Featured image credit: “Georgios Karaiskakis in the battle of the Acropolis,” ca 1835 by Johann Georg Christian Perlberg (1806 – 1884). Oil on canvas, 50 cm x 71 cm © The Thanassis and Marina Martinos Collection
This year, March 25th, 2021, marks the 200th anniversary of Greek Independence. I’m a Greek-American, who grew up in the American Midwest, and it’s an important moment, occasion, and anniversary for all of us who are part of the larger Greek diaspora, as well as others around the world, too, who have been influenced by this day and the events that it commemorates, whether they’re aware of it or not. The number of towns and cities named for Greek counterparts within minutes of where I live is endless (Sparta, Smyrna, and Ionia are just a few that immediately come to mind), which of course speaks to this influence and strength of diaspora and culture and memory, but every year on March 25th, there’s one city and township, specifically, that I think about more than all the others.
I went to school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is five minutes away from a small city called Ypsilanti, which in turn is located inside a larger township of the same name. And like so many other places in the world, thousands of people drive past and through Ypsilanti city and township every single day, very likely without ever knowing when and how it was founded, and that it’s a place that was named for two Greek brothers, Demetrius Ypsilantis (the city) and Alexandros Ypsilantis (the township), who were leaders of the Greek Revolution and War of Independence. Demetrius, along with his more famous brother, were Phanariot Greeks, born in Constantinople. They were raised in the Ottoman Empire, went to school in France, and became members and officers of the Imperial Russian military, where they travelled and fought in the Napoleonic Wars, and so Demetrius and Alexandros were, both by location and profession, and in so many ways, very much citizens of the world.
But, even while they may have been citizens of the world, and participating in the affairs of the world, their hearts were also very clearly, and always remained, Greek.
They were connected to their homeland so strongly, perhaps even despite their travels and the location of their birth and station and formative years, that Demetrius, along with his brother, became a member of the Filiki Eteria, which Alexandros led, and which brought together Greeks from throughout the entire diaspora to plan and help spark the conflict in Greece itself that would eventually become the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire; it was a revolution which at least in part was born and planned and supported from outside the place which was meant to be made free, and by many Greeks and philhellenes from around the world, as well as of course Greeks that were in Greece itself.
The current diaspora, in so many ways, is still similar.
There are so many Greeks that are scattered so wide and so far from Greece itself that these Greeks, like the Ypsilantis brothers before them, and as a whole, are as much physically citizens of the world than anything or anywhere else, with cities on distant continents named for us and the influence of our thought and language and culture which has shaped the governments and ways of life of so many peoples and places. We have truly helped create and build the rest of the world in which we now also live, and so while we of the diaspora, like the Ypsilantis brothers before us, might more and largely be a part of that newer world now and the greater Hellenic community abroad, which remains so vibrant and so strong, our hearts?
Our hearts are still, like the Ypsilantis brothers, and the other Greek Revolutionaries, undoubtedly, undoubtedly, undoubtedly, still Greek, too.
And that’s something that will always remain true, even as time and generations carry on and so many of us become more distant from homeland, both physically and through passing years, and so that’s also why each year on March 25th, while I think of the whole of the Greek Revolution and struggle for Independence and all the Revolutionaries that fought, I think most about the small city and township of Ypsilanti, that’s five minutes from where I went to school, and which so many drive through every hour, every day, every week, every year, without ever knowing its history and its story and its namesakes. And so every year on March 25th – and especially this year, and on this March 25th bicentennial anniversary – I think of the Ypsilantis brothers, and what they gave, and felt, and dreamed, and helped to make real; I think of Demetrios, and his successful campaigns in the south, and I think of Alexandros, and his failed campaigns in the north, and how he died alone and impoverished in Vienna, having given for the struggle, quite literally, all that he had to give. I think about how he never got to see the sun rise on a free Greek state, like his brother eventually would, and I also think about how his final wish was to have his heart removed from his body, after he died, and sent to Greece, where it would remain and where it still remains, for all time, resting in his homeland, where it always was, even when he was alive, even when he himself wasn’t actually there.
And so for many of us, who no longer live in Greece, like the Ypsilantis brothers didn’t, and perhaps haven’t even for some time now – perhaps even for generations upon generations upon generations upon generations – while we may no longer live there, our hearts? Every year on March 25th, and especially this year on March 25th, no matter where we are, I’m reminded that like the Ypsilantis brothers before us, whose hearts always remained, so too do ours.
About the author
Christopher Cosmos is a best-selling author and Black List screenwriter from Grand Rapids, Michigan. His debut novel, “Once We Were Here,” is a multi-generational love story set in Greece during WWII, and is now available from Arcade Publishing. More info about him and his work can be found on his website or by following him on Twitter @XristosCosmos and Instagram @christophercosmos.
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