The Greeks saw the Ottoman Turks as inferior, and they looked back at what they considered the glories of ancient Greece. In the late 1700s the French Revolution inspired a greater yearning for liberty. A revolt against Ottoman rule gave Serbia quasi-autonomy beginning in 1813, and this encouraged the Greeks. There was a tendency among Greeks to believe that it would be their fellow Orthodox Christians with power, the Russians, who would free them from Ottoman power.
Then in 1814, at the center of a thriving Greek community in Odessa, Russia, Greek exiles laid what they hoped would be the ground work for an armed uprising inside Greece, and they misleadingly portrayed their group as having the approval of the Russian authorities. In 1821 Greeks in the Peloponnese (the Peloponnesian Peninsula) rebelled, inspired by news of an uprising in Moldavia, which was also under Ottoman rule, just across the border from Russian territory — the Ukraine.
A small group led by a Greek, that included some Russians, had crossed the border into Moldavia where they raised the flag of Greek independence and hoped that the Romanians and Bulgarians of Moldavia would rise with them for their own independence. The revolt in Moldavia was crushed, but the revolt in the Peloponnese spread. The rebels in the Peloponnese lacked good organization and discipline. For the most part they were Christians smiting their enemies without mercy. Leaders emerged who tried to invoke restraint and to stop looting, but they had little affect.
However glorious the accomplishments of ancient Greece, the Greek peasants of 1821, armed with scythes, clubs and slings, grabbed what valuables they could and killed wherever possible, including small clusters of Muslims fleeing their homes. Of the estimated 50,000 Muslims living in the Peloponnese in March 1821, an estimated 20,000 were killed within a few weeks — men, women and children. In Constantinople on April 10, the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, had the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregorios V, seized.
Gregorios was accused of having intrigued with the uprising and having committed perjury and treason. Gregorios was hanged, Mahmud, believing it was his right to order the execution. Christians across Europe were aware of the uprising in the Peloponnese but not of the atrocities of the revolutionaries, and they were shocked by the hanging of Gregorios. Common Russians wanted to avenge the death of the patriarch, but the tsar had other matters to consider and merely withdrew his ambassador from Constantinople.
The Russian tsar was still allied with Austria against revolutions, especially nationalist revolutions, and the tsar was not ready to break with that alliance. And neither was Britain’s foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh. In April the revolt north of the Peloponnese spread across the Isthmus of Corinth, north toward central Greece and toward Athens. In May, Muslims in Athens were defending themselves from the Acropolis. In the Peloponnese various towns and cities fell, including Petras, where all Muslims who did not make it to the safety of the walls of the town’s fortress were killed.
In August in the Peloponnese, Muslims of the small town of Monemvasia were besieged and chose to surrender rather endure more hunger, and when they surrendered they were slaughtered. A few days later, between 2,000 and 3,000 Muslims in Navarino were massacred. Tripolitsa was a city of 35,000 Turks, Albanians, Jews and others, where the Ottoman governor resided, and there Greeks massacred for two days. An estimated 10,000 people, including women and children, were killed, as were 2,000 who had been taken prisoner. It is reported that Muslim women were raped and that Muslims were tortured for information of the whereabouts of their money.
Water wells became polluted and disease spread that caused the death of thousands of Greeks. The taking of Tripolitsa in October was the final Greek success for the year 1821. Turks remained only at the fortresses in Patras and Nauplia and two lesser fortresses. Meanwhile in Constantinople, Christians were being slaughtered. Janissaries were in revolt against the sultan and venting their anger upon Christians. The sultan transported soldiers from Anatolia and defeated the insurgents, killing 200 Janissaries. In early 1822, Muslims got another shot at Christians.
A Turkish military force joined by crowds of impassioned civiliains landed on the island of Chios, in the eastern Aegean Sea, an island with a population of about 100,000. There were Turkish officers who tried to restrain sections of the invading force. Nevertheless the invaders slaughtered around 25,000, some of the Greeks escaping by boats that came to their rescue, and some wealthy islanders paying commanders huge sums for protection. The slaughter stopped when Turks rounded up Greeks survivors for sale in the slave markets of Asia Minor.
The Greeks had the advantage of superiority at sea. They were the experienced mariners, and Greek sailors who had been working on Ottoman ships abandoned those ships, leaving the Turks to recruit inexperienced dock-laborers and peasants and the Turks weakened on the sea. In 1822, the Greeks captured the coastal region in the west just north of and across the isthmus from the Peloponnese, and farther east they took Athens and Thebes. The Greeks were not in control of west and east-central Greece as well as the Aegean islands. In 1822 the Greeks declared independence, stating:
We, descendants of the wise and noble peoples of Hellas, we who are the contemporaries of the enlightened and civilized nations of Europe, we who behold the advantages which they enjoy under the protection of the impenetrable aegis of the law, find it no longer possible to suffer without cowardice and self-contempt the cruel yoke of the Ottoman power which has weighed upon us for more than four centuries — a power which does not listen to reason and knows no other law than its own will, which orders and disposes everything despotically and according to caprice.
The military victories of the Greeks led them to underrate the importance of discipline and to ignore the advice of those who preferred victory accompanied by restraint and mercy. And the lack of a central organization for the revolution initially produced three provisional Greek governments. In 1823, rivalries escalated into violence. Greeks on the Aegean island of Psara were at war with those of the larger island of Samos about 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the south. Discipline and cohesion vanished from the Greek fleet. A new Ottoman admiral lacked confidence and failed to regain command of the sea for the Turks.
In 1824 fighting between Greeks increased. On the Peloponnese were the notables who wanted to retain the status they had held during Ottoman rule, and there were leading fighters who wanted some political power as a reward for their military contribution. Ship owners also thought they deserved some political power. Liberal intellectuals wanted a parliament. There were conservatives who tended to see the struggle between the Ottoman Turks and the Greeks as between Islam and Greek Orthodox Christianity, and they tended to want the preservation of an authoritarian relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek society.
While these divisions were taking place, Mahmud II was strengthening his position through an alliance with his independent-minded governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim. Ali had newly modernized armed forces and a relatively large navy. Sultan Mahud promised Muhammad Ali rule over the island of Crete and the appointment of Ibrahim as pasha of the Peloponnese, and Mahmud promised Ali concessions in Syria. The Egyptians, under the command of Ibrahim, arrived in Greece in 1825 and quickly gained dominance of the seas and Aegean islands.
The Turks retook Athens, the Peloponnese and the town of Missolonghi in the far west of Greece just across the bay and north of the Peloponnese — while rival Greek presidents and rival assemblies were competing for political supremacy. Missolonghi was where the poet Lord Byron had died in 1824 (of a disease or chill). It was a symbol of Greek defiance against Ottoman power. It held out for months, heroically in the eyes of the Europeans. Its fall to the Muslims added to a new wave of support for the Greeks across Europe, with the idea that Greece had to be saved for European civilization.
Already, financiers in London had contracted loans for the Greeks. The Greek effort was helped by the arrival of money and volunteers from abroad, bringing the complaint from the Turks that they were “no longer fighting the Greeks but all Europe. ” Civil war among the Greeks was stayed by the influence of European governments other than Austria. Ibrahim began more devastation in Greece, and by July 1827 it looked as though the Ottoman Empire had won its war against the Greek insurgency. This was claimed by Ottoman writers.
But Ibrahim’s devastations inspired Britain, France and Russia to a joint demonstration by their navies. They demanded an armistice and that Ibrahim evacuate the Peloponnese. Ibrahim refused. In October the British, French and Russian fleet entered Navarin Bay, and there the Battle of Navarino, last naval battle of sailing ships, took place. Ibrahim’s navy was destroyed. The following October,1828, France landed troops in the Peloponnese, and under French protection the Greeks regrouped and formed a new government. The Greeks took back Athens and Thebes and other territory and the European powers imposed a ceasefire.
In Greece a republican government war formed, with John Capdistrias as its leader. His authoritarian style of governing offended many, and in 1831 he was assassinated. International recognition of Greek independence came in 1832 in a treaty signed by Britain, France, Russia and Bavaria. Athens was recognized as the capital of Greece. Thessaly, Macedon, Thrace and Epirus, which had large populations of non-Greeks, were not recognized as a part of Greece. Crete, the Dodecanese islands and the region around Smyrna were not included in the new Greek state.
Those Greeks in the new Greek state were the first to win complete independence from the Ottoman Empire, but they were not completely free from imperial power. The convening powers retained an ill-defined right to intervene in Greece. And they adhered to a conservatism that wanted the Greeks to be ruled by a monarchy. They chose the seventeen-year-old son of Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto of Wittlesbach, who became King Otto of Greece. Under King Otto the Greeks were taxed more than they had been under the Ottoman Turks. This did not please the Greeks. Neither did King Otto’s Roman Catholicism. By Orthodox Greeks he was considered a heretic.