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“Greece, The Hidden Centuries” by David Brewer

By Eliana Eliopoulos-Camacho

Author David Brewer acknowledges that his latest book, “Greece, The Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence,”  may challenge the traditional beliefs Greeks have, about Greece under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. However, he says it aims to tell the story accurately, and to give a true historical picture.

“Greek books on this subject, some of which have been translated, tend to be narrowly nationalistic, finding no fault with the Greeks and blaming the Turks for everything.  This book differs from the others in that it is up to date and comprehensive. It counters, where appropriate, the nationalist bias, as well as trying to tell the story accurately and fairly,” said Brewer. “Impartiality is a dream, honesty is a duty.”

Brewer, started learning Latin at the age of seven, and ancient Greek at the age of 11. He studied mainly classics in his youth and at Oxford University. He has published two other books on the history of Greece.

Why did you select this field of study?

In a way it was selected for me.  I wanted to specialize in history, but my schoolmasters persuaded me to choose Classics. Study of Classics was rigorous while history, they thought, was a soft option.  I’m glad I was persuaded. It is much easier to learn history later, than to pick up Latin and ancient Greek.

How did it start?

It was some years after leaving university that I first went to Greece, and heard Modern Greek being spoken.  I knew at once that it was the language I wanted to learn – as some people hear a musical instrument being played and know at once that it is for them.  Ancient Greek was of course a useful stepping stone – perhaps a third of modern words very similar, another third with some resemblance, and only a third totally new.  I can still speak Greek only haltingly, but can read it well enough to cope with most Greek texts.  As I became more familiar with Greek language and history I realized that the Greeks’ defining event was their war of independence, and that not much had recently been written in English about the war as a whole, so I hoped that I could fill that gap.

How do you expect this book to be received by the Greeks?

Many will hate it because it challenges established and fiercely held beliefs.  I believe I can understand this: in a parallel case I would, at least at first, react angrily to a book arguing that the Battle of Britain was less than our finest hour.  But, I hope that most Greeks will accept that, for many traditional ideas there is another side to the story.

What were the biggest advantages for Greeks under the Ottoman Empire?

The biggest advantage was the Ottoman’s religious toleration.  The Greeks did not suffer like the Cathars and the Huguenots in France, the Catholics in England and the Jews almost everywhere, except, in the Ottoman Empire where they were welcomed.  Also, the Greeks were free to educate their children despite the myth that schools had to be secret, and that, apart from two brief periods (the Venetian incursion of 1684 and the expulsion of the Venetians in 1715) no foreign wars were fought on their territory.

The biggest disadvantage?

I would say economic stagnation and consequent lack of development of trading or manufacturing.  Roads were unsurfaced, there was little wheeled transport so movement of goods was by pack animals and until the late eighteenth century no substantial ships were built.  Greece continues to suffer from the aftermath of this centuries-old blight.

Was there a benefit for a Greek in becoming Muslim?

Muslims paid a lower poll tax than those of other religions, but one traveller at least thought the difference was insignificant, “a mere five écus a year.”  Also, Muslims were liable for military service whereas others were not.  Some Orthodox Greeks converted for personal reasons. For example, a woman on marriage to a Muslim, and some Cretans converted because they actually wanted to join the military.  But the social cost of converting was high:  exclusion from family, friends and the Orthodox church with its great celebrations. It is no surprise that conversions were rare.

Where did you go to do research?

For the period of the war of independence I consulted a number of libraries in Greece. The Gennadius Library in Athens, and the René Puaux gallery in Pylos were probably the most productive.  For the earlier period, two libraries in London were invaluable – the London Library for general background, and for the more specific topics, the library of King’s College, London, which has an excellent collection of books on Greece in English, Greek and other languages.

How long did you work on this book?

Five years – it could have been more, but couldn’t have been less.

What is your favorite book?

For the traditional one book to take to a desert island, I would without a doubt choose the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I would never tire of the depths of his belief, the vividness of his imagery, and the width of his sympathies with humanity (Felix Randle the farrier), the animal world (The Windhover) and the natural world (Glory be to God for dappled things).  Infinite riches in a little room.

Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?

This may be a bit schoolmasterly, but here goes:

1. Don’t wait for inspiration but just sit down and write, every day if possible.  As each sentence is transferred to page or screen, the next one forms up to follow it.

2. Get an agent if you can.  The literary world has many pitfalls, financial and otherwise, through which you will need guidance.

3. Keep knocking on publishers’ doors.  Remember that “Gone With The Wind” was rejected 38 times.

David Brewer currently lives in the London suburb of Hampton, with his wife and six children. For his next piece of work, he says he would like to research Greek diaspora, and speak with expatriates from all over the world to hear their views on their old homeland and their new one.

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