Ethnology of minorities

There are more minority groups in Greece than is commonly realized, and the backcountry visitor will probably run across at least several of these subcultures. It should also be stressed that a “pure” Greek is a romantic fiction, since centuries of invasion, immigration and subsequent assimilation point to Hellenic cultural dura­bility rather than racial continuity. The average Greek is such a complex amalgam that he probably couldn’t dissect his ancestry into its components even if he cared to.

Greece was originally populated from the sixth to the second millennium b.c. by successive waves of settlers from Asia Minor and the Levant. Thereafter, aside from a few citizens of the western Roman Empire, there were not many newcomers until Slavs from the northern Balkans raided the declining Byzantine (eastern Roman) Empire in the seventh to tenth centuries a.d. The Slavs soon lost their separate ethnic identity, leaving only a handful of place names as far south as the Peloponnisos to mark their coming. Shortly after, the less assimilable Vlachs, nomads from present- day Romania (then known as Walachia, hence “Vlach”), appeared and dispersed themselves in Ipiros and parts of Thessalia and Makedhonia. (According to a contending theory, they are descended from Greek natives trained as mountain-pass guards by the Romans; after the empire dissolved, the guards’ Latin evolved to a form mutually intelligible with standard Romanian.)

There are two strains of Vlachs, or Roumaniki as they prefer to be called. (” Vlahos” in the mouths of many Greeks is an insult, equivalent to “bumpkin”.) The Koutsov- lachs until recently spoke dialectal Romanian (Roumanika) as their first language; their children may still attend Romanian language schools and adults tend to mix Roumanika and Greek in ordinary conversation. They are concentrated in the central Pindhos, from Metsovo to Sirako, and in east Zagoria, notably Vovoiissa, Laista and Samarina. Koutsovlachs whose villages are above snow line have alternate winter quarters, often near Velestino in Thessalia or in western Makedhonia. The Kara- gounidhes or Arvanitovlachs are somewhat less prosperous and less settled; until recently they spoke Albanian (hence the prefix “Arvanito”) in addition to Roumanika or Greek, but this custom is dying out as this subgroup is steadily absorbed into the Koutsovlach culture.

This brief survey of Ipirote “tribes” is completed with the Sarakatsani, strictly Greek-speaking nomads, possibly of aboriginal or Pelasgian (the first settlers) stock, who formerly wandered through most of northern Greece but whose range is now restricted. Until recently they were true nomads with no fixed address, migrating between summer pastures in the Pindhos and winter grazing in the lowlands. The government has of late required them to establish permanent winter dwellings, but they still return each summer to the mountains, where they rent pastures from the villagers, often the now nearly sedentary Koutsovlachs with whom they are not on good terms. They are quite friendly, though, to outsiders and it is almost impossible to go summer trekking in the Pindhos without happening upon their temporary colonies or meeting them on the trail.

Albanian Christians arrived in Greece around 1300, repopulating the islands of Spetses and Idhra plus the Argolid mainland opposite, as well as northern Andhros and portions of adjacent Evvia and Attiki. Albanian and medieval Greek cultures were so alike that assimilation was rapid, although spoken Albanian only disappeared from the areas cited after 1950.

As many visitors will soon be told in an aggrieved tone, the Turks conquered most of the provinces of what is now modern Greece by 1425 and stayed almost 400 years. During that period intermarriage, voluntary or otherwise, was not unheard of and the influence of things Turkish on cuisine, language and music (though not religion or folklore) wasenormous. After the disastrous Asia Minor war of 1922-23, all remaining Greek Muslims were exchanged for Anatolian Christians, with the exception of the Tsamidhes (Ipirote Muslims, expelled in 1944 for collaboration with the Axis) and the ethnic Turks of western Thraki who today number about 300,000. They maintain their own villages and a way of life largely untouched by the reforms of secular Turkey. In 1948 Greece reclaimed the Dhodhekanisos Islands and inherited a few more Turkish- and Greek-speaking Muslims on Rhodhos and Kos; these communities had been expelled from Crete between 1913 and 1923. If you venture north of Ksanthi toward Ehinos, you may meet the Pomaks, yet another Muslim group speaking a bizarre hybrid of Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek.

Orthodox Christian speakers of Makedhonian, a long-suppressed dialect akin to Bulgarian that is now permitted, live throughout the Yugoslav and Bulgarian border regions. The nationalists’ dream of a separate Makedhonian state was a political hot potato until the close of the Greek civil war in 1949; thereafter, the Makedhonian republic of Yugoslavia had to suffice, and all parties concerned lost interest in promoting or squelching secessionist agitation.

Gypsies can be found almost anywhere in Greece (even on ferryboats), although they concentrate in Thessalia, Makedhonia and Thraki, where they may be Muslim rather than Orthodox Christian. They have often traded in their horses-and-carts for pickup trucks and taken up the vocation of fruitseller. Many of the better festival musicians lay claim to gypsy forebears.

Catholics are a holdover from the Genoese and Venetian penetration of the Aegean following the disgraceful Fourth Crusade of 1204. Today they live principally on the islands of Syros, Thira and Tinos, and in Athens. Often Italianate last names distinguish them from their neighbors.

The Jewish communities of loannina, Larissa, Halkidha and Rhodhos are some of the oldest in Europe, dating back to the Roman era. The Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki, Kavalla and Dhidhimotiho were invited there by the Sultan in 1492 following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal. The Athens enclave is a recent phenomenon, being mostly German Jews who accompanied King Otto from Bavaria to Greece in the 1830s. Although the Nazis decimated 80 percent of Greek Jewry in 1944-45, about 5,000 remain.

Taken together, these various interesting minorities total less than seven percent of the entire Greek population. Nonetheless, they are conspicuous and important out of proportion to their numbers, and any visitor to Greece will derive satisfaction from an informed glimpse of those who would otherwise be mysterious oddities.

It is also sobering to contemplate that at any given moment Greece is engulfed by anywhere from a few thousand to half a million foreigners, mostly concentrated in Athens and the islands. While individually transient, travelers en masse must be considered an important demographic component of the country into the fore­seeable future.


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