Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stopping off at Greece

Greece is an independent nation lying at the tip of the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. Greece includes a large number of islands in the Ionian and Aegean seas, the largest of which is Crete. The words “Greece” and “Greek” are derived from Latin; the people refer to their country as Hellas and to themselves as Hellenes.

Before the beginning of the Christian era, Greece, and especially Athens, Greece’s capital, was a great intellectual and artistic center of the world. During Europe’s medieval era, the area was part of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire, which early became Greece has been an important element in the development of Western Civilization. Greek Byzantine influences were important factors in the cultural development of Slavic, as well as Western, Europe, and Orthodox, or Eastern, Christianity was carried from the Byzantine realm to Russia and much of the Slavic area of the Balkans. The present Greek state was founded in 1829, after some four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, which followed the collapse of Byzantium in the middle of the 15th century.

Three sides of the mainland area, peninsular Greece, are surrounded by water and together with the islands, which form insular Greece; the country has a coastline of some 9000 miles. Easy access to the sea has resulted in a long tradition of maritime activity and modern Greece is one of the world’s great shipping nations.

Greece’s total area of 50,944 square miles includes about 9,900 square miles of islands. The mainland is bounded on the north by Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria; on the east by the Aegean Sea and the European portion of Turkey; on the south by the Mediterranean Sea; and on the west by the Ionian Sea.

Athens, the capital of Greece is built around the Acropolis, a square rock of limestone crowned by the ruins of three ancient temples. The modern Greeks are basically of the same stock as the Greeks of classical antiquity, but with the addition of many different elements from the groups of non-Greek people who entered the area during centuries. Despite conquests and infiltrations, the Greeks preserved their identity and, with small deviations, the language of their ancestors.

Almost the entire population at least nominally adheres to the Greek Orthodox Church, an independent Orthodox Christian community. The constitution establishes Orthodox Christianity as the state religion, but guarantees religious freedom. Proselytizing by other religious groups among Orthodox Christians is forbidden.

More than 8,000 persons were members of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1961. Muslims, who numbered over 100,000, formed the largest non-Orthodox religious group. Roman Catholics numbered over 30,000, and there were smaller communities of Armenian Gregorian, Protestants, and Jews.

Modern Greek culture draws its inspiration largely from an ancient heritage of artistic and intellectual greatness. Surrounded by the monuments and ruins of a glorious past, from the temples of the Acropolis of Athens to the deserted Byzantine structures of Mistra, the Greek people are constantly made aware of this heritage. By preserving traditional values, the Greeks have managed to retain a sting sense of cultural identity, despite centuries of foreign domination. At the same time, Greece has profited culturally from exposure to foreign influences. In the churches and mosaics of the Byzantine era can be seen the influence of the Oriental styles; in the arts, literature and music of recent years, Western European trends have been dominant. From the Greeks, the challenge has been to find ways to absorb foreign elements while preserving the essential values and characteristics of their own cultural background.

Throughout Greece, but especially in rural town and on the various Greek islands, a centuries-old tradition of handicrafts is maintained. Included are the gold and silver work of Thessaloniki, Athens, Corfu, and Ioannina, the embroidery and lacework of the Ionian and Aegean islands, the hand-woven blankets and carpets for which Crete and Epirus are noted, as well as woodcarving, pottery and metal work.

Along with the centers of higher learning, the Academy of Athens, founded in 1926 and modeled after the French Academy, strives to promote high standards in letters, the carious arts, and the sciences. The most important libraries are the National Library and the Library of the Chamber of Deputies, both located in Athens. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens contains original art works from all the periods of Greek antiquity, and the Byzantine Museum has a rich collection of works representing early Christian and Byzantine art. At Various archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, Olympia, and Delphi, there are museums displaying works of art found in those areas.

There are much more art and meaning in the history and place of Greece. Visiting such would simply mean giving color not only to our sight but also to our life.

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