Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Chapter II - Pólemos

Being a large, fertile island with many gifts, Chios has long been the object of invasion. Strong in trade and naval skill, the island has always been at the centre of issues of Aegean dominance. Like many places ancient in place and memory, it has had its share of violence and tragedy.

Ancient Greek Warship

In the 7th century B.C. Chios had established itself as a major naval power and became a close ally of the Ionian city states. It enjoyed a relatively long period of prosperity until the Persians, under Kind Darius, brought slavery to the island which came under the control of tyrants appointed by the Persian King. The Ionian Revolution against Persia began in 499 B.C. and Chios expelled the tyrant Strattis and made a stand with one hundred war ships at the battle of Ladi. The effort failed however, and the Persians conquered the island fully in 493 B.C.  As a result, Chios was forced to fight on the side of Persia in the battle of Salamis, one of history's greatest naval battles. After the defeat of Persia, Chios joined the Athenian Alliance and enjoyed another period of good fortune.

Greek Hoplites
The Peloponnesian War ended that. The victories that the Greek allies had earned and enjoyed in the Persian wars were piddled away in the futility of the Peloponnesian War. Chios remained an ally of Athens until the latter’s defeat in Sicily and then it was brought into the fold by Sparta. At the end of the war, the Peace of Antalkideio awarded the island to Athens.

Chios and its people were constantly caught in the politics and polemics of its day. Following Alexander the Great’s attempt at unifying the Hellenic world and the subsequent tragedies of the wars of his successors, Chios sided with the rising power of Rome in its war with Mithridates of Pontus. The latter punished the island for siding with the Romans but Chios was freed by the Dictator Sulla, who defeated the Pontic king.

Such are the wars of antiquity in which Chios found itself drawn for better or worse. However, the real tragedies that befell the island, as well as the rest of the Hellenic world, began in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Mehmed II. Where previous conquerors of the islands, from Athens and Sparta to Venice and Genoa, sought not only to control but nurture Hellenic lands, the Ottoman Empire sought to enslave and dominate. History is filled with atrocities and many sprang from that tragic axe blow to Byzantium

1453 - The Fall of Constantinople
In 1556 Piali-Pasha occupied Chios without a fight and dissolved the Genoese government that had ruled the island for close to two centuries. At first, the island was treated well enough as the Sultan valued the masticha groves which had flourished under the Genoese and much of the crop was sent to the Sultan’s harem. There were attempts to free the island by the Florentine Knights of St. Stephen (1559) and then by the Venetians in 1694-95 but they were unsuccessful. Masticha, in a way kept the islanders safe at the outset of Turkish rule and the population reached about 100,000.

When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Chios was drawn into the fray when rebels from Samos arrived and, along with a group of local men, besieged the Turkish garrison. On the eleventh of March, 1822, a Turkish fleet landed thousands of troops on Chios in order to take down the rebels. The unarmed population of Chios suffered the worst massacre in the island’s history. For fifteen days, Turkish troops slaughtered the people and destroyed the island. All of the Greek leaders of the island were hanged publicly and more than 25,000 people were killed. Survivors were sold into slavery apart from those who managed to escape the island.

The Massacre at Chios - by Eugène Delacroix

The destruction of Chios outraged European nations who pressured the Sultan so much that he allowed survivors to return to their homes unharmed. However, the damage was done and burned into Greek and western consciousness. Life on the island would never be the same, the crops never as prosperous as they had been. Cold years and earthquakes finished what the Sultan’s forces had begun. On November 11, 1912 however, it was liberated and became part of the Greek state. Once more tragedy would strike the Hellenes of the eastern Aegean when in 1922 the Greek inhabitants of Ionia were either slaughtered or expelled, pushed into the sea, some escaping to Chios. This last memory remains, and burns. Within the mountain top monastery of Nea Moni, there stands a large wooden cabinet inside the chapel that is full of the skulls of Greeks slaughtered by Turkish forces. It serves as a dark reminder of past wrongs, a cabinet of worry and sadness, of anger.

What does one do with such history? What can one think today? I thought about this in 1998 when I stood before those empty-socketed skulls (perhaps some were my ancestors?), about what they had gone through, the horrors they had seen. This is the old world and things are not easily forgotten. I began to see the source of all the anger and hatred between Greece and Turkey, to understand the prejudices of the older generation. How can you forget the massacres, the burnings, the rapes? In truth, you can’t, even at three or more generations removed, it is there, it flows in your veins. If history teaches us anything it is that things can happen again and again when people in the moment forget or disregard the past. The key is not to ignore it but rather acknowledge, understand…and move on. No matter how difficult it is to lay pain and anger aside it is essential to do so. One cannot carry the burdens and prejudices of those that have gone before for it only leads to further atrocity.

Perhaps that is why so many Europeans quit the world they had once loved in favour of America, a land that promised something new, a new beginning? Perhaps they needed to leave, to get far away from the memories in order to try and forget. And now, later generations are returning to the old world, to learn what happened, as I am doing now.

When the Germans arrived on the island during World War II, the Chiotes, like many of their Hellenic brothers and sisters elsewhere, resisted in any way they could. The island was occupied by both Germans and Italians. Some people say that the Italian occupiers were more violent toward the population than the Germans, but that could just have been due to a bad brigade or commander. The situation on Cephalonia, for instance, was quite the opposite. Whatever happened, it was during this period that many men of Chios, my Papou among them, joined the Greek Merchant Navy. Lagada gave many men into service and many, I’m sure, joined for their own personal reasons. If I have learned anything from the stories I have heard and been told, the histories I have read, it is that Greeks throughout history have been resilient in the face of hardship and can band together when it counts, from Thermopylae to WWII. Chios may have ceased to be a centre of trade but the people certainly have not given up.
1943 American poster in support of Greece

What must my Papou have been thinking leaving his pregnant wife in occupied Chios to go and serve in the Merchant Navy? I hope to find out more as my research progresses. Apart from doing his part in the war, he may have been scouting out new frontiers for the Haviaras family. I imagine him setting out from Lagada one day, walking down to the small harbour with my Yia Yia, casting a final glance back up the hill at the stone house they lived in. I can imagine the worry mixed with resolve on both their faces, perhaps the very first tremors of Parkinson’s that might have arrested my Yia Yia’s body, just then, as she held her swollen belly and watched my Papou set off sometime in 1939. Once he was out of sight, I can imagine Yia Yia, her kerchief tied about her head like Bouboulina herself, stern-faced, determined to hold back her tears until she was home again.