Who can ever forget the thrilling sight of seeing the Parthenon for the first time? It sits proudly with other Greek buildings on the Acropolis, but it’s the one tourists come to see. Built in the 5th century B.C., it served for a thousand years as a Christian church, then another 200 as a Muslim mosque. The Turks stored gunpowder in it, so that in 1867 when the Venetians besieged
the Acropolis, a shell exploded a powder magazine, destroying the inside and roof of the structure.
The first people to put foot on what is now Greek soil were immigrants from southwest Asia and Africa, some 50,000 years ago. By 7, 000 B.C., people from Asia Minor wandered onto the mainland. About 6,000
years ago settlers from Asia Minor created the first great culture, on the island of Crete, the Minoan Period, from about 2200-1400 B.C. Further immigration to mainland Greece led to the Mycenaean Period, about 1,500-1,000 B.C. The next 250 years are called the Dark Age, because wars limit our knowledge of the time. The disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization led to the birth of independent city states by about 750 B.C. From 750-500 B.C., the period is called the Archaic Age, because it is compared with what followed.
The Classical Period, 500-323 B.C., produced a marriage of brilliant
thought, arts and literature, with equally stunning successes on the battlefield by Alexander the Great (356-323 B. C). It included two Greek victories over the numerically superior forces of the Persians, Darius and Xerxes, 490 B.C. and 480 B.C.
Despite the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, the arts flourished in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.; Euripides’ Medea, Electra; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; Aritophanes’ The Frogs, and the philosophy of Socrates (469-399 B.C.), Plato (429-347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384-322 B.C). Alexander extended Greek territory to include most of the civilized world. It is said he wept because he had no more territories to conquer. After he died at age 33 in 323 B.C., his generals tore apart all he had built, with squabbles and skirmishes. In 146 A.D, Greece was made a Roman province, and would remain so until Rome’s demise in the 4th century A.D. During that time, the Roman Emperor Constantine built Constantinople as his eastern capital, with Greece under the Byzantine Empire. This lasted until 1200 A.D., and the next three hundred years were periods of great confusion, with Greece occupied by Franks, Catalans and other warriors. This was followed by over 400 years of rule by the Ottoman Turk Empire. The Greeks revolted in 1821, and after nine years of fighting were granted independence in 1830. Except for the brief years of 1923-35, it would remain a hereditary constitutional monarchy until Nazi Germany’s invasion in 1941. The Germans withdrew in October 1944, and after World War II’s end in 1945, a civil war erupted between nationalists and communists.
With U.S. financial aid under President Harry Truman’s Doctrine, in 1947 the nationalists were able to defeat and oust the communists to end the civil war. In the 50s, the Greek economy quickly recovered and ushered in a period of rapid economic and social development. Political infighting and instability followed, however, and in 1967, the military took control and stripped away most of the king’s power. This lasted until 1974, when military rule collapsed and the people voted in a republic. The new constitution ended the monarchy and established posts of president, prime minister and a cabinet. The president became a ceremonial title, and the prime minister with the help of the cabinet actually runs the country.
Greece’s land area is 131, 957 square miles, about half the size of Texas, with some 2, 000 islands comprising 20% of that total. North to south, Greece stretches 493 miles, east to west 616 miles, and 80% of the country is mountainous. Mount Olympus, at 9, 570 feet, was considered in ancient times as the home of the gods. Greece is relatively poor in natural resources, with primary exports bauxite (for aluminum), asbestos, nickel, magnesite and marble. Greece’s estimated
1998 population was 10, 662, 138, with more than 95% ethnically Greek. Ninety five percent are Greek Orthodox religion. Greece is a prosperous country with a high standard of living. I found the Greeks a solemn and unsmiling people, but in the evening, with a few shots of ouzo, a Greek liqueur, they transform into frenetic dancers and soulful singers. The Athens Bar at the Houston Ship Channel has for many years been a watering hole for Greek sailors and adventuresome Houstonians.