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Byzantium collapsed in the confusion. City states — some ruled by exiled members of the Byzantine imperial family, others by Latin kings — vied for control of commerce and territory. The Latin plunder and occupation of Byzantium deepened the schism between the Orthodox East and the Latin Catholic West.

The Latin occupation of Constantinople ended in 1261 when the head of a Byzantine successor state in Nicea, Michael Palaeologos, entered the city after its capture by forces loyal to him. Crowned Emperor Michael VIII in a restored Haghia Sophia by the ecumenical patriarch, the emperor focused on reclaiming Byzantine lands in Europe, especially Greece, to which the House of Palaeologos maintained a special affinity.

Ottoman Greece. The Palaeologoi could not resurrect the power and wealth of a restored Byzantium. Despite a renaissance in the arts, learning and spirituality, the empire declined economically and politically. Genoese, Pisan and Venetian bankers purchased properties and privileges from cash-poor emperors while the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantine Greek lands. Eventually, only a few fortified castles in Greece and the city of Constantinople flew the standard of the Palaeologoi. They too fell. On 29 May 1453, Emperor Constantine XI died defending Constantinople from an Ottoman assault.

Soon after the city’s fall, the Ottoman sultan recognized the ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Church as leader of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek nation, or millet. Charged with representing the Ottoman Greek community (that is, keeping it in line), the ecumenical patriarch exercised spiritual and temporal leadership. Assuming the trappings of the Palaeologoi dynasty (the use of the double-headed eagle and the personal arms of the emperors), the patriarchs attempted to preserve the Greek and Orthodox identities of their people, who increasingly left the cities for the mountains, far from the reach of the Ottoman tax collector.

Those Greeks who remained in Constantinople’s Phanar district, however, exercised great influence on the court of the sultans, especially after the 17th century. Thanks to their commercial success, they embellished churches throughout the Orthodox world, including Mount Athos and the patriarchal church of St. George. More importantly, their acumen as Ottoman diplomats in the West brought them into contact with Western concepts of nationalism, which were stirred by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.

Independent state. In 1814, a group of Phanariot Greeks formed a secret society in the port of Odessa. “Philiki Eteria,” or Company of Friends, sought to establish an independent Greek state and enlisted the covert support of the Russian tsar, who saw himself as the protector of the Orthodox world.

Though structured similarly to the Free Masons, Philiki Eteria included Orthodox priests and bishops, including the Metropolitan of Patras, Germanos. This secret company occasionally challenged Ottoman authority, but it was Germanos, who, according to tradition, triggered a national uprising by blessing the blue and white flag of Greek independence on 25 March 1821.

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Tags: Christianity Orthodox Church of Greece