Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A History of Greece Through Our Travels

People come to Greece to see the Acropolis and dip in the sea, to eat gyros and yogurt. Or to learn some real history. It is the birthplace of the Western civilization, the beginning of art as we know it and the first experiment in democracy. During our four weeks here we learnt a lot. We visited a lot of places as they came our way, but it makes more sense to put them in historical perspective. I am sure it will help us to remember, but I also hope that you will learn something new.

Our itinerary in Greece

We don't know much of the Cycladic period many thousand years ago but we admired some statuettes at the Archeological Museum in Athens. If you'd splatter some color on some of the naked women silhouettes, they might pass for some supra-realist creations, but most of the others objects are quite primitive.
Cycladic art in the Archeological Museum in Athens
The first advanced European civilization appears in Crete about 4000 years ago. The Minoans were good sailors and merchants, not interested in wars or conquests. They sailed the sea exchanging their produce and crafts with other Mediterranean tribes and returned home rich. They built several cities, including the amazing palace in Knossos, with ventilation shafts and the world's first flush toilet. Their mosaics and frescoes depict people who loved art for the sake of it and were engaged in sports, like "jumping over the bull". We visited the Knossos palace on our first day in Crete. Supposedly it was designed by Daedalus, the father of Icarus. We wandered through the remarkable ruins. The palace was discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. He spent the rest of his life and a lot of his money reconstructing it using a lot of his imagination. He is admired for his efforts and condemned for his methods - modern archeology would do things differently. There were three palaces over the years, we got a pretty good image of the layout and the huge scale of their construction. I didn't see any footprints of the Minotaur and no trace of the famous labyrinth, who knows, it might be just a legend. We followed our visit with the Heraklion Archeological museum, where many of the originals are housed. The museum has been closed for a while for a major renovation. The girls got excited, "it's OK with us". Not so easy. The most precious pieces of their antique collections were moved in a nearby building and we could see them. We were specifically looking for some frescoes from Knossos. We saw some, but missed a couple. They were going to reopen the main building shortly, so they moved them back, but they were not ready for display: "any day now, surely next week." For us it will be next time. Still we learned quite a lot about their culture and civilization. Very impressive and way ahead of their time.


Jumping over the bull

Another Minoan site is in Santorini, at Akrotiri. On a clear day people could see the coast of Crete, they were fairly close. It is possible that this was the place of the legendary Atlantis. Apparently they had plenty of warning that the volcano was going to explode. It was the biggest ever eruption in the history of the world and it ripped the island to pieces. But there were no victims. They left all the replaceable household items behind and only one piece of jewelry, the golden ibex. Some speculate that it might have had a special religious meaning and they buried it with some purpose before abandoning the island in 1630 BC.

We didn't visit the ruins, they closed some years ago "for safety reasons", but most of the artifacts were displayed at the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. We really liked it, there were everyday household items, plaster casts of a chair and a table that resembled some of furniture from Versailles, vases and cooking pots, measuring units, as well as beautiful wall frescoes. And of course the Golden Ibex.

We would learn more about Akrotiri at the Archeological Museum in Athens, they had a plaster bed, more objects and they transplanted a room full of frescoes.

Room moved in the Archeological Museum in Athens
Nobody really knows what happened to the Minoans. It could have been volcanic ash from the Santorini eruption, it could have been the Mycenaeans taking over. Anyhow they disappear in 1450 BC without a trace.
Model of the ruins at Mycenae
About the same time, from 1600 BC to 1200 BC, on the continent there were the Mycenaeans, a collection of tribes whose capital was at Mycenae. They were the opposite of the Minoans, warriors and conquerors. It seems that they collaborated with Akrotiri, employing Minoan artists to decorate their palaces. They might have leased their boats on some of their expeditions. They learned from the various cultures they assimilated but took everything one step further. In their monumental constructions they employed cyclops, at least this is what ancient Greeks thought one thousand years later. The blocks of rock used were huge, but it was the craft that makes it special even to this day. It was impressive to visit the ruins at Mycenae and the nice little museum on site but I was really thrilled by entering the nearby tomb of a king. Empty, with black soot marks and a funny smell (in recent times it has been used as shelter by shepherds), it was still one of the most impressive constructions I've ever seen. The huge lintel over the door weighs 120 tons, four times bigger than the stones used for the pyramids. The concentric rows of five-ton stones would protrude little by little to make the domed ceiling that withstood many earthquakes.
A phenomenal construction, Treasury of Atreus (a.k.a. Tomb of Agamemnon)

According to the Iliad, under their king, Agamemnon, the Mycenaeans led the coalition that occupied Troy. Nobody really knows what happened to them and after a few hundred years they were also lost in history. The legends about their feats were passed orally for a few hundred years until they were compiled by Homer in the 9th century BC.
Lions Gate at Mycenae

Grave Circle A, discovered by Schliemann in 1876

The little museum on-site had some interesting information, but at Nafplio we saw the oldest bronze armour in the world. We watched a short movie that taught us about its importance. An American lady came in, looked over the armour and declared it "unimpressive". Her husband was trying to no avail to explain to her that it is not like the medieval ones she saw before, it is 3500 years old.

In Athens we saw the treasures of the Mycenaeans, altogether about 15 kg of gold items. But the most interesting object was a vase depicting a woman waving farewell to a group of soldiers. It seems that all we learned since then is to send women to war as well.
Some of the gold from Grave Circle A, in the Archeological Museum in Athens

Then came the Dorians, nobody knows from where, and their time from 1200 BC to 800 BC is generally referred as the "dark ages." They introduced the iron and the polytheistic religion. And with religion comes a lot of work and trouble.

Zeus was born on Kronos hill and his father (Kronos) must have had some premonition that he was going to take his place. He tried to eat little Zeus, but the smart kid escaped with some help from his mother, Rhea. And took over all the other gods. About 1100 BC people came to worship here, there was a little altar to Rhea and later a temple was built for Zeus. Periodical festivities were held at the sanctuary, they might have included some athletic events and they later became the quadrennial Olympic Games. Held for more than a thousand years between 776 BC and AD 394 they were the most famous of a series of similar games taking place throughout ancient Greece. We visited Ancient Olympia, the archeological site that has the ruins of the Zeus and Hera temples, various other facilities, including the gymnasium where athletes trained and the first five star hotel for the VIPs attending the games. It was a place where all the important people came for the games, philosophers held lectures and debates and dramaturges came to promote their latest creations. The winners were crowned with olive branches from the nearby olive trees planted by Heracles himself. The cheaters or quitters had to pay fines and with the money they built a row of statues to Zeus. As the spectators entered the stadium they would spit on the cheaters statues. Doping was forbidden and official urine tasters screened for illegal drugs. While women were never allowed at the Olympic Games, they had their own Herean Games on alternate years. Only maidens competed and the winner was held in high honor, was crowned with olive wreaths and had her picture displayed in the temple of Hera. We spent a lot of time on the Olympic stadium and we also enjoyed the great Archeological museum on-site.

Model of Ancient Olympia

The gymnasium, the training grounds for the athletes
Zeus was fooling around with the mortal Leto, Hera caught up and banished Leto from the Earth. Zeus pleaded with his brother Poseidon to give Leto some shelter and this is how the island of Delos was created. Leto gave birth to twins, Apollo and Artemis. Humans flocked to the island to built temples to them and for the next thousand years that island was the center of the Greek civilization and one of the most important religious sites. We visited the island of Delos on a day trip from Mykonos. Apparently only a fifth of the whole complex is unearthed, there is a decent museum on site and a nice hike up the nearby hill offers great views of the ancient ruins and the adjacent islands.

Naxian lions from 9th century BC

About the same time, Zeus decided to figure out where the center of the world is. He released two eagles from the ends of the world, they flew toward each other and met in Delphi. It was called the navel of the world and the ancients marked it with a conical stone called "omphalos" (navel), we saw an old Roman copy. This was also the site were Gaia was worshipped by a priestess (sybil) guarded by a ferocious serpent called Python. We saw the stone on which the sybil was preaching. One day Apollo passed by disguised as a dolphin (Delphi), killed the Python, and the priestess decided to worship him. Apollo was pleased and volunteered to speak to humans through the priestess. She became an oracle and Delphi became one of the most important places in the ancient world. Nobody would do anything without consulting the oracle. She was chosen from regular, even married, women, she was sitting in the middle of the Apollo temple and she babbled something. Sarcastic modern researchers think that she might have been high on the psychotropic gases emanated from the nearby springs, but there is no prove to that and to the old she was just the vessel through which Apollo spoke. The male priests translated the babble into words, tightly controlling the message. You would understand the words but the meaning was always hidden in a riddle. Most of the times the oracle only worked a few hours on some days, but at busy times two or three women were working in shifts. Cities or rich people would donate buildings or monuments to the oracle site, so the site is packed with ruins from different ages. A big amphitheater sits above the Apollo temple, and higher up the mountain is the stadium were the Pythean games were held.

In Delos, Olympia and Delphi we had to go through one thousand years of Greek history. While the museums on site were organised in chronological order, the sites themselves were not. Next to each other there were constructions built 500 years apart, different styles, different meanings and we had to make sense of it all.

After the 8th century BC the dark ages slowly came to an end. The Greeks started to develop some common conscience, but they were mostly living in isolated, sometimes competing, city states. At some point they abolished monarchic rule and aristocratic privileges, giving regular citizens a direct way of participating in governance. The most significant of all has been the Athenian reformist Solon, who in 594 BC, declared all free (male) citizens equal by law. His reforms are still regarded as the blueprint of western civilisation. The art from this times is still rough around the edges. The men, mostly nude, and the women, always dressed, have general standard features and a stiff attitude. The artists tried to give a sense of movement by using various unsuccessful tricks. Around this time is also the geometric period, characterized like the name says by geometric designs on all their pottery.
Kuros at Delphi

This woman is holding the dress with her right hand, suggesting that she is ready to take a step

Geometric period, one can only hope that our young would have the same passion for geometry

The cities became more powerful and more organized slowly building alliances around the two main centers, Sparta and Athena. Then the Persians came. First, Darius in 490 BC, but he was defeated at the battle of Marathon. An Athenian soldier ran home for the 40 km to deliver the victory message and then he dropped dead. It is an ongoing debate who exactly was that soldier, I saw an exhibition on the subject. The hero winner at Marathon was Miltiades and we saw his bronze helmet in the Archeological museum in Olympia. Then Xerxes, the son of Darius, came back in 480 BC. As we passed by Thermopylae, I told the children the story of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who fought until last. Athens was abandoned and the city was razed. Then Ioan added details about the strategy of the battle of Salamis, where the Athenians won a huge victory and drove the Persians out. They first consulted the oracle of Delphi who advised them to built a wooden wall. They interpreted it as meaning a flotilla and they engaged the Persians in a sea battle. Athens status among the Greeks was greatly increased. Athens and Sparta made peace and the city states agreed to have a common defense fund with Athens as caretaker. Initially the treasure chest was held in Delos, but later it was moved to Athens and the funds redirected. Or embezzled. The Golden Age began. No more internal wars and the Persians safely away, the defense fund was used by Pericles to rebuilt Athena from scratch and today Acropolis is the world's top ancient site. We visited again, even though there are fresh memories from our trip in 2006. Acropolis is an immense complex of temples dedicated to Athena, the protector of Athens. It has several separate structures, Propylaea (the impressive gate), the Parthenon and the more important temple of Erechteion. There is some progress on the conservation project, most notably the temple of Nike was put back together close to the entrance. There are some scattered stones on the ground, remains of the Mycenaean palace that was once here. We learnt that some column drums in the surrounding wall are all that's left from the Persian invasion, before the current constructions. We saw the place were Poseidon and Athena argued for the naming rights of the city, an olive tree has always been there. We learnt about the Panathenaic procession held every year in the temples.
Looks familiar?

Propylaea, the entrance on the Acropolis

The Erechteion, the more important temple on the Acropolis
At the bottom of the Acropolis hill stands the new Acropolis museum, built to house and protect the original statues from the temples and to await the return of the stolen friezes of the Parthenon. The British argue that they were acquired legally and displaying them in the British Museum protects them and benefits the whole world. The Greeks, being Greeks, would not be able to care for them and they don't have a proper place for them. The Greeks talked on the issue for some time and then took action. The new museum is magnificent and is built specifically to complement the Acropolis and house the freezes. If anybody takes any sides in the argument of where the freezes should be, the discussion likely ends when one sees the three year old museum.
The Acropolis museum with the Acropolis reflection

This is the third level of the Acropolis temple, prepared to hold and display the real freezes 

At the base of the Acropolis stood the agora. This was the place were life was taking place. Not the religious, ceremonial part, but bureaucratic and economical activities. I visited with the children on our last day in Greece. We saw their malls (one in ruins and one converted into a museum), the temple of Hefaistos, the ruins of the Agrippa theater.

Hard to contain the excitement of entering another museum
The temple of Hefaistos, Athens Agora

Only twelve and he can explain all about the different types of ancient columns

The same architect of the Parthenon, Iktinos, designed the temple of the Epicurean Apollo. It is lost in the mountains of the Peloponnese, about 100 km from Olympia. A World Heritage site since 1986, it is the best preserved ancient temple, still standing on most of its columns and undergoing a super slow restoration program. Somehow we made it there, not only were we the only ones but the person selling tickets was so happy to see us we think we made his day.
Covered under a huge tent, the least photogenic but the best preserved Greek temple

Another important aspect to remember is that the Greeks traveled and established colonies all over the known world. They build impressive cities with magnificent temples in Asia Minor (like the Pergamon that we saw in Berlin), in present day Romania (at Ischia), in Sicily or in Campania, like Napoli and Paestum. Remember the naming contest between Athena and Poseidon? Imagine if Poseidon would have won, we would have had Poseidonia! Even if he lost, he got his own city in Southern Italy, one of the strongest Greek colonies. Preserved by Romans who renamed it Paestum and later protected from humans by malaria-bearing mosquitos and marshes, Poseidonia has the best preserved Greek ruins in the world. Three impressive temples still stand on most of their columns. One of them is a building experiment that would allow a little later the construction of the Parthenon!
Paestum in November

The greatest sculptor of those times, Phileas, chief architect of the Acropolis complex, after making two of the statues of Athena at the Parthenon, was sent to Olympia to build the statue of Zeus. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, 13 meters high, made of wood covered in ivory and more than 250 kg of gold. They built a huge workshop for him so he could see how the statue would fit in the temple. The statue stood for 900 years then probably was carried over to Constantinople and accidentally burned in a fire. The workshop still stands, it was converted into a Christian chapel some centuries later and we visited it during our trip. In the Olympia museum there is a drawing of how the statue looked, we know it from depictions on coins from that era. Same with the two Athena statues, they are lost without trace (one through Constantinople), but in the Archeological museum in Athens there is a small Roman copy of one of them. Astounding. Again it was 13 meters high and covered in one ton of gold. In the right hand she held a "little" Nike, goddess of victory. The sculptures of this era make the fame of the ancient Greek art. They depict gods or people in natural postures, relaxed, looking great from all angles. The statues seem like life was frozen in an instant, the people or the horses might spring back into action any moment. The features are now individualised and physical defects displayed when it matters. Feelings are expressed in the facial features, sometimes more than one, like the magnificent Hermes from Olympia, a bigger than life statue by Praxiteles (4th century BC).
Roman copy in the Archeological Museum


Hermes, detail

I don't know how many children Apollo had, but one of them, Asclepios, was born in Epidavros. He became the god of medicine and his place of birth became a pilgrimage site where the sick came to be healed and doctor-priests performed various rituals. The place grew over the fourth and third century BC, featuring a sanctuary, medical facilities, lodging for the sick, a stadium for athletic competitions and a theatre. Not much is left from the sanctuary, but we visited the Epidavros amphitheater, the most famous and best preserved of the ancient era. The children are on the stage whispering and I can hear and understand them in the last row of a 15,000 people arena. You have to see and hear it to believe.

Between 450 BC and 420 BC, Athens was the center of the world. Everybody came here, all the great minds of the ancient world. The city grew richer and richer and became the envy of the other city states. Since no major war took place, they started to resent paying all those money for defense to Athens. They allied with Sparta and the beginning of the end started. The Peloponnese wars weakened everybody and made the cities an easy target for a Macedonian king, Phillip the second. He conquered them all and added his contributions to the ancient sites. We saw the only round temple in Olympia, the Philippeion, built by Phillip to house statues of himself and members of his family. Assassinated by one of his nobles, his son took over. He was Alexander the Great, one of the best military commanders in the history of the world. After consulting the oracle in Delphi and forcing her to admit that he is "unstoppable", he went on to conquer the "whole of the known world." During his short reign he was never defeated and got as far as the Himalayas. The Greeks were just a small part of his empire, but his tutor was Aristotle, he liked Greek culture and he spread it all over the world starting the Hellenistic period. On their part, the Greeks turned it around and think that Macedonia was part of Greece and Alexander was one of them.

Alexander went east, but in the west the Romans were growing. With his sudden death in 323 BC and his generals fighting for parts of his empire, Greece was an easy pray for the Roman armies. They had great admiration for the Greek civilization, learned all they could, stole or copied all the art, borrowed the Gods and allowed the Athenian schools to continue their teachings, mostly to aristocratic Roman pupils. It was a period of 300 years of peace all under Roman control. The sites of Delos, Delphi, Acropolis, Athens Agora or Olympia got renovated and expanded, and received famous visitors, including several Roman Emperors. We saw Roman ruins everywhere, from a temple built by a rich merchant in Delos, to the Roman Forum at the entrance of Via Sacra at Delphi, the extensions and redesigns of the Olympia Sanctuary or the amphitheater at the base of the Acropolis. It is called the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and it is still used today for concerts.
Greek tragedy was a little too heavy for the less educated Romans, they liked easier forms of entertainment, some of the amphitheatres were adapted for that.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
In their time the Olympic games grew from their humble beginnings to a big commercial affair with Nero competing in the carriage race in AD 67. He made the rules, giving himself 10 horses, allowing the other competitors only four and after falling to the ground he stopped the race and declared himself the winner. Nero also liked Delphi and on one of his visits he stole 500 statues to decorate his Roman villa. Another emperor, Hadrian, liked Greece, Greek art and a teenager Greek boy who died too early by drowning in the Nile. Hadrian was unconsoled and deified the boy. We saw statues of Hadrian everywhere and several of his constructions, including the Arch and the Library in Athens. We also saw a very nice statue of his lover at Delphi (and several others in museums in Italy).
Antinous, detail
The growth of Christianity and the conversion of the Roman emperors also meant the decline in the religious significance of the ancient Greek sites. The Delphi oracle was mostly addressing romantic questions by now. The Olympic games were just commercial affairs. Delos was already gone, after being conquered and looted in 88 BC by the King of Pontus (from somewhere in present day Turkey). The barbarians started to attack the Roman Empire and Athens fell pray to Herulians in 267 AD. In the agora we saw the city wall rebuilt in a hurry after their invasion, they just piled up all the stones they could find.
The Games were ended by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 394, after the 293rd olympiad, as part of a purge of pagan festivals and the temples were destroyed by order of Theodosius II in 426 as clearance of the pagan sites. It is a shame to imagine the passion with which Christians destroyed ancient art. In the Acropolis museum we saw an animation of how they toppled and crumbled the statues of the Parthenon. It is also the reason why most Greek statues don't have heads. Christians confused Nike with an angel so she stood a better chance of being left intact. She was the goddess of victory and represented with wings.
Christian contribution to the ancient art

Emperor Justinian closed the Athenian schools in 529. The great ancient civilization was over. By this time the Roman Empire was already split, Rome fell to invaders in 476, but the Eastern side was still powerful and Greece fell under the Byzantine control for the next thousand years. Between 1000-1200 Athens experienced a resurgence, a second, smaller Golden Age, some of the oldest Orthodox churches date from this period. We passed by one in the Agora, but unfortunately it was closed.
Nobody opens the church for us
The soldiers of the fourth crusade got lazy. They didn't go all the way to Jerusalem, they stopped in Constantinople and looted the city in 1204, it badly shook the Byzantine Empire and it never recovered. The Venetians helped the crusaders and were compensated with Crete. In Heraklion, Rethymno and Hania we saw their fortresses and traces of their culture. They also established themselves in many other continental ports and in Nafplio there are three Venetians forts. We visited the biggest one, Palamidi, on the hill. (Other accounts say that the Venetians started it all and financed the fourth crusade to punish the Byzantium. It is not my business to figure that out, the reality is that Venice was a significant power at some point in Europe and their influence in Greece is copious.)
Palamidi fortress

Toward the top of the Palamidi fortress
The smallest fortress in Nafplio, viewed from Palamidi

Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire was making continuous progress toward Europe. The Constantinople fell in 1453 and by this time most of Greece was under their control. The only ones to hold them back where the Venetians, in Heraklion (Crete), their fortress resisted a 25 year siege until it gave up in 1669. The Venetians attacked on the continent and made progress toward Athens. It is them who destroyed the Parthenon, by then used to store gunpowder, by striking it in 1687. The Venetians looted the Parthenon and ran away with many statues.

The Heraklion fortress

The Ottoman rule with the Muslim religion meant the Orthodox church was under pressure. One monk retreated to the mountains of Meteora. The legend says that he was carried by an eagle on top of one of the stones and he built there the first place of worship. Soon many others followed and over all 24 little churches were built in inaccessible locations. Only six remain and we visited four of them.

Greeks never easily accepted the Ottoman rule and in 1821 they started their war of independence. With help from the Western powers they finally achieved it in 1830. A museum we visited at the Meteora church had displays about the war for independence and paintings of their various leaders, including the famous woman admiral, Laskarina Bouboulina.
The first capital of the new country was in Nafplio, but the first president was assassinated after just a couple of years of inside fighting. We saw Nafplio old town on a quick tour, it is a delicious little touristic place, now visited by cruise ships and rich Athenians on weekend trips.

The central square in Nafplio with the famous black box
(famous because it doesn't have any special significance)

With the Greeks unable to control and govern themselves, the western powers intervened and in 1833 installed a 17 year old German prince as the first king of Greece. It was a little country mostly consisting of the Peloponnese and the Cyclades islands. Otto was a great admirer of the ancient Greece and he set up to restore Sparta and revive Athens. After one year he moved his capital there, even though it was just a humble village of 5,000 - twenty times smaller than the ancient Athens. The city grew unstoppable through major constructions in Neoclasssical style and we saw plenty of them in Athens including the Parliament building, the Zappleion (the first Olympic village in 1906 and now exhibition hall) and the Syntagma (Constitution) square.
The Parliament preparing for a demonstration 

The first Olympic village, now a special exhibition hall, Zappleion 
Otto was ousted in a bloodless coup in 1862 and the British exerted their influence by installing a young Danish prince in 1864. He became known as King George I and ruled as a constitutional monarch for fifty years. This period of relative stability allowed the Greeks to pursue their foreign policy of uniting all the dispersed Greeks. Claiming that Alexander Macedon was one of them and through multiple wars throughout the 19th century, Greece vastly extended its territory, North, to include Macedonia, and South to collect all the other groups of islands. In 1905 it reunited with Crete and I learned all about it in the Museum of Crete in Heraklion.

In 1896, Athens hosted the first edition of the modern Olympic Games. It was a French baron who pushed for it, but there were also generous Greek backers who financed most of the expenses including the renovation of the Panathenaic stadium. An old marble stadium from antiquity, used and modernised by Romans, fell in complete disarray, but was restored to its former glory. I never expected a stadium to be so impressive. It is a significant part of the country's history. The first Olympic games were a huge success, topped by a Greek winning the first marathon race. The next two editions, held in Paris and St. Louis, Missouri were failures that threatened the future of the games. The Olympic Committee decided to hold an extra edition of the games in Athens in 1906. It counted then as the fourth modern Olympiad, but later taken off the books. It was successful of course and the rest is history. The Panathenaic stadium continues to be used, for the marathon race and archery competition at the Olympics of 2004, or for momentous sporting events, like the return of the football team after winning the Eurocup in 2004.

Greece joined the Allies in the first world war, apparently being promised the Asia Minor. They entered Turkey and occupied big chunks of the country advancing as far as Ankara. The liberation from the Greeks is Turkey's national holiday, just like the liberation from the Turks is Greece's national holiday. The only pair of countries in the world to do that. Best friends forever. The Turkish campaign was a major failure for Greece and ended with the forced relocation of 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor. Four hundred thousand Turks were send in their place. Athens grew overnight as most of the refugees came here in search of jobs. The city never had a chance, it grew erratically disorganised and to this day it remains a mess. A very fine one, undoubtedly.

Throughout the 20th century Greece history is a long list of struggles and conflicts, occupation by the nazis, dictatorships, a civil war between the royalists, republicans and communists and military juntas.
In one of the major hypocrisies and miseries of history, Great Britain and United States gave Stalin Romania in exchange for Greece. (details here)
Handwritten by Churchill, agreed with Stalin and approved by the American ambassador,
by far the most evil political act in the history of the world
They fought the Greek communists and supported an unpopular monarchy and military dictatorship while abandoning Romania - a fiercely anticommunist country with one of the most loved and respected monarchs of the modern times. The Romanian King was exiled in 1947, received politely in London and Washington and lied to his face, while the British and the Americans spend all their resources to try to reconquer Greece. Stalin stayed on the side, he knew he would win either way. If the Greek communists won it was OK, if not he could use the same western tactics to eliminate any resistance in Eastern Europe. Two million Romanian anticommunist fighters spent many years in political gulags and many lost their lives while in Greece, thousands were killed, tens of thousands of children taken by force from their families and sent abroad, hundreds of thousands were left homeless, a million ran away and millions of people could not be employed or exert any civil rights if they didn't have an American inspired "Certificate of Political Reliability", a document to attest that they harbor no leftist feelings...By the end the US gained a vassal yet reluctant ally and occupied prime swathes of island locations to built military bases and control the Mediterranean.

The political fighting and instability goes on for the next thirty years, a US-backed military dictatorship installed in 1967 ousts the king and declares a republic in 1973. They fail miserably, even by Greek standards, and soon after the return to democracy the Socialist Party takes over and the ban on communists is finally lifted.

By the end of the century Greece seems to pull out, is accepted in the European Community in 1982 and joins the euro in 2002. A false period of prosperity ensues, the Greeks get cheap credits and borrow more than they can afford, the politicians stuff their pockets and lie about the country's debt and spending, while tax evasion is rife. Their military spending is exorbitant but favored by politicians and the army because is secret and prone to corruption and bribes. The economic crisis of 2008 brings on some light, Greece is bankrupt with foreign debt of about 400 billion dollars, much bigger than the annual GDP. The European Union comes up with a couple of unsuccessful rescue plans, they demand major budgetary cuts, the country goes in a deep recession for several years and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. One in four Greeks (55% of the young) is unemployed. We see it all throughout our travels, every other business is closed, and wherever we go we seem to be the only clients. In Syntagma square in Athens I witness a demonstration, old communist flags are flailing and worn out Che Guevara shirts are proudly worn, mixing naturally with the xenophobic message of the newly rising fascist party. The majority of Greeks, in the street, in the metro, sipping coffee on terraces or staying in their homes don't care about the demonstrations, their faces express a feeling of sadness, resolution and determination.

In Ermioni, a small village by the sea where we spend one week in the house of our friends, there are countless abandoned constructions - a clear sign of the tough times. Here and there little palaces, belonging to politicians, fenced, with private pools, tennis courts and direct access to the beach. After a good rest they can go back to Athens and figure out new ways to pillage and abuse this fine country, isn't this what politicians are doing most of the time almost everywhere in the world?

The countryside at Ermioni, palaces and modern ruins

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