Greece is widely understood to be the cradle of western civilization. After all, Greece gave the world democracy, the Olympics, philosophy, mathematics, architecture, poetry and drama. English, my native tongue, takes much of its vocabulary from the Greek language.
Greece’s beauty can offer surprises at every turn. It is much more than just the Acropolis and the sun-soaked islands of the Aegean Sea.
For my first visit, I started inland, at a place where lush mountains and immense monuments of human spirituality converge in a fantastic landscape. Here, Orthodox Christian monks built monasteries atop pinnacles of rock rising up like skyscrapers from the valley floor. It’s called ‘Meteora’ and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once Greece finally achieved its independence from the Ottomans, it would still take four major wars to bring the modern Greek nation into being: the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the First Balkan War from 1912 to 1913, WWI from 1914-1918, and the final Greco-Turkish War from 1919-1922. Once the dust settled, both countries agreed to clear each others’ ethnicities from their respective lands in 1923.
In reality, the mutual trade was more about religion than ethnicity. During Ottoman rule, many Orthodox Christians were living in Turkey, while a lesser number of Muslims lived in Greece. The trade essentially moved these people accordingly: Orthodox Christians to Greece and Muslims to Turkey. It mattered not that there were many native Greek Muslims and native Turks who were also Orthodox Christians.
The ‘exchange’, as it came to be called, was a consequential moment for both nations as it eliminated the last vestiges of Turkish involvement in Greece. There would remain much animus on both sides for generations.
The new nation of Greece soon experienced its first major existential threat post-indepence when Italian fascists invaded in 1940. While that invasion was repelled, Greece couldn’t hold off Nazi Germany when they invaded a year later in 1941. The occupation lasted until 1944 and the Greeks suffered immensely.
Post-war Greece soon found itself caught up in the political realignments of the burgeoning Cold War. The country became embroiled in a civil war when communists sought to take control of the government in the power vacuum left when the Nazis were defeated. The combatants coalesced into opposing sides reflecting the new Cold War realities, with one side supported by the US and the UK, and the other supported by the communist regimes in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria.
The war lasted until 1949 when NATO forces stepped in with a bombing campaign that broke the will of the communists. Despite the communists’ defeat, the underlying divisions smoldered between left and right in Greece, culminating in a coup d’état by the military in 1967. The generals remained in power until 1974.