Hellenism in the Middle East: Past, present, and future

Hellenism in the Middle East: Past, present, and future

Although in the modern context Hellenism is something intrinsically European, we often forget its historical widespread presence and influence in the Middle East. Greece’s cultural and economic weight was not only in Europe but stretched through the deserts of Egypt and the port cities of the Levant. Now, as trouble is brewing in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greek population dwindles in the Middle East, it is important to remember Hellenism’s role in the region. This will not only highlight and preserve Hellenic heritage but also serve as a positive contributing factor for Greece’s foreign policy. 

In western discourse, and sometimes even domestically in Greece, we often talk about Hellenic history only through the prism of ancient Athens and Sparta. In fact, major Greek-speaking cities like Antioch, Alexandria, Smyrna and Trebizond were located in the modern Middle East. Alexandria especially stands out as a major center of Greek learning thanks to its impressive library, while it also hosted one of the wonders of the world: the Great Lighthouse. Antioch was also a critical center of trade and cultural exchange, even into the rise of Islam, where Hellenistic ideas blended with those of Arab Muslim thinkers.

But it was not just in antiquity or the Middle Ages that Hellenism enjoyed prestige in the Middle East. Just a few generations ago, hundreds of thousands of Greeks continued to shape the emerging nations of the Eastern Mediterranean. Cities like Smyrna, which was home to a Hellenic population in the hundreds of thousands were some of the richest in the region, while Greeks in Egypt began and operated the country’s first banks and major industries. As Alexander Kitroeff notes in his book “The Greeks and the making of Modern Egypt”: “The Greek presence in Egypt and its relative affluence, coupled with the ease of travel between Greece and Egypt, contributed to a sense that Alexandria, Cairo, and Canal towns were part of a Greek world spread out through the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Greeks in Egypt and Asia Minor acted as a bridge between Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Many were merchants and often translators for the sultan himself. Indeed, the Greeks of Asia Minor who came to Greece after the painful population exchange in 1923 caused a manufacturing boom from 1924-30 thanks to their industrial know-how and the limited wealth they managed to bring over. However, with the rise of Turkish and Arab nationalism, the space for Hellenism in the Middle East has contracted. While ethnic Greek minorities may have created lucrative industries in the 19th and early 20th century, nationalistic reformers in the mid-19th century nationalized and redistributed these assets, forcing Greek minorities to emigrate under economic and political pressure. Many of these emigres even faced discrimination upon arriving in Greece.

Although such stereotyping is now a memory, Hellenism’s rich past in the region may serve as Greece’s most effective tool in foreign policy outreach and engagement with its near-abroad neighbors.

Greece continues to enjoy warm relations with both Arab states and Israel even before the slew of recent peace treaties. It has also upgraded military relations with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Egypt and Greece have also delineated their maritime borders this year in a historic step and as a way to limit more Turkish ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. And Greece continues to be a major trading partner with Lebanon and other Levantine countries. Greece has sent large amounts of aid to crisis-hit Lebanon and last year Lebanon hosted its first Greek festival to highlight ties between the two countries. Also most recently Greece opened its first consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Erbil in a sign of warming ties with Arab countries.

There are cultural opportunities as well as a number of heritage sites, religious shrines and Greek Orthodox communities still in the region. In one high-profile example, a team from the National Technical University of Athens renovated and reinforced the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Egypt and Greece are also in discussions regarding religious tourism as the important Saint Catherine’s Monastery is set for renovation, while the Egyptian government renovated the Greco-Roman Museum of Alexandria. Finally, Greece also also helped initiate a recent charter to preserve Byzantine heritage in the Mediterranean that also included a number of Arab countries. 

While days of Hellenistic adventurism in the Middle East may be centuries past, Greece’s enduring cultural legacy can still serve as a diplomatic boon – particularly as tensions with Turkey continue to run high. The government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis should not be negligent and must continue to expand on these positive developments by continuing to boost and expand defense, trade and cultural ties with its Middle Eastern partners. This will not only check any threat to Greece’s interests in the region but also preserve Hellenism’s millennia-old legacy in the Middle East.

* Paul Gadalla is a former Beirut-based journalist who also worked in communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He has an MA in political science and focuses on the Eastern Mediterranean and religious minorities. He is currently based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter at @BoulosinDC.

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