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E - 62 : Is there a Greek Culture?

When transferring my blogs to this site I came across a piece I wrote on Croatian culture in 2019 (C - 4). To solidify their rule over Dalmatia acquired in 1806, the French established a nationalist movement. Croats should feel emotionally attached and loyal to “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité” whilst their eastern brethren, the Serbs, would continue to suffer under the Ottomans. It worked. Was Greek culture “invented” as well in 1821?

Part of the video clip I refer to later in the text

The War of Independence started that year and ended with the creation of a new kingdom eleven years later. In 1832, Otto Friedrich Ludwig, the boyish King of Greece, was dispatched from Bavaria. Upon his arrival in Athens, he famously said, “there are only ruins and stones in my kingdom.” King Otto opened Greece quickly to western culture and brought in French cuisine – that's when the Béchamel sauce arrived for the Moussaka!

The 18 years old King Otto Friedrich Ludwig from Munich

The idea of Greece as an independent nation was something new – at least to the Greek. Not to Western Hellenophiles thought. In its entire history, Greece was never a nation. During its peak in the 5th century, city states like Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Miletus etc. ruled. There was a common Greek culture, a common language, religion, way of living, music, philosophy, and architecture though. Is it Greek’s culture today?

The major Greek City States which governed the country in the 5th century BC

A good way to look at how people try to describe their culture is how they market themselves to others. Greece has 10.7 million people and 17.5 million visiting tourists. Several YouTube videos provide some interesting in-sights.

The country is portrayed as a place with 3’000 years of continuous history, outstanding landscapes, great islands, a beautiful sea, sun, a fabulous culinary tradition, and fun parties. In a nutshell, a place you want to be.

It is marketing though. Culture is heritage – our roots. Of course, the Greek culture did not remain unchanged for 3’000 years. It evolved and changed over the centuries.

The process started early, almost immediately after the victory over the Persians. Several democratic city states vied for supremacy. Greece descended into a century of civil war. Eventually the city states lost their independence to the Macedonian King Philipp II. Under his son Alexander Hellenistic culture became a world culture – albeit without democracy and other dangerous, philosophical thoughts. But it was a cultural peak and found its expression in towns like Antioch where our gospel was written or Alexandria with its famous library.

Alexander the Great brought Hellenic Culture to Persia, India and ancient Egypt

As Alexander’s empire faded, the Romans picked up the pieces. Rome’s conquest of Greece was less peaceful than Rome admitted. Many Greek towns were levelled to the ground, its people enslaved and deported to Rome. Corinth is a good example. What we visit today are the ruins of a Roman colony – not the ancient Greek town. The teachers and scribes who were sold as slaves brought Greek philosophy and learning to Rome though. Within decades they won over the imperial elite. Hellenistic & Roman culture fused. But there was never any doubt, Greece was a romanised colony of the Empire.

Two centuries later, we find the first Christians in Greece and Asia Minor. The letters of Saint Paul provide us with ample evidence. By the 4th century, Greece was completely Christian. Constantinople with the Hagia Sophia and its Patriarch became its new cultural point of reference. From then on, the Orthodox Church was the institution that sometimes alone sheltered Greek culture. There is no Greek culture without the Orthodox Church.

Former Prime Minister Tsipras tried to "divorce' the church from the state but failed - he wanted to get control of the Orthodox Church's large landholdings

Not much changed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. As a state policy, the Ottoman Sultans did not interfere with religion. The Greek Patriarch of Istanbul remained in charge - only his reporting line changed – his boss was now the Sultan. The literate, Greek urban elite in Asia Minor and Constantinople filled important positions in the Ottoman Administration. We also find many Greek families in banking, trading, and shipping. For the Ottomans, the Greek’s international network was valuable and helped to run the Empire.

All this changed with the Greek War of Independence in 1821 and ended 100 years later in utter disaster. The Greco-Turkish War lead to Europe's then largest ethnic cleansing. Greek people in Anatolia and Constantinople were expelled from places they had lived in for thousands of years. The Greek lost another cultural center of reference.

Over the 100 years from 1821 to 1922, Greece expanded and acquired many new territories with native Greek speakers but different cultures.

  1. The core of the new nation were peasants from the Peloponnese, Attica and, the central mountains. They allied with mariners from the Aegean islands. This alliance resented Ottoman interference in business and high taxes. But by 1824 the Greek local leaders were at each other's throat and fought a civil war amongst themselves.

  2. The intervention of Egyptian troops in 1825 turned the war into a religious crusade against the “Islamisation” of Greece. Western Powers intervened, destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian Fleet in Navarino and imposed a conservative kingdom on Greece. It was not the self-ruling Greeks had fought and hoped for.

  3. During several Balkan wars Greece obtainerd control over large parts of Macedonia and Albania with their indigenous mountain culture

  4. England ceded in 1864 the Ionian Islands - Venetian colonies for centuries with their own westward looking culture

  5. The Greek-Turkish War of 1921/22 forced 1.5 million Greeks to leave their homes in Asia Minor and Istanbul. 0.5 million ethnic Turks were evicted from Greece. A nation of only 4.5 million people had to absorb 1.5 m refugees with a completely different cultural background. These refugees settled mostly in urban areas.

  6. In 1947, Greece got its last territory – the Dodecanes with Rhodes. Ottoman since the Knights of Saint John were kicked out in 1522, they were Italian from 1919–43

  7. The civil war at the end of WWII between communist and nationalists split Greece even further. The political left did not recognise the government as legitimate for several decades.

Language Map of Greece from the 1980

Was Greek culture invented in 1821 to give the young new nation a new base? Is it still the same as 3'000 years ago? It wasn't and it isn't. A better description was that it was clobbered together from various existing parts - rural and traditional in the Peloponnese and Central Greece, urban and mediterranean from the refugees from Turkey, Slavic and Albanian in the northern mountains and westward looking in the Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese. The common language and the Orthodox Church holds the country together as does the Greek cuisine which is - funny enough - a successful import from the Levant.

But when it comes to way of life, customs, architecture, music or politics, the Greek identities are deeply local or regional - Athens is far away. The Bavarian Kings were foreigners - the two families who alternate in government are perceived as “not our government”.

Greece never built a state for its citizens. Its “German” kings adopted the model of the centralist French state with a strong bureaucracy. It is no wonder that Greece ranks on the EU's “Ease of Doing Business” list on 26th place and by GDP on 25th - beaten by the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia. Under Ottoman rule Greeks always did business in the informal sector - avoiding taxation by the Turks was a national sport. The tradition continues to this day.

Whether Greece finds a national culture and a state it considers to be its own is to be seen. Culture and nations do not have to be centralised to be successful. There is no Swiss culture. We love the differences between our 26 cantons – diversity is enriching and enjoyable. We embrace our state as “our government” which runs our affairs efficiently and helps creating good jobs. I still hope that - one day - Greece goes our way. The marketing campaign is a clever tool to attract visitors but not a way to give power to the people.

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