LAUREN MONROE: Welcome back for our last and long-awaited session. Thanks for sticking through this for the day. It's been a long day, but hopefully also stimulating and provocative, and all of that good stuff. My name is Lauren Monroe. I ama a member of the faculty in the Near Eastern Studies department. I work on Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel. I'm also the leader of the Einaudi Center Middle East Working Group, which was formed in 2016 when I was chair of the Near Eastern Studies department. So I'm here more in that capacity than in my Bible and ancient Near East capacity.
I have a number of people I want to thank before I do what I'm standing here to do. I want to thank Hiro Miyazaki, the director of the Einaudi Center, for his support of the working group, and for his enthusiasm for our mission. And he's just been remarkably supportive from the very beginning. Though we have been in existence for only 20 months by his calculus, this conference really marks a beginning for us, and a good beginning, I think-- a great beginning.
I want to thank our guests and Cornell respondents. We are honored and humbled by your willingness to come and give your time to share with us your expertise and to help us launch what we hope will be a new era of greater collaboration, coordination, and visibility of the Middle East at Cornell. I want to echo Hiro's special thanks to our keynote speaker, Katherine Fleming, about whom you'll hear more in a moment, and Nelly Hanna, for having traveled from Cairo to be with us.
I also want to express our sincere gratitude to Heike Michelsen, associate director for academic programming at the Einaudi Center, who is responsible for transforming this conference from an idea to a reality, with all of its material culture associated with it. The programs, the cute little notebooks, which came as a surprise, everything that made this into a conference was her doing. It couldn't have happened without her, so thank you.
I also want to thank the other members of the Middle East Working Group, whose collegiality and shared vision have made the work of planning this conference a pleasure. And I'm looking forward to more work together. So now without further ado, it's an honor to introduce the provost of Cornell, Michael Kotlikoff, to whom we are deeply grateful for making the time to be here with us. We take his presence here as a sign that he takes seriously the work that we're doing, and we're eager to have him as a participant in what we hope will be an ongoing conversation about the Middle East, the academy, the production of knowledge, and Cornell's role in this endeavor. So please join me in welcoming provost Kotlikoff.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Thanks very much, Lauren. It's late, so I'll be brief. I'd like to thank all of the speakers for your work on a complex and vitally important global region. I'd also like to thank the Einaudi Center for International Studies, Hiro Miyazaki, and Middle East Group for envisioning this conference and making it a reality.
International programs play an important part in Cornell's mission of research, education, and public engagement. From its founding Cornell began to look outward to the state, the nation, and the globe. Today we have programs that positively impact the lives of individuals in virtually every corner of the globe. Many of these international education and outreach programs are fostered by the Einaudi Center.
They include our area studies programs, focused on Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Europe, as well as thematic programs. They also include our many international research partnerships and programs that provide international opportunities for our students. This conference highlights the work of the Middle East Working Group, which brings together the Department of Near Eastern Studies and several other important programs and initiatives at Cornell that study the region.
The group catalyzes multi-disciplinary collaborations that are extraordinarily important in addressing the complex cultural and political challenges of the region. The conference also highlights the fact that academics can play a significant role in shaping discourse about geopolitics, and by so doing, affect policy decisions. Finally, in a period when the opening or closing of borders is being debated in multiple countries, it is important that the global academic community continue to work for the free exchange of persons and ideas.
So now my main task, to introduce our keynote speaker. Our speaker this evening as a celebrated historian, award-winning author, and accomplished administrator. Catherine Fleming is provost of New York University, where she is the Alexander S ONassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization. She directs NYU's Remarque Institute, which supports multi-disciplinary study of Europe and nearby countries. And she is also an associate member of the History Department at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, as well as the president of the board of the University of Piraeus in Greece.
Provost Fleming holds a BA from Barnard College and an MA from the University of Chicago, both in comparative religion. She earned her doctorate in history at the University of California at Berkeley. Specializing in modern Greece, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean, she has focused much of her work on religious minorities. She's editor with Adnan Husain of A Faithful Sea, the Religious Culture of the Mediterranean, 1200 to 1700.
Her most recent book, Greece, a Jewish History, won several prizes, including the National Jewish Book Award and the Runciman Award from the Anglo Hellenic League. Last year, the government of Greece awarded her honorary citizenship in recognition of her work on Greek culture. Professor Fleming's lecture tonight is titled To Make a New Thermopylae, Greece, Orientalism, and the Problem of Representation. Please welcome Katherine Fleming.
KATHERINE FLEMING: Thank you very much. The first thing I want to do is invite the provost to go home. I think we can all imagine how we would feel if out of politesse we had to sit down at 5:00 on a Sunday afternoon to hear a lecture on the biomedical sciences. I can tell you, I can certainly imagine what it would feel like. That's a sign of extreme politeness. Thank you very much.
So I would like to thank all of you who have put so much into this event. My fellow participants, the organizers, I especially thank the organizers for having notified me of this event almost a full year ago. I could tell when I got an invitation for something that was so far off in the distance that I was dealing with an organizational maelstrom that has only been borne out through the impeccable organization that I've seen over the past couple of days.
So let me get started. I think I had started out being afraid I was going to be the person who spoke least about Orientalism and Edward Said, and have ended up somewhat worried that I'm going to be the person who speaks most about Orientalism and Said. I would like to start off with this fellow here, Lord Byron, who in his poem, "The Isles of Greece" has a dream and a vision.
And he writes, "The mountains look on Marathon, and Marathon looks on the sea. And musing there an hour alone, I dreamed that Greece might still be free. For standing on the Persians' grave, I could not deem myself a slave." Now, this great romantic poet-- he looks very romantic here-- famously died in Missolonghi in Greece in the midst of the first stage of the Greek War of Independence. He was 36 years old. He died in the middle of April in 1824 at a moment when it wasn't at all clear that the Greek revolution was going to be a success. He'd gone there to help them in the war effort. Here he is looking more as he did back home.
Though Byron died of malaria-- which was contracted from a mosquito from one of the region's many swamps-- he was regarded as a fallen soldier, a freedom fighter for the Greek cause. He said, "Let not my body be hacked or sent to England." This is what he begged in his last feverish days when it became clear to him that he was dying. But hacked it was.
The dismembered body and internal organs were sent to England for burial, while the city of Missolonghi was given his lungs to enshrine and revere. And for their part, the people of Missolonghi sent a hero's wreath to England to be buried along with him there. And you can still see the wreath to this day in the Ephemera Collection of the Gennadeios Library in Athens. Here is the wreath. This is Byron on his deathbed. We don't have time to go into the fabulous iconography of the image.
Now, the romantic poets, as you no doubt know, didn't really end very well, for the most part. Percy Shelley, who had breathlessly declared, "We are all Greeks" in this sort of precursor to the Charlie Hebdo motto. He drowned off the coast of Spezia at the age of 29 in 1822. And a year before that, John Keats had died in Rome of tuberculosis-- or more specifically, of its treatment with mercury-- at the age of 25. Although Byron jested that Keats had died of a bad review of one of his works.
Now, what led Byron and these other youth, like so many other less famous men of the day, to the foreign and clearly quite dangerous lands of Italy and particularly Greece, then the Western edge of the Ottoman Empire? They were driven by an impulse that today is termed romantic, one that had at its core, an intense attraction to Greek and Roman antiquity. The infatuation with and glorification of Greek antiquity, Philhellenism, was of course at its peak in the wind up to the Greek War of Independence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In supporting the liberation of Greece and the Greeks, European Philhellenes were of course directly contravening the [INAUDIBLE] agreement of the Congress of Vienna of 1815, that the Ottoman Empire must at all costs be held together. To their minds, something far more important than contemporary geopolitics was at stake.
The Greek movement for independence constituted in their minds the basis for the reconstruction of the glory of ancient Greece. And according to the Hellenic ideal, ancient Greece was the very font of the West writ large of democracy, literature, philosophy, or civilization itself. The liberation of Greece was thus both a beneficent act, but also a profoundly self-directed one. Greece's liberation would in effect be the liberation of the West itself. Isn't it nice just to have him there all this time?
This impulse constituted a frame of thought that reached across time, bringing together the classical past with these thinkers in a contemporary moment. And it also represented a peculiar and jumbled subcategory within the vast mode of thought, probably too vast, that those of us concerned with the study of other places and peoples now term Orientalist.
So in this talk, I want to consider one of my abiding interests, which is the very peculiar leap across time that Philhellenic thought entailed, and to suggest that this collapsing of time that we see in Philhellenism constitutes a really distinctive substrand of romantic Orientalism. To travel to Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries was to seek out a past as much as a place. The core goal was to come face to face with Greece's classical past, not really to visit its modern day inhabitants.
If travelers studied the modern day Greeks at all, it was only because they hoped to find in them the vestigial living traces of ancient Hellas and the ancient Hellenes. Travel, most literally a matter of movement through space, became in addition a form of movement through time. The geography of Greece for them was a fundamentally classical one. Philhellene travelers had pored for hours over maps, had memorized significant topographies and locations long before their arrival on Greece's shores.
And this vision of course not only romanticized the past, but thoroughly devalued the present. And you can find hundreds of references of this sort. I'll give you just one from JP Mahaffey and his 19th century work, Rambles and Studies in Greece. He wrote, "Everywhere, the modern Greek town is a mere survival of the old."
Time and again, the romantic vision of Greece's past was the interpretive lens for its present. This produced a romantic Orientalist sentiment of nostalgia, in which the Greece that these travelers remembered rested on their own status as authorities in the classical language, literature, philosophy, and culture of ancient Greece.
And as they looked upon the Greek landscape, the past was superimposed upon the contemporary. Byron's poem continues, "Must we but weep o'er days more blessed? Must we but blush? Our fathers bled. Earth, render back from out thy breast a remnant of our Spartan dead. Of the 300, grant but three, to make a new Thermopylae."
Byron's preoccupation was with a place to be sure, but more significantly with a time. It was with days more blessed, and now long behind us. Byron's Philhellenism wasn't directed towards the geography of Greece, but towards a period, antiquity. To be great, we, like our fathers or ancient fathers-- our ancient fathers-- should bleed. And Byron himself was certainly prepared to. He had first traveled to Greece in 1809, and at the age of 21 had gone there looking for adventure.
But when he went back 15 years later, he went with a much deeper mission, to fight. But for what? In Byron's turn of phrase, Greece was the voiceless shore to which he and other Philhellene's would give voice. It also incidentally was the shore which gave him voice, at least as he saw it. "If I am a poet," he wrote, "the air of Greece has made me one."
Most traveler Philhellenes, highly educated, extremely well-versed in classical history, literature, and geography, experienced Greece as a weird sort of palimpsest, in which the present and antiquity were constantly laid upon one another. Like a dead Spartan warrior, ready to spring back from the Earth's breast, the Greek ancients and ancient Greece constantly lurked behind and peeked out from beneath the contemporary landscape.
"Earth, render back from out thy breast a remnant of our Spartan dead. Of the 300, grant but three, to make a new Thermopylae." For Philhellenes, Thermopylae-- sorry, I just can't go with his rhyme scheme. Thermopylae was a potent symbol of past Greek greatness, as indeed it is today in Greece itself.
The Battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 BCE left no physical trace, but today has an entire museum dedicated to its memory in Lamia in Greece. And it remains one of the most powerful and living symbols of supposed Greek valor, bravery, and greatness. As Ian Macgregor Morris has brilliantly shown, Thermopylae played a key role in the European cultural imagination beginning in the 18th century.
During the 1700s, he shows, interest in ancient Greece ceased to be merely-- whatever that means-- merely academic and antiquarian, and took on, as he terms it, a wider emotional affiliation that permeated many aspects of artistic political life. Thermopylae's big 18th century European debut came in 1737 with the publication of Richard Glover's blank verse epic poem "Leonidas". The work clocks in at over 300 pages, a full 5,000 lines. I tried to read some of it while I was preparing this paper, and I have to tell you frankly, it's difficult to do.
But the poem in its day was, as Macgregor puts it, for a short time, the most popular poem in the English language. So Byron's own poem much later on the same topic, was part of a 100-year Philhellenic tradition of revering Leonidas and the bravery of the Greeks at Thermopylae. With the advent of the Greek movement for independence, it seemed to his contemporaries to be more relevant than ever.
Now, the battle of Thermopylae-- just to give you a quick refresher-- was one in a series of battles fought in the fifth century BCE between a coalition of Greek city-states and the invading Persian armies led by Xerxes. At Thermopylae-- literally, the hot gates. Great word. The hot gates. There's a narrow strip of land between the cliffs and the sea, which was the only apparent entry point for the invading Persian forces.
This is what it looks like today. Where that dirt road is to the right is where the sea would have been. Here's a reconstruction from the museum in Lamia, which is kind of like Disneyland, only even less fun. Herodotus is our main source for the Battle of Thermopylae. And he claimed that Xerxes' Persian forces numbered over two million against a Greek force of 6,000.
We now think that there were probably about 150,000 Persians and perhaps 7,000 Greeks. Leonidas, the King of Sparta-- to this day, his name signifies bravery and honor-- was at the head of the Greek allied city-states. And this narrow bottleneck, along with Greek valor, of course, was what made it possible for the small Greek force not to succumb immediately to so large an opposing army.
And indeed, against all odds, the Greeks held off the Persians for several days. The battle was only lost when a Greek traitor, a local resident of the area, told the Persians of a secret footpath behind the mountains. This is what made it possible for the Persians to outflank the Greeks by approaching them from the rear. And just as a tidbit, the name of the betrayer-- what was his name? Ephialtes, thank you very much. Which in modern Greek is the word for nightmare.
Leonidas, realizing that the Greeks had no hope, dismissed most of his soldiers in order to spare their lives and remained behind with about 1,300 men fighting to the death. And this is very significant. In theory, he could have saved himself, if he had chosen to. And he chose not to. He chose to remain behind and chose to fight to the death. 300 of the 1,300 who stayed behind with him were supposedly Spartans, hence Byron's plea, "Of the 300, grant but three."
The Greek War of Independence, which pitted a ragtag coalition of Greek bandit fighters against the Ottoman army, was to Byron's mind and to that of many others, a clear analog. So this is sort of lifted out as a prototype, and is applied directly to the circumstances of the 1820s. To this day, the battle of Thermopylae is remembered as a symbol of Greek bravery and of triumph against great odds.
And there's an interesting phenomenon, just as a sidebar. Over the arc of Greek history, people have written on this, that what is celebrated is not victories, but honorable defeats. This is one of the major recurrent themes in Greek history, is that the thing that is celebrated, it isn't the fact of winning, it's the fact of losing honorably, which ultimately leads to a kind of victory.
To this day, Thermopylae is remembered as this symbol of bravery and triumph against great odds. It's been invoked time and again in Greek history down to today as a sort of David and Goliath story, a tale of a brave underdog valiantly fighting off an oversized opponent. For instance in 1940, on the Albanian front in the Greco-Italian war in the lead up to World War II, when the Greek forces pushed back an invading Italian army, this was considered another Thermopylae.
The Italians had twice as many troops and seven times as many aircraft, but despite their overwhelmingly greater force, the Greeks held the Italians off. A central battle of the war, a Battle of Hill 731, [NON-ENGLISH] was referred to as a new Thermopylae. This is from the press of the day. This is the Greek attacking the Italians. I will never turn back, they say as they very clearly turn back and run away. This is a-- you can see what it is. An imagining of what the battle of Thermopylae looked like.
More close to the present day, Greece's current and ongoing debt crisis, which is referred to in Greece simply as, [NON-ENGLISH], The Crisis, is cast by many Greeks-- especially those on the nationalist right, but certainly not only-- as a fight to the end, that pits a noble, scrappy little country-- Greece-- against a massive and rapacious invading marauder-- alternately Germany, the EU, or the IMF.
As a European parliamentarian from The Golden Dawn party-- this is Greece's extreme right neo-Nazi party-- declared at a 2015 rally, "The message of Leonidas, molon labe--" come and get it-- "is as timely today as ever for everything tormenting Greece." This is the phrase that Leonidas supposedly famously said just as his small force is about to be attacked by the Persians. He says, come and get it.
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras referendum of July 5, 2015, it's now been overshadowed by Brexit. There was a referendum in Greece in the summer of 2015 on whether or not to accept the terms of a bailout. These terms were referred to by the then Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis as financial terrorism. And the Greek people were asked to vote on whether or not to accept these terms.
Like that of Leonidas, Tsipras' moment of valiant rebuttal ultimately gave way to defeat. 61% of the Greek population voted to not accept the terms of the bailout. But just weeks after the referendum's resounding no vote, Tsipras went ahead and signed a new bailout package, the terms of which were actually far less favorable.
This did not make him lose popularity. He gained in popularity. Because as with Leonidas, what mattered was not the ultimate defeat, but the valiant pushback that had preceded it. So this is one potent meaning of Thermopylae, a battle of a noble underdog against a cruel invading behemoth. Thermopylae, for many Greeks, has long been a symbol not of defeat, but of the power of saying no against all odds. And the Greeks did, of course, ultimately push off the Persians.
Here's an image of Leonidas. If you're a gamer, here's another image of Leonidas. In the gaming community, there's a whole Thermopylae game. That's him saying molon labe. Sorry you can't really see this. I can see it really well on the screen over my head. This is members of the Golden Dawn party at Thermopylae at an event celebrating the battle of Thermopylae.
They look like guys you don't really want to hang out with. There they are, also celebrating the battle of Thermopylae. This is an image that the battle of Thermopylae and the victory of Thermopylae is something that is particularly prevalent. The symbolism of it is particularly prevalent amongst the nationalist right. I'm going to see if there's a nicer picture than that to leave you with. Yeah, I'll leave you with that one instead.
But in addition to this David and Goliath meaning, Thermopylae has another meaning as well, and one that was just as clear to Byron as he mused in Marathon. In addition to marking the rejection of a large power by a much smaller one, the battle of Thermopylae marked the rejection of barbarism by civilization. And specifically, the protection of the Occident from the Orient. For Thermopylae-- the hot gates-- seemed to mark a portal, literal and figurative, between East and West. They were the place where the two not only met, but where they clashed.
In pushing back Xerxes and his forces, Leonidas was pushing back the incursion of the East against the West. The gates of Thermopylae were the gates that stood between the two, the bulwark that prevented the East from coming in. And Greece was the front line in the defense of the West against the incursions of the barbarous East. Thermopylae, in short, was the boundary between two worlds.
For many Philhellenes and classicists, the movement for Greek independence conjured up the symbolism of both of these meanings of Thermopylae, just as they did for Byron. To be sure, the bedraggled band of fighters who first took up arms against the Ottoman Empire seemed to Philhellenic European observers to represent the David and Goliath story of Thermopylae.
But also, and among some of them even more potently, they struck the Philhellene observers as a re-enactment of underdog valorous Greeks pushing back a massive and encroaching Oriental horde. And here, of course, it's not irrelevant that the Greece we're talking about was at the time not Greece, but the Western edge of the Ottoman Empire.
The dominance of the Thermopylae metaphor amongst Philhellenes in the late 18th century is really striking. Their classical educations combined with the itinerary of the so-called grand tour rendered Thermopylae a vivid and living moment, rather than an ancient battle of dusty history books. I assume everyone knows what the grand tour is.
A critical part of sort of upper class, particularly British and also French educations, that you kind of go on a road trip for a year or two with your tutor and a bunch of other people. After the Napoleonic Wars, people need to go further East. Because Italy is not as safe a place to go, people start going to Greece. Greece also is regarded as sort of more exotic.
Italy feels a bit overdone. It's like now everybody goes to Bhutan instead of to Nepal. Very similar dynamic. So lots of people start going to Greece as part of their education. But of course, they go there not so much to learn as to be expert, or at least they go there so that they can see the things about which they have learned, not so much so that they can go and learn more.
As Ian Morris has shown, quote, "Of all the characters and incidents of ancient Greek history, none played such a central part in Philhellenism as those involved in the battle of Thermopylae of 480 BCE, so that by the very eve of the Greek revolution in 1821, Byron could call on his contemporaries to make a new Thermopylae and have his readers know exactly what he meant. Byron's was a call to come to the aid of the Greek underdog for sure, but it was also a call to reassert the primacy of the West."
Now, embedded of course in the Philhellenic mode of thought was a deeply Orientalist impulse. At the most obvious level, it was a framework in which the East, per standard Orientalist tropes, was barbarous and oppressive, monolithic and dark. But the Orientalism of Philhellenism was more complex for a number of reasons.
Among them because even as it glorified Greek antiquity, it largely regarded contemporary Greece and Greeks, as well as their immediate forebears-- the Ottoman Greeks of the 18th and 19th centuries, and also the Greeks of Byzantium-- with an equally negative and Orientalized valence. In defense of Byron, I have to say this was not the case with him. He was deeply engaged with the Greeks he found there.
Let us now detour briefly from these Philhellenic Thermopylaes, these Western understandings of the Greek movement of independence, to consider briefly what the Greek War of Independence signified for many of those who actually fought in it. And anyone here who knows anything about the Greek war of Independence will know that what I'm about to say is a gross generalization. There were all sorts of different people involved in the Greek War of Independence. But I'm now really talking about people on the ground who kind of got caught up in the movement, many of whom had been bandits before.
When the Greek revolt against the Ottomans broke out in 1821, it was framed by its protagonists largely in the symbolism of Christian rebirth and renewal. Its meaning for the vast majority of Greek Orthodox Christians living in the region that today is Greece was first and foremost religious. It was a battle that would remove the yoke of what the Greeks termed and still term [NON-ENGLISH], Turkish rule.
And here we have a painting by Theodore Vryzakis, who was a 19th century Romantic painter. He was educated in Germany. So he was German and Greek. And the painting is called Grateful Hellas. And you can see she's breaking off the chains of slavery. And the period is also called simply [NON-ENGLISH], slavery. Here in the image, we can see her coming out of slavery.
To give a sense of the revolution's profoundly religious valence, consider the fact that the movement for independence, apocryphally, I would argue, is said apocryphally to have first been formally declared on March 25th. This is the Day of the Annunciation. The Day of the Annunciation, March 25th, marks the visit of the Holy Spirit to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she is with child, that she was to bear the Messiah.
Note that December 25th, the ostensible day of Jesus' birth, is exactly to the day nine months later, the duration of a full pregnancy. So March 25th is in effect the day that Mary got pregnant. On March 25th, with the declaration of independence, Greece's freedom fighters were asserting that Greece would soon spring to life and to be born as an independent nation. The Greek movement for independence was framed for many Greeks as a national resurrection.
Greek independence would mark the rebirth of the Greek nation, thought to have been lying dormant since the final fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. And this is one of the most famous images of the period. This is the Bishop of Patras, who's raising the flag of revolution at the monastery of a Agia Lavra near the city of Kalavryta, and is supposedly uttering the battle cry, freedom or death, which becomes the motto of the revolution, and supposedly happening on the 25th of March.
The apocalypticism of the early modern period-- some reference was made to it earlier today-- which was very strong in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions alike, expressed itself in the Greek instance in the cultivation over the course of the Ottoman peiod of the idea that Greek redemption, liberation from the Ottomans, would mark the [NON-ENGLISH], the rebirth of the Christian dominion of the region that had once been Byzantium.
Constantinople, to this day, the official seat of the Greek Orthodox patriarchy would once again be its capital. Greece, like Jesus in the tomb after the crucifixion, was not really dead, was merely slumbering in the grave. And like Jesus, it would come back to life, vindicated and strong. Now, this vision was wholly discordant with that of Greece's Western Philhellenic observers.
And I'm going to interrupt myself again to say Philhellenes weren't just people who wore funny clothes and then romantically went off and died of malaria. They bankrolled the Greek War of Independence. And in fact, the situation that prevails to this day in Greece, of Greece feeling simultaneously indebted to and incredibly resentful of an intervening West, is something that begins before the Greek nation state even comes into existence. It derives initially from a massive like 2 million, 1.8 million pound loan that is floated to the Greeks in order for them to continue the Greek War of Independence. And then that becomes the basis for endless intervention on the part of the so-called great powers and in Greek life.
So this vision that I've just described of a Christian and [INAUDIBLE] was totally at odds with the vision of most Philhellenic supporters. Most Philhellenes watching the brewing movement for independence from the educated salons of London and Paris, for them it was not Byzantium that was to be reborn so much as its classical forebear, Hellas, Greece, the land of the ancients. What was at stake for Greece's Western supporters wasn't its Christian medieval past, but it's classical pre-Christian one.
So inherent in Philhellenism and in the birth of the modern Greek state itself was a conflict that endures to this day, a conflict between two visions of Greek rebirth and between these two models of a reconstructed past. There's been excellent work done on this from the 1980s on. The demotic version of the past was a Christian and Byzantine one.
This was the past that was largely subscribed to by the Greeks themselves, who participated in the revolution. It emphasized folk tradition, Christianity, Greek orthodoxy as coterminous with Greek identity and the contemporary spoken Greek language, demotic Greek, [NON-ENGLISH]. Its urban symbol or heart was the city of Constantinople, the city, the eternal seat of Christianity, and the source of national longing.
I actually was asked three days ago to leave a lunch that I had with some Greeks because I kept saying Istanbul. This is not just a kind of fru fru. People take this very seriously to this day. As Morgenthau wrote in his memoir of his stint in Greece, no modern Greek ever dreamed of reconstituting Athens as the permanent capital of the Greek world. Not to the Parthenon of Athens, but to Santa Sophia in Constantinople did his mingled emotions of religious and political greatness yearn with a burning zeal.
But the other version of the past, subscribed to by European Philhellenes and by the Western educated Greek diasporic elite was a classical and pre-Christian one. It emphasized Greece's ancient philosophical and literary traditions, and regarded the true Greek language to be what we now called [NON-ENGLISH], Attic, the Attic dialect that became the language of the Delian League in the mid 400s BCE.
Its physical heart was the city of Athens, and specifically, symbolically, the Acropolis at its center. And no less zealous were the Philhellenes in their yearning for its restitution. And one of the most interesting episodes in modern Greek history is how the capital of the new Greek state is decided upon right after the success of the revolution. The Greeks want their capital to be in a place called Navplion. And the Philhellenes, who have given them all the money to make it possible for them to become independent, say what is Navplion? We've never heard of that. Of course your capital is going to be in Athens. And we know who won.
Now, for the former group, we can call them the Demotics, the ancient past was largely dismissed as pagan, or just as unknown. But for Philhellenes with a classical education, it was this ancient past that mattered most. And critically for this camp, the Byzantine past appeared as degenerate, superstitious, faded, and Oriental.
These were traits that had sadly, these Philhellenes thought, tainted Greece's current inhabitants beyond repair, and had unmoored them from their noble heritage. As Nicholas Cheatham has observed, quote, "Greece's inhabitants were regarded by Philhellenes with vague suspicion, especially as their connection with antiquity was thought not to be quite genuine." The Philhellene Robert Byron-- different Byron-- similarly observed, quote, "The modern Greeks should be discounted as the immortal refuse of medieval migrations, sullying the land of their birth with the fury of their politics and the malformation of their small brown bodies."
A theme in the historiography of the 18th and 19th century encounter between Western Philhellenes and actual Greeks was it's notorious clunkiness. The discrepancy between the country they'd read of in the classics and the reality they encountered was difficult to accommodate. European travel literature of the period is replete with instances of disappointed travelers gazing upon a human and cultural landscape that was cognitively dissonant with the Greece they had read about in classical works.
One index of the intensity with which Western visitors scrutinized the landscape for real Greeks is abundant evidence that the Greeks themselves became much more engaged with their own classical past as a result of the encounter with Western travelers. To give but one example, if you look at Greek Orthodox Church birth records, they suggest that until the latter half of the 18th century, Greek names were pretty much all Christian names. George, Nicholas, Peter, Andrew. The Saints' names of the liturgical calendar.
Soon after the arrival of Philhellene grand tourists, who began as I said to travel to Greece in significant numbers with the advent of the Napoleonic Wars, you start to see babies given more typically Greek names. Greek, that is, by the criteria of their Western visitors, whose classical educations made them wonder how it was that people who called themselves Greek could not be named Theseus or Platonas or Leonidus.
To the Philhellenic gaze, antiquity represented a pristine, true version of the Greek past, while the modern Greeks from Byzantium onwards represented at best a twisted or contaminated version of Hellenism. And Philhellenism had on its side the indisputable force of learned authority. It was Philhellenes, Westerners educated in the Greek classics, it was they who knew what the real Greek language sounded like, they who knew what real Greek names were meant to be. Indeed, they who knew this better than the Greeks did themselves.
And if the Greeks had been contaminated by Byzantium, the Ottomans from whom they sought to win independence represented an oppressive East that had only furthered their degeneration into Oriental decadence and decay. Just as Yiorgos and Nikos in the Philhellenic optic had lurking far behind them a much more noble lineage, the Greek War of Independence represented a much greater battle than one of Orthodox Christianity against Ottoman Islam. In many ways, it represented, as Byron had it, nothing less than a new Thermopylae. The point of rebuttal of the West against the Oriental East.
But the West that was to be defended was a distinctly temporal one, as much a time as it was a place. In the Philhellenic encounter with Greece, there were multiple and overlapping Orientalisms at play. Both space, and even more so, time, were subject to the Orientalizing gaze. So it is that Greece could at once be the quintessence of the West and a sight of all of the standard Oriental tropes. Degeneracy, barbarism, superstition, laziness, and decay. What was Orientalized by Philhellenism was not so much a place and people as a time. Byzantium and its Ottoman aftermath, 1,000 year swath that stretched from the fourth to the 18th centuries.
Now, with time many of the Greeks themselves would take on this same view, just as they started to name their children not just Nikos and Yiorgos, but also Aristotle and Plato. They began to favor the pre-Christian past in other realms as well. And Juan, I found what you said about endowed chairs very, very interesting in this regard, because certainly this has been the case with Hellenic studies, because Greek Americans are more interested-- until recently, at least-- in endowing classical chairs than modern ones.
Classical sites in Greece were scrubbed of the accretion of the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. And really interesting work has been done on this, particularly in a book by Yannis Hamilakis called The Nation and Its Ruins. This is a reconstruction of what the Parthenon used to look like with a Byzantine church inside it. If you've been there, you'll know the Byzantine church isn't there any more. It was taken down pretty recently, because it didn't really look Greek in an antique way.
And as you can see, the minaret of the mosque that had been built inside the church that had been built inside the Parthenon. These things were taken away. In the 1840s, as is well known, the city of Athens was deliberately rebuilt or built as a neoclassical city, one that was designed by German Philhellene urban planners. And Ezra, you're still here. Your comments on architecture were very, very relevant in this regard as a kind of conversation going on between different parties in designing a city that looks Greek.
[NON-ENGLISH], which is an artificial version of the Greek language that grafted Attic grammar kind of onto a modern or demotic vocabulary, was championed by the French educated Philhellene Adamantios Korais. And it was declared the official language of the Greek state, and remained such until 1976. So there were all these ways in which Greece had to become classical.
By now, the modern Greeks have learned this lesson so well that they will regularly invoke Plato and Pericles, Leonidus and Demosthenes as if they are family members. Come back home, trumpet the Greek tourist brochures. Come back to the past. As if by getting in an airplane and flying to Greece, one is traversing not only miles of space, but millennia of time. Just to give you a couple. Because the rest of Greece is in crisis, but the classical beauty endures forever.
Now, the history of how the Greeks have come to claim the classical past as so profoundly their own is at heart I think an Orientalist story. It reflects a process that relied heavily on the types of expertise academic, linguistic, historical that are so central to Said's redefinition of the term, and also depends on the types of coercion-- cultural, political, and economic-- that they entailed.
The Greek pasts and the Hellenes with whom romantic Philhellenes were so well-versed occupied like Said's Orient and Islam what Said called quote, a kind of extra-real status that put them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. It was an expertise that degraded the present and the recent past, and that lauded antiquity, both the condemnation of Byzantium and the adulation of antiquity had the same brand of Orientalism at their heart.
In romantic Philhellenism, we see an Orientalist gaze that was temporal more than spatial, and that managed at once to configure the same place, depending simply on the periodization, as both the cradle of Western civilization and as the epitome of degradation. Now, if I could stop myself, I would end my talk right there. But I'd like to add a coda. And that is this.
This Orientalist, or supposedly Orientalist history that I've told today, is one of Philhellenes rejecting Greece's supposedly tainted pasts, and then of Greeks ultimately doing the same. But what I've said today would be regarded as anathema to most Greeks, that the classical past was not always important to them, that it was only in some way made their own by contact with expert Western outsiders. It's my assertion, and has been on the instances I've had such debates, that I in essence know their history better than they do themselves.
So we close with a paradox. For what am I myself, after all, if not a Western outsider claiming expertise? The history of Orientalism is full of such dialogic and overlapping conversations between East and West, between past and present, between observer and observed. Indeed, in the case of the country that I have spent my life studying, the players, times, and places in many ways all run together.
There is perhaps in the end no clear point where East meets West and where the past gives way to present. No true Thermopylae, not in geography, and perhaps also not in assessing the authority upon which thinker is presumed to speak about or for the other. The production of knowledge rests not always on being the final authority or the smarter authority, but on being one of many. And perhaps even it rests on knowing that in the end, one's own contributions will prove a failure, or at least irrelevant.
So I'll end with another poem about Thermopylae, this one by the modern Greek poet Cavafy. "Honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae, and even more honor is due to them when they foresee, as many do foresee, that in the end, Ephialtes will make his appearance, and the Medes will break through after all." Thank you.
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Katherine Fleming, provost and Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization at New York University, gave the keynote address at the conference, "The Middle East, the Academy, and the Production of Knowledge" on Nov. 12, 2017. Introduction by Lauren Monroe, associate professor, Department of Near Eastern Studies; and Michael I. Kotlikoff, provost and professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences. The event was organized by the Middle East Working Group (MEWG) of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.
Since Edward Said's seminal study Orientalism almost forty years ago, scholars have been aware that the Middle East is not just a site for study, but one invested with multiple meanings on the politics and pitfalls of how to study a place, generally. Situated at a crossroads of geographies, religions, and histories, the Middle East is contested terrain in every sense, and on a daily basis.
This conference brought together a group of scholars from within and outside the United States, who looked at this trope across a range of disciplines. Through this gathering of expertise and perspectives, they interrogated some of the ways that knowledge about the Middle East is produced, and shed critical light on that knowledge. What does the Middle East mean in the modern academy? Who produces this knowledge, and toward what ends? Participants looked at these formulations and others over the course of a stimulating - and provocative- day of collective discourse.