General information about Greece

Greece is a country in Southeast Europe that forms the southern extremity of the Balkans. It is bordered by the Ionian, Mediterranean, and Aegean seas on the west, south, and east, and on the north by Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Greece encompasses many island groups, including the Ionian Islands to the west and the Sporades) and Cyclades to the east, as well as the larger islands of Crete , Lesbos, Rhodes, Samos, Samothrace and Lemnos, which lie within sight of the Turkish coast. The name Greece is derived from the Latin name Graeci, applied to a people who lived in ancient times in the northwest part of the country.

Greece is predominantly an agricultural country, although less than one-third of its area is cultivated. The country is self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs, and agricultural products make up most of Greece’s exports. Tourism is well developed and is economically important.

Modern Greece came into being in 1830, following a war of independence against Ottoman Turkey. Initially much smaller than it is today, Greece acquired additional territory from Turkey as a result of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Balkan Wars (1912-13).

Historical Overview

The coasts of the Aegean Sea witnessed the emergence of Europe’s first civilizations, the Minoan and Mycenaean. Following these civilizations, there was a dark period until about 800 BC when a new Greek civilization emerged, based on the city-state model.

This civilization spread through the colonization of the Mediterranean coasts, resisted Persian invasion with its two most prominent representatives, cosmopolitan and democratic Athens and militaristic and oligarchic Sparta, and laid the foundation for the Hellenistic culture that followed the empire of Alexander the Great. It later sparked the Renaissance in Europe.

Militarily, Greece lost power compared to the Roman Empire until it was finally conquered by the Romans in 146 BC. However, Greek culture ultimately influenced the Roman way of life. The Romans recognized and admired the richness of Greek culture, studied it deeply, and consciously became its successors.

They also preserved a significant part of ancient Greek literature. Although it was only a part of the Roman Empire, Greek culture continued to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean.

When the Empire eventually split into two, the eastern or Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital, was essentially Greek in nature. From the 4th to the 15th century, the Eastern Roman Empire survived attacks from the west and east for 11 centuries until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453. Gradually, Byzantium was fully conquered during the 15th century.

Ottoman rule continued until 1821 when the Greeks declared their independence. The Greek Revolution of 1821 ended in 1828, and the independence of the new Greek state was recognized in 1830. A monarchy was established in 1833.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Greece sought to annex all territories still under Ottoman control with Greek-speaking populations, achieving this in part and gradually expanding until reaching its current size in 1947.

After World War II, Greece experienced a civil war until 1949. Later, in 1952, Greece became a member of NATO. On April 21, 1967, the military seized power in a coup, abolishing the monarchy. The military junta led to the creation of the Cyprus issue due to mismanagement exploited by Turkey, leading to its collapse in 1974.

Following a referendum to abolish the monarchy on December 8, 1974, Greece transitioned back to a republic, and a new constitution was drafted by the Fifth Revisionary Parliament and came into effect on June 11, 1975. This constitution remains in effect as revised in 1986 and 2001.

Greece became a member of the European Union in 1981 and joined the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), known as the Eurozone, in 2001.


The climate of Greece is typically Mediterranean. Summers are long, hot, and dry. The average temperature in July is 26.7¡ C (80¡ F), in Athens, the capital, but is much lower in the mountains. Winters are mild; the average January temperature is 9.2¡ C (48.5¡ F).

Winter temperatures are also much lower in the interior; in mountain valleys averages are close to freezing, and prolonged frosts may occur. Snow is not uncommon away from the coasts. Precipitation varies greatly. In Athens it averages 394 mm (16 in) annually, but it is much higher away from the east coast and rises to more than 1,200 mm (47 in) in the higher mountains.

In all parts of the country rainfall is seasonal, most of it coming in late fall and winter. Only in Macedonia and Thrace is there a significant summer rainfall; almost no rain falls in the rest of the country.


Few rivers exist in peninsular Greece; all are small, and most dry up in the summer. Only those rivers which rise farther north in the Balkan Peninsula and flow through northern Greece to the seaÑthe Vardar and Struma, for exampleÑhave any significant summer discharge. The small size and seasonal character of most rivers is the primary reason for the limited use of irrigation. Of the several lakes within the mountains, many of them in northern Greece.


Naturally occurring vegetation is adapted to the climate and consists largely of xerophytes, which are plants that are able to withstand the summer drought by the storage of water. Spring is the primary growing season, and flowering plants make a brilliant show during this time, before withering under the summer heat. The mountains are mostly clothed with a relatively dense scrub brush (called maquis).

Evergreen forests may once have covered much of the land but have been largely destroyed in southern Greece. Extensive forest is found only in the mountains of northwestern Greece, where large stands of fir occur. About 19% of the total area is forested.


Greece is poorly endowed with minerals and fuel. Although some lignite (a soft coal) is produced, no economically significant coal deposits exist. Oil has been found in northwestern Greece and on the floor of the Aegean Sea. The Pinos oil field, off the island of Thasos, has been producing petroleum since 1981.

Reserves of hydroelectric power are slight because of the small size and seasonal flow of most rivers. Iron ore and bauxite are the most important mineral resources; bauxite is quarried to the north of the Gulf of Corinth, and most of it is exported.

Small amounts of pyrites (used in making sulfuric acid), lead, zinc, magnesite, manganese, chrome, and silver are also mined. In most cases the ore is exported for smelting elsewhere.


Ethnic Groups, Language, and Religion

The present population is derived mainly from the inhabitants of ancient Greece, but there has been a strong infusion of Slavic and Turkish blood. Greek is spoken by about 97% of the population. The modern language is derived from classical Greek of Attica and Ionia and exists today in two forms.

The popular, or demotic, form has evolved naturally and has incorporated Slavic, Turkish, and Italian words. The Katharevousa, “pure,” form of Greek has resulted from a conscious attempt to revive ancient Greek. The latter had been taught in the schools and used by the civil service and church until its official demise in 1976 in favor of the demotic form.

The non-Greek population includes a small Albanian community close to the Albanian frontier in the northwest; some Macedonian and Bulgarian Slavs near the northern frontier; and a few Turks, who remained after the exchange of population of 1923.

Small communities of Vlachs, a seminomadic people who speak a Romance language, live in the northern mountains.

After World War I, Greece and Bulgaria agreed to exchange their ethnic minorities; about 92,000 Bulgarians left Greece for Bulgaria, and 46,000 Greeks emigrated from Bulgaria to Greece. In 1922 a large-scale exodus of Greeks from Anatolia, followed by a more orderly exchange of populations, occurred.

In all, about 1,500,000 refugees came to Greece, and about 800,000 Turks were transferred from Greece to Turkey. Although the settlement of the newcomers presented great difficulties, the country eventually benefited from the resulting increase in economic productivity.

More than 95% of the population belongs to the Greek Orthodox church, which is the established religion of the country. In 1987 the Socialist-controlled parliament enacted legislation confiscating most of the church’s land and placing its other property (except for the self-governing monastic territory of Mount Athos) under lay control.

Demography and Education

Greece is one of the least urbanized countries in Europe and has only two large cities, Athens (with its contiguous port city of Piraeus) and Salonika (Thessaloniki). Most Greek cities are small, even the well-known city of Corinth had only 28,900 people in 1991.

The population has grown rapidly during the past century. Many rural areas have become overpopulated, and there has been a large migration, especially to the United States. Temporary migration by men to work in northern Europe is also common.

Education is free and compulsory until the age of 15, with provision for further secondary education in high schools or in gymnasiums. The literacy rate is slightly below the European average.


The culture of Greece goes back to the artists, historians, philosophers, playwrights, and poets of ancient times. Classical Greek culture was probably the greatest formative influence in the development of European civilization.

Greek cultural traditions continued through the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods and re-emerged in modern forms after the centuries of domination by the Ottoman Empire. See separate articles on Byzantine art and architecture; Byzantine music; Greek architecture; Greek art; Greek literature, ancient; Greek literature, modern; and Greek music.

Economic Activity

Little economic growth occurred during the long period of Turkish rule (1456Ð1830), and when Greece gained independence in 1830, it was a backward, peasant country with no industry above the level of rural crafts. Athens was little more than a large village. Economic growth was slow in the 19th century. Greece offered little scope for industrial development, having only scanty resources in metals and solid fuels.

Economic development began following World War II and was assisted by foreign aid from the United States. Greece became a member of the European Community (now the European Union, or EU) in 1981. A continuing problem for Greece is its large public debt.

This is in part caused by a costly defence establishment related to the country’s chronic strained relations with Turkey. Inability to reduce the public debt resulted in Greece being excluded from the initial phase of the EU single-currency system in 1999, but the country was finally able to join in 2001. Greece’s entry into the EU Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1998 was accompanied by a 14% devaluation of its currency, the drachma.

Agriculture and Fishing

Agriculture continues to be the most important economic activity. Farming is typically carried on by peasants, who cultivate holdings that are uneconomically small, using old-fashioned, if not primitive, methods. In remote areas plows similar to those represented on classical Greek vases continue to be used.

The average size of holdings is less than one ha (2.5 acres), although as some peasants forsake the land, others are able to acquire larger holdings. A land redistribution program instituted in the late 1950s has also enlarged some holdings.

The primary agricultural products are wheat; fruit, such as grapes, olives, and citrus fruit; and industrial crops, such as cotton and tobacco.

Greece is generally self-sufficient in bread grains, and large amounts of tobacco and dried grapes (raisins and sultanas) are exported. Rice is grown in some damp deltaic regions, but Greek agriculture in general suffers from a shortage of water during the growing season.

Animal rearing is restricted by a shortage of grass and fodder. Sheep and goats, which can subsist on the coarse grass of the hills, are by far the most numerous farm stock; there are few cattle. Cheese is made from sheep’s and goats’ milk.

Fishing is important around the coast of Greece. Among the fish caught are tunny and octopus, considered a delicacy.


Manufacturing is largely related to domestic agricultural production. It includes canning and drying fruit; wine making and distilling; and tobacco preparation. All these activities are carried out in small units of production.

Most factory industries are found near the two large cities, Athens and Salonika. Cement, fertilizers, simple chemical products and glass are made for the domestic market. A small aluminium industry exists, and petroleum refining is important.

Unregulated development in the Athens metropolitan area, which contains about one-third of the population, has contributed to a severe air pollution problem.

Transportation and Trade

Greece has only a skeletal railroad system, which focuses on Athens. The capital city has a subway system, which underwent a major expansion in the 1990s. The main roads that link Athens with the principal provincial centers are well built, and more than 80% of the road system is surfaced.

A canal, used by small ships, cuts through the Isthmus of Corinth, linking the Ionian Sea with the Aegean. Greece has a large fleet of merchant ships and tankers that contribute to Greece’s balance of payments but have little relationship to the country’s foreign trade.

Greece has a small volume of foreign trade. Exports consist mainly of fruit, alcoholic drinks, and tobacco. Imports include fuel and manufactured goods. In the 1990s the value of imports has been more than double that of exports, creating a large balance-of-payments deficit. Most foreign trade is with other members of the EU.

Political System


The 1975 Constitution contains extensive guarantees of citizens’ freedoms and rights, which were further strengthened by the 2001 revision. Notably, this revision enshrined, for the first time constitutionally, five independent authorities, three of which (the Ombudsman, the Authority for the Assurance of Individual Rights, and the Data Protection Authority) are dedicated to the protection and assurance of individual rights.

Separation of Powers

At the state and organizational level, the Constitution distinguishes three branches of power: legislative, executive, and judicial. The legislative power is vested in the President of the Republic and the Parliament, the executive power is held by the President of the Republic and the Government, and the judicial power is exercised by the courts in the name of the Greek people.

Executive Power

The President of the Republic

The President of the Republic is hierarchically at the top of the executive branch, participates in the legislative process by publishing laws and has the ability to return a bill passed by Parliament. The Constitution designates the President as the regulator of the government.

The President is indirectly elected by the Parliament through successive votes, aiming for a 2/3 majority in the first phase and a 3/5 majority in the second phase. If these majorities are not achieved, the Parliament is dissolved, elections are called, and the new Parliament elects the President with an absolute majority or a relative majority if the absolute majority is not obtained.

The President’s powers are limited, performing ceremonial duties. All acts require countersignature by the Prime Minister or another Government member (minister), such as presidential decrees. Exceptions to this requirement, explicitly stated in the Constitution, include acts like appointing the staff of the Presidency of the Republic. The President’s term is five years, with the possibility of re-election once.

The Government

The executive power is exercised by the Government, which determines and directs the country’s general policy (Article 82 of the Constitution), implements policies approved by Parliament through legislative acts, and participates in the legislative process by drafting and promoting bills. In modern party democracy, the Government also dominates the legislative function by controlling the parliamentary majority, making the passage of laws typically a formal process. Due to the frequent invocation of party discipline, disagreement by a government MP with the supporting Government is rare.

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister heads the Government and, within the Greek two-party system, is usually the leader of the ruling party holding the absolute majority in Parliament.

According to Article 82 of the Constitution, “the Prime Minister ensures the unity of the Government and directs its actions, as well as those of the public services in general, for the implementation of government policy within the framework of the laws.”

Legislative Power

The legislative power is exercised by the Parliament, whose members are elected by universal secret ballot for a four-year term.

Elections may be called earlier for extraordinary reasons as defined in the Constitution. Since 1975, the declaration of early elections has become the norm, usually invoked by outgoing governments citing significant national issues.

A complex system of proportional representation (reinforced proportionality) is used to elect MPs, discouraging the formation of small parties and allowing for a strong majority government, even if the leading party lacks an overall majority of votes.

To secure one of the 300 parliamentary seats, a party must receive at least 3% of the total votes. Under the electoral law, to be applied for the first time in the post-2004 parliamentary elections, the leading party secures an absolute majority in Parliament with 41% of the vote.

Archaeological sites

Greece is awash with ancient sites that fire the imagination, stir the soul and blow your mind with their sheer immensity. Worship of the all-powerful Olympian gods, aided by the availability of slave labour in ancient times, led to the construction of vast and magnificent temples, sanctuaries and statues on a scale that this world is unlikely to ever witness again.

Wars, earthquakes and various other natural and manmade disasters have tragically led to the destruction of many of these great architectural wonders. But there are still enough remains of Classical Greece to attract eager hordes of visitors from all corners of the globe. You don’t have to be a history or archaeology buff to fall under the spell of these ancient sites where mythology and mystery ooze from the ruins of once-mighty structures fit for the gods.

The Acropolis must be the most famous ancient monument in the world, towering over the Greek capital and still awesome in its majesty despite centuries of damage and the swarms of tourists who simply can’t get enough of it.

A trip up to the Parthenon is one of those “must do” visits on the itinerary of any self-respecting tourist passing through Athens. Amid the smog, traffic chaos and modern urban sprawl of the capital, the temple of the goddess Athena beckons irresistibly from practically every corner of this huge city.

The ruins of Apollo’s temple at Delphi, 178 kilometres north west of Athens, are located in one of the most breathtaking mountain settings in Greece – a place believed by the ancient Greeks to be the navel of the earth. Kings, generals and ordinary pilgrims once journeyed here from all over the ancient world to hear the pronouncements of the mysterious Delphic oracle who spoke on behalf of Apollo from her fume-filled cavern.

Meteora in the north western corner of Thessaly has got to be the main contender for the most stunning location of all. Medieval monasteries perch impossibly on shafts of cylindrical rock – an awe-inspiring sight that graces the cover of many a Greek guidebook and wowed moviegoers in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

Mount Olympus in Thessaly was the mythical home of Zeus and his fellow gods and if you happen to be there when one of the area’s frequent thunderbolts strike you might be forgiven for thinking they’re still around. Each summer this beautiful national park attracts thousands of hikers hell-bent on reaching the summit of the highest peak in Greece.

Mount Olympus may have been the home of the gods but it was at Olympia in the Peloponnese that they first pitted their might against mortals in the first Olympic games. Strolling along the track where the athletes competed in the first games in 776 BC is an extraordinarily moving experience.

Popular day excursions from Athens include the archaeological site of Ancient Corinth, which was one of the most powerful cities of Classical Greece, served at one time by 450,000 slaves and 1,000 “sacred” prostitutes. Epidaurus, where Greek dramas are still performed in the remarkably well-preserved 4th century BC amphitheatre, is also within easy reach of the capital.

One of the most important archaeological sites in Greece is the island of Delos in the centre of the Aegean Sea. This was the reputed birthplace of Zeus’ twin children Apollo and Artemis and the whole island is a fascinating outdoor museum of temples, shrines and sanctuaries.