200 Years Ago Today: The Birth of Modern Greece

March 25, 1821 marked the start of Greece’s War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Turks had ruled their country since the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and for nearly four centuries the Greeks had chafed at their domination. Though the War for Independence lasted nearly a decade (Lord Byron died fighting in it), they celebrate the start of the revolution as a holiday (just as we Americans celebrate July 4, 1776, even though Britain was technically not physically ejected so to speak until late 1783). So modern Greece began 200 years ago today.

It seems a strange thing to call a culture with such ancient roots a “young nation”, but that’s the way of it from a legal and political point of view. It also seems an odd thing to consider just the one peninsula and nearby islands as Greece, when Anatolia and beyond were at one time just as much a part of the Greek world. At the time of Greek Independence, most of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek population was living in the area we think of as Turkey. It wasn’t until a population exchange just over a century later (1923) that huge numbers of ethnic Greeks living in Turkey moved to Greece, and large numbers of ethnic Turks living in Greece moved to Turkey. That was the 20th century solution. It wasn’t the last such messy major population exchange that took place during that century by far (e.g., South Asia, the Levant etc). Arguing the wisdom of such crude divisions is beyond the scope of a post like this, but I will ask a question anyway: wouldn’t a better way be to encourage tolerance and living alongside one other? Why is that always too much to ask, but not dividing ourselves into exclusive identity based societies and killing each other? I know it’s annoying to ask bothersome questions, but you know who taught me to do that? Socrates.

Anyway ANCIENT Greece is a different lamb altogether. That culture found its way into my first two books, and I’m currently planning a post about ancient theatre, which I’ll time approximately for some future Festival of Dionysus. Today I thought I would use the occasion to celebrate some modern Greeks and Greek-Americans in pop culture, some of whom I’ve written about, and others of whom I may write about in future. These include: Alexander Pantages, the Skouras Brothers, the Condos Brothers, Elia Kazan (and Zoey Kazan), Tito Vandis, Irene Pappas, Charlie Callas, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Penelope Spheeris, Johnny Otis,George Chakiris (of West Side Story), Billy Zane (Titanic), Michael Constantine (Room 222), Marilu Henner of Taxi (half), Maria Callas, Hermes Pan, Alexander Scourby, Christopher George, George Maharis, Olympia Dukakis, Rita Wilson (half), John Stamos, Jennifer Aniston, Amy and David Sedaris, producer Jean Doumanian (maiden name Karabas), George Michael, Tina (short for Stamatina) Fey, Zach Galifianakis, Demetri Martin, and obviously Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). And there was George Givot, who pretended to be Greek!

It was tempting to add others from media, politics and other fields, but I don’t wanna be typing for another 200 years!

But, unprompted and uncompensated, I would like to take this opportunity to plug my favorite Greek joint in New York, the Athena Restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The food is great, the service is even better and they always slip you a slug of ouzo on the house when they bring the check.