Greek Independence Day is national holiday celebrated annually in the Hellenic Republic on March 25, commemorating the start of the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The revolution lasted for eight years, and was only won thanks to the intervention of Great Britain, France, and Russia. In 1829, the Treaty of Edirne finally established an independent Greek state. In celebration and remembrance of their struggle, here are ten curious facts you might not know about Greece!
1 – Greece has been in a state of default for about 50% of its modern history as a sovereign state. In particular, Greek defaults on external debts were in 1826 (which is impressive if you consider that the country only became independent in 1829), 1843, 1860, 1893, and lastly in 1932. It was also the first developed nation to have defaulted on a payment to the IMF since its founding in 1944!
2 – To raise the the people’s living standards, 19th century governor Ioannis Kapodistrias introduced the cultivation of potatoes into Greece. Legend goes that although Kapodistrias ordered the potatoes to be handed out for free to anyone interested, the population was initially reluctant to take advantage of the offer. Refusing to grow discouraged, he devised a plan to get people interested in them: he ordered that the whole shipment be put on public display and placed under guard. Soon, believing them to be very valuable, people started stealing the guarded potatoes, thus making Kapodistrias’ plan successful.
3 – In order to advertise their services through the city, prostitutes in ancient Greece often wore sandals that left the words “follow me” imprinted in the dirt as they walked.
4 – The two rival churches of Aghios Markos and Panagia Ereithiani on the island of Chios have an interesting Easter tradition, known as rouketopolemos, ‘rocket war’. After every Holy Saturday Easter mass, the two shoot more than 100.000 homemade fireworks at the other’s church bell towers. The winner is supposed to be determined on the next day based on the amount of direct hits on each tower, but each parish invariably claims victory over the other. The result is that both parishes agree to settle the score the following year, and the tradition is thus perpetuated. While the origin of this event is unclear, it is thought to go back to the Ottoman era. In fact, according to local lore it was earlier performed with real cannons, until Ottoman authorities prohibited their use in 1889.
5 – Entry into the peninsula of Mount Athos is prohibited to all females, due to the peninsula being home to 20 male monasteries. The ban is in place to make living in celibacy easier for those who have chosen to do so. This also extends to some female animals, including all female chickens, cows, ewes, nanny-goats, mares, and sows. Exceptions are made for cats, insects and songbirds.
6 – In the month before the ancient Olympics no wars were permitted so that spectators could travel from across Greece unharmed.
7 – During the Nazi occupation of Greece, the mayor of the island of Zakynthos was ordered to make a list with the names of all Jews on the island and turn them in. Together with the local Bishop, he proceeded to hide all of them in various mountainous villages, and handed over to the Nazis a list which contained two names: the mayor’s and the Bishop’s. All of the 275 Jews who lived on Zakynthos survived the Holocaust.
8 – In 1862, Greece held a referendum to elect a new king after the previous one was deposed in a popular revolt. The top 17 candidates in the plebiscite were disqualified either by virtue of not being human or being a member of the French, Russian or British royal family, as these Great Powers refused to permit any of their respective royal families to accept the Greek throne. This threw the election to a Danish prince with 0.00002% of the votes (just 6 votes). He and his descendants ruled Greece for 100 years. Non-human selections included:
- Long Live the Three Powers – 482 votes
- A King – 1,763 votes
- An Orthodox King – 1,917 votes.
9 – Some ancient sling bullets excavated from the city of Athens, Greece were inscribed with the word dexai, which translates to “catch!”
10 – Ikaria Island, off the coast of Greece, is called “the island where people forget to die” because of the high proportion of 100-year-olds. It is one of the world’s five Blue Zones, that is an area with a longer-than-average life expectancy and with a lower disease rates. On Ikaria, in particular, nearly 1 out of 3 people make it to their 90s, and inhabitants have about 20% lower rates of cancer, 50% lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia.