Did You Know What Others Have to Say about Us?

In the early decades of the nineteenth century Greece, Serbia, and Romania emerged as independent states as a result of national revolts against Ottoman rule. These newly formed states then continued the process of nation building by cultivating a shared national identity with all the means at their disposal—the military, the civil service, and the educational system. In the Balkans one of the most important steps in the nation-building process has been the establishment of autocephalous national churches. In 1833, for example, the Church of Greece unilaterally and uncanonically proclaimed its independence from the patriarch of Constantinople. In this way, as Kitromilides (1989:180) points out, the Church of Greece set an example for other Churches in the Balkans to follow.

The establishment of the autocephalous Bulgarian church headed by an exarch in 1870 marked an intensification of the Macedonian struggle, a three-way contest between Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece over which country would gain control of the territory of Macedonia. Now Orthodox communities in Macedonia had the choice of affiliating with either the Greek patriarch, the Bulgarian exarch, or the Serbian Orthodox church. By the first decade of the twentieth century all three of these new nation-states had fielded irregular bands of guerrilla fighters who attacked the Turks, fought each other, and terrorized the local population. In addition, through the construction of churches and schools and the assignment of priests and teachers, these three countries conducted intense propaganda campaigns whose goal was to instill the “proper” sense of national identity in the Christian peasants of Macedonia in order to justify their claims to the territory these people inhabited.

In the attempt to incorporate the people of Macedonia into the “imagined” national communities represented by the Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek states, terms of collective identity, which were in common use and which had no connotation of national identity whatsoever, experienced a form of semantic slippage and took on new national meanings. Thus “rum,” meaning “Orthodox Christian,” a term that could refer to someone who spoke Albanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, or Greek, was reinterpreted by Greek nationals to mean “Greek” in a national sense. The term “Bulgarian,” which had earlier been used to refer to all the Slavs of the Ottoman Empire (Friedman 1975:84), or as a virtual synonym for “peasant” without any political significance at all (Wilkinson 1951:149), came to mean “Bulgarian” in a national sense.

Similarly, the term “Greek,” which was used in the early nineteenth century to refer to members of the Orthodox Christian merchant class regardless of their “ethnic origin” or the language they spoke, came to mean “Greek” in the national sense (Stoianovich 1960:311). During the Ottoman period, therefore, terms like “Bulgarian” and “Greek” were not used to designate different ethnic or national groups; they were used to designate different sociocultural categories in what Hechter (1978) has called a system of “cultural division of labour.” In this system of ethnic stratification the process of upward social mobility by which a Slavic-speaking peasant or a Vlach-speaking shepherd entered the merchant class was indistinguishable from the process of “Hellenization.” When a farmer or a shepherd became a merchant, he was no longer a “Bulgarian” or a “Vlach”; he became a “Greek.” During this time ethnicity was “the modality in which class [was] lived (Hall et al. 1978:394).

-The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, by Loring M. Danforth (New Jersey, 1995)

* * * * * * *

No sooner had I arrived [in Metsovo] on that frozen night than I was offered traditional mountain hospitality in the taverna in the form of a Metaxa brandy and a cappuccino… Eventually I was collected by a friend, whose house was a splendid stone affair at the top of the town. The main rooms with their wooden walls, glowed with warmth from stoves and fires; the chairs and benches were covered with rugs, like Ottoman divans. On my arrival my hostess said, ‘We must sit down together for a few minutes, and have something to drink perhaps. You are a stranger, and we must get to know each other. It is the custom of the region.’ Any demurral on my part would have violated an old and sacred code of hospitality. The last time I had been bidden to sit as part of a formal greeting had been in Palermo, more then twenty years before…

One morning I woke to hear an almost familiar clucking of voices beneath the window. A group of Vlach women were chewing over the week’s events. I picked up the word ‘semana’, a cousin of the Latin ‘septimana’ or week: the Vlachs’ dialect has a Latin base, as they are believed to be one of the tribes deployed by the Romans to guard the Danube frontier.

At dusk one Lent evening I stood by the gate [of St. Nicholas Monastery] and watched the stooped silhouettes of the Vlach women swaying and clucking down the path from the village above. Each took a long tapering candle, the light making the frescoes dance in glory as the rumble of prayers and responses rose and fell.

Beyond the monastery walls a procession of women flickering lights climbed to a chapel on the hillside, moving up and down the narrow steps like angels on Jacob’s ladder in a medieval painting. The chapel held a miraculous icon of the Virgin which had flown up to its previous roost every time it had been taken to safety in the main buildings.

-The Inner Sea: The Mediterranean and Its People, by Robert Fox (New York 1993)

             * * * * * * *

To anyone familiar with the Greek thought of the time, the verdict of such an enquiry would have been a foregone conclusion: indeed, it could have been written down without going to the trouble of examining any witnesses at all. It was, that the whole guilt rested on foreign malefactors, aided by foreign—that is, Vlach—peasants, and abetted by a foreigner, the Englishman Noel…

Gennadios saw plainly that the excuse of the ‘noble kleft’, which had been pleaded by his countryman Stephen Xenos as recently as 1865, would no longer serve his turn. The Arvanitakis were degraded criminals, who must therefore be divested of any colour of Hellenism. The murders [at Dilessi, prefecture Voetia of four aristocratic travellers, three British and one Italian in April 1870] were done by ‘brigands in Greece’, not by ‘Greek brigands’. This article was, we have seen, at once written into the canon; and the unfortunate Greek consul at Marseilles, who had thought himself to be on the party line in expounding the traditional origins of brigandage, was occasioned no small embarassment by the volteface. Now, it was true that only three of Takos’ gang had been born actually within the borders of the Greek kingdom, although one of these was the god-son of Mrs. Theagenis, and another, Yeroyiannis, was perhaps the most repulsive scoundrel of the whole twenty-one. Yet the remaining eighteen were all Greek-speaking and Orthodox Christians, who formed a part of exactly that persecuted population which Greece was claiming the right to free from Othoman oppression and annex to herself. The Arvanitakis brothers were, as we saw, very probably of that Greek family of nomad shepherds called Sarakatsans. Even had they been, as was now declared, Kutzo-Wallachians, yet if Greece had had to forgo all her citizens of that descent, she would have been the poorer by many eminent statesmen and many generous benefactors. In short, if the Arvanitakis gang were not “Greek” brigands, then they and their like were also not ‘Greek’ patriots, which they had been consistently held to be in the past. Gennadios unwittingly gave away his whole position when, early in his diatribe, he stated that, ‘they [the brigands] looked hopefully to the coercion which England and Italy would apply to their own country’ that is, to Greece: a revealing slip of the pen…

The trial of the accussed of Dilessi began in May, and lasted six weeks… The prisoners, finally reduced to fifty in number, were tried in five batches, according to their places of origin. Those from Levadeia, who were Vlachs, the judge virtually declared the jury to convict; those from Thebes and the Magarid, who were Greeks, he no less clearly directed them to acquit.

-The Dillessi Murders: Greek Brigands and English Hostages, by Romilly Jenkins (London, 1961)

* * * * * * *

On the Albanian border north of Lake Ochrid the inhabitants of lower and upper Belica still speak Vlach. These villages are unusual in that Albanian and Macedonian both compete with Vlach in them. Both these former languages are taught in school, whereas Vlach is not. Wace and Thompson knew the villages as Beala, and said that the Vlachs there were Farsherots from Albania and lived among Albanians and Bulgars: thus the three languages are no new phenomenon. Lower Belica is only six miles from Struga along a good road to the prosperous Slav village of Vevcani four miles away. Buses go through the village every two hours. The survival of Vlach in these circumstances seems something of a miracle, and yet I was assured that almost half the village still spoke Vlach. In previous years the proportion had been higher, but there had been much movement to Belgrade and Skopje, and I spoke to a number of inhabitants who had worked in Germany. The village looked thriving with small, quite old farmsteads behind high pallisades and some new houses. Chickens, cows and vegetables seemed everywhere, but I saw no sheep. I might have seen some if I had penetrated to Upper Belica some six miles up the slope of the Jablanica mountain range which divides Yugoslavia from Albania, but I gathered that this was almost deserted, though once a fine village. It was perhaps an influx from Upper Belica which had kept Vlach alive in the lower village, where the first thing I heard was three small giggling girls sing a Vlach song at the well and then solemnly recite the numbers up to ten in English and Vlach.

-The Vlachs, by T.J. Winnifrith (New York, 1987)

* * * * * * *

By nightfall clouds as black as bruises were poised along the ridge from Goumara to Stavros. I thought: if I am going to have an uncomfortable night, I might as well be anaesthetised. So I took my place in one of the shops on the square, already packed with like-minded celebrants and redolent with muttony smoke from the frenetically turning spits.

There were no menus. It was roast lamb or nothing. The convention of plates—only a recent refinement, anyway—was dispensed with. The portions of meat, wrapped in a square of brown paper, were deposited directly on the table top. Volatile vapours were in the air: wine, high spirits and the expectation of the dance, fanned by the wild swooping cries of the clarinet and the jigging, bouncing rhythm of the drums. Each tavern had its hired gypsy band of clarinet, trumpet, valve trombone and drums, all from the Macedonian village of Tsotili. And they were enjoying themselves too, to judge from their gleaming faces and bright eyes, which only heightened the excitement.

As they finished eating, the diners—it was mostly the men—got to their feet to dance, joining hands in a ring, with their leaders leaping and curvetting in solo virtuosity as the music fired their imagination. The woman were coy and sedate, coquetry confined to a jiggling breast and ramrod posture, while the best of the men highkicked and cossacked, swayed and wriggled, minced and preened with the sinuous and provocative sensuality of the belly-dancer. As the excitement grew, the clarinetist stepped from the band to join the lead dancer in a twining, intimate duo, his instrument weaving and dipping and drawing the dancer on, like a snake-charmer with his cobra, while enthusiastic onlookers slapped thousand drachma notes to the dripping forehead of the musician.

I resisted the inevitable attempts to entice the foreigner on to the floor, preferring to keep to my corner and my bottle. And thus the celebrations continued for two or three days, until the visitors gradually leaked away and village life returned to its normal rhythms.

The Unwritten Places, by Tim Salmon (Athens, 1995)

* * * * * * *

In order to safeguard its privileges and forearm itself against the threat of persecution, the confederation had no compunctions about frequently offering money to the powerful agas and beys of Argyrokastron, Tepelene, and Ioannina, or their representatives, for protection.

The district of Malakasi, southeast of Zagora, stretches south of Ioannina as far as Arta. It included the villages of Kalarites, Syraco, Metsovon, Arboresi, and many others. It, too, belonged to the valide sultana and became enfeoffed to spahis. From 1635 on they were the objects of continuous depredation.

While the villages of Malakasi lost their privileged status, the district of Metsovon acquired new privileges in 1659 during the reign of Mohammed IV (1648-1687) and managed to have these recognized and renewed by that sultan’s successors until the time of Selim III (1789-1897)… Sultan Mohammed IV issued a firman proclaiming the district of Metsovon (embracing the villages of Metsovon, Anilio, Malakasi, Voutinos, Milia, and Koutsouphiliani) inviolable and self-governing, subject only to inspection by the imperial corps of bostançi. He also abolished spahi fiefs in the district, decreed that it was henceforth “in the lump” an appanage of Mecca and Medina, brought into association with the fiefs of Langkaza and Mataranga in Thessaly, and exempted it from the most onerous taxes and tributes and from having to quarter Turkish troops or, indeed, any Turk. However, it is in my view that this grant of “new” priveleges” was no more than the confirmation or extension of older, perhaps very much older, ones. There is convincing evidence that Murad II was the first sultan to acknowledge or grant immunities to Metsovon, when its people facilitated the passage of Sinan Pasha’s army through the narrow passes of Metsovon leading to Ioannina. Afterwards, the old privileges were retained (perhaps with the addition of new ones) because the people of Metsovon commanded a pass that was strategically vital from every military point of view. Murad II himself justified the granting of those privileges: “the people of Metsovon lived in a place through which many people passed all the year round. In winter, the place was covered with so much snow that travellers were in constant danger of becoming lost; and that was why the local people covered the legs of horses and carried the travellers on their shoulders. In summer, when the danger came from bandits, they protected travellers and saw them safely through the pass.”

-The Greek Nation, 1453-1669, Apostolos E. Vacalopoulos (New Jersey 1976)

NL22_5F.jpg (24842 bytes)

Shearing sheep in Metsovo – 1915


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *