Nikolaos Ferekidis (1862–1929) and monogram G.W., The Entry of King Otho of Greece in Athens, copy of the work by Peter von Hess (1839), 1901, οil on canvas, 200x340 cm. National Bank of Greece. Photo: GreeceIs.com
The word “Hellenism” conveyed different concepts at different times throughout Christian history. Consistently in the first millennium it meant “paganism”. St. Basil uses the word “Hellenic” meaning “idolater”. This was a time when identity was based primarily on faith. As the Eastern Roman Empire disintegrated, the final Emperors added to their title the phrase “of the Hellenes”—in addition to “of the Romans.” Gemistus Plython, a late Byzantine (pagan) philosopher who died around 1453, was among the first to “revive” the idea of a modern Greek cultural group/nation as we would come to understand the Greeks today. Yet, he rejected Christianity by adopting a neo-pagan identity; prior to this, to be Greek (as we understand Hellenic identity) meant to be: a Roman citizen, an Orthodox Christian, and one who spoke Greek, in addition to one’s native language (Armenian, Turkic, Bulgarian, etc).
With the advent of the Ottoman Empire, the Emperors of which retained within their title the phrase “of the Romans”, the “millet” system—the classification of society into various religious groups that constituted the pillar of their identity—was established. In the Orthodox Christian part of the “Roman” millet were Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians etc., and they referred to themselves and were in turn referred to by the Turks as “Romans”. Conversion from Orthodox Christianity to Islam meant adoption of a Turkish identity and—for our modern intents and purposes—amalgamation into the Turkish nation. This is exactly why today, in Western Turkey, most Turks look (and act) European, i.e. Greek, as they descend from Greeks who at various historical stages adopted Islam. There were also “middle” groups, such as the “Crypto Christians”, who outwardly practiced Islam yet maintained an “underground” Orthodox Christianity in secret churches with secret clergy. Other “millets” were the Jewish Millet, and the Armenian Millet—for Armenian Monophysite Christians.
Language, in this religious context, was secondary. There existed Turkish speaking Greek Orthodox villages in Anatolia well into the 20th century wherein Turkish was written in Greek characters and scripture readings at the services were read in their dialect of Turkish, Karamalídika. And later, there existed Greek-speaking Muslims in places like Thrace and Crete. These were formerly Greek Orthodox Christians who embraced Islam for the status, wealth, and influence that came with conversion. The fact that language did not immediately translate into national identity is not an Eastern phenomenon: the French of Lorraine spoke German, and the Irish to this day speak English. In Asia, Japanese is written in Chinese characters. We will return to the issue of language as one of the primary sources of identity (the other being Faith) below.
During the nationalist movements beginning in the eighteenth century, the various Balkan ethnic groups conspired against the Ottoman Empire. Revolutionaries such as Rigas Ferraios envisioned a “re-birth” of the Roman Empire: an Orthodox Christian Federation stretching from Moldova across to the Dalmatian Coast and down the Balkan Peninsula to Greece and east to Anatolia, including Syria, Egypt and the Holy Land—the capital of which would be Constantinople. This would be a “multi-cultural” and “multi-ethnic” empire wherein many would co-exist as they did in Byzantium, with the common factors of faith, citizenship, and language.
Various uprisings had occurred against the Turks, such as the Orlov Revolt and the First Serbian Uprising. Success came when nationalistic tendencies were left aside. Though what we term today as the “Greek Revolution of 1821” began in Iasi, Romania, as the “start” of a pan-Balkan revolt, the end result was that only those living in what became modern Greece revolted. When falling back on their insular tendencies, on jealousy, intrigue and selfishness, the Greeks quickly descended into factions and proceeded to a series of civil wars that were fought consecutively in the decade after the Revolution of 1821 and before Greece became a sovereign entity in 1831. Consequently, only the intervention of the Great Powers, in the end, enabled the establishment of a Greek Kingdom, and its freedom and protection against the Ottoman Empire was guaranteed. Guaranteed by who? By the great Christian Monarchies of the time: Russia, the United Kingdom, Austria, and France.
Not all the Greek revolutionaries spoke Greek; many spoke Arvanítika—such as Markos Botsaris—or Vlach, or even Turkish. Knowledge of Greek or lack thereof did not imply non-inclusion into the body of those we know today as the Greeks. The Greek government in the early twentieth century engaged in a massive “re-education” campaign that resulted in the near extinction of Arvanítika in places like Kranidi (where I was ordained), Hydra, Aegina, and Thebes.
The end result of this campaign, however, was a uniformity in terms of identity according to the nationalistic European model, which is: To be x means to speak x. This concept that identity flows solely from language, naturally, is foreign to the Eastern Roman (and later Ottoman) concept of identity wherein identity is based primarily on common faith. Aléxandros Papadiamántis, “the saint of Greek letters”, within his short stories, records the last vestiges of such a society. Evidence of this is, within the predominantly Greek context, the appearance of Arvanites, or converted Turks or Slavs, who with their dialects, sayings, and customs enrich the Hellenic world. Such influence, which runs multiple ways, is seen in persons such as the philhellene Bavarian Doctor, Vilhem Vild (†1899), who “adopted” the “strange ways of the Greeks”, living amongst them on Skiathos for over fifty years, having come from the Kingdom of Bavaria to Greece as a young man to fight in the later phase of the Revolutionary War.
The Eastern Roman concept of identity passed well on to the Russians who, during the time of the Russian Empire, converted and amalgamated many tribes and peoples—Finnic, Turkic and others—into the Russian Empire through missionary activity. Besides the adoption and perseverance of Byzantine state symbols (doubled headed eagle) and titles (Tsar) this effort to unite an empire on the basis of faith is the Eastern Roman legacy that lived on within the Russian Empire. It was for this reason that Patriarch Nikon of Moscow said, “Though I am a Russian and son of a Russian, my faith and my religion are Greek.”
Hellenism is Ecumenicity in the sense that many peoples can be grafted onto the body. This is the Roman identity, the Orthodox identity, which we find alive and exemplified in such authors such as the above-mentioned Papadiamantis. And yet Papadiamántis stands firmly within what may be termed the “European Christian tradition” along with other writers such as Chekhov, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Chesterton. In its originality, therefore, Hellenism is not insular, it is outward looking, and confident in its contact with other cultures and civilizations. And yet, it preserves and maintains Tradition as it has been transmitted through the generations.
We conclude our present thoughts ahead of a series of questions, however, which inevitably arise: In what condition is Hellenism today? What is the supposed “guardian” of the Hellenic Christian identity (i.e. the Greek Orthodox Church, the Constantinople Patriarchate) doing to preserve and transmit the Eastern Roman legacy? And, is it the proper vehicle to conduct this transmittance? What has it truly given the Greeks in the past one hundred years? These questions will be answered shortly...