Touched by the Mediterranean Sea and all the delights that an Arabic country can offer, Al Hamidiyah is a small village that is not much different to any other found in Syria. Except its population speaks Greek.
I had just made it aboard my flight from Damascus to the city of Latakia, which hugs the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and from there I had 24 hours to make the 120 km journey south to Al Hamidiyah and back again! As a foreigner, I was not permitted to hire a car. So I did what I do best. I hired a taxi driver to take me around in circles, until finally I was able to hire another driver to take me to the Greek village. As my Arabic is more than a little rusty, it took me 2 hours to convince anyone to be my driver.
Before we discuss the Greek village, it’s worth providing a background to the Hellenic history of Syria.
In ancient times, Greek traders had a presence in Syria. However it wasn’t until the epoch of Alexander the Great that the Greek influence in Syria became prominent. Alexander had always championed a fusion of his own Greek culture with that of the East.
The break up of Alexander’s empire led to the establishment of various Hellenistic kingdoms. One of the most prominent being the Seleucid Kingdom which encompassed the eastern part of Alexander’s empire, including Syria (312 BC – 63 BC). The Greek empire of the Seleucids ruled over the area from Syria though to parts of Pakistan. The unifying element being the Hellenistic culture and the Greek administration that ruled over this vast region. The empire was a fusion of influences from Greece and the East. In Syria itself, the Greek language gained prominence, particularly in the larger cities and towns. In fact the name Syria is Greek, emanating from the Greek word for Assyria (an ancient people who had inhabited parts of the East).
When Pompey of Rome conquered Syria and put an end to the Seleucid Empire, the Greek language and culture was still dominant and remained so until the Roman Empire was superseded by the Byzantine Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The Byzantine Empire ruled over what was known as the ‘Greek East,’ and gradually the people of Syria were converted to the Greek Orthodox religion, whose Patriarch resided in Constantinople. Some of the prominent cities that were founded by the Byzantines were Antioch and Antalya.
Over the next few centuries Syria became the battleground between the Greek Byzantines and the Persians and then the Arab tribes. The Byzantine hold over Syria began to wane in the 7th century as Muslim Arab forces began to take large sections of the Middle East. It wasn’t until circa 1180 that the last remaining Byzantine city (Antioch) in Syria was taken, ending direct Greek influence over Syria. There is no definitive way of measuring when Arabic superseded Greek as the main language of urban Syria, though it can be deduced that the turning point was the 11th century.
The Greek language and indeed the Greek Orthodox religion remained as minority entities until well into the rule of the Ottoman Empire, conquerors of Syria in the 15th century. What most people do not realise is that Greek was the second language of the Ottoman Empire which ruled over the Balkans, most of north Africa and the Middle East for over 4 centuries. It was also the language of Ottoman administration, hence it retained a significant influence in places such as Syria.
Today there are over 1 million Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox worshipers – a phenomenal statistic in a strong Muslim country. This is a legacy of the Byzantine Greek presence in Syria. The Greek Orthodox Church is known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (formerly a Syrian city that is now in Turkey). It is the successor to the church founded by Apostles Peter and Paul. The church is now based in Damascus.
From what the locals told me, Syrian Christians have their own courts that deal with civil matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance based on Bible teachings. By agreement with other communities, Syrian Christian churches do not accept converts from Islam.
The current Greek community in Syria numbers around 5000. Over 3000 of them are the Greek Muslims of Al Hamidiyah. In Damascus the Greek community has maintained an official federation since 1913, which oversees the Greek school. There are small Greek communities in Latakia, Tartus and Hims, cities along the Mediterranean coast. Latakia incidentally was founded by the Hellenistic King, Seleucids, as a city of Greek culture around 310 BC. The Seleucids founded a number of towns in Syria.
In a remote coastal area of Syria, and close to the Lebanese border, can be found one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to. A reminder of resilience and a nod to the type of cultural fusion that Alexander the Great and his Seleucid successors had tried to cultivate. This is the village of Al Hamidiyah, where over 60% speak the Cretan Greek dialect. It is a village that is almost entirely made up of the descendants of Cretan Muslims.
For the uninitiated, the Ottoman empire had conquered Crete in 1669 after a heroic siege against Venetians and Cretans. By 1858, 22% of Cretans were Muslim – mostly Greek converts rather than ethnic Turks. With the rise of Greek nationalism, Christian Cretans defined their Muslim country folk as being ‘Turks,’ leading to the mass migration of thousands of Muslim Cretans to the Levantine coast.
I had been told that the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II provided refuge for the fleeing Cretan Muslims and hence the village is named after him (Al Hamidiyah).
The day that I chose to visit I could not believe that after being in a country where English speakers are a rarity, I made it to a village where I could converse in Greek.
My driver pulled up at the entrance of the town, the main road to Lebanon. The butcher came out of his shop with a big knife that was being used to carve meat. His big moustache and dark features reminded me of the Greeks of Crete, and when he began to speak in his Cretan dialect I felt like I was in a village of Crete. Sitting across the road was a young man smoking an argyle – in typical Arabic fashion. And then he began speaking to me in Cretan Greek! The butcher (hasapis) took me to see a local man, Jamal (not his real name) and his father. Before I knew it, we were joined by his wife, 5 children and his enthusiastic brother.
In typical Syrian, or should I say Cretan hospitality, I was fed and then, something I could never have expected. We all had frappe!
Over the next few hours, I was treated to the most amazing stories and I was privelleged to listen to the family elder (pappou) recite and sing Cretan songs. I must have recorded about a dozen of these priceless gems. Every time Jamal prompted his father to sing, he duly did so. When you hear Cretan songs being sung from the heart, from a man who has never been to the island, you realise how strong the Cretan presence is felt in Al Hamidiyah. These songs spoke of Crete in a different age, they were beautiful to listen to.
I was told that the dialect they speak was learnt in the home as it is not taught at school. The Hamidiyans love Crete and this family is a clear example of that. You can see it in the spark of their eyes when they speak of Crete. It came as no surprise that they, like the rest of the village, appreciate the Cretan customs and language. Having been to Crete, I could almost feel as though I was in a remote part of a mountain village being entertained not by people in Syria, rather by people of Crete.
After a while, I took a stroll through the village. I paused in the front of a house where Greek music was blaring. Within a few moments the young lads came outside to chat and to offer their hospitality. I continued my stroll and with each passing street I seemed to be attracting the local kids so that by the time I arrived to the beach front, 5 or 6 curious youngsters were following. All of them could understand my Greek and were eager to point out the wonders of their humble village. After a quick visit to the local barber followed by the candy shop to buy sweets for the children, I made my way back to the home Jamal.
Over the years, Greek-speaking Muslims have found it hard to obtain passports. According to the villagers it is most likely due to the unique situation that they have found themselves in, being Muslim and with no immediate relatives born in Greece. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and they have been recognized as being of Greek origin and they are now simply having the same struggle as other foreign born Greeks have when trying to obtain a Greek passport from abroad!
Occasionally, some of the Hamidiyans are employed in Crete on various construction projects or in hospitality where they rekindle their love for their spiritual homeland. With Cyprus being close to Syria, many also go there to work. Jamal and his brother have both worked in Crete for a number of years, and despite the religious differences with those born on the island, they felt welcome in their other ‘home.’
After a few more visitors had come past to say hello, ‘kalispera,’ I bade the village good bye. Alexander the Great would have been proud that in one of the many territories he conquered, a Greek speaking community exists to this very day. It is just how he would have wanted it, a community influenced by Greek and Eastern customs. It is a community which may be Syrian but is also very proud of its Cretan Greek heritage.