Baltimore, March 30, 2021
Dear members and friends of the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage,
As we prepared for the coming year’s program in late 2019, no one would have predicted what 2020 had in store for us. One of the oldest and most feared scourges of humanity, the plague, struck again owing to an aggressive form of a common virus. A little over a year later we grieve the loss of human life and struggle with the loss of jobs and livelihoods, and also the loss of human connection. Thankfully, at the time this letter is written, light is visible at the end of the tunnel.
With the beginning of the pandemic we suspended our live events and started revamping our programs in digital format. As we explored our options, news on rising tensions between Greece and Turkey filled the wires, with an unprecedented military escalation culminating in a face off of the two countries’ navies in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Then, Turkish President Erdoğan, amid much fanfare, reverted the most emblematic church of Orthodox Christendom, Hagia Sofia, to a mosque; it had been a museum since 1935. The conversion was dedicated to Mohamed the conqueror and related ceremonies were replete with swords and military rituals, causing Eleni Arweiler to mourn that “today the real Fall of Constantinople took place”.
Meanwhile, Hellenism in Greece and around the world was preparing to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the start of the great Greek Revolution.
For a heritage organization like SPGH, these events are critical. For the first time in a long while, core aspects of our heritage such as the emblematic church of Greek Orthodoxy and the Hellenic dominion over the Aegean Sea, the cradle of Greek civilization and place of birth of many Greeks around the world, were being claimed by other nations and heritages. To this day, the profound implications of such events for Greek heritage have not been fully appreciated, buried under the understandable political and other short-term priorities.
To account for these developments, we decided to make 2021 the year of Greek identity; that is, how 21st century Greek identity might be influenced by history, language, art, religion, the place of Hellenism in the world, and the struggles and ongoing conflicts that shape and test who we are.
As SPGH examines these important topics, I am happy to welcome our new fellow, Mr. Alexander Drivas, an international relations scholar and extremely talented political scientist. Mr. Drivas will serve as our liaison in Greece and help us with background work on our new program.
We look forward to seeing you at our upcoming events this year and hearing your reactions and your thoughts.
On behalf of the SPGH Board,
Vassilis E. Koliatsos, M.D.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees
The Contributions of Hellenism
Classical Greece is universally viewed as the cradle of Western civilization, primarily through its contributions to philosophy, democratic governance, visual arts and architecture, theater and poetry, science and medicine, and sports and athletic competitions, including the Olympic games. Less is known about the great contributions of Greek civilization during Roman and medieval history as the main intellectual force in the 1000-year Byzantine Empire. Little is also known about contributions of modern Greece through its heroic fight against the injustices of two world wars and its struggle for peace, stability and cooperation in Europe.
In all these periods and various manifestations of Hellenism, one can find the same diachronic values tracing back to classical times. These values and lessons from the experiences of Hellenism remain of central importance to Western civilization.
Modern Greece and Cultural Heritage
Modern Greece was founded on the basis of its cultural heritage. The Nobelist George Seferis quotes an episode involving Yannis Makriyannis, a legendary general of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottomans. The old warrior had no schooling and he taught himself to write only so that he could record his memoirs for successive generations. Seferis describes an incident in which Makriyannis found out that some of his soldiers intended to sell two ancient statues. Seferis quotes Makriyannis: "I took these soldiers aside and told them this: 'You must not give away these things, not even for ten thousand talers; you must not let them leave the country; it was for them we fought.'"
Seferis writes, "It is not Lord Byron, or a great scholar, or an archaeologist speaking; it is a son of shepherds from Roumeli, his body covered with wounds: 'It was for them we fought'".
«Τοσοῦτον δ’ ἀπολέλοιπεν πόλις ἡμῶν περί τό φρονεῖν καί λέγειν τούς ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους, ὥσθ’ οἱ ταύτης μαθηταί τῶν ἄλλων διδάσκαλοι γεγόνασι καί τό τῶν Ἑλλήνων ὄνομα πεποίηκε μηκέτι τοῦ γένους, ἀλλά τῆς διανοίας δοκεῖν εἶναι, καί μᾶλλον Ἕλληνας καλεῖσθαι τούς τῆς παιδεύσεως τῆς ἡμετέρας, ἤ τούς τῆς κοινῆς φύσεως μετέχοντας»
"So far has Athens left the rest of mankind behind in thought and expression that her pupils have become the teachers of the world, and she has made the name of Hellas distinctive no longer of race but of intellect, and thus Hellenes should be called the ones who share our education rather than a common ancestry."
(Isokrates, Panegyric 50.1)