The Greek Revolution for independence started in the 25th March 1821. After almost 400 years of Ottoman dominion, many revolts broke out in several regions, seeking to re-establish the Greek identity and sovereignty. In this series of articles, after a careful introduction about the political situation in Europe and Greece at the time, we will focus on the events which took place in Epirus, Peloponnese, Attica, and Macedonia.
Since ancient times, Athens has been the heart of Greek history, and even through the centuries, the city has always maintained this centrality, also in the Greek revolution. This importance, especially from a symbolic and cultural perspective, continued even when Athens and Attica lost their independence to foreign rulers. It’s no coincidence that the English poet John Milton, in his epic poem “Paradise Regained”, said that Attica’s capital is “the eye of Greece”. For centuries, peoples from all over the Mediterranean sought to conquer such a symbolic city: Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Turks all boasted over time that they were the masters of Athens.
The Ottoman Athens
In the 15th century, three years after the fall of Constantinople, in July 1456, Athens fell into Turkish hands. Athens’ administration peacefully passed to the Ottomans from the Latins. Out of great respect for the city, Mehmed the Conqueror granted the Athenians several privileges such as free religion, autonomy and rapid redevelopment of the urban centre. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Athens had experienced a long period of decline, which had led to a significant drop in population and the deterioration of the ancient city structures. Hence, Athens was becoming more Ottoman outside and Christian Orthodox inside.
But peace didn’t persist for the Athenian region for long, as over the next 250 years, a series of seven wars between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice often affected this area.
Worthy of special mention is the sixth Ottoman-Venetian War, during which the Venetian army occupied Athens, where it was welcomed by the Christian population, while the Turks took refuge on the Acropolis. Thus, the Venetian general Morosini ordered the Parthenon to be bombed, and it was destroyed on the 26th of September 1687. Venice maintained control of the city for about three years, until the Ottoman reconquest in 1690.
The first half of the following century saw a period of peace. It was the time of the Grand Tour, and foreigners started to wander around the Classic Athens, or what remained of it. But after 1760, Athens could be rented to the person who offered more money to the Sultan for lifetime. When that person died, the malikiane status returned to the Sultan, and he was making a new bid. This new way of administering the city and the whole of Attica led to decades of violence, taxation and anarchy.
The persistence of this unstable situation, combined with the rising nationalist ideas following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic experience, inevitably brought Athens to be one of the stages of the revolution of 1821.
Athens, Attica and the Revolution of 1821
In Attica, the revolts of 1821 broke out with an inevitable delay compared to the rest of Greece. It must be remembered that the first insurrections didn’t take place in Athens, but in the area of Pernitha, where Meletis Vassilios led them. To receive support from the rest of the Greek revolutionaries, he soon sent a message to Livadia, asking for a leader capable of representing the Filiki Eteria.
The growth of the revolt worried more and more the almost 500 Turkish and Albanian families (Albanian mercenaries had been in charge of the city’s security for about a century), who barricaded themselves in the citadel every night. On the 11th of April, many protesters were arrested, with ten other random citizens, and held hostage in the fortress.
This was the last straw, and so, on the night of the 25th April, headed by Meletios Vassilios, Thanasis Skourtaniotis and Giannis Davaris, about 600 insurgents, who had gathered in the camp of Acharnes, some armed with firearms, others only with spears, left for Athens. At dawn, they came silently between the gates of the Holy Apostles and Boubounistra, and entered the city singing. The Turks who had not gone up to the citadel the night before were immediately killed. The rebels took control of the city and raised their flag on the 28th of April.
About 3,000 armed fighters from Aegina, Kea, Hydra, and elsewhere quickly assembled in Athens. The Turks who had been penned up in the Acropolis were besieged for a long time but without significant skirmishes. This siege continued until the 10th of June, when, thanks also to the arrival of reinforcement troops, it was dissolved by the Ottoman commander Omer Vryonis, who reconquered the entire city.
1822-1826: the free Athens
The Ottoman victory, however, was not a lasting one. In fact, after Vrioni’s departure, the siege recommenced. In spring 1822, the Greek forces were reinforced with artillery commanded by French Philhellenes under Olivier Voutier, who began a bombardment of the fortress. The Ottoman garrison surrendered on the 9th of June 1822.
The inhabitants of Athens and Attica experienced between 1822 and 1826 a four-year period of freedom and great creativity. During this period, the results were impressive: primary care and education for children, social and health care for orphans. In place of the four large mosques and other public spaces, a science school, a public library, the seat of Parliament, a hospital and a metropolitan church were built. Two censuses were carried out, one of the population and one of the city buildings, the second to safeguard archaeological excavations and create new public spaces. It was finally established the first printing house, managed by the philhellenic German Stallop, who published the “Journal Athens”.
However, it must be remembered that the period of Athenian freedom was characterised by a situation of continuous warfare due to frequent incursions either by Turkish military units or Turks residing in the area but hoping to return to the Ottoman empire. Therefore, this four-year period was a period of “armed peace”.
The Ottoman Reconquest and the final Liberation
In late June 1826, a Turk army headed by Reshid Pasha had arrived outside of Athens and laid siege to the city. By the middle of August, only the Acropolis still held out under Yannis Gouras. From that moment began a long siege of almost a year, during which there were several attempts to free the besieged by the insurgents of the rest of Greece and the European powers opposed to the Turks. Given the failure of all these attempts, on the 5th of June 1827, the starving and thirsty men in the Acropolis surrendered in the war’s last Ottoman victory.
A few months later, however, in October, the British, French and Russians’ victory over the Turkish-Egyptian fleet in Navarino Bay led to a decisive turning point in the war. After this victory, the Greek forces reorganised themselves and advanced to seize as much territory as possible, including Athens and Attica, before the Western powers imposed a ceasefire. In the meantime, in October 1828, the Greeks regrouped and formed a new government. The war’s final significant engagement was the battle of Petra, which occurred north of Attica in September of 1829. Despite this, the rest of Attica, including Athens, remained in Ottoman hands until March 1833, when, according to the provisions of the Treaty of Constantinople, it became part of the new kingdom of Greece.
Then, on the 18th of September 1834, following a decree issued by the regency council acting on behalf of new King Otto (who was still a minor at the time), Athens was declared the capital of the Greek state. Other cities had also sought the role, such as Argos, Corinth, Piraeus and Nafplio, the last being the capital at the time. Athens was chosen as the Greek capital for historical and sentimental reasons. Once the capital was established, a modern city plan was laid out, and public buildings were erected. Athens, which at that time had no more than 7000 inhabitants, experienced a period of explosive growth.