Opportunity & Adventure: The Greek Presence in Africa

Timing can be everything. I was just about to book my trip to see my adventurous Greek friend Will, a guy who had lived in 4 countries, including his latest residence in Libya. I was in for a rude surprise.

Libya

As a Project Manager, Will was given the opportunity to work near Tripoli. Just as I found my ticket, war broke out (2011). Will was lucky to get out. Dramatically abandoning his car as it broke down outside the airport, He just made one of the last evacuations to Germany.

I had always wanted to visit what was known as Cyrenaica, ancient Greek colonies that later became a Greek Byzantine stronghold in the 500’s AD. This area in the northern tip of Libya has an unbroken Greek link since at least 630 BC. Byzantine Libya was taken by Arab troops in 642 AD.

Around the 19th Century, north Africa had a massive influx of Greek people including Libya. They took advantage of the fact that Ottoman Turks who controlled the area, nominally, did not undertake trade. The Greek community would number in the thousands as a Greek church was built and became the focal point for Hellenic culture.

If only I had taken up the offer from Will to visit when he first moved to Libya, I could have had a coffee by some of the best preserved ancient Greek archaeological sites in the world. Alas, it was not to be. From the accounts I have received, there remains a small Greek presence in Benghazi, people who have been there for generations.

Ceuta

I was in the delightful Morocco where it was explained to me by a young man that the Byzantine Greek military once had a presence in his country. The lad told me a lot about history that most 20 year olds wouldn’t know. I struggle to recall his name, though I can visualise him in the market. He was there every day, selling, hustling, negotiating, laughing. He told me about the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Spain has another enclave nearby and each with a population of around 90,000. They were once part of Morocco who claim them as their own, almost 400 years later.

Ceuta was once known as Septum and when the great Byzantine general Belisarius conquered the Mediterranean in 533 AD, he took this outpost which is opposite Gibraltar. It is known as Hercules’ Pillar in Africa. Septum was the last territory in Africa to fall to the Arab military, holding out until 711. Julian, the final Byzantine Governor and a supporter of the Arab movement, surrendered Septum to spare it potential ruin from the advancing military. Considering how far west the enclave was from heartland of the Byzantine Empire, it is hard to imagine that Greek was the main language. There were hundreds of Greek speakers and perhaps a Church at the time it was captured.

South Africa

There are approximately 70,000 people in South Africa with Greek heritage, with the first Greek migrants arriving in 1850, looking for a sense of adventure and purpose as most of the Greek East was still under Ottoman suzerainty. These early settlers generally tended to work in the mines searching for gold and diamonds.

One of the most interesting was a person I read about in a book entitled, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom,’ George Bizos. A humanitarian lawyer and like virtually the entire Greek population was staunchly anti apartheid.

Another high profile Greek is famous soccer pioneer Ivan Gazidis who is now the Chief Executive of Arsenal FC (as a Manchester United supporter, I just ask why…)!

My friend Elena Spiliopoulou was born in 1985 and currently lives in a small town managing her restaurant. Having had a long stint living in Athens which ended in 2011, her heart is shared between the two countries. With the realisation the Greek economy would not improve, she returned. Elena gave me a great insight into what it was like growing up at the end of Apartheid and the struggle to change to a pluralist democracy. Like most people here, she talks fondly of Madiba and the inspiration he was, and remains. There were periods when Greek people struggled for overall acceptance, though they did not go through the same tribulations and problems confronted by other groups. She also reminded me that Ghandi was a famous resident of this picturesque part of the world, a ‘Uitlander (foreigner)’ who fought for equality.

Her Pappou had a famous Hellenic bakery in the 1960’s in Hilbrow, Johannesburg. This set the family up as emerging business people. It is a reminder that Greece has had economic problems over the decades, which constantly leads many of its people to migrate elsewhere. At least in SA they are surrounded by stunning landscape and coastline, similar to where they came from.

Stelana Kliris, a talented film maker is fresh from her latest feature,’ Committed (2014).’ Stelana was born in South Africa in 1981, and like my friend Will, has lived in 4 countries. She told me that South Africa had a large Hellenic population….  ‘It is smaller now as many people have returned over the years, but while I was there, we had Hellenic communities all over the country; there were about ten Hellenic Youth Organisations which are strong.’

Stelana explained that whilst school was in English, it was compulsory to learn a second local language as well. There are 12 official languages. Greek was taught in the afternoons at Greek School. In Johannesburg, there is also a Greek private school known as Saheti which functions in English but offers Greek as a subject. She also told me with pride of ‘how far our parents came. They literally arrived from Cyprus with nothing but a suitcase, not even knowing the language. They worked very hard and stuck together as a community, ensuring that their children could have a better future, and they did.’

Kenya

I met Dimitris in a coffee shop in London. It was ironic, my then girlfriend dared me to speak to a group of guys who were conversing in Greek. I was more focussed on the beautiful company at my table. However, to prove a point, I leant over and soon made my acquaintance. This group of Greek boys would eventually become my Greek coffee partners.

Dimitris was born in Kenya, a country with a tropical coastline and climate. You can understand why many Greek speakers embarked on an adventure here. As far back as 4th Century BC, Greek ships had made their way to Kenya, but it wasn’t until the last 120 years that there has been a real presence for commercial gain.

In late 2013, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry and East African Chamber of Commerce chairman James Mureu told the media that four Greek companies will invest in Kenya. A positive sign for potential ways to improve the Greek economy as it continues to struggle with EU debt.

Here is another incredible fact for you to digest. The Greek Orthodox Church has existed in Kenya since the start of the 20th Century. There are well over 200,000 members and growing rapidly amongst the local population. The Church is well respected and performs many wonderful projects in Kenya.

In 1999, the Greek Embassy had protected Kurdish PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan who had arrived on a Cypriot passport. Turkish Commandos with the possible assistance of some government officials captured Ocalan as he was being moved in Nairobi. This created a diplomatic row and led to the resignation of several ministers in Kenya and Greece.

Egypt

Outside of Libya, the strongest ancient Greek presence in Africa was Egypt. Herodotus gave us an early insight into the wealth and history of Egypt when he wrote about his adventure to Egypt.

Alexander the Great established what is arguably the most important Greek city outside of Constantinople and Greece. My visit to Alexandria and Egypt will be described in another article. However, I will say this, the history of Hellenes in Egypt is phenomenal. With two of the most unique and fascinating cultures meeting, the results were impressive. This includes the architecture of Alexandria and the style and substance of Cleopatra, perhaps the most famous woman in history.

Tunisia

One of the most inspirational people I ever met was in Tunisia in 2010. This is a fascinating country for me as I grew up on the history of Carthage, once the biggest rival to ancient Greece. This is a city that clearly demonstrated to the world how brilliant Africa is when allowed freedom from foreign interests.

I was fortunate enough to interview the head of the Greek church of Tunisia, who holds the significant title of ‘His Eminence, Archbishop of Carthage and all North Africa.’ His Eminence, Alexios Leontaritis. His title is important as it dates back to the Byzantine era. The congregation in the capital of Tunis is about 60 people strong. The modern community was established in 1847. The passion of the small group made it feel as though there were hundreds of people worshipping and preying when I went to the Church. Interestingly, the Greeks in Byzantine times called themselves Romans hence it’s ironic that the Greek ecclesia is located at Rue de Rome (just a few blocks from Greek Street).

In a land where 98% of the population adheres to Islam, I felt that the small Greek Community are more than maintaining a Greek presence, they have been ‘resurrecting’ the Hellenic spirit of yesteryear. Not only was there a strong Greek presence during early medieval times, the Greek community in the 19th Century numbered an impressive 8000.

His Eminence is responsible for each Greek church in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, approximately 10 in total.

Zimbabwe

Having a coffee with Gianna Papachristou in Athens in 2013 when she returned from a yearlong business trip to Zimbabwe, I was stunned that this former elite gymnast could have a stint there. With the media reports of upheaval and plenty of uncertainty, I asked her why she would take the risk.

For Gianna, it was a sense of adventure and opportunity at a time when Greece is struggling economically. She knew other Greek people there and this gave her the confidence and security to make the journey. It reinforced the notion that there are many Greek speakers who are willing to make an effort to see a new culture and invest in markets that have potential.

Byzantine Presence

The Byzantine (Greek) Empire was at its zenith in the early Middle Ages, it counted Africa as a province. Having been reconquered by Byzantine forces in 533 AD, the Byzantine province included sections of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Ceuta.

From my research, the territory of Africa did not exceed more than about 200 km south of the Mediterranean Sea, except in Egypt which took in a deeper area along the Nile River. This province was dominated by Greek Orthodox followers with Greek being the language of administration and trade. A number of Byzantine ruins can be found across the former province.

The strength of the emerging Umayyad Caliphate meant the large area of land that needed defending was going to be difficult and by 698 AD. Byzantine Africa was taken, except Ceuta.Within decades, Islam became the dominant religion, except in Egypt. Here, the Coptic Orthodox religion has remained strong, today accounting for approximately 9% of the population.

The Coptic faith is similar to Orthodox and at one stage was under the same Patriarch in Constantinople.

Greek Community

To my knowledge there are active Greek Associations in Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Eritrea, Tunisia, Djibouti, Sudan. Many of their members have excelled with their commercial interests and the opportunity that they have found in Africa. I am not sure if the Greek government provides any support to the Associations, though SAE does provide support where necessary.

They have become an ideal way to maintain Hellenic identity and culture with regular events and providing a meeting point. Some of the Associations have 100 members, a decent number when you factor in how small the local Greek population is.

The explorer Euthymenes of Massalia (Marseilles) explored the coast of West Africa as far as Senegal according to Plutarch. This adventure occurred in the 6th Century BC and it demonstrates a fascination by Greek people of Africa since antiquity. I have met many people in my life who remind me somewhat of this famous explorer, a few of them are highlighted in this article. Long may this sense of Greek adventure to the wonderful continent of Africa continue. I too will return soon to begin my next adventure.

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