The Benizelos Families of Athens
A Benizelos Grave
Section One, Number 237A
In the First Cemetery there are many graves of Athenians who were born during the Ottoman occupation, lived through the terrible years of the War of Independence, and remained residents when Athens became Greece’s capital. One such grave is that of Vasileios Benizelos. He was born in 1783 and died in 1840. The name Benizelos does not come immediately to mind when thinking of heroes of the Greek War of Independence although family members did take part in the struggle. It is more likely recognizable to Athenians today because the Benizelos mansion at 96 Adrianou Street has recently been reconstructed and is now open to the public. (1)
The mansion as seen from Diogenos Street
This impressive structure is the only example of the home of a Greek family residing in the city during the Ottoman period. The War of Independence destroyed most of the city and what was left was most often torn down to make way for the ‘new’ neoclassical capital.
The Benizeloi were one of several aristocratic families residing in the city during the Ottoman period. Like other families of their class, they claimed Byzantine roots. Records of that period are sparse so their history has to be gleaned from scattered sources. Their name is mentioned in some contemporary records, in the accounts of travellers who began coming to Athens in the late 1600s looking for remnants of the classical age, and in the late 1700s by Greek historians, one of them a Benizelos himself. They were no doubt a large clan as families tended to be in those days.
Their presence in the cemetery offers us an opportunity to consider what life was like for an Athenian family during the long years of Ottoman rule.
Life Under the Ottomans
Life for Athenian Christians under the Ottomans was never easy and never secure. They had to make constant accommodations, - adjusting as best they could to a harsh regime which cared about their well being only insofar as it affected their ability to pay taxes.
1458 to 1687
The Dukes Depart
Greeks did not cede Athens to the Turks. Athens had been under the thumb of various Latin Dukes of Athens since 1205. It was a Florentine, Francesco Acciaioli, who waved the white flag from his palace on the acropolis and then departed to become Duke of Thebes under Ottoman suzerainty and, some say, to become a lover of conqueror Mehmet 11. So much for the Latins.
The conqueror, Mehmet 11, had considered himself quite a Philhellene and certain administrative freedoms were bestowed on Athenians from the get go - if they behaved. Like all Christians under the Ottomans, Athenians were allowed religious freedom (something the Latin Dukes had not been prone to allow being Roman Catholic) but only if their religious leaders behaved. The results of a Greek society being simultaneously favoured and restricted created an unnatural situation. Insecurity reigned, even for the advantaged, and bribes at every level of social interaction were the order of the day.
Commerce was left to the Christians, offering opportunities for some Athenian Christians to acquire wealth, to travel, and to keep connections open with other Greek mercantile families throughout the empire and beyond. Ottoman officials were present to collect taxes and keep order. Some Muslim families did migrate into the city and, while not all became wealthy, they were certainly favoured over the Christians. The lowly status of the Christian population was reinforced by humiliating rules such as no Christian being allowed to ride a horse.
Initially, the Ottomans divided Greece into six divisions or sanjaks, each ruled by a Sanjerbey accountable directly to the Sultan. The Athenian administrative area or Kaza belonged to the Sanjak of Euboia 80 kilometers to the north. The governor of the Athenian Kaza, was the Voevoda and the fortunes of the Christian population would rise or fall depending on his good will.
The Name Benizelos
The surname Benizelos is interesting. Surnames were more fluid in those days and the name seems to have become somewhat interchangeable with the more common Venizelos. Both versions of the name were likely applied to families who had either fled to Venice after the fall of Byzantium or to families with close Venetian ties. (2)
Angelos Benizelos, Surigi Palaiologina, and Saint Philothei
Apparently wealthy Angelos Benizelos lived at 96 Adrianou in the 1500s. He and his wife Sirigi Palaiologina produced a saint. Their daughter Revoula had been forced by her parents into marriage at 14, became a widow at 17, and had no urge to remarry. Instead she stayed home, prayed, and involved herself in charitable works. She inherited a great deal of property upon her parents’ death in 1549 and subsequently became a nun, founding a monastery for women and involving herself in many charitable works. These included helping poor women by teaching them domestic crafts and helping enslaved women escape to safer territories. Such efforts required many bribes. In 1583 she was reduced to such dire economic straits that she wrote a letter to the Venetian Senate requesting financial assistance in order to continue.
When she went so far as to aid four women to escape from a harem, she was arrested and thrown into prison. Bribes secured her release but, in 1588, several Ottoman mercenaries broke into her monastery and beat her so severely that she subsequently died of her injuries. (3)
Saint Philothei’s bones now reside in an elaborate casket inside the Metropolitan Cathedral - just a few steps from her childhood home.
The Chief Black Eunuch of the Sultan’s Harem
By the time we again hear about the Benizelos clan in the 1600s, Athens had a new owner. It had been bestowed as a personal fief to the Kizlar Aga, the Chief Back Eunuch of the Sultan’s Harem in Constantinople.- a seemingly bizarre happening but not so strange considering that he was the third most important figure in the Ottoman hierarchy during that period!
Athens’ Exotic Absentee Landlord
He never visited his fief but, nonetheless, expected a yearly income of 30,000 Ducats from his ‘property’ and personally appointed Athens’ Voevoda, the Caddi and the Aga of the Castle to make sure it was collected.
The Sultan’s gift did have one good outcome for Athens. It resulted in the city becoming a self governing unit, no longer ruled by the Sanjerbey from distant Euboia. There was therefore potential for local Athenian leaders to influence events. They could appeal injustices to a single overlord.
During this period, another Angelos Benizelos (1590-1670) was an Elder (4). He, with other Elders handled the day to day affairs of the local Christian population and represented their interests. He was an educated man who had resided in Venice for some years and was a student of philosopher Theophilos Korydaleos, who had ended his life as a monk teaching in Athens in the 1640s. It is thought that Angelos taught school in Athens as well. Schooling was possible under the Ottomans; it usually came under the aegis of the local bishop and, no doubt under the watchful eyes of Ottoman officials.
Angelos’ son, Ioannis, also taught at the Common school of Athens. Many subsequent Benezeloi would be teachers as well.
George Wheler Visits Athens and Mentions a Benizelos
In his account of Athens during the 1670s, George Wheler creates a vivid picture of the city and its inhabitants: he mentions the climate (excellent), their health (remarkably good), their diet (varied), their clothing (rich and well embroidered), and their women (remarkably restricted) – which might explain all the embroidery! His account is fascinating and available free as a digital book on the Internet. (5)
Wheler had travelled extensively in Ottoman lands and, in his opinion, the Athenians had much more freedom than other Turkish towns he had visited. Of course, freedom is a relative term. The Athens in his day was divided into 8 areas, each with its Elder.
In his list of the families from which Elders were selected, he names the Benizelli (sic) along with the Paleologues, the Limbonaroi, the Perouli and the Cavalaris. He even gives one account of how the Elders could indeed plead successfully for their people.
Some years before his stay, two Elders from the Limbonaris family had journeyed all the way to Constantinople to complain to the Kizlar Aga about their treatment under his appointees. They returned victorious but feared reprisals from their local overlords. Wheler records that Jani Benizelli (sic) then felt it prudent to retire forthwith to the Convent of Pendeli and remain there until things died down. Even a victory brought real risks...
It is hard to say how long Athens may have remained suspended in this quasi-medieval situation if Venice had not decided to take the city in 1687.
The Venetian Push Causes Mixed feelings
In 1684 the Venetian Doge had mustered a multi-national mercenary force under Francesco Morosini for another go at the Ottomans. By the summer of 1687, his army had conquered the entire Peloponnese except Monemvasia and was camped in Corinth - with Athens in their sights.
Athenian feelings were mixed. With over two hundred years of Ottoman rule under their belt, accommodations had already been made. For some the status quo was advantageous. Deciding if this Venetian push was a good thing or a bad thing was not easy. The Athenian leaders sent three delegations to Venice that summer. The first, in August, was a delegation offering cash to keep the Venetians away! A month later, a second delegation arrived to negotiate the price of 40,000 reals that Venice was demanding as an annual tribute if they did not attack. Hard on their heels, a third Athenian delegation arrived, this time soliciting the Venetian’s help and inviting them to attack. Those who had managed to survive and live relatively well under the Ottomans would have been terrified of reprisals if the venture failed and some may even have preferred to keep what they did have rather than enter into a new venture with a state that historically had respected their religion even less than the Turks.
Morosini himself thought the whole plan was a bad one. Holding Athens would not protect their gains in the Peloponnese. The Ottomans could simply bypass any Athenian stronghold and attack the Peloponnese via Megara.
For him, Athens was not strategically important. But the Venetian Doge (another Philhellene?) disagreed and ordered the attack. At this point, the die was well and truly cast and all Athenian Christians had to and did come out in support of Venice.
The Citadel and the City of Athens as seen by the Venetian army in 1687 (engraving, Stathis Finnopoulos collection).
The Parthenon is Destroyed
Morosini took Athens in a matter of days but only after his own artillery had shattered a good deal of the town (in error) and blown the Parthenon to smithereens. For a detailed description of that dramatic moment, see footnote (6).
The Turkish garrison surrendered on September 28th, 1687.
Just as an aside: the Parthenon pieces lying scattered around the building they had once been a protected part of, made it much easier for the Ottomans at a later date to tell Lord Elgin to help himself to whatever he could carry. Morosini’s troops had done the same and, in doing so, seeded the collections of many a future European museum.
A few short months after that fateful September, the Venetians realized they could not hold the city and, on February 12, the decision for the immediate abandonment of Athens was made. Realizing that Turkish reprisals would be horrendous, they called the Elders together and announced that the entire city would be evacuated and resettled in Venetian territory in the Peloponnese or on the Ionian Islands.
And so it was that a sad throng of Christian Athenians, including the Benizelos family, abandoned their beloved Athens, leaving it to pirates, bandits and the approaching Ottoman army. (7)
(Morosini had wanted to reduce the entire Acropolis to rubble to prevent the Turks from retaking the citadel, but his departure was too hurried to allow him to carry out the plan...)
Athens from 1687 Until Independence
Ottoman Athens never fully recovered from the Venetian disaster. For a time, civic life remained as scattered as pieces of the Parthenon itself. Some inhabitants never returned. (Even by the 1830s the population had not reached the numbers that had existed before Morosini’s attack.) Many, like the Benizelos family, did return after 1691 to rebuild their fortunes and homes, - to carry on in their city and even, at times, to prosper under the Ottoman thumb.
The regime by this time was losing control piecemeal over its territories. This allowed for Greeks in many places to gain greater concessions, particularly those in large urban centres. Although Athens was never an economic powerhouse, it appears the Benizelos family did prosper and were able, sometime after 1750s, to build the imposing mansion we see resurrected today.
The Benizelos house in the late 1700s
During the 1700s, Ioannis Benizelos (c. 1735 – 1807) was a distinguished member of Athenian society and, in the 1770s, authored his own History of Athens. He taught at the Deka School from 1774 until nearly the end of his life.
At this period, when Greeks elsewhere were getting some benefit from Russia’s new role as protector of Ottoman Christians (after the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji signed on 21 July 1774) Athens was suffering under its worst voevoda ever. Hadji Ali Haseki ruled Athens with an iron fist from 1775 to 1795. His despotism in the face of greater freedoms for the Greek population elsewhere, would have made Athenians more than ready to join the revolution when it came in 1821.
History records that three elders, a Palaiologos Benizelos among them, were helping to gather arms and ammunition for the struggle ahead.
By March of 1821, the revolt had started elsewhere and the Ottoman authorities in Athens were terrified. They were outnumbered and at one point had attempted to have their Caddi sign a document authorizing them to execute 3,000 Christian inhabitants to even up the numbers. To his credit, The Caddi refused (8). Three Elders, including Palaiologos Benizelos, offered themselves as hostages to the Turks in order to protect the general population and were duly incarcerated in the Acropolis. After the fighting started in earnest, Benizelos managed to escape and fled to Aigina together with his family. It was in Aigina that his son, Miltiades, was born in 1822.
Miltiades Benizelos went on to become a respected Athenian doctor and is buried in the First Cemetery.
Note the Palaiologos crest. He could claim this from his mother’s side. Athenian aristocratic familes, of course, intermarried.
Section 7, Number 388
The famous Greek benefactor, writer, and ambassador Ioannis Gennadios (1844 – 1932) was a proud descendent of the Benizelos family on his mother’s side. His personal library forms the core of the famous Gennadius Library in Athens.
And then there is Vasileios Benizelos whose grave prompted this entry. Of him, I know nothing more than what is written in the ancient Doric dialect on his grave stele:
THIS GRAVE COVERS THE BONES OF BENIZELOS
A NAME YOU SURELY ALREADY KNOW.
MANY TIMES THE ACROPOLIS SAW BASILEIOS
FIGHTING BRAVELY AGAINST THE BLOODTHIRSTY TURKS.
IN HIS HONOUR, HIS DESCENDANTS HAVE MADE THIS
STELE IN MEMORIAM WITH MUCH AFFECTION AND RESPECT
(With thanks to Mr Panos Koumbouros for the translation into modern Greek)
Note that the surname on the monument is spelled with both spellings (ΜΠ and Β), one at the base and the other in the inscription
(1) The Benizelos House is well worth a visit. The process of the rebuilding has been well documented and all elements explained. It has an impressive interior. If I have any complaint, it is that it’s a tad sterile. I wish they had left a few remnants of real life - a shawl, a discarded slipper, something that would have recalled the people who lived here.
(2)There are other theories about the name. One suggestion is that the family was named Benzi and the ending elis got tacked on because of an ancestor coming from Arcadia. I like the simpler explanation of Venetian ties. It makes sense anyway. It also occurs to me that Because Venizelos is spelled with the Greek Β that Latins pronounced in the Latin way and the Venizeloi just got tired of correcting people and adopted the hard B which in Greek is ΜΠ.
(3) There is a lot of information about Saint Pholothei. Try, http://archontiko-mpenizelon.gr/en/saint-philothei/ 4 rchontiko-mpenizelon.gr/en/saint-philothei/
(4) Different historians refer to these leaders in various ways: as Elders, as Archondes, or as nobles. As if Greek history were not complicated enough!
(5) By googling Kizlar Haga chief of the black eunuchs of Athens, I got the following website and was able to scroll up and down and read his book. https://books.google.gr/books?id=xt1OAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA348&dq=kizlar+Haga+chief+black+eunuch+of+athens&hl=el&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi81uew4pHnAhVIa1AKHeu2AT4Q6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=kizlar%20Haga%20chief%20black%20eunuch%20of%20athens&f=false
On the night of September 26 during the full moon, a bomb passed through an opening in the roof and to ignite a large quantity of gunpowder that was stored in the temple. The Venetians, according to the sources, exploded in cheers. Some shouted “Long Live the Republic”, others “Long Live Konigsmark.” As a result of the explosion, three of the sanctuary’s four walls nearly collapsed and three-fifths of the sculptures from the frieze fell. Nothing of the roof apparently remained in place. Six columns from the south side fell, eight from the north, as well as whatever remained from eastern porch, except for one column. The columns brought down with them the enormous marble architraves, triglyphs and metopes. The blast created indescribable panic. Three hundred Turks were killed by the marble that was launched in all directions. The fire spread to surrounding homes, and, since there was not enough water, became extended ever further. The entire night of September 26 (towards the 27th) as well as the entire next day, the Acropolis burned.
(7) We know the Benizeloi were among the refugees because the Venetians, ever conscious of class, listed the Athenian families in 1690 according to their class, and the Benizelos family was listed in the uppermost of four classes. On such slender snippets of information does Athenian history, during this period, rest.
(8) The Sultan recalled him and had him executed. His home is still in situ on Tripodos Street in the Plaka.