Alev Scott’s new book Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire takes us through 12 countries of the former Ottoman Empire and examines 800 years of Ottoman rule that brought them together, the 20th Century events that tore them apart and what is coming next. Ahead of Alev’s Migration and identity at the edge of Europe and beyond event here at Stanfords with Daniel Trilling on the 2nd October, she has written about her experience at the annual re-enactment of the Armata off the Peloponnesian coast:
By Alev Scott
Recently a Greek friend invited me to go and watch a boat being burnt near Spetses, an island off the eastern Peloponnesian coast. I accepted immediately, of course – the novelty of the spectacle demanded a Yes. But something about the context felt unsettling.
On 8th September 1822, in the dead of night, a man in a rowing boat approached the flagship of the Ottoman fleet poised to attack Spetses, a hotbed of the Greek revolution against Sultan Mahmud II. This man, Kosmas Barbatsis, directed a flare onto the ship; it burst into flames, killing the two thousand Ottomans onboard and thwarting the attack. After this, and several more skirmishes, the Ottomans withdrew, a development that became instrumental in the subsequent victory of the Greek resistance. Every year, this event – called the Armata – is re-enacted with increasing fanfare.
We arrived in Spetses a few hours before the event and I was struck by its sprawling forests, so different from the barren islands of the Cyclades, and its old-fashioned holiday atmosphere– horse-drawn carriages, happy families enjoying the last of the summer sun. Fishing boats, catamarans, yachts – and, biggest of all, an enormous anti-aircraft vessel, emissary of the Greek navy – crammed into the harbour for the occasion, many of the local boats carrying the blue and red flags of the Greek revolution (blue for freedom, red for blood). There was the anticipatory buzz of a major social event as people watched the effigy of the Ottoman ship being pulled out into the open sea by a tug boat, wobbling and slanting dramatically to the side. It was a miniature sailing ship built in the preceding months, crudely painted black and white, its wooden hull full of explosives ready for its imminent immolation. At the sight of it, the harbour erupted into sound, as though at some major football victory: fog horns blared from private boats and municipal ferries, a cacophony of celebration and condemnation combined as we watched it wobble out of sight.
As night fell, the Greek pop star Anna Vissi gave a concert on the harbour, her voice magnified for the benefit of those of us bobbing on boats a few hundred meters away. We set out in a small motor boat in the darkness, jostling with others for a position nearest the effigy – our own kind of naval battle, enlivened by slightly tipsy spectators singing along with the distant pop anthems, their drunkenness exaggerated by the lurching swell of the marine traffic. As we chugged ahead in the darkness, Vissi’s voice was replaced with the mayor’s, explaining the re-enacted feat of heroism we were about to see.
Suddenly a rowing boat, lit brightly with red flares, came into view, making slowly for the condemned ship. As we squinted through the darkness, the rower stood and threw a torch into the ship, then rowed back quickly as the fire caught hold. Renewed cheers and fog horns, then a spectacular firework display as people looked in delight at the burning replication of a ship in which two thousand men died nearly two hundred years ago.
Something felt odd, and I scrutinised myself to check whether some latent patriotic scruples were playing a part in my reaction. Yes, I’m half-Turkish, but was that the problem? I consider most shows of nationalism, including Turkish, not only silly but distasteful – the sheer proliferation of flags in Turkey, Greece and the United States, to name some of the worst offending states, irritates me. Perhaps, despite myself, the Turk within me did feel a frisson of affront at the mayor’s repeated mention of the “oppressor Turks” (the terms “Ottomans” and “Turks” are often used interchangeably in Greece) despite the fact that I knew the Ottomans were indeed oppressors. Nevertheless, the idea of cheering at the burning of any ship with its attendant casualties seemed … a bit off? I wonder what the reaction would be if British spectators gathered at the site of the Battle of Trafalgar to applaud a re-enactment of Nelson’s destruction of French and Spanish ships. There would be enthusiasm, but also criticism, and undoubtedly some outrage from Guardian columnists at this fetishization of war, a celebration of death.
The crucial role played by the Battle of Spetses in achieving Greek independence sets it apart from any potential British equivalent, of course. It is the ultimate story of the underdog, and without it there would arguably be no modern Greece. I understand its celebration, and that it is at heart primarily a social event, an excuse for a party. I had fun along with everyone else – but in this age of nationalism and division, maybe we should be wary of playing with fire.
See Alev Scott with Daniel Trilling at Stanfords on 2nd October. For more details see here.