Today is a national holiday in Greece, for two reasons. First, it’s the celebration of the announcement of the birth of Christ to Mary. Second, it’s the anniversary of the start of the Greek War of Independence, which ultimately ended 400 years of Ottoman occupation in Greece, and resulted in Greek independence in 1821, and it serves as the Greek equivalent of a combined Anzac Day / Independence Day, when the country’s war heroes are honoured.
It’s fair to say that there continues to be little love lost between the Greeks and the Turks, and conflicts since then include the Balkan Wars nearly a century ago, where Greece seized prizes like Crete and parts of Northern Greece. Rose was not surprised that the Aussies were mauled by the Turks when I told him about the origins of Anzac Day, even though I quietly confessed that it was kinda more the fault of the British military that so many Aussies went down. But of course Greece isn’t Turkey’s only target – Rose and Erika talked of the attempted annihilation of the Armenians by the Turks, the world’s apparent indifference to which gave encouragement for Hitler to believe that no-one would react to his terrible plans.
It wasn’t all one way, of course – the Greeks variously occupied parts of what is now the modern state of Turkey, seized after WWI, and surrendered after the Greco-Turkish war which also resulted in an enormous population transfer of around 2 million Christians and Muslims between the two states. Since then, the countries have variously swayed between determined diplomacy and peace and, frankly, flipping each other the bird.
Of course there’s the issue of Cyprus – where the vast majority of the population is Greek and wanted to join up with the mother ship. Naturally, Turkey’s head exploded at the suggestion and the problem was resolved with Cyprus becoming independent. However, that doesn’t mean all the territories are sorted, and there remain all sorts of disputes about who owns which bits of waterand air in the Aegean, where the dispute exists as to how far territorial waters actually stretch, with both sides claiming rights to numerous stretches.
Greece’s problems no doubt arise because it sits neatly in a highly strategic location, on the border between Europe, Asia and Africa, and the Greeks grew pretty tired over the years of being occupied by all and sundry. Mind you, they have an amazing fighting spirit: Greek resistance in Crete was famously fierce and ultimately drove the Nazis out. One of Greece’s other national days (and, apart from Easter, my personal favourite) is “Ochi Day” on 28 October. Literally “No Day”, it is the celebration of the moment in 1940 when Mussolini decided he would like to take up certain strategic locations in Greece and, on making a “request” to Metaxas, the loathed Greek dictator, for access, was told to get stuffed, reputedly with a single word: “Ochi” (“No”), and the rest is history: Italy invaded, Greeks took to the streets chanting “Ochi!” and Greece became part of WWII. Metaxas, by the way, transformed from hated to hero.
On the Turkish conflict, I thought things had mostly sorted themselves out between the two countries, as relations seemed OK although there are a lot of strong residual feelings and, let’s face it, they’ll never be the best of friends. In the last couple of days, I’ve had a few interesting encounters with the continued animosity between them. It started when I was sitting in Skiza when we heard a huge noise, and overhead a military plane came across the top of the cafe, banking left before entertaining us with a dramatic swoop around the caldera. Everyone stood up and of course I reached for my iPhone and took the above picture (the day was less gloomy than this looks, by the way!).
That afternoon, I asked Erika if she had seen the plane, and yes she had. She told me that, for the last few days, probably because of today’s celebration, there had been Turkish ships sitting to the East of Santorini and maybe the plane was keeping an eye on them. After some sniffing, I found this story in yesterday’s edition of Greece’s English language newspaper, Kathimerini, confirming the drama, and that Greece’s Foreign Minister is asking the EU to tell Turkey to stop being naughty boys by continuing to violate Greece’s airspace with fighter jets and boats, and threatening the Greek coast guard with Turkish F16’s: http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_politics_100006_24/03/2010_115870
She then related the time about 4 years ago that she was hanging out some washing and heard an enormous BOOM. Her brother phoned her from Austria to tell her to turn on the TV where she saw a story about how a Turkish military plane near Rhodes (Rhodes is, as you know, a Greek Island very close to Turkey) had encountered Greek planes and the Turkish plane, in a mock dog-fight, had forced the Greek plane down and the Greek pilot was killed. I think they worked this out diplomatically but…ummm…not good. Here’s the Times story: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article724196.ece
That same afternoon, I was talking to a real estate agent in Fira who was a bit of a macro economic Greek-Canadian dude (so thankfully spoke perfect English) and he was theorising about what could happen with Greece’s economy. As part of this ramble, he remarked: “There shouldn’t be a war with Turkey”. Hmmm
Later in the conversation, when I was asking how a foreigner could buy property in Greece, he explained that most places presented no problem but Santorini, as a military base and a strategic position, means a foreigner needs to get approval from the Ministry of Defence!
Suddenly, all Rose’s comments about the cache of arms being stored on the island, and the arrangement that, once released from the army, men must keep a gun at hand in their homes in case they are called, all started making more sense. And here we are, all us tourists, obliviously wandering around, snapping shots and enjoying the tzatziki.