GREECE REVISITED 2006 - Prologue

  Prologue photos 1

  Ancient History

  20th Century turmoil

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  Prologue photos 2

  Turkish rule

  Democracy re-found

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Our last visit to Greece in 2004 was spent mainly in the Peloponnese and Central Greece (see Greece 2004 web); there was no time then to explore the northern areas of Macedonia and Thrace, bordering Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Bulgaria and Turkey. This trip, after spending Easter at Mycenae, we plan to devote most of our time to the less well-known northern provinces - fascinating new places. As a prelude to the trip, a snap-shot profile of Greek geography, economy, politics and history is given below.

Geography, Economy and Government of Greece:  Ελλας is the southernmost country of the Balkan peninsula, covering 51,000 square miles of mountainous terrain, with an archipelago of some 2,000 islands. Greece's homeland population is around 11 million of whom 3.5 million live in the Athens conurbation; additionally some 5.5 million descendents of Greek economic emigrants now live in USA, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Immigrants (largely illegal from Albania) make up 20% of the work-force, mainly in menial jobs. Within Greece's capitalist economy, tourism accounts for 15% of GDP, services 56%, industry 22% and agriculture 7%. Greece has been an EU member state since 1981, and joined the Euro in 2001. But despite strong economic growth in recent years, public debt, inflation and unemployment remain significantly above that of leading euro-zone economies. The country is a major beneficiary of EU aid, equal to 3.3% of annual GDP. Military expenditure however amounts to $5.9 billion (4.3% of GDP), reflecting continuing tensions with Turkey. The Hellenic Republic is a parliamentary democracy with President Karolos Papoulias as Head of State. Executive power rests with the 300 seat unicameral Parliament; the current main political parties are centre-right New Democracy (ND) and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).
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Ancient History:
  the first Greek-speaking peoples migrated into mainland Greece around 2,000 BC. These Bronze Age warlike peoples built mighty palace-citadels such as those at Pylos, Tiryns and particularly Agamemnon's Mycenae, giving the civilisation its name - Mycenaean. The Mycenaeans increasingly dominated the Mediterranean world, protecting their trading interests with ruthless military and naval power. Legends of the Trojan War, narrated later by Homeric bards, reflect such trade rivalry. Mycenaean palace archives, recorded on clay tablets in Linear B early Greek script, reveal Mycenaean wealth. But archaeology shows the Mycenaean citadels were violently destroyed around 1,100 BC by Dorian invaders, who introduced knowledge of iron-working. The succeeding 'Dark Age' saw significant political and cultural changes which led to the emergence of independent city-states (polis in Greek, derivation of politics), ruled by land-owning aristocrats. The Archaic Age (8~6th centuries BC) saw the development of the Greek alphabet, still used today, the beginnings of literature, the establishment of the Olympic Games and the Oracle at Delphi, and the foundation of colonies around the Mediterranean. In 490 BC, the Persians attempted invasion of Greece, but were repulsed by the Athenians at Marathon, a victory still celebrated with today's 26 mile race. Ten years later, the Persians returned in vengeful force, but were delayed at the pass of Thermopylae by the 300 Spartans' last stand led by King Leonidas. The 5th century BC Classical Age saw Athens rise as a super-power under Pericles, with the  blossoming of arts, literature and democratic government, and the building of the Parthenon as a symbol of political prestige. But the inevitable clash with militaristic Sparta led to the protracted Peloponnesian War, related by the historian Thucydides, and the eventual downfall of Athens in 404 BC. During the Hellenistic Age of the 4th century BC, the Macedonians under King Philip II controlled Greece. His son, Alexander the Great, conquered much of Asia during his brief 33 year life. Meanwhile, the Romans were expanding their empire in the west and from 146 BC conquered Greece which for the next 300 years became the Roman province of Achaea.
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Byzantine Empire, Turkish rule and Independence:
 in 324 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and founded Constantinople (Byzantium) on the Bosphorus; the Empire split and the western Roman world went into terminal decline. The Eastern Empire however, including Greece, flourished under Byzantine rule for the next 700 years. Conflict between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Papal Churches led finally in 1054 AD to the Great Schism between the 2 opposing brands of Christianity, not healed for another 1000 years. The Eastern Empire came under threat when in 1204 AD, Franks and Venetians sacked Byzantium at the time of the Fourth Crusade, and built fortresses in Greece to control occupied lands. In the mid-13th century, Byzantine power shifted to Mystras in the Peloponnese, which for the next 200 years flourished economically and artistically, a major centre of scholarship. Commercial interchange with Western trading centres encouraged the spread of learning: Italy's influential families such as the Medici attracted scholars from Mystras, bringing knowledge of Classical literature and philosophy. It is therefore to Mystras, with the blossoming of learning during the Byzantine Empire's dying years, that we owe the origins of the Renaissance which so changed the face of Western Europe. But the expanding Ottoman Turkish Empire posed a new threat to Byzantine Greece: Constantinople fell in 1453, and abandoned by the Christian west, Greece succumbed to 350 years of oppressive Muslim rule. Scholars and artists emigrated westwards, with Greek culture and identity kept alive by the Orthodox Church. By the late 18th/early 19th century, armed resistance to Turkish rule grew among bands of klephts (brigands) in the mountains of Greece. Secret societies among Greek merchants and intellectuals gave financial and ideological backing to the struggle for independence. The insurrection was launched on 25 March 1821 (still celebrated as Independence Day) by Germanos, Patriarch of Patras, and the revolt spread, aided by western Philhellenes such as Lord Byron. The Greeks' heroic action, and barbaric Turkish reprisal massacres, forced the European Powers to intervene; in 1827 a combined squadron of British, French and Russian warships destroyed the Turkish fleet in Navarino Bay, ensuring successful outcome to the War of Independence. In 1831, the Great Powers officially recognised the independent state of Greece, albeit limited to the south/central mainland and some islands, and imposed a Bavarian prince as King Otto I. His autocratic rule however so offended the Greeks, who in 1862 forced Otto into exile, to be replaced by another western royal as George I, King of the Hellenes; at this time Britain ceded the Ionian Islands to Greece. A revised constitution established a democratically elected parliament, making Greece a 'Crowned Democracy'. The last quarter of the 19th century, under Prime Minister Trikoupis, was a period of intense development, with land reform, road and rail building, population expansion, and further territorial gain with Thessaly and SE Epiros prized from Ottoman control. 1896 marked the new state's coming of age with the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens.
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20th century turmoil for Greece:
  under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, early 20th century Greek foreign policy was driven by irredentist ambition - the 'Great Idea' of uniting all ethnic Greeks within the Greek nation. The 1912-13 Balkan Wars finally drove the Turks from Europe, and Greece gained central Epiros, southern Macedonia, northern Thessaly, most Aegean Islands and Crete. Venizelos urged entry into WW I on the Allied side, hoping to recover Thrace and Asia Minor, but conflict with King Constantine I who favoured neutrality, divided the country on Venizelist-Royalist lines. Greece fought alongside the Allies in WW I and on victory, occupied Thrace and laid claims to Asia Minor. This led to one of the most disastrous episodes in modern Greek history: Greek troops occupied Smyrna (Izmir) and advanced inland, only to suffer an ignominious defeat in 1921 by the Turks under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). The 1923 humiliating Treaty of Lausanne restored Turkish sovereignty to eastern Thrace, the Dardanelles and all of Asia Minor, and enforced a mass exchange of populations: 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor crossed with 500,000 Turks from Greece. Crushing military defeat, strained economy and political turmoil led to 5 years of military dictatorship in 1936 under General Metaxas.  Italian and then German invasion of Greece in WW II brought bitter suffering: 500,000 civilians died of starvation as the Germans requisitioned all food, committed indescribably barbaric atrocities and systematically murdered the 80,000 Jewish population. Heroic guerrilla resistance against the occupiers, organised around 2 contesting movements, Monarchists and Communists, spilled over into open Civil War between 1946-9. Reflecting early Cold War paranoia, the USA poured massive economic and military aid into an almost puppet right-wing government, leading to ruthless defeat of the Communists and bitter divisions still felt today. A decade of war had shattered Greece's economy and infrastructure, and killed 12% of the population. Greece gained the Dodecanese Islands from the Italians in 1947, but in the post-war despair, almost 1 million Greeks emigrated to seek a new life in USA, Canada or Australia. In 1967, a group of army colonels led by Papadopoulos staged a coup and established a military junta; they imposed martial law and censorship, banned political parties and trade unions, and imprisoned and tortured any who opposed them. An ill-conceived 1973 attempt to overthrow President Makarios and unite Cyprus with Greece brought the junta's downfall, but provoked Turkish invasion of the island, resulting in the Cyprus deadlock which is still unresolved today.                                                                
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The Republic of Greece since 1974:
  lacking any legitimacy or support, the Colonels' 7 year junta was consigned to the dustbin of history. Konstantinos Karamanlis was called upon to reinstate democratic government and his newly formed centre-right New Democracy Party (ND) secured a large parliamentary majority in the November 1974 elections over Andreas Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). In that year also, a plebiscite voted by 70% against restoration of the monarchy: Greece became a Democratic Republic with a new constitution, and King Constantine retired to luxurious exile in Rome. With inflation running at 25% and a feeling of unfulfilled government pledges, the 1981 election returned PASOK as the first socialist government in Greek history. In spite of a declining economy, Papandreou won a 2nd term in 1985, but was forced to embark on a severe austerity programme, amid personal and financial scandals. After inconclusive elections in 1989, ND were returned to government under Prime Minister Mitsotakis in 1990, intent on redressing the country's economic problems. Amid allegations of government corruption, the 1993 election gave PASOK a huge majority, and with Papandreou's declining health and death in 1996 at aged 77, Costas Simitis led PASOK to further election victories in 1996 and 2000. The March 2004 general election returned New Democracy to government with 165 seats, a majority of 30 over PASOK (117 seats) and left-wing parties (18 seats); the current Prime Minister is New Democracy leader Kostas Karamanlis. His noted achievement has been the success of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, an economic triumph for Greece.
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Our 2006 return visit:  this albeit brief summary of 4,000 years of turbulent Greek history underlies our admiration for a country and its people who have survived so many catastrophes and have bequeathed to us so much of language, art, literature, culture and the foundations of modern western civilised society. Not the least, they gave us the foundation principles of democratic government, which after so many political and social traumas, flourishes again today in 21st century Greece. We are so looking forward to revisiting old acquaintances in the Peloponnese and exploring new regions in the north, and plan to be in Greece to share in both their Independence Day and Orthodox Easter celebrations. As always, we shall report fortnightly with news and photos of our travels, and hope you will enjoy sharing our 2006 ventures.

  Sheila and Paul                                                                            Published: Sunday 5 February 2006

Click here for Prologue photos page 1

Click here for Prologue photos page 2
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Music this week: 
Greek National Anthem


  Hungary 2005

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