Written by: Žikica Milošević
There is a lot of evidence of a centuries-long Greek-Serbian friendship, which was deffinitely established and cemented during the Independence War in the 19th and 20th centuries
EXOTIC BELGRADE NAMES
When you walk around central Belgrade, you may notice that some street names are quite exotic: Uzun Mirkova, Baba Višnjina, Zmaja od Noćaja, Čika Ljubina, Rige od Fere… Wait! You mean Rigas Feraios? In Dorćol, there is a big statue of this man, portraying him in full splendour. Of course, all those names have usually been derived in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, the primary goal of people living in Belgrade, as well as Serbs in general, was to break free from the long-lasting Ottoman rule. And, amongst all those Serbian heroes, fighters and unresting hajduks, there is a Greek hero. If you were as ignorant as I was when I first saw the statue, you would probably associate the word Riga in its name with a person from the Latvian capital but, in fact, he was a Greek freedom fighter, poet and philosopher. His name was Rigas Ferraios.
To be more precise, Rigas was not even Greek. He was Aromanian (Tzintzar), but it did not stop him from being an ardent Greek nationalist. His real name was Antonios Kyriazis. He was born in 1757, into a wealthy family in the village of Velestino in the Sanjak of Tirhala, Ottoman Empire (modern Thessaly, Greece). He was at some point nicknamed Pheraeos or Feraios, after the nearby ancient Greek city of Pherae, although he never seemed to have used this name himself. Contrary to the customs at the time, he was not obsessed the Russian Empire saving Constantinople and liberating Christians. He never believed that the neighbouring Austrian Empire could expand to the South. He was under spell of the French, their revolution, and Napoleon Bonaparte. He learned about the French Revolution, and came to believe something similar could occur in the Ottoman Balkans, as a result of self-determination of its Christian subjects. By meeting Greek bishops and guerilla leaders, he showed his support for the ideas of an uprising. It cost him life in the very end. And the end was in Belgrade.
He started his correspondence with general Napoleon Bonaparte, and eventually sent him a snuffbox made of bay laurel root, taken from a ruined temple of Apollo. He then set out on a mission to meet the General in Venice. During his voyage, he was betrayed by Demetrios Oikonomos Kozanites, a Greek businessman, had his papers confiscated, and was arrested in Trieste by the Austrian authorities. As an ally of the Ottoman Empire, Austria was concerned that the French Revolution might provoke similar upheavals in its realm and later formed the Holy Alliance. He was handed over together with his accomplices to the Ottoman governor of Belgrade, where he was imprisoned and tortured. From Belgrade, he was sent to Constantinople to be sentenced by Sultan Selim III. While in transit, he and his five collaborators were strangled in order to prevent their rescue by Rigas’s friend Osman Pazvantoğlu. Their bodies were thrown into the Danube River. He was strangled inside the Nebojša Tower by Danube. His last words are reported as being: “I have sown a rich seed; the hour is coming when my country will reap its glorious fruits”.
He wrote in demotic Greek, and was a fierce republican who advocated pan-Balkan Christian federation. He even designed a flag for the “New Byzantium”. He never spoke about the Greeks or the Hellenes, but used the word Romioi, or the Romans, like the Byzantines. His Pan-Balkan Federal Republic would have been the New Eastern Roman Empire, clearly without an emperor, more like the United States of America. Today, one of the most beautiful streets in Belgrade is named after him, reminding us of our eternal friendship with the Greeks.
Another evidence of the two nations’ common effort to achieve their freedom was shown in the glorious Balkan Wars. And then came Venizelos. Before the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, Venizelos’ catalytic role helped Greece to enter the Balkan League, an alliance of the Balkan states against Ottoman Turkey. Through his diplomatic acumen, Greece doubled its area and population with the liberation of Macedonia, Epirus, and the rest of the Aegean islands. Elefterios Venizelos was so important for the Serbian state that he deserved his own street (until 2003, Đure Đakovića Street) in central Belgrade and a monument, which is not that monumental. It is merely a bust, but with a nice inscription. The greenery in the street gave Elefterios, whose name means freedom in Greek, a well-deserved rest after his turbulent life. The streets that bear his name exist in various cities and towns in Serbia, including Novi Sad.