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Rigas Feraios: On the Trail of the Protomartyr of Greek Independence

Rigas Feraios and his statue in Belgrade
Rigas Feraios was the protomartyr of Greek Independence.Credit: (Left image) Public Domain. (Right image) Alex Billinis.

Rigas Feraios was a Greek revolutionary who fought in the mountains and worked as a writer, merchant, and revolutionary agitator in the wide Balkan Diaspora forming in the states neighboring the Ottoman Empire. He had done it all.

Like so many Greek kids in the diaspora, I attended Greek School for a while. The March 25th Celebration always entailed a few kids in Foustanellas and Amalias and the obligatory poem.

On the shortlist was always the “Thourios Ymnos” of Rigas Feraios, in which he wrote that “one hour of freedom is better than forty years of slavery,” stirring words – and Feraios wrote many.

I always had a fondness for Feraios, a man of both letters and action. One who was both radical and tolerant, wishing to replace the sultan’s tyranny with a restored Byzantine “Republic” that would have a place for all of its ethnicities, including the Turks.

Following Rigas Feraios’ footsteps

As it happens, my travels and life experiences allowed me to follow in his geographical footsteps.

In the mid-2000s, we lived in Greece, and many a time, driving towards Thessaloniki, or further north to my wife’s Serbian hometown, we would pass the village of Velestino, the town in Thessaly where Feraios (also known as Velestinlis) was born.

Like many people in the region, he was bilingual in Vlach (a dialect similar to Romanian) and Greek.

Multilingualism was common in the Ottoman Empire of the time, but he most definitely identified as a Romios, namely a Greek-speaking Orthodox (Byzantine) subject of the Ottoman Empire. Serbs also count him as a Balkan hero.

Traveling further north into Serbia, we traced the overland route trod by so many merchants from Thessaly and Macedonia towards the markets of the Austrian Empire, which in Feraios’ time began just across the Danube and Sava Rivers from Belgrade.

Feraios becomes a publisher in Vienna

Like so many talented Greeks at the time, particularly those from Thessaly and Macedonia, Feraios gravitated towards the Greek communities established in the Austrian Empire.

After years of warfare, as the Austrians pushed the Turks back to the Danube and Sava Rivers, Greek and Serbian merchants and settlers poured into the Austrian Empire, including to Vojvodina Province, where we once lived.

Though Greeks and Serbs were established in communities throughout the Empire, Feraios settled in the capital, Vienna, in 1793.

His interests went far beyond the commercial. He had cut his teeth with klephts in the mountains as a youth, and he believed in putting his talent for words into action.

Once established in Vienna, he quickly threw himself into publishing with the support of many in the wealthy Greek mercantile community there.

We should remember that Greek newspapers appeared in print for the first time in Vienna, and Feraios was one of the first newspaper editors.

The paper still exists and is published in the city of Siatista, Macedonia, Greece.

Feraios also published his vision of a “Map of Great Greece,” incorporating much of the Balkans and Asia Minor, a copy of which I found prominently displayed on the walls of the Greek Community Center in Budapest, Hungary.

While visiting Vienna in 2010, I managed to retrace my steps as a student over twenty years earlier to find Vienna’s Greichenviertel (Greek Quarter).

Not far from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral—a beautiful structure with a late eighteenth-century façade—I found the yellow baroque building where Feraios edited his newspaper, Efimeris.

Plaques commemorates his work there, and on another Greek Church nearby on Greichengasse (Greek Lane).

In a real sense, in addition to being the first martyr, or “protomartyras,” of the modern Greek nation, he is a founder of the modern Greek press.

Within the Church compound, the Vienna Greek School was in session when we visited.

Founded in 1804, it is older than the modern Greek state itself, and students no doubt studied many of the same poems I had. Their author penned many of his stirring works just steps away from their school.

I felt a chill run up my spine from the presence and proximity of history.

Feraios a threat to Austria

While Vienna and the Austrian regime of his time provided many opportunities for the Greek community, authorities were extremely hostile to any and all revolutionary activity.

Feraios wanted to overthrow the Ottoman Empire and restructure it as a “Greek” republic, but with full rights for all nationalities, including the Turks.

This goal posed not only a threat to the Ottoman Empire but to the Austrians’ own multiethnic monarchy.

At the time, the consequences of the French Revolution were still being felt throughout Europe, and its supporters and adherents were actively looking to export its ideology.

In Feraios, the French Revolution had an avid admirer who sought to implement its ideals within the political reality of the Balkans. Accordingly, Feraios set out for Trieste in 1797.

Feraios moves over the Alps

Over the Alps from Vienna, there is another lovely former Austro-Hungarian city, the Italian port of Trieste, which was once Austria’s key maritime outlet.

Like Vienna, it also had a very active and influential Greek community. On our family’s visit there in 2011, while enjoying the city and taking in its Greek and Serbian churches and monuments, we once again found we were following in Feraios’ footsteps.

Taking coffee one lovely May morning in the Caffé Degli Specchi, a Triestine landmark café founded nearly two centuries ago by Greeks, I sat with Archimandrite Gregory, the current Greek priest there, who is an urbane, learned, and pious man.

I mentioned to him how much I loved the city’s café culture; cafés have always been the center of Triestine commerce, culture, and conspiracies.

Apparently, outside one famous Trieste café, the Caffé Tomasso which we had visited the day before, “our own Rigas Feraios was arrested by the Austrian secret police,” Archimandrite Gregory told me while sipping his espresso.

Again, serendipitously, we had traced Feraios’ footsteps.

In both Vienna and Trieste, we had met up with Feraios by accident. Yet later, in Belgrade, we met again—this time by design.

Rigas Feraios moves to the frontier of the Ottoman Empire

Belgrade today is a bustling and sophisticated if somewhat chaotic European capital, straddling both sides of the Sava and Danube Rivers.  For centuries, Belgrade served as the first frontier fortress of the Ottoman Empire.

Having apprehended Feraios, the Austrians dispatched him, along with his co-conspirators, across the Danube to Belgrade, where the Turks eagerly awaited him.

After a sufficient round of tortures in June of 1798, Feraios and his comrades were strangled and their corpses flung into the Danube.

At the foot of Belgrade’s majestic Kalemegdan Fortress, there lies a Turkish-era structure known locally as Nebojsina Kule (Nebojsa’s Tower).

Nebojsa’s Tower is just steps from the Sava’s confluence to the Danube River, the site of Feraios’ watery grave.  The main complex of Kalemegdan fortress rises steeply from the tower.

Rigas Feraios
The Rigas Feraios statue in Belgrade. Credit: Alex Billinis

Just off the road and tramway ringing Kalemegdan, a statue stands at a fork in the road. It is of Feraios, called Riga od Fere by the Serbs.

His name is inscribed in both Greek and Cyrillic Serbian along with a short inscription, namely “Grcki i srpski narod” (Greek and Serbian nation).

As he was carried off to strangulation, he proclaimed, “I have sown a rich seed which others will reap.”

Though a new Byzantium was not to be, the fruits of this seed are the modern Greek and Serbian states.

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