rearing horse, is drawing his sword to hack down a brawny Greek seeking to protect a half-naked woman. But it is in the background that the real business of conquest is taking place. Women are dragged along by their hair, others are having their clothes ripped from them, still others are pursued by lancers on horseback. In contrast to a great classical painting in the style of David, the main action is not in the center of the foreground, but in the random savageries revealed behind.

The many paintings of the fall of Missolonghi in April 1826 revealed a double theme: martyrdom and triumph. At Missolonghi the Greeks were massacred by the victorious Turks, but in their last moments they blew up their powder magazine, killing, it was claimed, more than 2,000 of the “barbarians.” After Missolonghi the image of savagery was made still more powerful and explicit. In the print of Eugène Devéria, a naked baby is about to be skewered by a Turkish sword despite its mother’s pleas, while the Turkish horses wear a string of Christian heads like a necklace.62 In another image a woman prepares to stab herself and her child rather than suffer “a fate worse than death.”63 Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826) is more subtle: the horsetail standard waves in the background, and the great city has exploded, crushing its people beneath its stones. Yet the incarnation of Greece, half kneeling on the ruins, is not cowed or fearful; she is defiant and proud.

The source materials for all these images were events as they were perceived in France. They drew on news reports, public meetings, pamphlets, poems, and even novels. But the process was circular. The images were generated from the written texts, and they both catered to popular taste and then helped to form that taste. Thereafter they became sources for further texts and images. The massacres on Chios were remembered as Delacroix or other artists such as Colin had painted them. Conversely, because the killings of the Muslims in the Peloponnese were not depicted, although they were reported, these atrocities seemed less real and were less potent and emotive. The great paintings survived in the public imagination long after the written texts on which they were based had been forgotten. French artists, from masters to hack printmakers, created visual metaphors for the Hellenic revival, which they portrayed as a new crusade.

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