The reason that the Greek language survived almost 400 years of Ottoman rule is mainly due to the Greek Orthodox Church, which protected and taught the language at a time of persecution of Greek culture and faith.
The contribution of the Church in saving and teaching the Greek language during those dark times for the country and its people was immense. Indeed, the Gospels were written in the Greek language first, the one known as Common Hellenistic. And from Greek they were then translated to all the other languages.
Through the Gospels that were written in Greek, Christian faith spread throughout the world. And Greek was the language of the Byzantine Empire.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Hellenistic world fell into chaos. In order to maintain its historical identity and not lose its cultural heritage, the key elements of national unity had to be utilized: religion, language, and tradition.
The ancient ways of the Greeks continued through the multi-dimensional worship of the Church.
By receiving the privileges granted by Sultan Mehmet II and despite the difficulties and obstacles that the Ottoman conquerors repeatedly put against it, a truly ecclesiastical Christian state was created and it contributed to the physical and spiritual survival of Orthodoxy.
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The Church was more than just spiritual refuge, it also preserved Greek language and culture
Being the only institution that remained alive after the Ottoman conquest, the responsibility for the political and spiritual survival of Hellenism during those dark ages fell on the Church.
Its decisions, actions, omissions and mistakes would have a direct impact on the Greeks. And those decisions were taken under the watchful eye of the Ottoman conqueror.
For the Greek people of the time, Orthodoxy meant much more than a religious doctrine. It was their whole life, the spiritual context through which their national consciousness was expressed. In the difficult years of slavery, the Church became a spiritual refuge, the one stable social institution, the cohesive web of Hellenism.
During those years, there were only secret schools (το κρυφό σχολειό) which would teach the Greek language, and the teaching was done by priests. The books of hymns were like the language book of the first grade. And the Gospels would be the textbooks for older students.
In fact, the first words young Greeks of the time learned were the words of the “Our Father.” Then it was the words of the Divine Liturgy and all their meanings. All this was able to happen at a time when Ottoman was the official language.
All that was essential, because there was no such thing as an organized educational system during the first period of Ottoman rule. There would be about 10-15 students gathered around a priest in the narthex of a church, or in a monastery around a monk, who would be taught only the most elementary Greek.
However, the contribution of the secret schools to the salvation of the Greek language, regardless of the educational level, proved to be significant in the middle of the 16th century. By 1680, when the rulers allowed the establishment of Greek schools for the first time, the foundations for the spiritual rebirth of the nation recorded in the 18th century would be laid.
Teachers of the Greek language under Ottoman rule
The emergence of pioneering teachers, the establishment of schools in various cities and regions of Greece, the writing of remarkable literary works, the repatriation of Greek teachers and students who had attended universities and academies in the West, all led to a spiritual rebirth of the nation.
Educated Patriarchs like Meletios Pigas, Maximos Margounios, Cyril Loukaris, accompanied by the rise of the Greek middle class and the material contribution of wealthy merchants to the education of Greeks also contributed to this Greek renaissance.
The most important Orthodox monastic center during the Ottoman occupation was Mount Athos, a beacon of Orthodoxy the reach of which went beyond the borders of Greece, which continues to this day.
Some of the priests and monks who contributed to the salvation of the Greek language gave their lives for the cause and became martyrs. According to several clerics, St. Cosmas of Aetolia (Κοσμάς ο Αιτωλός, c.1714-1779, canonized in 1961) is the greatest martyr and his contribution to the survival of the Greek languages is invaluable.
Cosmas was a monk who had studied theology and rhetoric and in a period of 16 years he established many church schools to preserve the language in Western and Northern Greece, areas where many Greeks were converting to Islam.
At a time when entire villages were abandoning Christianity, the persistent monk worked hard to keep them in the path of Orthodoxy and, consequently, their Greek heritage.
The monk’s faith, devotion and rhetoric were very persuasive and people were literally hanging on his every word. That infuriated the Ottoman authorities, who accused him of being a Russian agent – Russia being the biggest enemy of the Ottoman Empire at the time.
The martyr was arrested and hanged at Kolkondas (in today’s Albania) on August 24, 1779.
By preserving the Greek language, the Orthodox clergy played a crucial role in lifting the patriotic spirit of Greeks, giving them the strength to fight against their rulers of almost 400 years. And it was at Agia Lavra Monastery, under the blessings of Orthodox Metropolitan Palaion Patron Germanos (Germanos III of Old Patras), where the War of Independence was declared on March 25, 1821.