Revolutionary Eleusis

The revolution is moribund. The Ottoman armies have swept aside all resistance and are converging on Athens, the last Greek stronghold in Roumeli. Reşid Mehmed Pasha prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and dispatches letters of submission to the communities along his way. The villagers of Dervenochoria, exhausted after years of war, do not give the matter a second thought. They demand to know why the Ottoman general addresses them as “slaves”, since they liberated themselves six years ago, and sacrificed the blood of their fathers, their brothers, their wives, and their children to remain free.

They inform him that they prefer to die holding their weapons rather than live like suffering slaves, little more than animals in the guise of men. They remind him, should he decide to descend upon their villages with his troops, that they have defeated greater armies and more famous generals. And conclude their letter by requesting that all future correspondence should be addressed to the Greek government, in case anyone should consider them traitors against the nation, whose wrath they fear more than any Ottoman army.

Pine tar and revolutionary ideas

On the eve of the Greek War of Independence, Eleusis was little more than a hamlet of fifty ramshackle cottages with approximately 200 residents. Most of the land belonged to wealthy Ottoman landlords, or Greeks from Koundoura, a group of villages situated in Mount Pateras, northwest of Eleusis. The Eleusinians grew grain but most of the production belonged to the beys of Corinth, so the residents had to supplement their income by trading pine tar, timber, butter, honey, wax, and carob.

It was a hard and precarious existence, but it did not prevent the introduction of revolutionary ideas in the 1810s. Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) was a secret organization whose purpose was the establishment of an independent Greek state. Its agents travelled across the Ottoman Empire recruiting members and preparing the uprising. It seems likely that some of the future leaders of the revolution in Eleusis were sworn members of the Society, but their names do not appear among the surviving records.

The first shots

The outbreak of the revolution, in March 1821, was a messy affair that did not really follow a well-organized plan laid out by the leadership of the Filiki Eteria. The primates and military leaders of west Attica were informed of the impending revolution in mid-March and declared their willingness to shed their blood and spare no trouble in support of the common cause. The revolution began in late March and the primates of Dervenochoria, a collection of villages north of Eleusis, sent letters to Hydra requesting gunpowder to defend their homeland against the Ottoman forces moving south from Thessaly to suppress the revolution.

Fire ships from Eleusis

Koundoura and Vilia, the most important local communities, claimed that they had 1200 men under arms in these early weeks. They fought in Corinth, Thebes, and Livadeia, where many were injured or captured. They also played a key role in preventing the Ottoman forces from advancing towards the Peloponnese by blocking the passages through the mountains. Their main contribution, though, was their expertise at gathering pine tar and manufacturing turpentine. They were able to supply the nascent Greek navy with large quantities of these extremely flammable materials that were used for the construction of fire ships that allowed the Greeks to win many naval battles.

The double-headed eagle

Life in revolutionary Eleusis was not easy. The enemy forces often burned down the cottages and the crops. In the summer of 1822 the Ottoman army arrived in Koundoura to find the granaries full of maize and oats; Mahmud Dramali Pasha took it all to feed his soldiers and his beasts of burden before marching to his annihilation in the Peloponnese; but the people of west Attica were now threatened with famine. Local families also struggled to support more than 12,000 refugees from Attica and Boeotia who flocked to Eleusis in search of passage to the islands and their relative safety.

Equally threatening was the persistent efforts of the Corinthians and the Athenians to secure control of the resources of the Thriasian Plain. In September 1823 the revolutionary government approved the request of the primates of Dervenochoria to establish a distinct province. To celebrate their autonomy, the locals created an oval seal embossed with a double-headed eagle crowned with a cross, in memory of the old tradition about the Byzantine soldiers who came to Eleusis to protect Attica against the enemies of the empire.

Beacon of hope

By the spring of 1826 revolutionary success seemed a thing of the past. The Egyptian army of Ibrahim Pasha had crushed the resistance in the Peloponnese and the Turkish army was advancing towards Athens. The government seemed unable to come up with a plan of action and most military leaders lacked men, ammunition, and money to offer any meaningful resistance. But then, almost unexpectedly, something stirred. The generals Nikolaos Kriezotis and Vasos Mavrovouniotis approached Ioannis Hadjimeletis, an influential and wealthy landowner of Dervenochoria, and asked for his help to establish a military camp in the hills of Eleusis, near the old Frankish tower.

Hadjimeletis, the saviour

Hadjimeletis had considerable resources at his disposal. He owned large tracts of land in west Attica and his granaries were full. He did not hesitate to supply the army with grain, animals, and whatever money he had until such time as the government would be able to take over the burden. His generosity enabled the local military leaders to assemble an army and begin a guerrilla campaign against the Ottoman army that besieged the Acropolis of Athens. The great camp of Eleusis became the beating heart of the Greek War of Independence, as thousands of men assembled there under the leadership of Georgios Karaiskakis.

Heroic Eleusinians

The Ottomans made repeated efforts to dislodge the Greeks from the hills of Eleusis but their efforts failed. Reşid Mehmed Pasha was very concerned about this military camp and proposed to attack it himself, but the Sublime Porte rejected the plan. The Greeks, on the other hand, made good use of this secure base of operations. They were able to reinforce the Acropolis with men and gunpowder from Eleusis, while two locals (Yannis Lepsiniotis and Yannis Distomitis) served as messengers, passing through the enemy lines with letters over a period of many months.

After the bloodshed

The untimely death of Georgios Karaiskakis and the decision of his successors to attack the besieging Ottomans across an open plain brought to an inglorious end the efforts to save Athens. The Greek army was annihilated and Athens fell to the Turks in May 1827. Eleusis was abandoned, albeit temporarily, for in July of the year the British General Sir Richard Church failed to find a single Turk in the Thriasian Plain; he did find, though, the burned houses of Eleusis.

At the end of the year, Hadjimeletis reconstituted the camp of Eleusis, expending his own fortune to support 980 men. All the government could do was to ask him to keep a good account of his expenses in the hope of future compensation from the income of the region. Hadjimeletis and the men of Dervenochoria were able to maintain the camp to the end of the Greek War of Independence, participating in the final battles of the revolution that secured the liberation of Athens and eastern Roumeli.

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