The Many Faces of Hellenic Identity

[Lecture delivered on 4 March 2014 at the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW’s Greek Festival]

Where do you start with Hellenic culture?

It is essentially endless and if you scratch the surface in many parts of Europe, North Africa, Middle East, you will find a hidden Hellenic connection. I thought this evening I might look at few places I have been to where the Hellenic culture has survived.

Some context about me. I have been fortunate to travel. Most people my age get married, delve in to a mortgage… I just seem intent on seeing new places. I’m always amazed by what you can learn from a travel experience and in the ‘Greek World’ you can learn a lot abut your own identity.

My pappou Vasilis was born in a village outside Aivali, what we would have called Asia Minor, and my gia gia Kassandra, most likely in Smyrna which was a century ago majority Greek. My fascination with the extent of Hellenic culture emanates from a trip to Aivali and Smyrna in 1999. It amazed me to know that there are many places in the world where Greek people and the language was predominant, Asia Minor is no different. Today it is part of Turkey, though sadly there about 6,000 Hellenes remaining in a country that once had millions.

Many think of the Greek world being limited to Greece, Cyprus, the migrants to North America, NZ and other such places. Let me tell you, Greeks have been exploring the world and living outside of the modern construct of Greece for centuries.

Many of you may not know this, but Greek was the language of administration as well as the elite across the entire Mediterranean for over 2000 years, ever since the ancient Greek colonies first emerged. Every country that straddles the Mediterranean has had Greek colonies or Greek settlers and later on Byzantine rule. It wasn’t until the last decades of the Ottoman Empire that Greek faded from view. Many people may condemn the Ottoman Empire, but one thing is clear, it kept the Greek language and culture alive. From Romania through to Egypt, Greek was a language that was widely used during Ottoman times.

I have been to around 20 countries where there has been or remains a Greek presence. I have never stopped looking for Greek towns and villages and usually I find them. And in these countries I come away with a sense of astonishment that their version of Hellenic identity survives. At times though, I am saddened that they are on the brink of extinction.

What I will do now is give you some insight/overview of my favourite Greek towns and villages, what I felt when I was there, how they view themselves and if they have a future .


Has anyone here been to Albania?

I recall going to the periptero at the port in the city of Saranda, which of course means 40 or I believe 40 angels. I needed a pack of tsigara and directions, as I had just come off the Delphini from Corfu. Having spent an hour travelling with a group of Hellenic men from Corfu who had always called Albania their home. They travel to Greece for work. In order to show how Greek they are, they took me to the crew’s quarter and they opened a bottle of ouzo that we soon downed! I knew then that my next few days in Albania would be a struggle to see the Albanian culture, I knew I would be surrounded by all things Greek. And this is exactly how it transpired.

Saranda has 40,000 people but most seem to have a connection with the Greek world. Every shop I went to, just about every person I met was either part of the Greek minority, Christian or had lived in Greece and seemed intent on either playing Greek music or feeding me Greek food.

Anyway, at the periptero was a young man wearing his Greek football jersey listening to Notis Sfakianis. His name was Dimitris and he had never left Albania. Dimitris would become my driver for the next few days as he took me on an adventure through Albania. I am forever grateful for his hospitality. We only ever conversed in Greek.

As an aside, Iperos is where Queen Olympia was born and the brilliant King Pyrhhus who almost destroyed Rome before it became a superpower.

What I saw in Albania was both heart warming and heart breaking. It is undoubtedly one of the poorest countries I have ever been to. The countryside was littered by UFO style bunkers just in case they are forced into a nuclear war. Every village I went to was charming but struggling economically. A theme I tend to encounter across most Greek villages and towns outside of Greece.

Across the entire coast line of Albania, there are many cities that were built by the ancient Hellenes or controlled by the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire. But it is in the south where there is no question of the Greek heritage of the area which goes back to ancient Greek settlement mainly on the coast.

I estimate that there are 80 towns or villages in southern Albania, also known as Vorio Iperos, that are Greek or have a Greek identity. Most have signage in Greek and Albanian and they all know what their heritage is from. The Government recognises them as the Greek minority, but it appears that their numbers are officially downplayed. I was lucky enough to meet the then Minister for Minorities and her 2 daughters who work in Athens, Georgia and Anna. Each time we had lunch, it was like being in Greece. From the feta to the frappe, the Greek that was spoken and in general the typical Greek hospitality.

Some recent history for you. In the 1990′s there was a movement to gain greater recognition in Albania or even independence which was met with a crack down by the government and significant tension which has eased over time. Tirana has worked with the Greek population to ensure that there is never a repeat. It is worth pointing out that Greece occupied the region in 1912 as part of the campaign to defeat the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, the great powers gave the region to the new nation of Albania the following year before the local population retaliated by creating the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. When World War I broke out the Hellenic military occupied the region and by 1919, Greece was again reaffirmed as the rulers of the region. Unfortunately, and disappointingly, when Greece was defeated by Turkey in the Asia Minor Campaign in 1922, Northern Epirus was ceded to Albania. How this was allowed to happen when the area was predominately Greek and had nothing to do with the defeat in Turkey, is beyond most
people to explain. Though it is noted that Italy had the most to gain with this outcome.

In 1940, Mussolini invaded Greece, and was pushed back to Albania. Greece immediately occupied Northern Epirus until the Germans arrived in April 1941. Greece has stayed out of the region since then, although in the 1960′s the USSR attempted to have the area declared autonomous in a failed attempt to It is unlikely that these borders will ever change again. Northern Epirus will remain in Albania where the Greek people are given more rights than they would have in the past. As long as the Greek schools operate unhindered and people are free to practise their religion language, the Greek population will remain strong.

Being a stone’s throw from the Greek border, the area will never lose its Greek character. The number of Greek people in the region is debatable, though I would say it is about 300,000. Albanian is the official language of the region, however, Greek is generally used especially in the Greek towns. People speak or understand both languages. Let me tell you, what you see in Greece, people drinking their frappe, playing tavli, listening to traditional music and smiling in the face of adversity, you will see it here. They celebrate all the big festivals and the villages never fail to have a glendi or xwro.

If you ever choose to visit, the Butrint National Park near the Greek border and Girjkostaer at the northern tip of the Greek region is a Byzantine style city and on the World Heritage List.

In Southern Albania at times you will feel like you are in Greece. And just as importantly you will see how the local Albanian population have to deal with their own adversity, from poverty to decades of government restrictions. Just like the Greek minority, they enjoy the opportunity to smile and show you a side of their

Magna Greacia

I know many people go to Italy. What a beautiful country. Roma, Venice, Florence, Amalfi, just to name a few amazing locations. Usually though we tend to avoid the south of Italy unless its Capri or Sicilia. This area is known as Magna Graecia, translated as Greater Greece. The first Greek colony dates back to 740 BC

Has anyone been to Calabria or Apulia?

I’ve never felt more proud of Hellenic culture than standing in a village called Galliciano in Calabria. I had read about this historical area in a book written by Costas Vertzayias before my visit. When I arrived in the area, it was as he described it, an area with its own unique Hellenic identity.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up when the entire village came out to greet us. Picture the scenes of the Beatles and you will get an idea. With every step the people followed us.

Galliciano is the most authentic Greek village I have been to, for they more than anyone know the value of their heritage. I recall a 35 year old Andreas, a man with piercing blue eyes and as tall as a Spartan, clearly the village leader proudly showing me the newly built Greek church. You may think, ok we have seen Greek churhes before, from Belmore to Parramatta, from Santorini to Mytilene. But what makes this unique is that Greek speakers in Italy were strongly coerced to convert in the 1500’s onward. In Calabria, they are generally Catholic. In Galliciano they have been embracing the Greek Orthodox religion. They were that proud of their church that they spent whatever funds they had to pave the mountain road that leads to their village in order for Patriarch Bartholomeo’s visit a few years ago….. he actually came by helicopter. At least they now have a modern road.

I was told by Andreas in his Byzantine era Greek dialect, ‘esu mas dineis diname.’ He meant that every person who visits Galliciano is giving them hope. For this is a place that time forgot. Like most Greek villages and similar to Albania, its not exactly millionaires row. It is very poor. Most likely your monthly wage is what the entire village will earn this week.

In Albania which is next to Greece, maintaining the Greek language not only ensures the longevity of the Hellenic identity, it means that they can visit Greece to work. In Calabria, Greek does not lead to such outcomes. The trip to Greece is considered far and very expensive.

The entire southern Italy from Napoli and Bari as well as most of Sicilia and Sardinia down was once a sea of Greek and Byzantine outposts. Greek was the spoken language of the entire region. Once the Byzantine Empire came to an end in 1453 and despite the influx of Greek speakers fleeing the Ottoman Empire, the language suffered a great decline, as did the Greek Orthodox religion.

Some may point the finger at the Pope and different rulers of the Italian states for the decline. Today there are 35,000 people in what was known as Magna Graecia who speak Greek or readily identify as being Greek. When you consider that there have been 100 towns and cities in Italy that were once Greek or Byzantine Greek, this is a massive drop.

I was lucky enough to visit Apulia as well as Calabria. In Calabria, there is a whole area called Aspromonte which means white mushroom where the Greek villages, about 8 – 10 all up are located. What amazes me, just like in Albania, are the signs that are in Italian and Greek. The government has been wonderful in maintaining the Hellenic character of the region. When you drive in to the Aspromonte area you will see Italian and Greek flags on sign posts. It is something you won’t find in many other places in the world. It is probable the saying of Una Fatsa, Una Ratsa emanates from here.

Southern Italian people are proud of the Greek heritage. When I was visiting the tourism office in the city of Rheggio, I asked how I could get to the Greek villages. Until that point the man was abrupt and seemed uninterested. He suddenly sprang to life and almost kissed me. He spent the next few minutes excitedly telling me, in Italian, all he knew about the Greek villages.

In Calabria, the old Greek dialect of Grekanica (which is said to be a mix of Byzantine and Doric) is almost at and end. This is tragic, as it is living, breathing history of our Greek past. The Greek government had previously invested in schools and teaching modern Greek in Italy. The new generation learn what they can in Modern Greek but not the old dialect. They also learn the Greek dances and perform at a number of Greek festivals. With the Greek government withdrawing funds and teachers from most Greek programmes around the world, I hope that Hellenic philanthropists can fill the breach.

In Apulia which is closer to Greece and there seems to be more local investment, the Greek schools and culture will find it easier to survive. And when you live in a town called Calimera, it would be hard to I remember we had breakfast in a cafe in Calimera. I had asked in Greek about the other local towns and if they were easy to get to. As soon as we stepped out of the cafe, a car load of Greek youth playing Greek music pulled over and asked if we needed a lift to the next Greek town. My girlfriend at the time was not particularly interested in sitting in a car that was playing loud Sakis Rouvas music, and I didn’t blame her. Italy, from Venice to Syracuse has been influenced significantly by Hellenes since 2700 BC. The remnants of the once thriving Greek population must be nurtured or we will see a total extinction of an incredible, no remarkable history. Too many poets, philosophers, mathematicians, artists and educators have been born
here, as Hellenes. I hope that continues.

Al Hamidiyah

We have all heard about Syria on the news and most of us have friends who are Syrian. Has anyone actually I mentioned Albania and Southern Italy has had a strong Hellenic identity for such a long time. They are also places were poverty features and they have struggled at times against their own government to survive. Another common factor was their religion, Christianity.

In Syria I came across a village that was Muslim. The Greek speakers of Al Hamidiyah. Which is 3 km from the Lebanese border. And since I mentioned Lebanon, I will add this. In Beirut, the Greek community there, essentially unbroken since their capture by Megas Alexandros, remains strong. They are well educated, they travel and they have a steady income, in other words poverty is not a factor in their survival. But less than 200 km north is the Muslim Greek village where like Albania and Calabria, poverty is once again a factor as is the delicate I should mention that in Syria, there are 1 million Greek Orthodox adherents. Not all of them are Greek but they are people who once belonged to the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. It shows you the immense influence the Greek world has had on civilisation.

Al Hamidiyah, just like every other Greek town I have been to welcomed me. I was driven to this town which is situated by the highway to Lebanon and next to the sea, like most Greek towns I have been to. We do like to be as close the ocean as possible.

The first person I met had a big knife and a massive moustache. I thought, oh crap, no one actually knows I am here. Not only did he look scary, but he was ready to strike. They rarely get foreign types here.

My driver explained to him that I am Greek. As soon as the word Greek was mentioned, he put the knife down and smiled. He was of course the town butcher and introduced me to his son who offered me argyle. Soon enough he directed me to his cousins home. There I was met by a large family who had a frappe waiting for me.

The 90 year old patriarch of the family spoke a heavy Cretan dialect. In fact the whole family and village did. No one learnt this dialect at school, it was passed down from generation to generation. Greek is not taught at school.

As I struggled with their dialect, as I had struggled in Calabria, they soon began to sing Cretan songs for me. This was a moment in my life I will never forget. Each one more beautiful than the next. Most detailing The people of Al Hamidiyah are fortunate that they can travel to Cyprus or Kriti and many of the men have spent many years working on either island. Most have the traditional Cretan moustache, dark features and speak glowing of their heritage. They do not readily identify as being Greek. They are of Cretan ancestry.

The Greek government in the past struggled to help them due to their religion I was told. They felt a sense I think there are about 900 people in the village and until 1896 they were Cretans in every respect. The island was around 22% Muslim at this point, having had Arabic and Ottoman rulers, it was natural that there was a very high Muslim population. The Sultan, sensing the rising tide of nationalism from the restless Cretans who wanted union with Athens, moved thousands of Cretan Muslims out. There is debate as to whether they were forced or not. The village is named after the Sultan.

In Syria, the people and the administration welcomed them in a friendly way and they have remained there I estimate that there are over possibly 20,000 people of Greek heritage across the country. Syria was part of Alexander’s empire and then became part of the Hellenic Seleucids empire before the Romans arrived in the first century BC. Greek was widely spoken and when the Byzantium took possession, Greek regained its importance until about the 800’s AD.

According to Wikipedia there are almost 8,000 people in and around the town who are of Cretan origin. I find that hard to believe though I won’t argue the point.


Where do I start? I have been to the Ukraine twice. The Greek imprint here is incredible. No 60 minute talk will do justice on what the Hellenes have achieved here.

Has anyone had the chance to visit the Ukraine?

Just like Syria, there is a certain level of upheaval in the Ukraine. Albania too has experienced a lot of this I mentioned I was given rock star treatment in Calabria, I was even escorted around by a former Mayor and well known local identity Carmello Nucero. In Al Hamidiyah the whole town found out a Greek from Sydney was there and people wanted to see me, show me their village and have a picture taken with me. It was a surreal moment. It was similar in the Ukraine.

Both my trips were arranged by a friend I had met in Athens, Athena Khadzhynova. To this day she remains a good friend. I can never thank her enough for what she did for me. She took me to Odessa on the Black Sea, a city that local Hellenes helped establish with Catherine the Great in 1794. For any history buffs, this is the home of the Philiki Eteria, the birthplace of the Greek Revolution. It is also the final resting place of the Patriach who was executed in Constatinople in 1821.

There are those who think that Greek achievements outside Greece stop when Megas Alexandros ruled. One just needs to see Odessa and Marioupolis, another city built by modern Ukraine Hellenes to know how much we still contribute to civilisation. In fact visit the ports of Beirut and Marseilles and I believe both were built by Hellenes for example.

Anyway, back to Odessa, I was there on a Saturday and Athena, who is the daughter of a famous Greek poet and activist, made some phone calls and had the Greek museum opened for me. If I ever had any doubts about my heritage and my own identity, they were soon dispelled here. A number of the heroes of the Greek Revolution met here. And on this day, I was given access to their books and the entire house. It can be argued that modern Greece started here.

I was lucky enough to spend a few amazing days in Marioupolis. This is another city that was built by the modern Greeks. It is situated on the Sea of Azov close to Russia and near the Crimea. I remember the visit to café bar and as soon as the owner knew I was a Greek from abroad, he changed the music from local pop to Greek bouzouki just to prove his Hellenic connection.

Only 5% of Marioupolis is Greek. Most of the Greek speakers live in about 20 villages outside the city in the beautiful countryside. My favourite village is Sartana. Like all the Greek villages and towns, they paint houses blue and white or green and white to identify with Greece. Most have never been to Greece.

Like Albania, Calabria and Al Hamidiyah, this is not a rich region. It is very industrial. And like the other places I have mentioned, the Greek speakers in the Ukraine have had adversity to overcome for decades. The fighting between Russia and Turkey had an impact on numbers in the 1800’s and then the Communist regime from 1917 did their best to stifle the identity of minorities. Greek schools were banned until 1990. Athena did not learn Greek until she was 20, now she is fluent and teaches the language.

Like Calabria, the old Greek dialect, which I believe is from the Byzantine period is coming to an end. Fortunately, most of the 150,000 – 200,000 Hellenes in the Ukraine speak modern Greek.

Greek history is unbroken in the Ukraine for well over 2500 years. Greek colonies, as well as Hellenistic Empires, and Byzantium and the Trebizond Kingdom which fell in 1462 had nominal control over the Greek areas. The early Russian rulers allowed the Greek speakers to hold on to their identity, ensuring its Being the token foreigner on some of these visits, I was once again given after hours access to a Greek museum in Sartana. I was greeted by the curator who sang a number of poems to me in her Greek national dress. I couldn’t believe that I was given such a greeting. I would be sad to know if this hospitality ever stops.

In Sartana, I actually attended a wedding, as you do. Athena and I were walking past a hall and she was spotted by a number of the Greek guests who obviously knew her father. They invited us in and I was seated on the main table with the parents of the bride and groom! I was even mentioned in the toast to the newly weds. One more thing about the Ukraine. The older Greek speakers call themselves Romai, which is medieval Greek for Roman. A Greek of the Byzantine Empire would identify themselves in this way. Its fascinating that a thousand years later they still do.


I thought I would limit this talk to 4 main countries, but I might just quickly mention another quirky village I had the pleasure to visit just to give an insight into how varied Hellenic identity is.

It was in Budapest in 2010, and I was there to visit my friends Amaury, Annette, Vicky and Kristian who Kristian drove us out of town by 60 km on a day of bitter cold and snow to a village called ‘Belogiannis.’ The village was named after the Greek communist leader from the 1940’s. During the Greek Civil war, tens of thousands mainly children, were forced from Greece due to their communist support. Communist countries in Europe opened their doors to them. In Hungary, the government made every effort to support the newly arrived Greek people, establishing their own village and providing them with the resources required.

Few in Belogiannis were practising Greek Orthodox, though when I visited they had recently completed a small and exceptional Byzantine style church. Most people here speak or understand Greek and children attend Greek school. Intermarriage is becoming an increasing trend here.

Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that there was an authentic Greek village in the middle of Europe, well away from any coastline. When you next travel abroad, I challenge you to find a Greek area!

There are many places in the world with a Greek identity. I have had tea with the inspirational head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Tunisia His Eminence, Alexios Leontaritis, I have dined with Greek musicians and film makers in Astoria in NY, I have also lived amongst the Greek and Greek Cypriot people of London spending many a night listening to rebetika. Every one of the hundreds of Hellenes I have met abroad feel Greek and express it in their own way. In Beirut one night, my parea stopped the car on beach road and
decided they had to show me their local Greek dancing!

Every area has a unique Hellenic tale to tell, and more will be told.

The 4 main countries I have outlined for you are places that are struggling to survive, one way of another. Southern Albania will never lose its Greek identity but there will always be the sadness of not being part of Greece, financial restraints and a longing to control their own destiny.

Southern Italy has just about lost its old Greek dialect and their numbers are dwindling. They look Greek, they dance like a Greek, but they have suffered the most from political decisions made over 500 years ago. If we are not careful, we could see the end of the Greek speakers within the next century.

In Syria and of course the Ukraine, 2 countries were poverty and adversity is a constant, the Greek character of each will survive due to a sense of tenacity and stubbornness.

I have been fortunate to visit these places. I hope some of you can take the opportunity at some stage in your own adventures to visit or perhaps even read up on their remarkable history. It’s a great way to put your own identity in to perspective as a Greek.

In Sydney we are given every opportunity to nurture our own Hellenic identity, we should never let it go, just as I hope these Greek towns and villages retain their own Hellenic identity in years to come.


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