GREECE: An Outline
Geography – Greece, formally known as the Hellenic Republic, is located in southeastern Europe and is distinguished by one of the most unique geographic formations in Europe. The country totals 50,959 square miles, including its islands, and has a population of 11 million (2001 census), with an estimated five million Greeks living abroad.
Greece reaches out to the Ionian Sea to the west, the Aegean Sea to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Albania, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Bulgaria are Greece's northern neighbors. Turkey borders Greece on its northeastern side. At the crossroads of three continents, Greece is a gateway to Asia, Africa and Europe. About four-fifths of Greece's land is mountainous, while its coastline, with many gulfs and inlets, is one of the longest of any country in Europe.
There are four main geographic regions: (1) Greece's northern region, which includes Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace, (2) Central Greece and Thessaly, (3) the Peloponnese, separated from the mainland by the Corinth Canal, and (4) the islands of the Aegean Sea to the east of the mainland, the Ionian Islands to the west, and Crete, the largest Greek island, to the south.
Mount Olympus (9,754 ft.), seat of the gods of Greek mythology, is the highest mountain in Greece. On its lowest slope, Mount Parnassus (7,066 ft.) is home to the ancient site of Delphi, once dedicated to the god Apollo and famous for its oracle visited by many in antiquity. On the peninsula of Chalkidiki, in northern Greece, lies Mount Athos, with many centuries-old Orthodox monasteries forming an autonomous monastic community.
Athens is the largest city and capital of Greece, with a population of over three million. The second largest city, Thessaloniki, with nearly one million inhabitants, is located in northern Greece and is an important seaport, cultural focal point, and regional business center. Other large cities include Piraeus, the main port of Greece, Patras, Volos, Larissa, and Iraklion.
Greece has been celebrated for thousands of islands, islets, and rock formations, accounting for 8,919 square miles of the country's territory. These include Crete; Cos, home of Hippocrates, the father of medicine; Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation; Rhodes, Myconos, Santorini, and Hydra. Ithaca, the home of Odysseus, and Corfu are among the best known of the Ionian Islands.
Greece's rivers are not navigable because they do not have regular seasonal levels. Major rivers include Aliakmon, Axios, Strymon, and Evros which forms the frontier between Greece and Turkey. The lakes of Kastoria, Ioannina, and Prespa are the largest in the country. The climate of Greece is temperate Mediterranean, with hot and dry summers and mild winters in the majority of the country. Most of the rain falls in autumn and winter.
History - Greece, also known as Hellas, is the birthplace of democracy. Not only did its democratic ideals inspire the founding fathers of America to draft the U.S. Constitution, but ancient Greece also encouraged other countries around the world to follow its democratic system of government. Greece's history stretches back over 4,000 years to a time when the people who inhabited the island of Crete developed a notable Minoan civilization.
The people of the mainland, called Hellenes or Greeks, were influenced by the Minoan civilization and further developed it. They organized expeditions which explored the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, reaching as far as the Caucasus mountains. One of these military expeditions, the siege of Troy, is told in the first great European literary work, Homer's Iliad. Greek settlements were founded throughout the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, and the coast of North Africa.
Throughout the classical period (5th century B.C.E.), Greece consisted of city-states, with Athens, Sparta, and Thebes among the largest. A fierce spirit of independence and devotion to freedom enabled the Greeks to defeat the Persians in battles, which influenced the course of history, in Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea.
In the second half of the 4th century B.C.E., the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered most of the then known world. Alexander did not wish to enslave the nations he conquered, but sought to Hellenize them. In 146 B.C. Greece fell to the Romans.
In 330 A.D. Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, setting the foundations of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium soon became profoundly Greek, as it transformed the heritage of ancient Greece into a vehicle for the new Christian civilization which slowly spread to western Europe.
The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and Greeks remained under Ottoman Empire control for nearly 400 years. During that long period, Greece's language, religion, and national consciousness defied extinction.
On March 25, 1821, the Greeks revolted against the Ottomans, and by 1828 had won their independence. As the new state comprised only a tiny fraction of the country, Greeks struggled for the liberation of all the lands they inhabited. In 1864, the Ionian Islands were ceded to Greece; in 1881 parts of Epirus and Thessaly. Crete, the islands of the Eastern Aegean and Macedonia were added in 1913, and Western Thrace in 1919. After World War II, the Dodecanese islands were also returned to Greece. During World War II, Greece fought memorably against Fascism and Nazism alongside the Allies. Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952 and of the European Union since 1981.
Government - The Constitution defines the country's political system as a parliamentary republic headed by the President of the Republic, who is elected by Parliament every five years. Popular sovereignty is the foundation of government. The government and its members must enjoy the confidence of Parliament (Vouli) which consists of one House with 300 members.
A new Parliament is elected every four years by popular vote. The leader of the majority party becomes the Prime Minister and forms a government which wields political power in Greece. The judiciary is independent.
Language - Modern Greek derives from the same idiom used by Homer and other renowned Greek poets and writers more than 3000 years ago. Greek was the language of the Gospels and has made a major contribution to all western languages.
Religion - Ninety-eight percent of the people adhere to the Greek Orthodox faith. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, and other religious groups, such as Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, have their own places of worship.
The Flag - The national flag of Greece consists of four white and five blue alternating horizontal stripes, with a white cross on the upper left corner. Blue and white are the national colors of Greece, as blue symbolizes the sky and seas and white denotes the purity of the struggle for Greek independence in 1821. The cross on the flag represents the Christian religion.
The National Anthem - By Dionysios Solomos (1823); Music by Nikos Mantzaros; English translation by Rudyard Kipling.
We know thee of old
Oh divinely restored,
By the light of thine eyes
And the light of thy sword.
From the graves of our slain
Shall the valor prevail
As we greet thee,
As we greet thee again,
Hail, Liberty! Oh, Hail!
Flora, Fauna, and Marine Fauna – Common trees in Greece include white poplars, spearheaded cypresses, chestnut, pine, fir, and olive. Cultivated and wild flowers of Greece, many of which are mentioned in classical poetry and mythology, such as evosmon, anemone, violets, tulips, peonies, narcissus, parthenium, primrose and chamomile, are especially notable.
Wild animals indigenous to Greece include boars, bears, wild cats, brown squirrels, jackals, foxes, deer, and wolves. A rare white type of goat is found in Crete. There are 358 species of birds in Greece and two-thirds of them are migratory. Birds of prey include the golden and imperial eagle, the vulture, and several species of falcons. Other indigenous varieties of birds are the hawk, owl, pelican, pheasant, partridge, woodcock, and nightingale.
Greece has identified 246 species of fish. Squid, octopus, red mullet, lobster, prawn, shrimp, crab, oyster, mussel, and cockle are found in great quantity. River fish are rare. Dolphins, familiar in the legends and sculptures of antiquity, are often seen leaping close to shore. The island of Zakynthos is home to the giant loggerhead turtle, caretta-caretta.
Education - Greek families have always placed a high value on education, which is the right of every citizen and is provided by the Greek state from kindergarten to the university level. There are nine years of mandatory education, which includes six years of primary education and three years of secondary education (Gymnasium), and the state provides tuition and textbooks.
After graduating from the Gymnasium, students continue with a three year course in the Lyceum, which prepares them for higher education. There are dozens of public universities, schools of higher education, and technical colleges. Admission to universities is determined by competitive examinations held simultaneously throughout Greece. Children must attend school from the ages of six to 15, five days a week, from approximately 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Summer vacation extends from the end of June to mid-September.
Economy – In January 2002 Greece joined eleven of its European Union partners in adopting the euro as its new currency, replacing the centuries-old drachma. Greece's GDP in 2005 was nearly $210 billion. The services sector contributed 72% of Greece's GDP, industry 22%, while agriculture 6%.
The main agricultural products of Greece are cereals, vegetables, tobacco, currants, olives and olive oil, citrus fruit, grapes, almonds, figs, rice, and cotton. Livestock farming often involves sheep and goats, as there is limited pasture land for cattle rearing. Shipping is a preeminent Greek industry. The Greek-owned merchant shipping fleet is the largest in the world. Fishing, sponge-fishing, and handicrafts are among occupations in Greek islands.
Tourism is a leading source of national income. Industrial production has recently become one of the most important contributors to the economy. More than 13 million tourists visited Greece in 2004.
The majority of Greece's trade involves other European Union countries. Its major exports are foods and beverages, manufactured goods, and textiles. Greece's major imports are chemicals, fuels, and machinery. Basic metal industries (aluminum, nickel and steel), rubber and plastics, chemicals, petroleum products, electric machinery, and textiles are the biggest increases in output in recent years.
With several gas and oil pipelines being built or projected, Greece is rapidly becoming an energy hub in southeastern Europe, while location and services make it a regional business center and gateway.
THE OLYMPIC GAMES
The Ancient Olympics
Olympia in the western Peloponnese was the home of the ancient Olympic Games, established by Hercules, according to tradition, in honor of the Olympian gods who were the first competitors. Evidence indicates that games were initially held at Olympia in the 9th century B.C.E. Named after the highest mountain in Greece, Olympus, the Games were recorded as held every four years since 776 B.C.E. In 676 B.C.E. they acquired pan-Hellenic significance, and by 576 B.C.E., their prestige had reached its peak.
Special messengers were sent in every direction to announce the beginning of a sacred truce and there was a suspension of all disputes and warfare among Greek city-states. The largest cities were represented by official ambassadors to Olympia. The competitions testing strength and endurance lasted five days and included a wide variety of events. Eventually, additional contests included a four-horse chariot race.
Chariot and horse races took place in the hippodrome, while athletic contests were held in the stadium. Wrestling and boxing were combined in the pankration; jumping, discus-throwing, javelin-throwing, running, and wrestling were included in the pentathlon.
The victors of the games were honored by all Greeks. Memorials were erected and they were praised in poems and songs. Victorious competitors did not receive any trophies or medals. The emblem of supreme honor was an olive wreath placed on their heads. Some cities were said to tear down sections of their walls to let their victorious athletes pass through, signifying that with such individuals they did not need fortifications.
The Olympics and other popular festivals were more significant as institutions than the individual honors accorded to athletes who competed. In addition to inspiring succeeding generations to pursue competitive sports, they also contributed to a sense of unity between the Greek city-states, as indicated by the fact that of an Olympic truce during the games.
For a thousand years, the games were held at regular intervals of four years. The games continued well after the decline of Olympia as a sanctuary and the Roman conquest of Greece. The advent of Christianity inspired radical social and religious changes and the old monuments were used to build a castle. The Games continued until A.D. 393, when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I banned them by decree, while, in A.D. 426, Theodosius II ordered the total destruction of the sanctuary's temples. The Goths delivered the final blow by destroying what could not be carried away.
In the following centuries, the river Kladeos covered the sacred land with sand and pebbles. It was not until 1875 that archaeologists brought it back to light and re-discovered ancient Olympia.
The Modern Olympic Games
The modern revival of the Olympic Games is associated with Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) who, in January 1894, in a letter to the athletic organizations of every country, pointed out the educational value of sports to modern man, if practiced in accordance with the ideals of ancient Greece.
Since the Olympic revival, the Greek athletes always lead the parade that marks the opening of the Games preceded by the lighting of the Olympic torch. The flame that is used to light the torch comes from the sacred site of Olympia, where it is lit from the sun's rays and then carried by a relay of runners to the city where the games are being held.
The first modern games took place in Athens in 1896. Many of the original Olympic contests were retained, with new events added. One of the original events still contested is the Marathon race, commemorating the feat of an unknown Athenian warrior. In 490 B.C., he ran in full armor from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, to bring the news that the invading Persians had been defeated. He could only utter the words "Rejoice, we are victorious," before falling dead from exhaustion. This event is now regarded as the pinnacle of the Olympic Games. The present distance of the race is 26 miles, 385 yards or 42.2 kms, the distance between Marathon and Athens. The first Olympic Marathon in 1896 was won by a Greek runner, Spyros Louis, in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds.
Since their revival in Athens in 1896, the Olympic Games have been celebrated every fourth year, except for interruptions caused by World Wars. Athens hosted the Olympic Games of 2004 with a celebration of sports and culture that linked antiquity with the modern world.
MYTHS AND FESTIVALS
The Gods of Olympus
Among gods and goddesses revered by ancient Greeks, twelve who were said to live on Mount Olympus were the most important.
Zeus: King of the gods who ruled over the world and the deities. He punished those who violated the laws and was accompanied by an eagle carrying his thunderbolts.
Hera: Wife of Zeus and Queen of Olympus. She protected women and marriage.
Poseidon: God of the sea, rivers and springs, wielding the power of storms and winds over the fate of sailors and ships.
Demeter: Sister of Zeus and mother of Persephone, Queen of Hades. She was goddess of sewing and the harvest.
Hestia: Elder sister of Zeus. As goddess of the hearth she was the protecting divinity of the home and family life.
Ares: God of war who fought for the sheer love of fighting and did not possess the gentle qualities of the other gods.
Hephaestus: God of fire and volcanoes who was the blacksmith of the gods and builder of their palaces and weapons.
Aphrodite: Goddess of beauty and love. Her symbols were the dove, ram, dolphin, swan, tortoise, and the rose.
Athena: Goddess of wisdom, war and peace. As Zeus's favorite daughter, she shared power over storms and lightning. Athens, Greece's capital bears her name.
Apollo: The sun god personified both the mental illumination and the physical phenomenon of light. He was also the god of music and song.
Artemis: Zeus's daughter and the twin sister of Apollo, was goddess of the forest and the hunt and often danced with the Nymphs of the woods.
Hermes: Messenger of the gods who was revered as the god of commerce, as well as of wind, swiftness, gymnastics, numbers, and the alphabet.
Christmas and New Year
Christmas and Easter are Greece's major religious holidays that are celebrated all over the country. Even though the customs are common in character, they differ in detail from place to place. Christmas has overtaken New Year's Day as the major occasion for gifts, parties and decorated fir trees. The traditional red-robed and white-bearded Santa Claus appears in the guise of Saint Basil, and on both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, children go from house to house singing carols and collecting money.
Particularly in the countryside, Christmas Eve preparations center around the dinner table, featuring turkey or pig, which the family has been fattening since mid-summer. Also on Christmas Eve, every household bakes a 'Christopsomo,' literally a 'Christ-bread,' made in large sweet loaves of various shapes, with decorated images carved on the crust, usually depicting some aspect of the family's life and work.
In Macedonia, a farmer's Christmas loaf will often depict a lamb or sheepfold. Remembering the needy is a must on Christmas Day. At Koroni in Messinia, for example, the first slice of the Christmas loaf is offered to the first alms recipient passing by the house. Another common custom is to pour a few drops of oil or wine over the hearth. This is a remnant of the libations of the ancient Greeks to the hearth whose deity was Hestia.
On New Year's Eve family reunions and office parties share the custom of cutting the 'vasilopita,' or 'Basil-cake,' for good luck in the coming year. Like the western Christmas pudding, the vasilopita contains a coin, which is said to bring luck for the rest of the year to whoever finds it in his or her slice.
Easter is the most celebrated holiday in Greece, deeply embedded in the traditions of the Greek people. The candlelight processions on Good Friday, the celebratory fireworks at midnight on Saturday, the Easter Sunday feast and many other customs, make this springtime celebration a very colorful, festive, and distinctively Greek Orthodox holiday.
There are many rituals involved in the celebration of Easter. Churches are filled with worshippers and Lent is observed. On Holy Thursday, Easter eggs are died red and braided bread is baked. Good Friday is a day of mourning, during which symbolic funeral services, commemorating the death of Christ, are conducted. In a solemn ceremony, the Sacred Icon of Christ is laid in a bier, adorned with flowers and garlands by members of the parish. During the evening service, the bier is carried through the streets with the whole congregation following, carrying lit candles.
Late Saturday night, the faithful flock to church dressed in their best, especially young children in their Easter outfits, holding white or ribbon festooned "lambades" (candles), bought by their godparents. Inside the church, the lights are dimmed and precisely at midnight the priest appears chanting, "Come receive the light", calling on the congregation to light their candles from his own. The flame is passed from candle to candle and the church is flooded with the "Holy Light", while people exchange kisses and wishes, chanting along with the priest, "Christos Anesti" - "Christ is Risen."
At home, the table is set with baskets of deeply colored red eggs, signifying the blood of Christ, "tsoureki", the special Easter bread, as well as the traditional Easter soup, "mageiritsa". The meal usually starts with a favorite Easter tradition: everyone takes turns at an "egg-cracking" contest, each hoping that their own egg will survive and establish them the winner. The following day, Easter Sunday, is entirely devoted to merriment and feasting, with the festivities revolving around the sumptuous Easter dinner and the spit-roasted lamb. The celebration, singing, drinking, and dancing continue for many hours in the outdoors to the sounds of music and merriment.
TRADITIONAL GREEK RECIPES
Greek Salad (Choriatiki)
3 vine ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber, cut into bite-size chunks
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chunked
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and chunked
1 cubanelle pepper, seeded and chunked
1 cup Kalamata black olives
Several sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, about 1/2 cup
2 (1/4 pound) slices imported Greek feta
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons (3 splashes) red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed in palm of your hand
Coarse salt and black pepper
Combine ingredients in a large bowl and mix with large spoon.
Serve with pita bread.
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup ground walnuts
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
8 sheets filo
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups date sugar
2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons honey
sunflower oil for coating pan
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil a deep 9- by 12-inch baking pan.
2. In a small bowl combine almonds, walnuts, and cinnamon. Set aside.
3. Cut each sheet of filo in half. Stack cut sheets on counter. With a large pastry brush, dot top sheet with about 1 teaspoon butter, then spread evenly to coat as much of sheet as possible (see Preparing Filo). Lay evenly in baking pan. Sprinkle lightly with nut mixture. Repeat with remaining sheets, stacking evenly.
4. To cut baklava make 4 evenly spaced vertical cuts through the entire stack of filo. Then cut diagonally to form diamond shapes. (Four evenly spaced diagonal cuts will yield 15 to 20 pastries.) Bake for 20 minutes, then lower heat to 300 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes more.
5. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer date sugar, lemon rind, lemon juice, and honey until thickened. Pour over cooked baklava as soon as it comes out of the oven. Let cool and then serve.
THE GREEK ALPHABET