April 14, 1997
Letters to the Editor
RE: Mr. Myer Teaches Wrong Lesson
To the Editor:
What was most refreshing about Karl Meyer’s 3/30/97 editorial, "The West’s Debt to Byzantium", was his recognition that the Byzantine Empire was indeed Greek-speaking (and in fact Greco-Roman in civilization), as well as his lucid comprehension of the magnitude of the Fourth Crusade’s betrayal when the West raped Christianity’s then-greatest city, Constantinople, in Christ’s name.
Mr. Meyer then states that "the Ottomans proved to be more respectful of Orthodox Christianity than the Western Church". Even with 500 years of hindsight, Meyer makes the same mistake some Byzantines did when they pronounced, still feeling the Fourth Crusade’s sting, that they "would rather see the Muslim turban in the midst of the city than the Latin miter." As despicable as the "Great Betrayal" was, the Byzantine Greeks who initially shared Mr. Meyer’s opinion soon found out just how wrong they were.
The Catholics did not routinely massacre, commit mass rapes and sell off into slavery thousands of an island or province. They did not force Greek children to secretly study their own culture, religion and language at night under pain of death for both teachers and students if discovered. The crusading fortune-seekers did not forcibly convert the Orthodox population en mass by the sword. Nor did they force the Orthodox population to pay a "head tax", the penalty for tax evasion being decapitation, and a jannisary tax, by which the Greeks’ firstborn males were forcibly taken from their families to be converted to Islam and trained as fanatic holy warriors used to kill other Christians.
The difference between the crusaders’ senseless debauchery and the Turks’ calculated barbarism can be gleaned by examining how one of Europe’s greatest painters treated both subjects. While acknowledging the shame of the "Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople" through his 1840 painting of the same name, it was Eugene Delacroix’s depiction of a Turkish monstrosity that became the Guernica of the 19th century. "The Massacre at Chios: Greek families awaiting death or slavery", a masterpiece of horror depicting the systematic extermination of the entire population of an Aegean island, graphically illustrated how being a Greek, Armenian, Serb or other Orthodox Christian in the Ottoman Empire meant living in daily fear of murder, rape, torture, kidnap of one’s children, slavery, and genocide.
The final curtain for the Christians of the Ottoman Empire was a tragic one: the bulk of the Armenians and Greeks in Asia Minor were exterminated and the rest ethnically cleansed from a land they had been living on for millennia. It is this sinister reality that should provide the focus of any genuine and conscientious examination of the Ottoman Empire. That the modern descendants of the Ottomans are perhaps among the least tolerant nations in the world--at least as evinced by Turkey’s continuing persecution of not only fellow Muslims such as Kurds and Alawites but of Greeks, Cypriots and Armenians as well--allows us a small insight into what the Eastern Christians must have endured.
Mr. Meyer offers the Sephardic Jews’ settlement of Ottoman Greece and Asia Minor as evidence of the Empire’s "comparative tolerance". Yet the truth is that even the Jews of Europe, discriminated against, harassed and persecuted by the Catholic populations they lived among, had not nearly experienced the type of nightmarish cruelty and carnage Ottoman Christians endured for five centuries until the darkness of the Holocaust. As for the Jews expelled from Spain, they were invited by the Sultan not because of any motivations involving tolerance but to replace the vast swathes of Greeks that had been eliminated from Macedonia and thus maintain the area’s commerce and the Sultan’s tax base.
Finally, while the Ottoman Jews were also subjected to discrimination and periods of cruel persecution, that they held a favored status within the Empire over the subhuman "giaours" (infidel Christian dogs) is less a reason for celebration of the Ottomans’ "tolerance" than a badge of shame that should be atoned for. Is it something to celebrate when other human beings are treated like cattle? Rather than looking to Moorish Spain or medieval Persia, Mr. Meyer is certainly putting forward the wrong example to make his point of Islamic tolerance.
What is particularly terrifying to me as a survivor of the Greek holocaust, described as a five-century-long "slow genocide" by some, is that the revisionist myth championed by Mr. Meyer of a multicultural and tolerant Ottoman Empire has recently gained a great deal of currency. Perhaps one day soon The Times will be praising the "multicultural tolerance" of Rwanda’s Hutus, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Russia’s Stalinists and Germany’s Nazis.
Very truly yours,
P. D. Spyropoulos, Esq.
cc: Karl Meyer