Africa is a unique place. With thousands of languages and peoples being part of the fabric of this unique continent, civilisation first emerged here. Hellenes have been coming to Africa for millennia; from the colonies that were established in what is now Libya, as well Tunisia and Egypt. The Greek Byzantines held most of North Africa until the coming of the Arab forces. The last Greek outpost to fall was that Ceuta (in 711 AD) where Morocco almost kisses Spain.
Since then, Greek people have come to the continent as traders and missionaries, with the Greek Orthodox religion enjoying a presence across Africa.
Africa is arguably the birthplace of civilisation via Egypt and Ethiopia, yet colonialists disgraceful tore this continent apart with the slave trade, human trafficking, the first genocide of last century when the German empire killed 30 – 40 thousand West Africans and the exploitation of resources. May we never forget what has happened here.
A quirky point about Ethiopian where you will find the Greek capital hosts the Greek community club, the national religion is Greek Orthodox. Confused? Well a Greek priest from Lebanon came here in the 300s and brought the religion to Ethiopia.
This chapter gives you an insight into some of the colonies and the Byzantine influence in North Africa. It is by no means complete, as there is a significant amount of Greek/Byzantine and modern Greek history here waiting to be uncovered.
I will deal with one of my favourite historical achievements, the city known as Alexandria, my visit to Tunisia, the colonies and Greek history of Libya; and finally a brief overview of Greek migration to Africa.
Overall, Greek presence has been continuous in Africa since the very first ancient colonies appeared, ensuring that Greek culture has played a role in the development of the oldest civilised continent in the world.
From Cleopatra to Averoff, just a quiet day in Hellenic Alexandria
As I sat by the 1920’s style Greek owned cafe opposite the harbour, I reflected on 2 simple questions I had asked locals earlier in the day.
The first was in relation to a great poet. “Do you know where I can find the House of Cavafy?” I asked an Egyptian. “You mean the Greek poet, the museum!”
The second, ‘do you know where I can find the Greek Community Club?’ I asked another Egyptian later that day. “Ah you are a Greek man, you will see the Alexander the Great Statue on the main road, he is Greek too.’
It was a fair indication that the people of Alexandria are comfortable with recognising the Greek past of this city.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s the once vibrant Greek community of Alexandria was emptied out, in many respects driven out due to the nationalism of Egypt under President Nasser. Numbers vary but it is likely that there were close to 400,000 around that time. Another figure that is given is 750,000. I myself have bumped in to numerous people who were either born there or have parents from the city of Alexander. In London, Athens, Cyprus, Sydney, Melbourne, New York. I have met them in all of these places and more. And they all have a story to tell, a story that is powerful, sad, enlightening and proud.
Recently, I was in Alexandria and was able to meet the remainder of the Greek Community, those who chose to stay. I was told that there are over 4,000 people of Greek origin in Alexandria and perhaps 10,000 in Egypt all up. They too have a story to tell.
Every day I would play a game of spot the Greek shop hoping to meet Greek speakers. Excitedly, I would enter a shop such as Atheneos and ask if the owner was there or if there was a Greek speaker available. Sadly, just about all of them were no longer owned by Greek people. What was interesting is that out of respect to the previous Greek ownership, they keep the name of the shop. On a quiet business day, they were all bewildered by my queries but happy to note that someone would take such an interest in the Greek name.
Before I provide a snapshot of the Greek community, a history lesson to place the context of the Greek presence. It will also allow me to make the bold statement that Greeks have been here, unbroken, since the seventh century BC.
Cleopatra the Queen to break all hearts
Cleopatra was the last Hellenic queen of Egypt. How can this be true I hear you ask?
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 334 BC, he established an amazing new city called Alexandria. When Alexander died in 323 BC, one of his favourite generals Ptolemy took control of Egypt and the surrounding lands, establishing the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Hellenic city of Alexandria was the capital.
This Kingdom was unique. Royalty only spoke Greek and intermarried (we now call that incest) to protect the blood line. Conversely, they also called themselves successors to the Pharoes. Ptolemy adopted many local customs to keep the local population on side but like all his successors, he never learnt the local language. Cleopatra was the first to speak a language other than Greek! Actually, if you were Greek living in Egypt, you were subject only to Hellenic law.
The Ptolemaic Kingdom ended in 30 BC when Cleopatra, having chosen to side with Marc Antony, was defeated by Rome. She was only 39 years old and had been a benign ruler.
At its peak, the Kingdom included Libya, Cyprus, Egypt and a significant area of the Middle East. They also encouraged the migration of tens of thousands of Greek speakers who formed the elite ruling class.
Cleopatra is one of the most famous women of all time, perhaps the most famous. Pity though that the Ptolemaic Kingdom is not as well known.
Prior to the arrival of the all-conquering Alexandros, a city called Naucratis had existed. The proximity of Egypt to Greece ensured that there was a continuous presence of commercial traders, with archaeological evidence suggesting this extends as far back as Minoan times. The small settlement of circa 570 BC is not too far inland from where Alexandria was built, on the Nile. Naucratis was built for the Greek merchants and supporters of the Egyptian rulers, becoming one of the most important ancient Hellenic cities until the establishment of Alexandria. Based on available evidence, it was the first permanent Greek city in Egypt.
However, Herodotus tells us of a story whereby shipwrecked Greek renegades land in Egypt. The ousted Pharaoh Psammetichus had been foretold of their arrival via an Oracle and employed the men to regain power. As a reward they may have been given land on the Nile, which could be the ancient city of Daphnae, creating their own colony.
Greek language remained in civic and bureaucratic circles under the Romans. When the Byzantine Greek forces reconquered Egypt in 534 AD under Belisarius, they inherited a country with a strong Greek upper class and institutions. The Greek Orthodox Church had a strong presence, though this would ultimately break away to form the Coptic Orthodox Church. Today, over 10% of the population belong to that faith.
In 641 AD, the Byzantine Empire which had control of most of Egypt was defeated by the Arab forces who had made their way to the region. However, a counterattack was launched with initial success until a total collapse by 646 to a reinvigorated Arab military. Within no time, Cairo was made the capital, ending the long and glorious reign of the Greek city as the capital of Egypt.
Around 1517 until 1798, Alexandria was nominally under the Ottoman Empire. Considering that Muslim people were traditionally reluctant to undertake trade, especially during the Ottoman reign, there is enough evidence to suggest that Greek people remained in the city from the end of Byzantine times to conduct business.
The close proximity to Greece and Cyprus are key indicators that Hellenism remained unbroken as the Greek Church continued to operate and Greek merchants made money. There was also cooperation between Arab scholars and Greek educators during medieval times, whilst under the Turks, Greek people across the empire generally had important bureaucratic roles.
Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria
It is worth highlighting that the Church in Alexandria split in 451 AD into two groups, Miaphysites and Melkites. The former became the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, whilst the Melkites constitute the Greek Orthodox Church. After the Arab conquest they continued to use the Greek language for liturgy and remained part of the Byzantine sphere of influence.
I met with a number of priests on my visit to the Holy Patriarchal Monastery of St Savvas the Sanctified. A Greek church has stood on these grounds since 310 AD. I was given a tour of a most fascinating museum of church relics; the museum was located underground. In 2010, Patriarch Theodoros II inaugurated the new museum in memory of his predecessor Nicholas VI. The museum serves as repository of Church treasures icons and vestments.
During the course of its history, the Monastery has provided hospital and clinic services, a hostel for the poor and a meeting point for Greek Orthodox in Africa. The Church by the way has close to 350,000 adherents in Africa who look to it for leadership.
The Church has been a bastion of Greek in a sea of differing influences. They have had to deal with the coming of the Muslim Caliphate, the rivalry of the Coptic Church, the Ottoman presence and the Christian missionaries of the 1800’s who went out of their way to target Greek Orthodox adherents for conversion to Catholicism and Protestant.
Meeting with George Eleftheriou in a coffee shop near the harbour helped me to understand the magnitude of the Greek community, small as it may now be. George is a businessman who operates Eleftheriou Associates Consultants and his first comment to me came from the heart. “Billy, I love this city, we are in the best place in the world. I am just as happy that I am Greek who lives here.” Over the next hour George talked up Alexandria. “I believe that Egypt and this city will be an economic powerhouse again” he told me with pride.
Admittedly, having arrived here earlier I had been disappointed by the constant traffic, ageing infrastructure and buildings and a harbour which was not as Ptolemy had described it. Where was the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, where was the magnificent and grand library which was the most remarkable in ancient times? Both have since disappeared, though in its place, you will find an incredible bibliotheca; the modern Library of Alexandria. Words cannot describe its jaw dropping architectural features. George had warned me that it would be remarkable, he may have underplayed this statement.
George is a throwback to the days when Hellenes were the big drivers of commercial industries with his own expanding company providing business development consultancies services covering North Africa and the Mediterranean and other regions with a focus on trade and exports.
George pointed out that Alexander the Great was not the only architect of this city, it was Dinocrates his designer. In 332 BC the architect and his team which included Cleomenes of Naucratis and Crates from Greece proper, with input from the King, feverishly set about developing the city based on a grid system consistent with Hellenic planning.
I was told how the Greek community was once vibrant and the most numerous in the city. George and his family have heritage here that goes back four generations and in his opinion, Hellenism is unbroken here since it was founded.
Over the next few days, I was given an insight in to the city by George and his parea; and gradually I became fond of Alexandria, understanding the charm and its old school style that enables a traveller to return to a distant past. Just do not expect and quiet moments as the city rarely stops from being a constant hive of activity.
I even ended up at a plush presentation day that George and his brother Constantine organised for students learning Greek. What made this unique was that most of the kids were of mixed heritage, not necessarily having 2 parents of Greek heritage. It was heart warming to hear each kid, from the age of 5 to teenage years praising the work of their teacher. Hearing it in Greek was like listening to the sounds of classical music, perfect. ‘Efharisto Kurio Constantine pou mas emathes Ellinka (thank you Mr Constantine for teaching us Greek),” was echoed by just about every student.
Averoff School and the Greek Office
I was given a tour of what can only be described as a school of serenity. Set amongst a few acres, boasting a gymnasium and gardens, the Greek School is impressive. I was informed that at its height during the mid 20th Century there would be 5000 students enrolled here annually, most of them of Greek heritage. You could feel their presence in what is now a more quiet setting; today there are 100 students at what was one of the most prestigious places to receive an education in the Greek world. The school currently implements the Greek curriculum from Athens. It should be noted that only a number of school institutions in Germany, New York, Constantinople (Istanbul), Brussels and Cairo have a similar set up.
This Greek school is better described as a university campus attracts quality Greek teachers to help implement the Greek curriculum. I met a few passionate staff members including Alexandros Galanopoulos, the Principal. He quickly pointed out that school is named after Georgios Averoff, the wealthy Greek businessman whose generous donations helped develop the school. Averoff created the first all; Greek school in the world. Alexandros who ominously shares the name of the founder of the city, arrived in 1998 and fell in love with Alexandria and the people, who have embraced him in return.
The office of the Greek Community is in the same building as the School which it oversees. I met the President at the time, John Siokas in his office on what was meant to be a quiet day. The smartly dressed man told me about how proud they are that the Greek Community provides as many services as they do, from the school to the club, a football team and stadium and the ability to maintain the Greek language in Alexandria. Throughout my discussions with him, I was pleasantly amused at how many times people would drop in to say kalimera or to ask for advice. Not bad for a quiet day….
Mr Siokas told me that ‘we have a 9 member Board whose task is to keep the community healthy; we are financially sound. Our job is to make sure the Greek Community even stronger than when we found it.”
You could sense the wealth of the past members of Greek Community. Many were in business, a long time tradition of Greek people in Alexandria. When the Hellenes were here in their tens of thousands, they congregated at the Greek Community Club. Overall, a massive setting with a football pitch, a club house, the previously mentioned school, a gymnasium, health services and recreational activities.
I was invited by George and representatives of the Greek Community to dine with about 200 other Greek people in an outdoor setting to watch the Greek national team play (and win) on the big screen. Eating a souvlaki, watching the ethniki, discussing Greece in Greek…. what more could a traveller want!
A poet to rival Homer
One afternoon, I bumped in to a lady of the street and immediately I could tell she was a Greek speaker. I asked in Greek if she could point me in the direction of the House of Constantine P Cavafy. She was stunned that I picked her nationality. Fortunately she told me that it was closed and that there was an easy route to take in the morning. Next day, I made my way to the House.
One of the most surreal moments in the life of any writer. To enter the home of a poet who wrote such luminaries as Ithaca. His career in the 20th Century was remarkable, published in every continent. He is one of the greatest Hellenic intellectuals and a poet that the whole world admired.
I toured his house which has been turned in to a museum and chatted with the Greek speaking Egyptian curator. It was here that Cavafy became inspired and wrote and wrote until he could no more. As I turned in to the bedroom of the house, who did I see on the floor diligently tapping away on her lap top? The person who gave me instructions the previous day. Turns out she is a Greek author and her parents are from Alexandria. As it transpired, she told me she was staying in my hotel. A small world brought about by the magic of Cavafy!
In Sydney in 2015, I was lucky to meet the leader of the internationally renowned Cavafy group. This group is led by Babis Koulouras and they tour the world playing island music and reciting the poetry of Cavafy. Their performance at Enmore Theatre as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney was inspiring. I was transported back to the house of Cavafy and the power he seemingly has over me.
Other important names of Alexandria
How does anyone provide justice to the great names that have come through this once mighty Greek city? I certainly can’t and find it reluctant to pay tribute to them. However, for the purpose of fairness I will mention another great name. A man who encapsulated the 1970’s and who sold almost 80 million records around the world. Demis Roussos was a voice and a musician who was born in Alexandria and made his way to Athens. In memory of his passing, I dedicate this article to someone who touched the lives of everyone he met. No ego, just talent was his way.
Film Director Alex Proyas who lives in Australia was born here. People in Alexandria had no shortage of names to tell me and in the end I could compile a list of a 1000 which inevitably includes philosophers, theologians, astronomers, actors, mathematicians, leaders. I will give you a starting point and then challenge you, the reader, to find the rest. You will be amazed at what you uncover. Conon, Eudarus, Catherine, Hesyahus, Theon, Hyapatia, Constantine Vardalahos. On a quiet day, sit down and have a look at the list of Hellenic names who have contributed to the history of Alexandria.
What to see in Alexandria
A visit to the Greek Community Club, the house of Cavafy and the Greek Church are obviously a must. Due to the density of the modern city, it is difficult to excavate. Beneath modern Alexandria exists many ancient masterpieces waiting to be found. Until then one must be content with say a visit to the Temple of Taposiris Magna which was built in the Ptolemy period.
Located in the suburb of Abusir. Here you will also find a Byzantine church, the baths of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Near the beach of Alexandria you will find a tower constructed by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Just outside the main hub of the city you will find the statue of Alexander the Great. One look at the statue and you know whose city this was and still is. Alexander will always reign over the city of Greeks and Egyptians.
George Eleftheris also recommended to me a visit to the Graeco-Roman Museum, which we drove past (time was unfortunately limited) which contains many Greek era artefacts. Further, worth finding the Palais d’Antoniadis which is named after Sir John Antoniadis of the 19th Century. Although he was born in Lemnos and became wealthy and a French citizen from his years in Marseilles, he moved to Alexandria and became president of the Greek Community. To make this man even more fascinating he was also the consul general of Belgium and received a knighthood from Queen Victoria. Talk about a jack or John of all trades.
When Crete fell to the NAZIs in 1941, the Greek government in exile was firmly based in Alexandria. An interesting point is that 7,000 Greek people of Egypt fought for the British in WWII in the Middle East.
Traditionally, the community resided around the Church and monastery of Agios Savvas. A visitor from Greece and Cyprus could stay at a guest house in the neighbourhood, which also contained the Greek hospital and a Greek school. I understand that the first Greek community in Cairo which is 2 and half hours away was established in 1856 in the areas of Tzouonia, Haret el Roum (Street of the Greeks), Hamzaoui and old Cairo. Across Egypt strong communities could be found in El Mansurah, established in 1860, Minia (1862), Port Said (1870), and Zagazig (1870), Tanta (1880). There were others of smaller note across Egypt.
Hellenes also established the Bank of Alexandria and Anglo-Egyptian Bank. Ironic when you consider the situation in Greece at the moment.
To understand the importance of Alexandria, the city is comparable to say modern London, a hub for writers, artists, merchants and religious types. It remained important for Africa and the Mediterranean until the exodus of Greek and other Europeans a few decades ago. Alexandria is what it is, a Hellenic built and developed city that has stood the test of time. Whilst the Greek Community may have dwindled, the imposing spirit of Alexander and Cleopatra on a quiet day will always loom large. If you don’t believe me, just ask one of the locals.
This article was first written in 2015 and published in 2015.
Restoration. A word that stood out for me on my adventure to Tunisia – a word which succinctly captures what the Greek community are aspiring to and what I in turn having been seeking for 10 years.
Tunisia is picturesque Mediterranean country. Pristine beaches to the north, the Sahara in the south, Arab culture of the East and a touch of influence from the West (via the French colonial years). It has been a melting pot of history’s great cultures: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines (Greek), Berbers, Arabs and Ottomans.
What most people won’t know is the long history of Greek speakers in Tunisia. Indeed, across North Africa, the presence of Greeks can be traced back to the merchants and traders who set up towns in Egypt in Antiquity through to the Byzantine occupation of the region from 535 AD – the last Byzantine territory to fall was Ceuta (Spanish enclave in Morocco) in 711 AD! In fact, for the uninitiated, Greek cities could be found in Libya, notably Cyrenaica, Egypt under Alexander and the Ptolomies and a number of Byzantine cities developed in the 6th Century AD, as far afield as Algeria.
The only Hellenic city in Antiquity that was established in Tunisia was by the Greeks of Cyrenaica in the 5th Century BC – a port called Neapolis (Nabuel). It could have been far different had Agathocles of Syracuse (Sicily) defeated the Carthaginians during a lengthy war between 311 – 306 BC.
Greek was, arguably, one of North Africa’s key languages for between 1200 – 1400 years. However, the advancing Arabs, having swept through Egypt during the 640’s AD finally overpowered a gallant Byzantine resistance in Tunisia by 698. This led to the decline of the Greek language in North Africa (except in Alexandria, Egypt) and a decline in Christianity as people chose to convert to Islam or migrate to other Byzantine territories.
I was fortunate enough to interview the head of the Greek church of Tunisia, who holds the significant and ancient title of ‘His Eminence, Archbishop of Carthage and all North Africa.’ I asked him what role the Church was playing in Tunisia and he told me, ‘Restoration……..of the Greek traditions.’
His Eminence, Alexios Leontaritis, is a relatively young and energetic person. His title is significant as it dates back to the Byzantine era. The congregation in the capital of Tunis is about 60 people strong. I was privileged enough to attend a service on two occasions and was impressed by what I witnessed in the stunning church of St George, built by the Hellenic community in 1847. The passion of the small group made it feel as though there were hundreds of people worshipping and praying. Interestingly, the Greeks in Byzantine times called themselves Romans, therefore it was ironic to note that the church is located at Rue de Rome (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. You see, not only was there a strong Greek presence during early medieval times, the Greek community in the 19th Century numbered an impressive 8000. Many of them were sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands as well as traders. However, over time the Greeks who had moved to Tunisia for commercial activities gradually returned to Greece.
His Eminence is responsible for all the Greek churches in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, which numbers about ten in total. What is interesting is that the Greek Church has jurisdiction over the Russian church in Bizerte, Tunisia, and another in Rabat, Morocco. In addition, there is a good relationship with Catholicism. In Mauritania, the Greek Church conducts services in the Catholic Church. In turn the Catholics make use of the Greek Church in Sfax (Tunisia). It seems like a long time since the Greek Orthodox and Catholic schism of the Middle Ages.
His Eminence conducts liturgy in as many of these churches mentioned above as possible, which amounts to a significant amount of travel across North Africa. In the courtyard next to the Greek Church in Tunis, is the office for the Greek community. I met with Kuria Dina who is Secretary for the Church and the Greek Community. She moved to Tunisia over 30 years ago and is married to a Tunisian. Her role is to oversee the Greek language school which has over forty students – a mix of Greeks and Tunisians and to communicate with the Greek community. I met one of her students, Ahmed, aged 22, who was learning Greek….. that way he can communicate with his Greek girlfriend! It appears that this is not a one – off. There are a number of mixed marriages in Tunisia and through a Tunisian forum I communicated with Roulla. She is Greek, lives in London, is married to a Tunisian and travels there whenever she can.
I was keen to find out if Tunisians knew much about the Byzantine history of their country. I was pleasantly surprised by the knowledge exhibited by two friendly locals I met who were employed by Tunisia.com and who live in the picturesque seaside town of Bizerte. Bizerte was once a fortified Byzantine town. Sipping my coffee and talking to Ramzi and Sana, I fixed my eyes on the old walls of the Medina in the background. These walls, known as the Double Kasbah, contain traces of the original Byzantine fortifications. Ramzi and Sana told me how they learnt about the Byzantine presence at school and it was they who told me about Nabuel. However, not everyone I met was aware of the Byzantine presence in Tunisia, as I usually received puzzled looks whenever I asked about Byzantine ruins. Though this can also be attributed to the fact that few people speak English (one of the charms of a visit to Tunisia).
As a student of history, Carthage was always a favourite subject. Sitting in the classroom of school debating my teacher about the superpower status of ancient Carthage, I never thought I would actually visit. Whilst Carthage has an amazing array of archaeological sites, it was the Byzantine ruins that I had come to see. At the Antoinine Baths, facing the Mediterranean, I found a number of Byzantine ruins. This includes the 6th Century Basilica, Baptistery, Christian era statues and Mosaics. On a personal note, this was a highlight of my life as I stood there on my own, still struggling to comprehend that I had made it to this remote, significant site.
I also located the ruins of the 6th Century AD Byzantine Basilica on the road to Carthage. The Basilica is known as Damous el Karita. However, I struggled to find the excavations of a Byzantine site, Bir Ftouha, on the edge of the archaeological zone. I asked locals, a police man on horseback, a shepherd, a friendly German jogger, and anyone else who I came across. I must have spent two hours walking in the middle of nowhere, to no avail. However, after several kilometres and with the advent of night skies, I came across an impressive Roman forum, which apparently contained Byzantine ruins but not those I had come to photograph.
Oudna and other Byzantine sites
This is a site I won’t forget in a hurry. After flagging down a taxi to take me the 25 km outside the capital, the driver had to make a stop, for the call of nature as he put it in a bottle on the highway! On the return journey, another excitable taxi driver wanted to show me his collection of pictures and tell me everything about Tunisia…. in French. Despite language barriers, I found the taxi drivers in Tunisia to be fantastic, generally honest and entertaining and my passport to adventure.
Over the years I have become accustomed to being the only foreigner stuck in the middle of nowhere looking for sites. At Oudna, I was on my own with archaeologists, workers, a security guard and dozens of sheep. Unlike Carthage, there appears to be a decided ignorance of Byzantine ruins. At the time there were no Byzantine or Christian era tags at the site and of course all aspects of the site were labelled as Roman – even though some of the buildings were built or upgraded during Byzantine times. After pointing this out, I was given access to maps and information in an office. Thankfully my Arabic is rusty and I could make out…..well, actually I couldn’t understand a word!
At Oudna I found key ancient sites, all impressive and well preserved. The Capitol (the Forum) was upgraded during Byzantine times and turned into a fortress. Interestingly, a modern farmhouse is located inside the fortress. Oudna was used by Byzantine commanders as a base almost 1500 years ago. The best way to identify Byzantine aspects of the area are by the large blocks of stones used on the exterior of some of the buildings; the Romans used smaller bricks.
I remember communicating with an American professor before travelling to Tunisia. He made the comment that there are numerous Byzantine sites across the country. The most notable that I could locate through my research are as follows: Ain Tounga, a fortress located in Tebersouk, ruins at the inland Musti, a fortress and church at Haidra which are located near the border with Algeria, ruins at Sbeitla located near the Sahara and an intact oil press at Thuburbo Majus. I can only speculate that there are more sites in Tunisia that contain Byzantine elements.
During my teenage years I turned my back on my Greek identity. However, I have spent the last decade restoring my own sense of what it means to be a Hellene and the more I travel to places in the Diaspora with Greek speakers and/or a connection to our Byzantine past, the more I am glad to have embraced and ‘restored’ my own sense of heritage. In Tunisia, there is a small group of dedicated people who are working on the restoration of the Greek tradition to an area that was once thriving with Greek speakers. I know that they will succeed and should I ever return I am sure the fruits of their labour will continue to be evident.
Written in 2009 and published in 2009
Arabic charm, Berber tribesmen, Islamic traditions, Mediterranean coast, pariah in the West. These are some of the tags we can ascribe to Libya when we think about that country.
Mention the name Ghaddafi and one automatically associates it with Libya….
Mention the name Belisarius and you will draw a blank, however 1500 years ago this was a name associated with Libya. In fact before the coming of Islam in the 7th Century AD, northern Libya was a Greek-speaking territory.
I won’t bore you with details about the great Byzantine general Belisarius and how he restored Greek speaking rule over North Africa in 533 AD, instead I will give you an overview of the Greek history of Libya well before the flamboyant uniforms of Ghaddafi and his famous female bodyguards.
Imagine you board a ferry from Mytilene to Crete and upon arrival instead of being greeted by the usual chaos of the Greek port you are greeted by ‘foreign’ speaking people who rather than offering you a rundown room in a pension for 50 Euros (tourist rates), you are offered a kebab and warm hospitality. People in the ancient world would have been mystified to arrive in a place like Crete or Cyrene in northern Africa to be greeted by non Hellenes. For in those days, this was a Greek colony!
Whilst I have been known to indulge in mythology and drink the odd ouzo, I’m not making this up. The north of Libya was dominated by numerous Greek colonies, with Cyrene being the most prominent.
In 630BC, due to population pressures, the island of Thira (Santorini) sent out colonists under Battus to establish the city of Cyrene, which was to be the most prominent of the five cities that would make up the Cyrenaica. According to Herodotus, Cyrene was the second Greek city established in Africa with Naucratis in Egypt being the first.
Battus (born Aristoteles) became the first king of Cyrenaica. On the advice of the Delphi Oracle, he spent a few years in Libya searching for a suitable place to establish a colony. The Berbers in Libya encouraged Battus to settle the eastern part of Libya and by 630BC, Thira had sent out several hundred people to help establish the new colony.
The port of Cyrene was Apollonia, named after Apollo (Marsa Susa), whilst the rest of the Cyrenaica was comprised of Arsinoe (Tocra), Euesperides (near modern Benghazi) and Barce (Al Marj). The 5 cities were affectionately known as the Pentapolis whilst the name Cyrenaica was officially used until the 1960’s to describe the eastern part of Libya.
Cyrene was the birthplace of Eratosthenes the mathematician who calculated the circumference of earth and invented the Leap Day, whilst a number of philosophers lived here including Socrates’ pupil Aristippus who founded the School of Cyrene. St Mark the Evangelist was born here as was the Bishop Zopyros who attended the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
The poet Pindar of Thebes tells us that ‘Cyrene’ was the daughter of King Hypseus Lapiths in Greece. Cyrene fought a lion which had threatened to eat their sheep. This impressed Apollo so much that he took her to Libya and founded a city in her name. A number of ancient myths make reference to Libya, especially the tasks of Hercules.
It should be noted that the reference to Libya in the myths essentially means northern Africa (excluding Egypt) rather than the modern country.
Alexander and the Ptolemies
The Cyrenaica was ruled as a republic until it was captured by Alexander the Great; there were not too many places that he did not capture! After the death of Alexandros one of his closest friends, Orphellas, was sent to govern the area in 322BC by Ptolemy. He was succeeded by Magas, the son-in-law of Ptolemy I, the Greek ruler of Egypt. Like many son-in-laws, Magas proved to be disloyal and soon formed alliances against Ptolemaic Egypt. By 250BC the Ptolemies had regained control of the area, which lasted until the Romans officially annexed the Cyrenaica in 74BC. Thus Greek speaking rule was interrupted for several centuries by toga wearing Romans.
In 533BC, Byzantine general Belisarius marched through the entire north Africa, triumphantly taking region after region in the name of the Greek speaking empire. However, the Cyrenaica was no longer what it had been prior to the Roman period. This was attributed to major earthquakes, decline in trade, a Jewish uprising and other civil rebellions. Synesius, the Greek Orthodox bishop of the 5th Century AD described the Cyrenaica as a shadow of what it had been, essentially ruled by nomads.
Byzantine Greeks helped to restore a sense of order. They built new churches and buildings, whilst the return of stable rule ensured an increase of commerce. However, high taxes meant that the Byzantine administration was not always popular and their inability to work with the Berbers of the south ensured that the potential for economic prosperity was squandered.
In 642AD, after successfully taking Egypt from the Byzantines, the Cyrenaica was taken with little resistance. The Byzantine Empire had been taken by surprise by the strength of the Arabs, who would go on to take all of North Africa by the end of the century.
It is hard to make an accurate assessment of when the Greek character and language in Cyrenaica was extinguished. However as mosques sprung up and the locals began converting to Islam, it is reasonable to deduce that Hellenism in Cyrenaica must have ended between the 9th – 10th centuries AD.
Euesperides was founded by Cyrene in 525BC and is part of the Pentapolis. The name was attributed to the fertility of the area which gave rise to the mythological associations with the garden of the Hesperides. uespirides was surrounded by enemies on every side. Thucydides tells us that a siege in 414 BC by Libyan tribes was ended by chance with the arrival of a Spartan fleet, who were blown off course to Libya on their way to Sicily.
The city had a board of magistrates (ephors) as well as the council of elders (gerontes). The name of the city was changed to Berenice in the middle of the third century BC. Today the city is known as Benghazi and has a population of 1 million people and a Greek Orthodox church which has approximately fifty worshippers.
Greek ruins in modern Libya
There are few Greek speakers in modern Libya. Whilst you may not hear Greek spoken in the streets as it once was during the period of the Greek colonists, you will find a number amazing Greek ruins.
At Cyrene located in Shahat on the Mediterranean coast, the ancient Necropolis is spread over 10 km². You will also find two stunning temples of Apollo and Zeus, both in great condition and are amongst the best Greek ruins in the world. The Temple of Zeus is bigger than the Parthenon in Athens. Other ruins you will come across include an ancient gymnasium built by the Ptolemies, and a theatre which could accommodate 1000 people. The entire area of Cyrene is included on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Taking us away from the Cyrene and to the west end of Libya (near Tunisia), you will Sabratha. This site contains an ancient Greek theatre from the second century BC and Justinian’s Basilica from the 6th Century AD Byzantine rule. There are probably a dozen Greek churches or sites from the Byzantine epoch that can be found in Libya.
For travellers to Libya, there are a number of tours you can take that will allow you to visit the Greek sites. You need a visa to enter Libya and proof that you are participating in an organised tour to be allowed in.
Libya, like many places in ancient and medieval times has a ‘secret’ Greek past. Just follow the path of Battus and I guarantee you will find a trail of former Greek colonies and outposts. It is testament to the amazing history of the Greek ‘world.’ Whilst the modern day Greek speakers in Libya are few, the rich history of Hellenism is ever present and unlikely to be forgotten.
Written in 2009 and published in 2009
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 four countries, including his latest residence in Libya. I was in for a rude surprise.
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 most likely 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.
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 since they lasted ruled them.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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. The population of Greek speakers is around the hundreds, though it is hard to verify.
When 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 all of 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.
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.
Having a coffee with my friend Yibra who was born in Ethiopia she told me that there are many Greek speakers in Ethiopia, possibly 700. She lived in the capital, Addis Ababa, where there is a Greek church. She moved to Sydney in 2014 and has occasionally been to a local Greek Orthodox church. The majority of people in Ethiopia are Orthodox adherents, and it is likely that this can be traced back to the Byzantine presence in Africa.
Across Africa, the Greek community associations 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.
Written in 2015 published in 2015