Soon a new power was threatening in the east: the Turkish Ottoman Empire, founded in central Asia in the late 13th century. The Muslim Turks rapidly expanded the areas under their control and by the mid-14th century were harassing the Byzantine Empire on all sides. Western Europe was too embroiled in the Hundred Years' War to come to the rescue, and in 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks under Mohammed II the Conqueror. Once more Greece became a battleground, this time fought over by the Turks and Venetians. Eventually, with the exception of the Ionian islands, Greece became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Much has been made of the horrors of the Turkish occupation in Greece. However, in the early years of Ottoman rule Greeks probably marginally preferred Ottoman to Venetian or Frankish rule. Also, the roman and Byzantine churches had been growing ever more apart since the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople excommunicated one another in 1054, and Mohammed II was careful to respect the patriarch's authority.

But life was not easy under the Turks, not least because of the high taxation they imposed. One of their most callous practices was the taking of one out of every five male children in a Greek family to become janissaries, personal bodyguards of the sultans. Many janissaries became infantrymen in the Ottoman army, but the cleverest rose to high office including grand vizier. Sometimes young Greek girls were taken away from their families to become women of the sultan's harem. As time went on and the Ottoman Empire fell into decline, atrocities did take place, but generally the occupation was typified more by neglect than arrant brutality.

The Ottoman Empire reached its zenith under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (ruled 1520-66), who expanded it throughout the Balkans and Hungary to the gates of Vienna. In 1570, his successor, Selim the Sot, also intent upon expansion, invaded Cyprus, which was under Venetian jurisdiction but inhabited by Greeks. The Ottomans sacked the capital, Nicosia, and massacred 30,000 of its inhabitants.

This atrocity shocked and frightened Europe, and strengthened the burgeoning notion that Ottoman expansionism had to be checked. This was easier to achieve on sea than on land for the time being, and in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) off the northern Peloponnese coast the Ottoman navy was defeated by a combined Venetian and Spanish fleet, breaking Ottoman naval power in the eastern Mediterranean.


The ineffectual sultans of 16th and 17th centuries hastened the Ottoman Empire's decline, and anarchy and rebellion became endemic. Corsairs terrorized coastal dwellers, gangs of klephts (anti-Ottoman fugitives and brigands) roamed the mountains, and there was an upsurge of opposition to Turkish rule by freedom fighters who fought one another more than the Turks.

In various enclaves of the Ottoman Empire, however, where intellectual Greeks had tenaciously preserved Greek culture, there were the first stirrings of what was to blossom into a more organized national rebellion. One such enclave was Odessa in Russia.

Russia's link with Greece went back to Byzantine times, when the Russians had been converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries. The Church hierarchies in Constantinople and Kiev (later Moscow) soon went separate ways, but when Constantinople fell to the Turks, the metropolitan (head) of the Russian Church declared Moscow the "third Rome", the true heir of Christianity, and campaigned for the liberation of the fellow Christians in the south. This fitted in nicely with Russia's efforts to expand southwards and south-westwards into Ottoman territory – perhaps even to turn the Ottoman Empire back to a Byzantine Empire dependent on Russia.


When Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia in 1762, both the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire were weak. She sent Russian agents to foment rebellion, first in the Peloponnese in 1770 and then in Epiros in 1786. Both were crushed ruthlessly – the latter by Ali Pasha, the governor of Ioannina, who proceeded to set up his own power base in Greece in defiance of the sultan.

In the 1770s and 1780s Catherine booted the Turks from the Black Sea coast, created a number of towns in the region, including Odessa, and gave them Ancient Greek or Byzantine names. She offered Greeks financial incentives and free land to settle the region, and many took up her offer.

In Odessa in 1814, three businessmen Athanasios Tsakalof, Emmanuel Xanthos and Nikoalos Skoufas founded a Greek independence party, the Philiki Etairia (Friendly Society). The message of the society spread quickly and branches opened throughout Greece. Members met in secret and came from all walks of life. The leaders in Odessa held the firm belief that armed force was the only effective means of liberation, and made generous monetary contributions to the freedom fighters.

Meanwhile there were also stirrings of dissent amongst Greeks living in Constantinople. The Ottomans regarded it as beneath them to participate in commerce, and this had left the door open for Greeks in the city to become a powerful economic force. These wealthy Greek families were called Phanariots. Unlike the Filiki Etairia, who strove for liberation through rebellion, the Phanariots believed that by virtue of their positions they could effect a takeover from within. Influential Phanariots included Alexander Mavrokordatos and Alexander and Dimitrios Ypsilantis.


Ali Pasha’s private rebellion against the sultan in 1820 gave the Greeks the opportunity they had been waiting for. On 25 March 1821 Bishop Germanos of Patras hoisted the Greek flag at the monastery of Agias Lavras in the Peloponnese, an act of defiance that marked the beginning of the War of Independence. Fighting broke out throughout the Peloponnese, with fearless Maniot freedom fighters, led by Petrobey Mavromichaelis, governor of the Mani, laying siege to the most strategic Turkish garrisons and razing the homes of thousands of Turks. The worst atrocity occurred in the city of Tripolitsa (present-day Tripolis) where 12,000 Turkish inhabitants were massacred.

The fighting escalated throughout the mainland and many islands. Within a year the Greeks had captured Monemvassia, Navarino (modern Pylos), Nafplion and Tripolitsa in the Peloponnese, and Messolongi, Athens and Thebes. Greek independence was proclaimed at Epidaurus on 13 January 1822. The Turks retaliated with massacres in Asia Minor, most notoriously on the island of Chios, where 25,000 civilians were killed.

The Western powers were reluctant to intervene, fearing the consequences of creating a power vacuum in south-eastern Europe, where the Turks still controlled much territory. But help did come from the philhellenes – aristocratic young men, recipients of a classical education, who saw themselves as the inheritors of a glorious civilization and were willing to fight to liberate its oppressed descendants. Philhellenes included Shelley, Goethe, Schiller, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset and Lord Byron. Byron arrived in Messolongi an important center of resistance in January 1824 and died three months later of pneumonia.

The prime movers of the revolution were the klephts Theodoros Kolokotronis (who led the siege of Nafplion) and Marko Botsaris; George Koundouriotis (a ship owner) and Admiral Andreas Miaoulis, both from Hydra; and the Phanariots Alexander Mavrokordatos and Demitrios Ypsilantis. If you familiarize yourself with these names, walking along streets in Greece will take on a whole new meaning as a disproportionate number are named after these heroes.

The long list makes it clear that the cause was not lacking leaders; what was lacking was unity of objectives and strategy. Internal disagreements twice escalated into civil war, the worst in the Peloponnese in 1824. The sultan took advantage of this, called in Egyptian reinforcements, and by 1827 captured Modon (Methoni) and Corinth, and recaptured Navarino, Messolongi and Athens.

At last the Western powers intervened, and a combined Russian, French and British fleet destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian fleet in the Bay of Navarino in October 1827. Sultan Mahmud II defied the odds and proclaimed a holy war. Russia sent troops into the Balkans and engaged the Ottoman army in yet another Russo-Turkish war. Fighting continued until 1829 when, with Russian troops at the gates of Constantinople, the sultan accepted Greek independence by the Treaty of Adrianople.


Meanwhile, the Greeks had begun organizing the independent state they proclaimed several years earlier. In April 1827 they elected as their first president a Corfiot who had been the foreign minister of Tsar Alexander I, Ioannis Kapodistrias. Nafplion, in the Peloponnese, was selected as the capital.

With his Russian past, Kapodistrias believed in a strong centralized government. Although he was good at enlisting foreign support, his autocratic manner at home was unacceptable to many of the leaders of the War of Independence, particularly the Maniot chieftains who had always been a law unto themselves, and in 1831 he was assassinated.

In the ensuing anarchy, Britain, France and Russia once again intervened and declared that Greece should become a monarchy and that the throne should be given to a non-Greek in order to frustrate Greek power struggles. A fledgling kingdom was now up for grabs amongst the offspring of the crowned heads of Europe, but no-one exactly ran to fill the empty throne. Eventually the 17-year-old Prince Otto of Bavaria became king, arriving in Nafplion in January 1833. The new kingdom (established by the London Convention of 1832) consisted of the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, the Cyclades and the Sporades.

King Otho (as his name became) got up the nose of the Greek people from the moment he set foot on their land – firstly, because he arrived with a bunch of upper-class Bavarian cronies, to whom he gave the most prestigious official posts; and secondly, because he was as autocratic as Kapodistrias had been. In 1834 Otho moved the capital to Athens.

Patience with his rule ran out in 1843 when demonstrations in the capital, led by the War of Independence leaders, called for a constitution. Otho mustered a National Assembly which drafted a constitution calling for parliamentary government consisting of a lower house and a senate. Otho’s cronies were whisked out of power and replaced by War of Independence freedom fighters, who bullied and bribed the populace into voting in a way which suited them.


By the middle of the 19th century the people of the new Greek nation were no better off materially than they had been under the Ottomans, and it was in this climate of despondency the Megali Idea (Great Idea) of a new Greek Empire was born. This empire was to include all the lands that had once been under Greek influence, with Constantinople as the capital. Otho enthusiastically embraced the idea, which increased his popularity no end.

Not with the Greek politicians, however, who still thought ways to increase their own power in the face of his autocratic rule. By the end of the 1850s, most of the stalwarts from the War of Independence had been replaced by a new breed of university graduates (Athens University had been founded in 1837). In 1862 they staged a bloodless revolution and deposed the king. But they weren’t quite able to set their own agenda, because in the same year Britain returned the Ionian islands (a British protectorate since 1815) to Greece, and in the general euphoria the British were able to push forward young Prince William of Denmark, who became King George I (the Greek monarchy retained its Danish links from that time).

His 50-year reign brought stability to the troubled country, beginning with a new constitution in 1864 which established the power of democratically elected representatives and pushed the king further towards a largely ceremonial role. In 1866-68, an uprising in Crete against Turkish rule was suppressed by the sultan, but in 1881 Greece did acquire Thessaly and part of Epiros as a result of another Russo-Turkish war.

Kharilaos Trikoupis became prime minister in 1882 and prudently concentrated his efforts on domestic issues, rather than pursuing the Great Idea. The 1880 s showed the first signs of economic growth, the country’s first railway lines and paved roads had been constructed, the Corinth Canal (begun in 62 AD!) was completed enabling Piraeus to become a major Mediterranean port, and the merchant navy was growing rapidly.

However, the Great Idea had not been buried, and reared its head again after Trikoupis’ death in 1896. In 1897 there was another uprising in Crete, and the hot-headed prime minister Diliyiannis sent a Greek army which resulted in open war with Turkey. It was only through the intervention of the great powers that the Turkish army was prevented from taking Athens, and Crete came under international administration.

The day-to-day government of the island was gradually handed over to the Greeks, and in 1905, the president of the Cretan assembly, Eleftherios Venizelos, announced Crete’s union (enosis) with Greece, although this was not recognized by international law until 1913. Venizelos went on to become prime minister of Greece in 1910 and was the country’s leading politician until his republican sympathies brought about his downfall in 1935.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes but was still clinging on to Macedonia. The newly formed Balkan countries of Serbia and Bulgaria, as well as Greece, were hoping to add Macedonia to this territory. These territorial ambitions led to two Balkan wars; in the first (1912) Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece fought Turkey, and in the second (1913) Serbia and Greece fought Bulgaria.

The outcome of these wars was the Treaty of Bucharest (August 1913), which greatly expanded Greek territory by adding the southern part of Macedonia, part of Thrace, another chunk of Epiros, and the North-East Aegean Islands, as well as recognizing the union with Crete.

In March 1913, King George was assassinated by a lunatic and his son Constantine became king.


King Constantine, who was married to the sister of the German emperor, insisted that Greece remained neutral when WW I broke out in August 1914. However, the Allies (Britain, France and Russia) put pressure on Venizelos to join forces with them against Germany and Turkey. As the war dragged on, the Allies made heedless promises which they couldn’t hope to fulfill, including land in Asia Minor. Venizelos set up a rebel government, first in Crete and then in Thessaloniki, and joined the war on the Allied side. The landing of Allied troops in Greece forced the king’s abdication in June 1917, and he was replaced by his more amenable second son Alexander.

Greek troops served with distinction on the Allied side, but when the war ended in 1918, the promised land in Asia Minor was not forthcoming. Venizelos took matters into his own hands and, with Allied acquiescence, landed troops in Smyrna (present-day Izmir) in May 1919 under the guise of protecting the half a million Greeks living in that city (just under half the population there). With a firm foothold in Asia Minor Venizelos now organized an invasion inland.

The war-depleted Ottoman Empire must have appeared as a pushover to Venizelos, but this was not to be the case. In 1908 the young Turks movement had been formed and was pressing for Western-style reforms to bring Turkey into the 20th century. One of its members was a remarkable young general, Mustafa Kemal (later to become Ataturk), who believed that Turkey needed a modern government in place of the absolute sultanate. The Greek invasion was just the cause he needed to win public support.

By September 1921 the Greeks were close to Ankara, but the Turkish troops drove them back to Smyrna and massacred many of the Greek inhabitants. Mustafa Kemal was now a national hero, the sultanate was abolished and Turkey became a republic. The outcome of the failed Greek invasion and the revolution in Turkey was the Treaty of Lausanne of July 1923. This gave eastern Thrace and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos to Turkey, and the Italians kept the Dodecanese (which they had temporarily acquired in 1912 and would hold until 1947).

The treaty also called for a population exchange between Greece and Turkey to prevent any future disputes. The Great Idea, which had been such an enormous drain on the country’s finances over the decades, was at last laid to rest. Almost 1.5 million Greeks left Turkey and almost 400,000 Turks left Greece. Many Greeks abandoned a privileged life in Asia Minor for one of penury in shantytowns in Greece. But although the exchange put a tremendous strain on the Greek economy and caused great hardship for the individuals concerned, in the long term it was advantageous. The refugees introduced new agricultural and industrial techniques, and many eventually became prominent in the arts and business.


The arrival of the refugees coincided with, and compounded, a period of political instability which was unprecedented even by Greek standards. In October 1920, King Alexander had died from a monkey bite, and a plebiscite in December restored his father, King Constantine. In 1922 a military coup deposed Constantine and replaced him with his first son, George II, who became a mere puppet of the military dictators. More coups and counter-coups led to the proclamation of a republic in March 1924, followed by more military dictatorships.

A measure of stability was attained with Venizelos’ return to power in 1928. He pursued a policy of economic and educational reforms, but progress was inhibited by the international Great Depression. By the early 1930s, power struggles between Venizelos, who now led the antiroyalist Liberal Party, and Panayiotis Tsaldaris, who led the monarchist Popular Party, had reached a height.

In March 1933 Venizelos lost the general elections to the Popular Party, and the new government began to make preparations for the restoration of the monarchy. In March 1935 Venizelos and his supporters staged an unsuccessful coup, resulting in his exile to Paris where he died a year later. In November 1935 King George II was restored to the throne by a rigged plebiscite, and he made the right-wing general Ioannis Metaxas prime minister. Nine months later, Metaxas assumed dictatorial powers with the king’s consent under the pretext of preventing a communist-inspired republican coup.


Metaxas’ grandiose vision was to create a Third Greek Civilization based on its glorious Ancient and Byzantine past, but what he actually created was more a Greek version of the Third Reich. He exiled or imprisoned opponents, banned trade unions and the KKE (Kommunistiko Komma Ellados, the Greek Communist Party), imposed press censorship, and created a secret police force and a fascist-style youth movement. But Metaxas is remembered chiefly for his reply of ochi (no) to Mussolini’s request to allow Italians to traverse Greece at the beginning of WW II, thus maintaining Greece’s policy of strict neutrality. The Italians invaded Greece but were driven back into Albania.

A prerequisite of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union was a secure southern flank in the Balkans. The British, realizing this, asked Metaxas if they could land troops in Greece. He gave the same reply as he had given the Italians, but died suddenly in 1941. The king replaced him with the timorous Alexander Koryzis, who agreed to British forces landing in Greece and committed suicide when the Germans invaded.

German troops marched through Yugoslavia and invaded Greece on 6 April 1941. Despite ferocious fighting by Greek, British, Australian and New Zealand troops, the whole country was under Nazi occupation within a month. King George II and his government went into exile in Egypt. Throughout the occupation the civilian population suffered appallingly, many dying of starvation. The Nazis rounded up over half the Jewish population of Greece and transported them to death camps.

Numerous resistance movements sprang up. The three dominant ones were ELAS (Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos), EAM (Ethnikon Apeleftherotikon Metopon) and EDES (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos). Although ELAS was founded by communists, not all of its members were left-wing, whereas EAM consisted of Stalinist KKE members who had lived in Moscow in the 1930s and harbored ambitions of establishing a postwar communist Greece. EDES (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos) consisted of right-wing and monarchist resistance fighters. Often these groups fought one another with as much venom as they fought the Germans.

By 1943 Britain had begun speculating on the political complexion of postwar Greece. Winston Churchill wanted the king back and was afraid there would be a communist take-over, especially after ELAS and EAM formed a coalition and declared a provisional government in the summer of 1944. The Germans were pushed out of Greece in October 1944, but the communist and monarchist resistance groups continued fighting one another.

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