Area 51,012 square mi (130,800 square km)
Population 10.96 million 2014
Highest Point 9,626 ft (2,917 m)
Lowest Point 0 m
GDP $237.6 billion 2014
Primary Natural Resources bauxite, lignite, magnesite, petroleum.
FOR OVER 4,000 years, Greece has been at the crossroads of civilizations. The great empires of the Western and Eastern worlds met, clashed, and exchanged ideas here. The ancient Greeks contributed to the development of European civilization in many ways, most notably in the areas of philosophy and politics. Shaped by their country’s lengthy coastline and rocky inhospitable interior, the Greek culture has always been dominated by the sea, as much for the ancients as it is today. Modern Greece is bordered to the northwest by ALBANIA, to the north by the Former Yugoslav Republic of MACEDONIA (FYROM) and BULGARIA, and to the east by the AEGEAN SEA and TURKEY. To the west lie the Ionian Sea and ITALY. Like Italy, Greece comprises a peninsula that protrudes into the MEDITERRANEAN SEA.
Greece is known officially as the Hellenic Republic, taking its name from the classical Greeks’ name for themselves, the Hellenes. At its height in the 5th century B.C.E., Classical Greek, or Hellenistic, civilization stretched from the western Mediterranean (Marseilles, FRANCE, was originally a Greek city) to the INDUS RIVER. Eclipsed by the rising Roman Empire in the 2nd century B.C.E., Greece reemerged as the center of the Mediterranean world with the founding of the city of Constantinople in 330 C.E., and the establishment of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium slowly lost ground to the Ottoman Turks over several centuries, finally succumbing to conquest in 1453. For 400 years, Greeks struggled to maintain their identity as a people within the OTTOMAN EMPIRE, until a successful revolt in 1829 reestablished an independent kingdom of Greece, which, over the next 60 years, gradually extended its boundaries to incorporate the rest of the Greek peninsula and the islands of the Aegean Sea.
This expansion was halted after a disastrous war with Turkey in 1922, which resulted in the deaths or forced migrations of millions of Greeks from Asia Minor and Anatolia. Lingering tensions between the two nations are not helped by the fact that many Greeks would like to see such quintessentially Greek cities as Smyrna, Ephesus, and especially Constantinople itself (modern ISTANBUL) returned to the fold. Pressure exerted by the NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION (NATO) and the EUROPEAN UNION (EU), however, has worked to end this conflict that has spanned a millennium.
Greece joined NATO in 1952, became a parliamentary republic by removing its king in 1974, and joined the European Community (forerunner of the EU) in 1981. Although cut off geographically from the other nations of the EU, it remains a solid outpost of European development in Europe’s southeast, and a strategic NATO partner at the doorstep of the MIDDLE EAST.
The modern nation of Greece consists mainly of the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula, and over 2,000 islands. A highly indented coastline stretches for over 8,400 mi (13,600 km). About 200 of the islands are inhabited, including the largest (and the fifthlargest in the Mediterranean), Crete. Greece’s second largest island, Euboea, nearly forms part of the mainland, running parallel to the Attic Peninsula for roughly 900 mi (1,500 km). Other major islands in the Aegean include Rhodes, Cythera, Naxos, Samos, Chios, Lesbos, and Lemnos, plus the island groups of the Cyclades, Sporades, and the Dodecanese. To the west of the peninsula lies the Ionian Sea, in which are even more islands: the Ionian Islands (Cephalonia, Zante and Ithaca) and Corfu. Many of these islands are important wintering grounds for migratory birds.
The southernmost part of the Greek peninsula is nearly an island itself, the Peloponnesus, connected only by the narrow Isthmus of Corinth. This area was the site of powerful ancient city-states such as Mycenae and Sparta and the birthplace of the Olympic Games. Immediately to the northeast is the Attic peninsula, where the majority of the Greek population lives, in and around the city of Athens (Athinai, with a metropolitan population of 5 million, or 40 percent of the total population). Attica is also the site of many of Greece’s most ancient monuments, the city of Thebes, the oracle at Delphi, and several of the major battlefields of the ancient world, including the famous battle of Marathon, in 490 B.C.E., in which the Greeks defended their independence against the largest imperial power of the day, the Persian Empire. Greece’s second largest city, Salonica (Thessaloniki), is much further to the north, and is the capital of the province of Macedonia, a major port and industrial center. Macedonia includes the third major peninsula on mainland Greece, Chalcidice (Khalkidhiki), with its famous Orthodox monastery of Mount Athos, which has been allowed to rule itself autonomously for centuries.
Because it is made up of so many mountainous peninsulas jutting out into the sea, Greece has only a few rivers over 62 mi (100 km) in length. The longest of these, the Aliakmon, is only 184 mi (297 km) long. This river, and the Pinios to the south, are the primary rivers that drain the plains of Greece’s north-central regions (Macedonia and Thessaly). Greece has very few lakes, but there are three of significant size, one in each corner of Greece: Trikhonis in the southwest, Voiviis in the east, and Vegorritis in the far north. The spine that runs down the center of the main Greek peninsula is the Pindus Mountain range. These stretch from the highland province of Epirus in the northwest, down to Attica and across to the Peloponnesus in the south. A second mountain chain, the Rhodope Mountains, runs along Greece’s northern border with FYROM and Bulgaria. The highest mountain in Greece, however, is not a part of either of these chains. Mount Olympus, reputed to be the home of the gods in Greek mythology, stands alone above the plain of Thessaly.
Thessaly forms one of the few places in Greece where the terrain is level enough to permit agriculture on a larger scale. The rest of Greece consists mostly of sharp, rocky hills, with a dry and temperate climate year-round, sufficient only for the cultivation of olives, grapes and goat’s cheese, Greece’s primary exports. Lacking rich farmland, the Greeks thus turned to the sea for their primary livelihood. Today, the Greek merchant fleet is the largest in the world (excluding nonnationally owned fleets, such as the multinational registries of LIBERIA or PANAMA). It is estimated that one family in 11 in Greece is connected in some way to the shipping industry and that Greek shipping accounts for 70 percent of all EU maritime commerce.
Other significant industries include tourism, especially with the exposure from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Natural resources include bauxite (aluminum ore) and alternative power sources, including hydropower, geothermal, and solar energy, fueled by Greece’s ever-present sunshine. There are estimated oil reserves in the eastern Aegean, but these have largely gone untapped because of yet another conflict with Turkey over how far each nation’s boundary extends over the continental shelf.
Turkey is not the only nation that has disputes with Greece. Albania contests the borders of Epirus, claiming large numbers of ethnic Albanians living inside Greek borders, which official Greek statistics do not show. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been denied the use of its name “Macedonia” and its flag, the ancient symbol of Alexander the Great, since its independence in 1991. Although Greece dropped its economic blockade in 1995 (and allowed FYROM to take a seat at the United Nations), it continues to insist that the Slavic country drop its Hellenistic name and symbols.
Greece also firmly supports the claims of its Greek brethren to the entire island of CYPRUS, fanning the flames of continued ethnic strife with the Turks in northern Cyprus. Greece’s far northeastern province, Thrace, where roughly 1.5 percent of the population are Turkish Muslims, is, by contrast, quite peaceful. A Greek-Turkish partnership in NATO, and potentially in the EU, was furthered by the twin natural disasters of 1999. Rescue efforts from both nations were quick to come to the aid of victims of earthquakes only three weeks apart, leaving an impression of goodwill that bodes well for future regional cooperation.