Unofficial histories: 1821

Greek American Alexander Billinis contemplates whether every revolution, every war of independence, is also in some ways a civil war.

Like those in other large Greek diaspora centres, in late March of this year we celebrated our ancestors’ revolution against the Ottoman Empire with a parade down Halstead Street, in Chicago’s Greektown. My two children, clad in national costumes created by my wife, rode on the St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church float.

I was proud to see my children wave the Blue and White. Given my penchant for deconstructing, and my own family history, I could not help but think about the ironies of 1821, or any national revolution in fact. Every revolution, every war of independence, is also in some ways a civil war.

Take the American Revolution. When I was my son’s age, not (so) long ago, the American Revolution was portrayed pretty much in terms of right and wrong, and that all American colonists wanted the British out. Not quite. Nearly half of the colonists in what would become the United States were loyal British subjects, or at least highly conflicted in their loyalties, and often enough the revolution evolved, particularly in the harsh back country, into a vicious civil war. Similarly, the Greek Revolution is characterised as a glorious rebirth of an ancient nation, rather than a haphazard rebellion of various interests, usually very much at odds with one another, and plenty of times fought to replace Turkish pashas with Greek ones.

Like the American Revolution, the Greek counterpart was much of the time a civil war, where brother fought against brother, or neighbour turned on neighbour, based on economics, politics, or … religion. No doubt the majority of Greek Christians wanted to be free of the Sultan, and had every right to do so, but to paint the revolution solely in terms of selfless heroism is simply a false ‘officialisation’ of history. Ditto the American Revolution, or pretty much any other momentous, glorified, and sanitised occasion.

‘My own private 1821’ is particularly interesting and, well, complicated. I am a Hydriot and a Peloponnesian, from the key battlegrounds of the revolution, and my ancestors were in the thick of it, and, apparently, in some fashion, on both sides.

Let me explain. Notwithstanding their Albanian linguistic background, the Hydriots were staunch Greek patriots, who sacrificed their ships and their fortunes for freedom, though not for central rule. They proved this, at the end of the revolution, when they stormed the naval base of the provisional Greek government, on the island of Poros, and burnt to cinders a brand new, American-built frigate, bought for the Greek navy via a highly usurious London loan. “We Hydriots are a prickly lot,” a fellow islander exclaimed to me upon my reminding him of this episode.

Just across the straits, in the Peloponnesus, my maternal ancestors from Patras no doubt followed the kapitanioi of Archbishop Germanos, and fought in various bands against the Turks and each other. Further south, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors were either killed, converted, or escaped to Asia Minor.

My paternal great-great-great-grandfather was Haralambos Meimetis, son of Omer, a Greek Muslim, and Argyro, a Greek Christian. My grandfather, Alexandros (Meimetis) Billinis, took his mother’s maiden name because Meimetis, a Hellenisation or Albanisation of the Turkish Mehmet, sounded too Turkish. My father had told me about our family’s rumoured Muslim roots, and together we had even visited my grandfather’s village, Ano Kastania, on the mountain spine of the Vatika Peninsula, halfway between Monemvasia and Neapolis.

Seven years ago, when we lived in Greece, I took my family up to the village again, and we huddled around a samovar with three aged villagers, and heard their version, the unofficial version of my family’s story. My paternal ancestor Haralambos was born a Muslim in the village, but in the course of the massacres of Muslims in the area, particularly after the fall of Monemvasia to the revolutionaries, he saved himself by convincing his would-be executioners of his Christianity.

In the course of several years working as a writer and journalist, and living in the Balkans, I managed to connect with more of my relatives from the Vatika, a beautiful, rugged yet gentle place in the southeastern Peloponnesus, whose tough but tender people have scattered to the four winds, including a large contingent in Australia. After republishing a story about my grandfather, who perished in the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, a distant cousin of mine, Antonis Kourkoulis, solved the mystery of Haralambos.

A document in the Greek State Archives, one of countless, lists neophytes to the Orthodox Church in the year 1836, just a few years after the revolution ended with a sort of independence for Greece. One of the documents, handwritten, lists a 26-year-old named Haralambos Meimetis, son of Omer and Argyro, as a new member of the Orthodox Church, and therefore, under the logic of the Greek state, a member of the Greek nation. What is clear is that Omer, his father, was a Muslim, while Argyro is a Christian name. It shows that, contrary to national mythologies, local Muslims did exist in Greece, and further, that marriages across religious lines were not uncommon. We do not know why Omer’s ancestors converted, or if Omer was an ethnic Greek or an Albanian or Turk, but the point is they existed. That my cousin went through mountains of documents at the State Archives, moreover, shows that such conversions were numerous, and are part of the private, forgotten, or redacted histories of thousands of Greek families.

For me, finding documentary, ‘official’ proof that one of my direct ancestors was born a Muslim did not make me feel any less Greek. It did, however, remind me that we are all mosaics, that beautiful art form raised to its height, most appropriately, by our Byzantine ancestors. It reminded me too that we are all interconnected, most obviously with our neighbours, but also with humanity. When we celebrate wars and liberations, we should also remember that these shatter mosaics, as well as create new ones.

*Alexander Billinis is a Greek American with a lifelong interest in Byzantine history. He has worked at global banks in the US, Athens and London and has written books and articles for various diaspora Greek and Serbian publications in the US, Canada, Greece and Australia. He currently lives in the USA.