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Either Freedom or Death

The bloody history of Greece and Turkey is written on the waves

“Little by little, in the course of time, I mounted freedom’s rough unaccommodating ascent. To gain freedom first of all from the Turk, that was the initial step; after that, later, this new struggle began: to gain freedom from the inner Turk—from ignorance, malice and envy, from fear and laziness, from dazzling false ideas; and finally from idols, all of them, even the most revered and beloved.”

—Níkos Kazantzákis, Report to Greco (1961)

On the Greek island of Chios, you can stare across the Aegean Sea and see the edge of Europe. It’s hard to imagine where the West ends or the East begins, but somewhere, in between, a frontier delineates where civilizations, histories, identities, people, religions, and ideas have clashed for centuries. All this bloodshed exists as if a line between us and them. When sitting on a little beach along the main road into Chios port, the smooth pebbles underneath, it feels like you can reach out and touch the Çeşme coast. Across the calm blue sea, this liminal space fluctuates back and forth, bringing trade and migration but also a great deal of death and destruction. 

A clue to this strange experience, the here/there cognitive dissonance, is an hour and a half drive away; far from the beach, winding up the hill out of town, to the northwest side of the island, towards my father-in-law’s tiny village of Agio Galas. On the way, you pass small communities, emptier every year as the older generation passes on. In the village of Melanios, just before you reach the rocky outpost of Agio Galas, a marble slab records a profound and disturbing event. In Greek and English, it is etched: 

The Melanios holocaust. In the cape of Melanios in 1822 more than ten thousand habitants of Chios of all ages were slaughtered or tortured to death by the Turks, while more than twelve thousand women and children were led to slavery; the blood of the victims flowed in torrents and dyed the adjacent sea red. May their memory be eternal. 

Turkey and Greece, with their litany of ongoing disputes and bloody history, are locked into a perpetual coexistence where the specter of violence is ever-present. These cycles of tension, as rivalries ebb and flow, nearly led to all-out war over uninhabited rocks in the late 1990s, and two years ago, when naval vessels collided during tensions over mining in the Mediterranean Sea. Any hopes that Russia’s war in Ukraine would unite these North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members seem remote. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promotes belligerent and irredentist territorial claims while Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, currently embroiled in a phone-tapping scandal that targeted opposing politicians and journalists, ramps up security spending and breaks European law when it comes to asylum seekers—many of whom make the four kilometer dash to Chios shores from Turkey’s coast in hopes of a better life. 

There is not much to see when driving through Melanios, apart from the sign reminding travelers there was once chaos and carnage, a brutal ethnic cleansing that catapulted the Greek revolution into full force in 1822. Greece’s independence came a decade later in 1832—after fighting and waves of foreign help—but it was the Massacre of Chios that was critical in shaping Greece and, more broadly, launched Europe’s first transition from feudal order to nation-states, an experiment now solidified via the twenty-seven member states of the European Union (EU).

The revolution’s catchy cry of “Either freedom or death” took on considerable meaning in Chios.

Going back two hundred years, amid the current jingoistic and nationalist climate, it is uncomfortable to say that not all parts of Greece were hotbeds of revolutionary activity. Chios, as one of the most prosperous hubs in the region, enjoyed privileges and immunities under Ottoman rule. Its leaders rejected calls to join the brewing rebellion that was a dizzying mix of peasant revolt, popular religious ideology, and business interests. Several thousand armed rebels from neighboring Samos Island sailed to Chios and attacked the Ottomans. Sultan Mahmud II, fearing that a widespread rebellion would erode his empire in the Balkans, sent troops to Chios in March 1822. Months of retaliatory bloodshed and looting followed. Residents fled and desperately tried to escape via the mountainous coast. The revolution’s catchy cry of “Either freedom or death” took on considerable meaning in Chios, especially when large groups of locals threw themselves off cliffs rather than be captured and face either slavery or execution.

In the end, it is estimated that one hundred thousand people were killed or enslaved. The town was destroyed and books were burned. Eminent scholar Mark Mazower, in The Greek Revolution, released in 2021 to mark the rebellion’s two-hundred-year anniversary, depicts the beheading of thousands of prisoners, while others were held in the city ruins before being shipped off to slave markets in Smyrna, Constantinople, and Aleppo. Ottomans executed “many men before taking their heads and ears for payment from the Pasha’s accountants,” Mazower writes. It is said they were then pickled and barreled and sent to the Sultan as tokens of obedience. Nearly a century later the population of Chios remained well below what it had been before the massacre. The massacre forced Chios traders, some of the richest in the region, to scatter across the world and reorganize as a tightly woven network of multinational businesses that remain in operation today. The famous Ralli brothers fled Chios for London and would soon set up offices across the world, including important grain trading posts out of Odessa. But Chios is more famous for producing Greece’s best-known and successful ship owners, including Stavros Livanos, a rival to billionaire Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

Roderick Beaton, a scholar of Modern Greek, in his The Greek Revolution of 1821 and its Global Significance, points out the reluctant revolutionaries of Chios suffered twice, once at the hands of the Samos rebels who punished them as Ottoman Empire stooges and then from the Sultan himself, who unleashed hell as part of a “holy war” in order to send a message to those agitating across the Mediterranean. Beaton writes that “the Greeks of Chios had resolutely refused to have anything to do with the Greek insurgency . . . farmers, traders and ship’s captains had grown rich on the rare crop of mastic, a form of chewing gum much in demand among the ladies of the harem in Istanbul and thought to have medicinal properties.”

Following the massacre, Greek rebels retaliated by burning an Ottoman navy ship moored off Chios during Ramadan celebrations in June 1822. It is believed two thousand sailors perished in the flames. But it was not until 1912 that the Greek navy fully liberated Chios from the Ottoman empire. Scholars say the lack of revolutionary zeal, in part due to the decimated population, may also have been impacted by their reliance on the Ottomans for trade, especially the mastic plant that only grows in the island’s south due to unique conditions not found anywhere else in the world. These mythical trees remain an important element of Chios today. The Chios Mastiha Growers Association reports their industry earns the island approximately 22 million euros every year (not bad for an island of approximately fifty-five thousand people). 

The Massacre of Chios both shaped a revolution and helped mold identities farther afield. The British upper class looked to ancient Greece as the epitome of sophistication and culture. European aristocrats and intelligentsia similarly saw Greece, its antiquity and culture, as the bedrock of their own enlightenment. Such an egregious attack was not just a threat to Greece but to their own society. Greece’s suffering at Chios was not just a tragedy but became a clash of civilizations. The Russians, too—with their complicated political, trade, and Orthodox church alliances with the Greeks—cautiously supported the rebellion. But the Russian monarchy feared similar uprisings from their peasant population and so demonstrated, at best, pragmatic intransigence. It was clear, however, that Russia’s political support aligned with imperialist desires to absorb what land they could with the Ottoman empire’s decline.

The Black Sea port of Odessa—today a key point of export for Ukraine’s grains that was until recently blockaded by the Russians—played a foundational role in Greece’s struggle for independence. A small group of enlightened and wealthy Greek traders formed the “Friendly Society” and fundraised for Greece’s struggle. Similarly, the international philhellenism movement sprang into action in response to the massacre at Chios. Furious letter writing to newspapers, pamphlets distributed across Europe, news reports, and religious writings; all relied heavily on the language of holy wars cribbed from the Crusades, words and images asserting that not just Greeks but Christianity was under attack. Australian academic Yianni Cartledge writes that the Chios Massacre was the pivotal moment that “humanized” the Greeks while also acting as a motor for Europeans to further alienate the Ottomans, or more specifically Muslims, as an Other. “In essence, the further ‘East’ Britain and continental Europe pushed the Ottomans, the closer ‘West’ the Greeks came—that is, the more ‘Islamic’ Britain portrayed the Ottomans, the more ‘Christian’ the Greeks seemed,” he writes. It was hard not to conclude, William St Clair adds, that “the authors were more inspired by hatred of Turks and Moslems than by concern for the Greeks.”

The battle for hearts and minds also took place in arts and culture. Greek rebels found allies in the period’s romanticism and highly symbolic art. If you go to the Louvre in Paris, find Eugène Delacroix’s work. You’ll probably recognize Liberty Leading the People, that famous depiction of France’s second revolution in July 1830, but nearby, with equally passionate allegory, is his four-meter-tall painting The Massacre at Chios. It caused a sensation when first displayed in 1824; a sword-wielding Ottoman solider on horseback, a dead couple lying prostrate, and an innocent baby attached to its dead mother—all had a profound effect on the public. Delacroix’s support for the Greeks, and the apocalyptic tone of his paintings, continued in his Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, said to have been inspired by the death of Lord Byron, the British poet and toff who took up arms to fight alongside the Greeks. Byron, one of Greece’s most loved foreigners, was a global celebrity who publicized the revolution and bankrolled the cause. His untimely death at thirty-six, in Missolonghi in April 1824, contributed renewed international interest in the struggle. Another key philhellenenist was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in the preface to his 1821 poem “Hellas,” captured the movement’s romanticism, or idealism, with the immortalized observation that “We are all Greeks,” in reference to the origin of laws, literature, religion, and the arts. The irony is that Greeks at the time looked more to their Byzantine roots in Christianity than the polytheistic mythology of the ancients. Another notable partisan of the Greek cause was the Earl of Elgin, who removed the Parthenon marbles for “safekeeping” in the British Museum, where they’ve remained since 1832. The museum appears to be responding to criticism, offering a “partnership” deal where antiquities are “loaned” to Athens, according to recent media reports.

Greek freedom proper came in 1832—after a bit of help from Russian, French, and British navies, in particular the critical win at the Battle of Navarino in October 1827—but achieving formal statehood did not stop the bloodshed. The next one hundred years, coinciding with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, brought wars, genocide, and great population upheaval as more European states emerged from the ashes of the empire. It is worth noting that Kim Kardashian is the most famous product of this bloody period and, as a direct descendent of the Armenian Genocide, is a staunch advocate for the cause. Similarly, between 1914 and 1922, the Greek genocide saw estimates of one million killed by the Ottomans. Taking into account the failed Greek War and two regional Balkan wars, by the turn of the twentieth century, the Greek state was a fragile concept, an idea taking shape amid great turbulence, while a global diaspora of millions remained steadfast as Greek. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which expelled four hundred thousand Muslims from Greece and 1.2 million Orthodox Christians from Turkey, saw the two countries officially divorced. The modern state of Turkey was born out of this agreement, bringing with it new tensions and fault lines. As the Ottoman Empire faded, these identities, many based on their differences, took on new importance. Now, a century later, Turkish officials dispute aspects of the Treaty of Lausanne (and the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947) and challenge notions of Greek statehood as more than simply an interpretation of law but as a direct security threat.

“In a sense, both nations agreed to pretend that they had always lived in the places marked out by their current national borders, and nowhere else,” Bruce Clark writes in his book Twice a Stranger, which outlines how this ethnic engineering caused enormous suffering and left shattered legacies in Greece and Turkey. Now these invisible borders remain not just as frontiers of identity, but pressure points to drum up jingoist fantasies. Turkey, one of sixteen countries that did not sign the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, disputes Greece’s “exclusive economic zone.” They argue that the Convention’s “twelve miles-rule” favors Greece and, as a result, their islands in the Aegean pose a military threat. It is one of the longest ongoing maritime law disagreements and nearly led to war in 1987 and 1996. The discovery of oil and gas in the 1970s only complicated things. A recent find off Cyprus, first lauded as a potential partnership that would bring a much-needed economic recovery to both countries, saw Greece and Turkey back to trading blows in August 2020, as the Turks sent in vessels, and fears of conflict escalated accordingly when two naval ships collided. Sense prevailed and neither side fired a shot, but in May 2022, there was a sense of déjà vu when Turkey announced plans to restart drilling operations this August. Europe’s scramble for new energy sources as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine adds new urgency to resolving these quarrels. Amid current tensions, the conflict seems highly unlikely to be resolved via arbitration in the Hague, as Prime Minister Mitsotakis suggested in September 2020.

The Greek-Turkish border was also a flashpoint during Europe’s migration crisis that peaked in 2014 and 2015, during which more than one million refugees arrived in the EU. At the same time, more than thirty-five hundred tragically lost their lives making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, fleeing bloodshed or poverty back home. Border countries like Greece, and in particular the Turkey-adjacent Chios, faced a humanitarian dilemma. Already battered by the economic crisis of 2009 and austerity measures that lasted the best part of a decade, Greece’s broken system was unable to accommodate the tens of thousands of people arriving every week via the Aegean Sea. At the same time, migration became a divisive issue and an explosive device for politics across the world. The migration crisis undermined decades-long efforts of European integration, as it was highly politicized as a (mostly Islamic) threat to the notion of Europe as a singular entity bound by commonality. Migration, for example, was a key factor in Brexit.

Regardless, Chios was the frontline of this policy debate. Hostilities emerged at all strata of society, from the tepid support refugees received to the difficulties faced by locals. The crisis also attracted the Aegean, a carnivalesque crowd of do-gooders. Malcolm James, who volunteered on Chios in 2016, linked the same power dynamic that forced millions of people to flee wars in Syria and Afghanistan to Greece’s economic peril in his article “Care and Cruelty in Chios”: “Chios became a frontier for human displacement as it also became the testing grounds for aggressive neoliberal economic reforms. These activities were not marginal to the continent; rather they defined its center,” he writes

Similar to the sensation caused by the Delacroix painting of Chios, the drowning death of a three-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, trying to get to Greece in September 2015, somewhat humanized the struggle, though it remained a fierce divisive debate. The outcome was the EU-Turkey deal, struck in March 2016: a “temporary measure” designed to stop the flow of refugees by allocating six billion euros to manage the crisis inside Turkey. The EU also provided over three billion euros to Athens, between 2015 to 2020, to manage the crisis as a “buffer” country. More recently, in June 2021, another three billion in aid was announced for Turkey, but it is far from a sustainable solution. Turkey has become home to the world’s largest refugee population, in part due to its neighboring Syria and playing an active role in a war that caused massive population displacement. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 3.8 million refugees now reside in Turkey. Resentment is building. Since 2001, Turkey has lurched from one economic crisis to the next. This makes for a potent mix of economic woe and instability because scapegoats like migrants, or neighbors like Greece, can become useful targets.

So far in 2022, only 10,139 refugees have arrived in Greece, a little more than half of them by sea, according to the UNHCR. The data reports that only 619 refugees landed on Chios. Yet the mood on the island remains hostile despite the government’s notorious Vial “reception and identification” facility only holding 311 people as of early August. The camp, designed to host one thousand people, had five thousand refugees at its peak in December 2019, and made international headlines in May 2021 when a twenty-eight-year-old Somali man died in rat-infested conditions. Since being elected in 2019, Chios mayor Stamatios Karmantzis, who in 2016 was expelled from Greece’s ruling New Democracy party for saying that “a good Turk is a dead Turk,” cemented his anti-migrant stance by supporting protestors who want the Vial facility closed. 

Greece, with the EU behind them, accuse Turkey of “instrumentalizing” asylum seekers as an asymmetric weapon in a hybrid war. For example, in March 2020, Erdoğan threatened to open the Turkish border to allow thousands of refugees into Europe. Europe and Greece use this as a justification for illegal “push backs,” often with help from the EU border agency known as Frontex. On one occasion, Greek authorities assaulted, then mistakenly expelled, an Afghan man who was working as a translator for Frontex. There is a remarkably different tone for Europe’s embrace of millions of Ukrainian refugees, who seemingly present less of an existential threat in fleeing Russia’s invasion.

The West fears increasing Turkish-Russian relations, as Erdoğan pivots to play a bigger geo-strategic role amid rising energy prices and Kremlin irredentism.

Many young Greeks, facing Europe’s highest unemployment rate at just under 40 percent, returned to their islands or family villages for a more sustainable life and work, often in farming or producing cheese, wine, and olive oil. Family businesses in Chios, with its mastiha in the south, has brought back young entrepreneurs, while others look to more creative pursuits in the arts. One mid-thirties woman from Chios, who asked me to keep her identity anonymous due to the heightened sensitivities around national security, said that the farther people lived from Turkey, the greater their fears of it: 

From when I was very young, we see Turkey opposite us. We see the moon coming up from the Turkish mountains in the East. This is a very common image. During summer, when friends from Athens came, our cousins, they were all surprised by how close we are to Turkey. When they saw the moon coming up, there was an instant reaction, they thought of the Turkish flag, the crescent. They asked, “oh . . . aren’t you afraid? Of them?” Why should I be afraid? Why? It is a very intense childhood memory, a very telling one.

Joint research exploring the perceptions and attitudes of these two neighbors found that nearly a third of Greeks have been raised with negative ideas about Turkey, what might be a bit more than “casual racism” or lazy tropes or stereotypes, while only 6.4 percent of Turks had a similar experience with family discussions about Greece. Similarly, 32 percent of Greeks said “sometimes” their family said negative things, while it was only 11 percent for Turks. At the same time, just over 34 percent of Greeks reported no negative feelings about the Turks, compared to just over 82 percent of Turks who report no negative feelings about the Greeks. Turkey—with its vast geographic size and population, along with numerous ties to Syria, Libya, and Somalia—had bigger concerns than the character of their Greek neighbors. But of late, Greece has figured more prominently in Turkey’s media, political, and public discourse. Constantinos Filis, director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece in Athens, said that Turkish fighter jets commonly invade Greek airspace and naval ships perform provocative maneuvers with potentially fatal consequences: “When tensions are high, there may be, by accident or on purpose, someone from the military who might attempt an aggressive act against the other, hoping this way he will demonstrate his patriotism, or send a message to the leadership that he’s dedicated.”  

The same joint survey found that 70 percent of Greeks and 44 percent of Turks said they are worried about a military conflict, while 16 percent and 44 percent, respectively, said they are not. Long-time Mediterranean watcher Amanda Paul, from the European Policy Center in Brussels, said war is a possibility but would be disastrous for both countries, as well as for the United States, the EU, NATO, and the region as a whole. “With the one-hundredth anniversary of the Greek-Turkish war in September,” she said, “there is a risk that the situation could further escalate. Forthcoming elections in both countries in 2023 also will reinforce nationalist rhetoric and flexing. Both Erdoğan and Mitsotakis are already in election mode and ramping up their rhetoric for domestic audiences.”

Meanwhile, the West fears increasing Turkish-Russian relations, as Erdoğan pivots to play a bigger geostrategic role amid rising energy prices and Kremlin irredentism. So maybe it is understandable that Greece, despite a struggling economy, has the highest NATO defense expenditure compared to GDP, 3.82 percent—second to the United States, at 3.52 percent. One explanation is Turkey’s open discussion of reclaiming islands like Chios. In May of this year, as part of their Blue Homeland strategy, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu named fourteen islands in the eastern Aegean Sea where the Turkish capital of Ankara currently challenges Greek sovereignty. In 1987, the two countries nearly went to war over oil drilling in the Aegean, then again in 1996, over the two islets of Imia. Cyprus remains a major fault line after Turkish troops invaded in 1974. A solution to the Cyprus problem has remained elusive for decades yet remains central to the EU’s effort to keep on friendly terms with Ankara, which has deployed thirty-five thousand troops to the island’s north.

Greece and Turkey were seemingly on good ground in March 2022 when their leaders met in Istanbul to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it didn’t last long. In May, after Mitsotakis urged the United States to stop the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, President Erdoğan said Mitsotakis “no longer exists for him” and that he should “pull himself together,” making any future meeting unlikely. The tumultuous affair continued In July, with Mitsotakis tweeting about Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” rhetoric, asking if it were “a fever dream of extremists or Turkey’s official policy? Another provocation or the true goal?”

The tit-for-tat continued throughout September. President Erdoğan warned Greece that Turkey may “come suddenly one night” and Athens was playing “perilous games.” Greece wrote to the UN and NATO, complaining over Erdoğan’s “inflammatory” remarks. The European Commission came to Greece’s defense, labeling the threats as “unacceptable,” while demanding Turkey “seriously work on de-escalating tension.” And so it goes.

Smack in the middle of Chios island, the eleventh-century Nea Moni monastery is home to patchy Byzantine mosaics, hundreds of skulls, and bones of the massacre victims piled up in a glass cabinet. It’s an eerie reminder of the carnage that Chios has weathered and highlights how an island has chosen to remember its bloody history. It has been occupied by five foreign powers—Genoa, Venice, Florence, Turkey, and briefly, during World War II, the Germans. Going even farther back, reading into Herodotus’s Histories, the Persians took Chios “without difficulty.” Years later the Athens city-state returned, and the enemy were “cut to pieces, either in battle or during the rout.” I have yet to hear any anti-Persian sentiment. 

Back on the beach with smooth pebbles, near anarchist graffiti proclaiming “No Borders, No Nations,” I look at the edge of Europe. At sunset, a couple of Muslim women sit around talking while boys play soccer on the sand. My phone’s reception picks up Turkish cell signals, marked by a few warning beeps, a costly intermingling considering non-EU roaming fees. So close, yet so far. It feels so peaceful. Then a foreboding boom as Frontex helicopters hover above. A naval frigate lurks off in the dark blue sea. I am reminded that I am looking at where Europe clashes against the other world, in one of the world’s longest ongoing disputes. Invisible, an ever-present line trawls the sea floor, somewhere in-between.