Wednesday, April 25, 2012

letter from Nafplio


Perhaps it is ironic that this week I find myself in the city of Nafplio, which was the first capital of the modern Greek state.  A city rich in monuments which reflect Greece’s multiethnic past: Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and Ottomans once ruled Nafplio and left behind a hilltop fortress, a seaside tower, Catholic and Orthodox churches, mosques and remarkable examples of neoclassical architecture.

Much of Greece’s modern history began here… during and after the Greek War of Independence. The various Greek clans banded together to oust the Ottoman occupiers and eventually succeeded. When Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the newly-formed Greek state, came to Nafplio in 1828, he was faced with stark reality: Greece was broke, factional infighting was still rampant and was hindering the formation of a unified national government, the military was disorganized, the educational system was practically nonexistent, the country was in need of a national currency, living standards were extremely poor, and as if that wasn’t enough he still had to negotiate with the Great Powers regarding the degree of independence of the Greek state….  (sound eerily familiar?)

Despite this grim reality, Kapodistrias managed to make great reformations and began to modernize the new nation. He was able to unify the military and regain territory which was formerly lost to the Ottomans, he introduced the first quarantine system in Greece which raised the level of public health by bringing epidemics under control, he founded schools (the first military school for cadets) and the first university which produced the first teachers of liberated Greece. He also introduced the first currency of the modern Greek state in 1828, the “phoenix” – named after the mythical bird and symbolizing the rebirth of a nation. However the monetary rebirth was short lived when only four years later the government printed more money without having the assets to back it and the people justly rejected the phoenix… which led to the introduction of the drachma…

Perhaps many of us don’t know that the original “Potato Movement” happened in Nafplio. The cultivation of the potato in Greece was introduced by Kapodistrias. At first, the people didn’t care for his potatoes and he feared his plan had failed. In order to win the public’s enthusiasm, he had a shipment of potatoes unloaded at Nafplio harbor, and had them guarded day and night. People began to assume that if the potatoes were being so closely guarded, that they must be of great value. Thus, Kapodistrias’ potato movement became a grand success…

But perhaps his greatest effort is what lead to his demise. Kapodistrias tried to destabilize the power of the traditional Greek clans and families which had ruled in the young nation’s recent past. He considered this type of ‘governance’ to be outdated and a product of a former time, an ineffective remnant that had no place in a new, modern, forward-looking country. Furthermore, Kapodistrias imposed customs dues on the powerful and wealthy merchant families which comprised many of the ‘clans’…  This elicited much opposition by the old political tribes, who refused to pay dues to the Kapodistrian government.

On October 9, 1831 two clansmen representing one of the most powerful family dynasties of the time, assassinated Kapodistrias. One fired a gun but missed, while the other stabbed Kapodistrias on the steps of St. Spyridon church in Nafplio.  As I stood in front of the church, looking at the bullet hole in its wall, I wondered about upcoming elections and what the future of our ‘new’ Greece will be. Who will lead this country into the next chapter of its history and in 200 years’ time, what will Greeks have to say about it? If history repeats itself, who will be brave enough to try and undermine the authority of Greece’s current political clans and families? On May 6, voters will chose among 36 political parties that will be on the ballot. Of the 36 political leaders, will we find our Kapodistrias?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

No Kapodistrias lurking in the shadows today, unfortunately. We're surrounded by "kleftes kai lopodytes" (thieves and vagabonds". Right now, there's no light at the end of the tunnel...

Rob said...

Some interesting background here. Sadly, the influence of political clans and vested interests persists to this day.