Piracy, a force that shaped the Eastern Mediterranean

The Eastern Mediterranean was in the grips of a dreaded vise as far back as the Siege of Constantinople: In 1390, Ottoman forces had reached the coast of Asia Minor with an eagerness to dominate the seas, despite their lack of nautical tradition or know-how. The Venetians on the other hand saw the area as their domain following the collapse of Byzantium. The islands and coastal towns became caught in the crossfire between the two warring sides, which sought to dominate them in order to boost both their coffers and their prestige.

However, neither the Venetians nor the Ottomans were in a position to ensure the safety of the maritime trade routes, so a third force emerged, which had a catalytic role: pirates and corsairs, who by their presence shifted the balance of power in favor of one or the other.

Anonymous Turks working for their own ends, famous Ottomans like Hayreddin Barbarossa who were enlisted in the service of the Sultan, the fleet of the Order of the Knights of Saint John, which was originally based on Rhodes and later on Malta, Greeks from the islands and Mani, Christian pirates from Catalonia and Sicily, and even the Venetian and Ottoman fleets pillaged their way through the Aegean.

The bounty, after all was plentiful: gold, precious stones, commercial wares, animals, crops, the ships themselves and, of course, people, who ended up sold into slavery or as hands on the crews of pirate ships.

Piracy did not just have an impact on economic activity, it also affected politics and military strategy as the alliances that were forged and broken would sometimes favor a particular nautical power (such as France, for example) or a religious faith like Islam, turning one against the other.

Through such illegal (and sometimes legal) practices, many Greeks learned to spot an opportunity and take advantage of the instability so that they could later build the foundations of their revolt against the oppressors. The traces of piracy are still visible, etched on the land and in time.

On many Aegean islands, for example, toponyms, town planning and architecture serve as an echo of an active or passive defense policy again the terror of the seas. Even certain Greek surnames (such as Leventis, Spantis, Sarakinos, Arapis etc) belie a link with the pirates and their ilk, even though many Greeks today believe that corsairs were the sole property of the Caribbean, as demonstrated by Hollywood movies.

Athens conference

The fascinating and relatively overlooked history of piracy in the Greek seas is the subject of a conference being organized by the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation from October 17 to 19 at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens and titled “Corsairs and Pirates in the Eastern Mediterranean, 15th-19th Century.” It will include talks by Greek and foreign experts on the subject.

The foundation, which has an excellent collection of manuscripts, rare books and maps of Cyprus (some of which featured in a 2003 exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens), is setting sail in a new direction and taking us back in time.

“Our aim is to shed light on an especially interesting chapter [of history], from a new approach, and to give floor to young researchers and established scientists,” foundation director Artemis Skoutari told Kathimerini.

The conference program points to both a fascinating narrative on and a novel approach to a phenomenon that persists to this day. The event is separated into the following themes: locations of piracy; scale and types of raids on commercial ships; politics and legitimacy; piracy and the state; and depictions of piracy and pirates past and present.

Academics and researchers will discuss the events of an era that lasted a full five centuries and had a profound impact on the history of Greece and the Aegean in particular.

Speakers include Olga Katsiardi-Herin, a professor of history and archaeology at the University of Athens, David J. Starkey, an acclaimed historian at the University of Hull, and Molly Greene, who teaches Greek history at Princeton University. Museum of Cycladic Art director Nicholas Stampolidis will open the conference with a talk on piracy in antiquity.

The foundation

Sylvia Ioannou began to collect manuscripts and rare books about Cyprus in the late 1970s with the aim of preserving and propagating the island’s cultural heritage. Since then she has managed to acquire more than 2,000 books on archaeology, history and politics, among other topics, as well as a fascinating collection of travel accounts dating from the 15th century to the present day. The foundation’s collection also includes 600 maps of Cyprus and the broader region by European cartographers from the 15th to the 20th century.

The Sylvia Ioannou Foundation was formed in 2009 in order to make this collection available to scientists and researchers around the world. The foundation is also building a library on the campus of the University of Cyprus designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel, funded by Elli Ioannou, mother of Sylvia and Dakis Joannou.

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