Just prior to his death by strangulation in the castle of Belgrade, Serbia, Greek visionary Rigas Pheraios is said to have uttered the immortal words: “I have sown a rich seed; the hour is coming when my country will reap its glorious fruits.” Contrary to common belief, the Greek revolution was not the first major uprising against the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. A decade prior to the 1821 declaration of Greek Independence, between 1804 to 1813, the Serbs of the sanjak of Smederevo rose up against their Ottoman oppressors, firstly, to protest against the seizure of power by Janissaries, and then, in search of complete independence. Although the first uprising was crushed brutally, causing up to a quarter of the population to flee across the border into the Austrian Habsburg Empire, a second uprising commencing in 1815, eventually succeeded in securing Serbian autonomy and ultimately independence.
At all stages of the Serbian struggle for freedom, the Serbs were aided by Greek freedom fighters and diplomats. Indeed, the first ever historian of the Serbian Revolution was a Greek, Triantafyllos Doukas, from whom we learn that as early as 1806, the French consul in Thessaloniki reported that “the Turks are very furious against the Greeks because of their communications with the Serbs.” He also reported that a significant number of Greek peasants were arrested by the Ottomans, on suspicion of aiding the Serbian rebels. So important was the Greek contribution to the fight for Serbian freedom, that after the failure of the first Uprising, the Serbian revolutionary leader, Karadjordje fled to Moldavia, where he joined the Philiki Hetaireia, actively supporting preparations for Greek Independence in the Danubian principalities.
Some not so insignificant Greek revolutionary figures participated in the Serbian uprising. The Thessalian armatole Nikotsaras took part in the Uprising along with 550 men. His Thessalian Vlach commander compatriot Giorgakis Olympios, whose early career involved protecting Epirote villages from the raids of Ali Pasha, moved to Serbia in 1798 and, under the name Kapetan Jorgać, fought with Karadjordje in the main battles of the First Serbian Uprising. He also married a local Serbian woman, Chuchuk Stane widow of Serbian freedom-fighter Hajduk Veljko. Fleeing to Moldavia with Karadjordje upon the crushing of the Uprising, he was instrumental in facilitating Karadjordje’s return to Serbia in 1817, with the hope that the Serbian revolt would pin down Ottoman troops that would otherwise quell the planned Greek Revolution.
Kontas Bimbasis, known in Serbian as Konda Bimbasha, a Vlach from Ioannina, Epirus, has achieved immortal fame in Serbian folklore, as the heroic fighter who, during the 1806 siege of Belgrade, managed to infiltrate the city and open the Sava gate, permitting the Serbian fighters to enter the city. A mercenary in the Ottoman army, he joined the rebel Serbian army with the rank of major (bimbashi), and, having a thorough knowledge of the defences of Belgrade, conceived of the plan to enter the city by stealth, posing as an Ottoman soldier with five of his men, climbing the rampart and jumping over the palisade. He then attacked the guards, while his men broke into the Sava Gate locks with axes. In the fracas, Konda received five wounds but continued to fight until his ultimate death at the Battle of Loznica in 1807. A romantic figure, he features as a character in Svetomir Nastasijević’s 1954 opera, The First Uprising, while a street in Belgrade rightfully bears his name, the Kondina ulija.
Petros Itskos, known in Serbian as Petar Ičko, provided invaluable services to the Serbian Uprising, on the diplomatic front. A Vlach from Katranitsa in western Macedonia, he was a merchant who migrated to Serbia in search of commercial opportunities. A successful operator, he was well respected by the Ottoman authorities and was thus employed as a dragoman, or interpreter and diplomat in Ottoman diplomatic missions in Berlin and Vienna. At the outbreak of the Serbian Uprising, he offered his services to Karadjordje and provided guidance as to navigating the objections of the European powers, to the concept of Serbian independence. So influential was he, that the Serbian rebel leaders sent him as their representative in Constantinople, where he managed to obtain for them a favourable peace treaty, known as “Ičko’s Peace,” with the recognition of a form of autonomy and clearer stipulation of taxes. He returned and lived in Belgrade as an honorary citizen, but died there soon after, on 5 May 1808, probably as a result of poisoning by the rival Obrenovic family, which was feuding with Karadjordje for leadership of Serbia. His house is still an important cultural landmark in Belgrade today, while his son Naoum’s home, also a diplomat, designed and constructed by Greek architects, is the oldest continuously operating traditional tavern in Belgrade.
The fate of Naoum Karnaras, known as Naum Krnar, a Vlach from Moschopoli in Northern Epirus illustrates the difficulty some of the Greeks in the Serbian uprising faced, when caught between two rival factions vying for power. A leather and fur trader settled in Belgrade, at the commencement of the Uprising, he joined Karadjordje, soon becoming his personal secretary and chairman in the Serbian Ruling Council. He accompanied Petros Itskos on his diplomatic mission to Constantinople. Fleeing Serbia with Karadjordje after the Uprising’s suppression by the Ottomans in 1813, he found refuge in the Russian Empire and in 1814, became one of founding members of the Philiki Etaireia. On 12 July 1817, he and Karadjordje, by this time settled in the Danubian Principalities, secretly crossed the Danube into Serbia, assisted by Giorgakis Olympios, in order to continue the Serbian Revolution. Unfortunately, the leader of the Second Serbian Uprising and rival of Karadjordje, Miloš Obrenović, who had lain down arms in exchange for Ottoman autonomy, learned of their presence. Their hideout in a cottage in the village of Radovanj was betrayed, the sleeping Karadjordje was despatched with an axe blow to the head, and Karnaras, who was washing himself and fetching water for Karadjordje in a nearby river, was shot with a rifle. Both were beheaded and their heads were sent to the Sultan in Constantinople. After being exhibited in the Constantinople Museum of Sciences, Serbian legend holds that the Greeks secretly stole the heads and hid them in a museum in Athens, though this remains uncorroborated by Greek sources.
Though well-known and honoured in Serbia, the Greeks who fought for Serbian independence largely exist outside the mainstream Greek historical narrative. Yet the narrative is a reciprocal one, with such Serbian fighters as Vasos Mavrovouniotis, Hadži-Prodan, later Serbian Defence Minister Mladen Milovanović, Anastasije Dmitrijević, Constantin Nemania and Rados Mavrovouniotis fighting for the Greek forces both in Moldo-Wallachia and in Greece proper.
Significantly, while at the beginning of the Revolution the Serbian units were ethnically homogeneous, the mutual trust and sense of brotherhood developed between the two peoples saw the full integration of their armies. Thus, after 1823 Greeks enlisted in Serbian units and vice versa.
The lasting legacy of the Greco-Serb cooperation during their respective struggles for Independence was the realisation by the leaders of both countries that they were natural allies in the quest to expel the Ottomans from the Balkans. Especially after 1823, intellectuals such as Athanasios Psalidas and Macedonian freedom fighter Tsamis Karatasos persistently advocated for the Greek government to attempt to form an alliance with Serbia and Montenegro. That alliance, but most of all, the feelings of solidarity it engendered, persisted through the Balkan Wars and saw both countries almost double their territories. In fits and starts, that sense of brotherhood endures to the present day.