Day 149-LXXV, Μεσολόγγι.
Mesolonghi, April 4
After four centuries of eastern domination, Greece rose up against the Turks in 1821. It had been carefully planned for some time, and it was supported by many graecophiles from the west.
Initially the uprising was repressed with the help of the navy of the Ottoman satrapy of Egypt. The rebels had to retreat to their strongholds in the mountains. But on the coast, the city of Mesolonghi kept resisting, twice, to an Ottoman siege.
In 1825 the city was besieged again. It held out for an entire year, but this time the Turks were determined to succeed.
When the end was in the sight, the brave people of Mesolonghi decided that they would rather die in combat than surrender.
They attempted the famous, desperate exit of Mesolonghi. And they were betrayed. The Turks knew everything when the gates opened and the starving Greeks swarmed out of the city with whatever kind of weapons they could muster.
It became a massacre. Very few of the Greeks made it to the hills. Those who had remained in town were brutally slaughtered by the Turks. Their heads were planted on the city walls.
At the end of the day, disaster was complete. But Mesolonghi had become a symbol of determination. It stands in the history of modern Greece like the resistance of 300 Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae stands in the history of ancient Greece.
Every year the feat is subject to grand celebrations. That’ll be next week. Already the town is dressing up. One of the banners on the town hall is the Jolly Roger, the pirate’s flag. It’s there, waving from an official government building, because the pirates of the Mediterranean had come to the aid of the Greeks during the siege by attacking the Egyptian navy.
After the massacre at Mesolonghi, the international community of the day reacted – England, France and Russia. In the 1990s they would have bombed the Turks into submission with their air force, but in the early 1800s they sent their powerful navies. The Ottomans were decisively defeated at sea, and the balance in the conflict started to shift. The Greeks finally won recognition for their independence in 1832.
Fighting for liberty in Greece in the nineteenth century was a romantic’s dream, it was a sort of ‘cultural crusade’ to liberate the cradle of western civilization. From all over the west, people came to the aid of the Greek struggle.
The most famous among them was definitely Lord Byron. He died right here in Mesolonghi. Not in battle though. History says he died of fever. Gossip says it was syphilis.
Of the famous romantic poets – Byron, Keats and Shelley – Byron lived the longest. He was thirty-six years old when he died.
Personally I like to define a romantic poet as someone who dies young and whose life is more interesting than his work. As Lord Byron goes, he had many exploits to brag about. Drunk of ancient myths, he famously swam across the Dardanelles one day, mindful of Hero and Leander.
Hero was a mythical princess in a tower, and Leander was her lover on the other side of the straight. Every night Hero would light a candle on her balcony, and Leander would swim across the sea to be with her, following the fragile light as a beacon. It went on all summer, unnoticed. Then one stormy winter night the wind blew out the candle, and while he was struggling in the midst of the waves, Leander lost his direction and drowned. When his body washed up on the shore, Hero threw herself out of her tower to be with him forever more.
All the graves of the three great romantic poets have been touched by the March to Athens. Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome, next to the Spanish steps, at twenty-five. Shelley died at sea, in the gulf of La Spezia near Genoa at twenty-nine. It came to be known as ‘the Poets’ Gulf’.
If I remember well the story, Shelley had gone on a boat trip with one of his mistresses, the wife of his editor. They were caught by a storm and drowned. When his body washed up, Byron was there to give him solemn funeral on the beach, together with fellow poet Trelawney and editor Hunt.
They burned the corpse. And legend has it that the skull and the heart remained perfectly in tact. Byron had wanted to keep the skull as a souvenir, but Trelawney didn’t let him. He knew that Byron would use Shelley’s skull as a cup to drink from.
The heart was lifted from the flames and wrapped in a piece of poetry. The three men sent it to Shelley’s wife Mary, who would take good care of it. Years later, she still had the heart of her husband locked away in her desk when she wrote the story of Frankenstein.
The coasts of the Mediterranean are covered with the traces left by the romantic poets. One of them, who failed to die young, was Gabriele D’Annunzio. During World War I he once commanded a squadron of biplanes with which he flew over the enemy capital Vienna, dropping off sacks full of sarcastic pamphlets. After the war he scrambled a private army and conquered the city of Fiume, modern day Rijeka in Croatia.
On the balcony of the town hall, he proclaimed the Aesthetic Republic of Fiume, where Beauty would be the only law…
Back in Misolonghi, the Garden of the Heroes is closed. This doesn’t seem to be a poet’s town. There is no air of old here. I’ve been noticing that almost everywhere we went in Greece, and I don’t understand it. The Greeks take so much of their national identity from the past, but the past isn’t visible in the towns. Also here in Mesolonghi, every building that looks even slightly old is abandoned, in ruin, and about to be replaced by something new.
On the outskirts of the town, the statue of Lord Byron, next to the Philhellenic Study Center, looks strangely out of place.