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E -113 : The Invisible Border (1) - Alphabet

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

The Greek Coast Line in Kefalonia

As the coastline of Puglia fades out of sight and we sail east, a light blue line becomes visible on the eastern horizon - the mountains of Albania and Greece. Custom formalities in Otranto were easy and are going to be the same in Corfu. We move between two EU countries who signed the Schengen Agreement. There is no border between Italy and Greece – so it seems

The Straits of Otranto

Upon arrival in Greece, we notice many differences though. The churches and the priests look different, the alphabet and language changed and so did the food which now echoes the flavours of the Levant. Without noticing, we crossed one of the oldest borders in history. The border between Eastern and Western Europe.

It was not always a border but became one over time. When the Greek colonists sailed west, Magna Graecia and mainland Greece remained united. All the Greek towns in southern Italy maintained close relationships with their parent towns and supported them when necessary. During the Persian wars, they sent troops and ships to help defending Greece. In the Peloponnesian war, the decade long conflict between Athens and Sparta, they sided with their parent towns and did not stay neutral. However, when Philipp II, the King of Macedonia, conquered Greece and the Greek cities became his vassals, the city states of Magna Graecia remained independent. In one of my earlier blogs I wondered whether the Greek center of gravity was in the west given the immense wealth and size of Magna Graecia's towns. Their power may well have been the reason they could preserve their independence.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, Magna Graecia was still independent

Philipp II's son, Alexander the Great, was not interested in the West. His focus was firmly on the Persian Empire in the East. In a few years he conquered Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and parts of India. The world was Hellenised. Greek cities were founded everywhere. Greek culture, language and with it the Greek alphabet spread to every corner of the known world. Alexandria in Egypt was a Greek town, so was Antioch in today’s Turkey, where the four gospels were written between 66 and 110 AD. Magna Graecia remained outside of the Alexander's big empire - for the first time the Greek towns in southern Italy were on their own.

The Greek Alphabet derived from the Phoenician Alphabet conquered the world

Without any conquest, the Greek alphabet had already spread deep into Italy – well before Alexandre the Great. It was easily accepted by the Etruscans who used the form written in Euboea. We thus can read their writing even though we still do not understand the meaning. Etruscan remains one of the undeciphered languages of ancient Europe. The Etruscans made some changes which were later incorporated into what became the Latin Alphabet. As Rome became the dominant power in Italy in the 3rd century BC, it imposed its style of writing. And the Roman Empire - of course - did not only communicate in Latin - it used the Latin alphabet to do so.

Thus, on the western side of the Adriatic, the Latin Alphabet was used and on the eastern side the Greek Alphabet. Geographically both covered areas of comparable size for several hundred years until the 7th century AD. With the rise of the Arabs and later the Ottoman Empire, things changed thoroughly though. Arab and Turkish became the spoken languages and the Arab alphabet replaced the Greek. Today, the Greek Alphabet is only used in Greece itself and its Cyrillic derivative in Russia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia. The Latin Alphabet fared better. It could maintain its dominance in the area of the former Western Roman Empire - the invading German tribes dropped their runes. It even spread further during the Middle Ages with the Catholic Church. Today, it is used by 131 nations. As an irony of history, Turkey adopted under Kemal Atatürk in 1928 the Latin Alphabet when he modernised the country. But the Adriatic is still the borderline between these two alphabets.

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