Saturday, March 30, 2013


«Την ελληνική σημαία, μάνα μου την αγαπώ. Έχει του ουρανού το χρώμα και στη μέση το σταυρό.»

Whenever I look at a Greek flag flying upon a flagpole, my chest does not swell with pride or patriotism, nor are my thoughts infused with grandeur and triumph. Instead, invariably, a lump constricts my throat and I remember a time when, standing on the ramparts of the castle at Argyrokastro, now in Albania and gazing at the Greek flag flying over the Greek consulate in the city below, Father Nicodemos mused: "To think that for fifty years we could only dream of this flag. You can make a flag illegal, but you can't outlaw a dream. This flag of ours, the Greek flag, is the rag that mops up the tears of the race throughout the ages. After all, Greece is much more than a country. It is an ideal and as an ideal it exists outside the world of corruption."
Flaf of Nrothern Epirus

This is a tremendously poignant though highly romanticised view. After all, the Greek flag, has only existed since its official adoption by the First National Assembly of Epidaurus on 13 January 1822 and thus cannot be said to hold any plausible connotations of continuity. It is not the flag the ancient or byzantine Greeks fought under, though it is said that the current flag resembles that of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros Phocas.
Flaf of Nicephoros Phocas
It is not the flag of the Greek merchants who flew a specially designed Ottoman Greek flag comprised of two red stripes separated by a blue one, only to be replaced by the Russian flag after the treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca. Nor is it the flag that most of the protagonists of the Greek revolution fought under, with the Philike Etaireia having its own flag sporting fasces-like emblems, Ypsilantes sporting a red white and black flag similar to that proposed by the visionary Rigas Feraios for his Balkan confederation of Christian peoples and Athanasios Diakos fighting under a white flag bearing an icon of Saint George killing the dragon. The savvy naval captain Andreas Miaoulis on the other hand, also flew a white flag with yellow cross and, in a brilliant propaganda move, also sporting a British Union Jack in the top left hand corner.
Flag of Miaoulis

Nonetheless, despite the lack of historical continuity, the modern Greek flag has proved to be extremely popular with the Greek people. As a result, several Greek researchers have misguidedly attempted to establish a continuity of usage and significance of the blue and white colors, throughout Greek history. Spurious usages cited include the pattern of blue and white formations, created from placing white metal layers on a blue surface on the shield of Homeric hero Achilles, the connection of the colors with goddess Athena, Alexander the Great's army banners, supposed coats of arms of imperial dynasties and noble families, uniforms, emperors' clothes, patriarchs' thrones etc and, of course, cases of usage during the Ottoman rule. Though it can be argued that since the 1769 uprising of Lambros Katsonis, where the flag he flew was that of a blue cross on a white background, there seems to be a consistent trend to see the blue and white as Greek "national" colours, to my mind it is what happened after the revolution that endeared or rather bound the flag to the Greek people.

Quite simply, the Greek flag was associated with the highest aspirations - that of reinstating the Greek nation in the exhalted place among nations that it believes properly belongs to it. As a result, it was under this flag that almost half of Modern Geece was liberated in the twentieth century and it was also under this flag that the unredeemed Greeks of Northern Epirus, Asia Minor and Cyprus (back then thought they were Greek) dreamed a dream of emancipation, only to have their hopes cruelly dashed. As a result of the propaganda of the enlightenment, many Greeks associated their flag with the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and the abolition of feudal overlords, vested interests and clientilism. They too would have their hopes cruelly dashed. Most importantly, during such unspeakably terrible times as 1940, when the very existence of the Greek nation was placed in jeopardy, it was arounf the Greek flag that the Greek people rallied as never before to repel foreign invaders and it was the notion of freedom encapsulated in that flag that inspired Greeks of all ideological persuasions to resist domination.

Despite the pettiness, corruption and internecine strife that has punctuated our existence as a modern nation, our flag has refused to become tainted by our squabblings. Instead, as Father Nicodemos pointed out to me in Albania, it has become an ideal that it is eternal. It is for this reason that the Greek flag, flying over the blue Aegean sea, was the last image that most migrants retained of their homeland as they abandoned it in search for a better life and it is that flag, that, wherever they see it flying, lightens the psychological burden of their exile and acts as solace and balsam for their own doubts as to their life choices. It is the ark of the ideology of their identity. It is the bastion of hopes betrayed and hopes yet unfulfilled. In ways inexplicable and too deep to fathom, it is the sum of all of us.

Driving past Federation Square on 25 March this year, the two Greek flags flying atop the flagpoles flanking Swanston Street almost escaped my notice. One was the state flag, replete with stripes and the other, the 'national' flag, being merely the white cross on the blue background. There they remained for the entire day, flapping sedately in the wind, mute reminders to the general and unsuspecting populace of Melbourne that on this day, one hundred and ninety two years ago, a chain of events was set in motion, that would change the face of Europe and possibly, cause a frown or two, and at least some crows feet, in that of the world.

The flying of the Greek flags in the heart of Melbourne was not undertaken upon the initiative of any Greek organisation, or even the Greek consular authorities, whose idea of commemorating Greek National Day is to organise a decidedly unrevolutionary, elitist, invitation only gathering of community kotzambasides. Somehow, the need to manifest and share some pride on the actual day of the anniversary with the rest of our fellow citizens slipped past the Greek community's notice. Instead, one ordinary member of the community and passionate Greek, Mr John Kakos, approached the management of Federation Square and requested that they fly the Greek flags in honour of Greek Independence. The good people at Federation Square were only too happy to oblige provided that they were provided with the requisite flags, for they had none and thus it was that Mr Kakos own flags were lovingly handed over and flown over the city. This, to use the cliche without compunction or the slightest contrition, is Greek λεβεντιά at its best.

Driving for the last time past the Greek flags of Federation Square, on the afternoon of the twenty fifth, I recalled the words of James Bryce: "Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong." Looking up at the white cross starkly juxtaposed against the blue background, I felt as ever before, that call to righteousness that has challenged, frustrated but ultimately uplifted us as a people, despite our shortcomings. I drove away secure in the knowledge that albeit in the most remote and unlikely places of the earth, as long as there exists a John Kakos to raise the Greek flag, the future of our people is secure.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 30 March 2013

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Sudan has always exercised an enormous fascination for me, ever since I found out that my grandfather’s brother died there of illness in the flower of his youth. I tried to imagine my fez-sporting uncle standing Gordon-like upon the ruins of Khartoum, valorously defying the hordes of the Mahdi while nonchalantly sipping a martini, though the truth is much more prosaic, he perishing from malaria. A little later, I learned a tantalising snippet of information about the British incursion into Sudan as a result of one of the first Islamic fundamentalist movements of modern times. The ill-fated 1883 Hicks expedition to reclaim the Sudan against the forces of Muhammad Ahmad, who called himself the Mahdi or messianic redeemer, was guided by a Greek trader. This unnamed Greek trader, like the other Greek traders who were trapped in Khartoum during the siege of that city appears as a mere footnote on the pages of history. We know nothing about him, yet some historians speculate that it was he who purposely led the British into the ambush that annihilated the British army. Without the intervention of this anonymous Hellene, General Gordon’s heroic Khartoum stand never would have happened, Lord Kitchener would not have been sent by an indignant British public and a reluctant Gladstone down the Nile to machine gun spear wielding Sudanese tribesmen, thus establishing his military credentials, a young Winston Churchill, who accompanied him, would never have achieved popularity and fame on the back of his riveting account of the ‘River War,’ Britain arguably would not have achieved the colonial dominance in Africa it subsequently came to acquire and the whole history of the world would have been markedly different. All that, by means of the perfidy of an unknown Greek.

The Mahdists and the modern Islamic fundamentalists were not the only Sudanese to feel strongly about their religion. I was amazed to learn that for a thousand years, between 340 to 1312AD, the three Nubian kingdoms of Sudan, those of Nobatia, Makouria and Alodia adopted the Greek language as their official language and, adopting the orthodox Christian faith, enjoyed close ties with the Greek Chrstian world. Christian Nubian political terminology is almost entirely borrowed from the late Roman Empire. Terms such as basileus, eparchos, domestikos, meizoteris, and even Hellenized Latin terms such as rix=rex, primikerios, not to mention, Augustus and Caesar, abound. One king of Makuria was even called the "New Constantine". Further, Nubian Christian art, as uncovered in the remains of the cathedral at Faras has clear connections to Byzantine art but with its own distinctive characteristics such as the inclusion of elements of portraiture in its depiction of contemporary figures.

Even more remarkable is the survival of the Greek language after the Arab conquest of Egypt. Arab geographers claimed that the Nubians possessed books in Greek and prayed in Greek, and their claims have been fully confirmed by a UNESCO archaeological salvage campaign. We now have hundreds of Greek inscriptions and graffiti as well as the tattered remains of the cathedral library at Qasr Ibrim, which was destroyed in an Egyptian raid in 1173 led by Shams ed-Dawla Turanshah, the brother of the famous Saladin. The most spectacular and revealing find, however, is the 12th century tomb of Archbishop Georgios from Old Dongola, the capital of Makuria. The texts on the tomb's walls include religious formulae, magical signs, the beginnings and ends of all four gospels, the Greek text of an extra-biblical text known as the "Speech of Mary to Bartos," and Coptic homilies. Taken together with the manuscript remains and inscriptions, Archbishop Giorgios' tomb leaves no doubt that at major centers such as Faras, Qasr Ibrim, and Old Dongola, Greek was the primary language of learning.

Greek was not confined to books, however, but was a living language, at least as far as the clergy and governing class was concerned. So, numerous graffiti painted or scratched on the walls of pilgrimage churches (over 650 such graffiti, many written in the first person, have been counted on the walls of one such church) point to widespread functional Greek literacy in these two groups. For evidence of more than this minimal literacy, however, we have to turn to funerary stelae, the most common form of Greek inscription found in Nubia. Hundreds of these stelae have been discovered from all over Nubia. They contain versions of a Byzantine prayer for the dead that was probably introduced into Nubia then or a century earlier and were made for all members of society, from kings to commoners. That the Nubians were not simply mechanically copying empty formulae but understood these texts and their theology is clear from the freedom with which they modified the basic prayer to suit the individual being commemorated.

Some of these inscriptions take liberties with the Greek language, creating calques and neologisms that did not exist before. On one particular stele, the usual description of God as "the omnipotent One", pantokrator, has been replaced by pantotektor, "the all builder," a unique word that is virtually unattested in either classical or medieval Greek but is, however, a perfect translation of the standard description of God in Coptic grave stelae, “damiourgos m pterif, "creator of everything". Fascinatingly, the provincial priest who wrote the text was probably trilingual, understanding Greek, Coptic, and Nubian.

The 10th century AD Arab geographer al-Aswani observed that the Nubians possessed Greek books, which they translate into their own language. In the eigth century the Greek alphabet, supplemented by signs borrowed from the Coptic alphabet and even one from the old Meroitic script, was adapted to write Old Nubian. A religious literature composed primarily of translated patristic texts gradually developed. Less than a hundred pages from Old Nubian books survive, but they confirm al-Aswani's claim that the Nubians translated Greek religious texts directly into Old Nubian. Slowly, old Nubian began to replace the Greek language in the region but that process had not yet been completed, however, when Nubian Christian civilization came to an end in the late fourteenth century,.

The end of the Greco-Nubians was gradual and complex. The replacement of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt with the more aggressive Ayyubids and Mamlukes, increasing Muslim settlement in Nubia and intermarriage with the local population, and endemic dynastic strife in Makuria all played a part. In any event, by the early fourteenth century the kings of Makuria had converted to Islam, and the kingdom itself disappeared soon afterwards. Alodia in the south and a fragment of Makuria called the kingdom of Dottawo with its capital at Qasr Ibrim, however, survived probably for another century. Even more remarkably, so did Nubian Greek.

Fast-forward some seven centuries, and Sudan is now comprised of two separate nations : Arabic-speaking Sudan and Christian South Sudan, where Nubian languages predominate. One of our newer nations, having achieved independence only in 2011, it still houses a small but significant Greek community.

"The Greeks of south Sudan are a tribe. We are not Dinka, we are not Acholi, but we are south Sudanese," George Ghines says proudly as he recalls that it was traders like his family who first founded the regional capital Juba.

"I am the last of the Mohicans," he adds sadly, acknowledging that after the ravages of 50 years of conflict between north and south, he is the only pure-blooded Juba-born descendant of the original Greek settlers who still lives permanently in the city.

Born in Juba, the scion of the family that first settled in south Sudan in 1905 and whose own father settled in the town nearly two decades before the end of British colonial rule, Ghines attempted to exercise his right to register in the landmark referendum on independence for the region.

"It was difficult to register because they have never before seen a white south Sudanese," Ghines said."They didn't believe that a white Sudanese exists and fulfils the criteria."

It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that Greeks first arrived in south Sudan in numbers. The territory's then British colonial rulers encouraged them to settle for their commercial skills and they founded Juba as a commercial entrepot across the White Nile from the then British military headquarters. "They brought people here who were very entrepreneurial. They didn't want them to be French or Italian or any other colonial power," said Ghines, who himself runs a Juba-based restaurant, aptly named “Notos” and business consultancy.

The traders built their homes in a neighbourhood the British called the Greek Quarters, now known as Hay Jellaba. At its height the community numbered a little under 10,000 out of a total of 22,000 across the Sudan.The Juba Greeks boasted the whole raft of institutions built by Greek diaspora communities around the world , an Orthodox church, a library, two social clubs.

"You have all the buildings with the Greek columns. Of course it is now in a very bad state because of 50 years of neglect," Ghines said, in a prescient comment on the future of Greek communities throughout the world. In the case of Sudan, the terminal decline was caused by the civil war that blighted the region for five decades, causing devastation and forcing the local Greeks to flee. Ghines himself fled to Athens in 1983, for as a white, he was not considered a refugee, even though he had been born and bred in Sudan. The community thus withered. One Greek club retained its name until just two years ago, although by then nearly all of its clients were south Sudanese without any Hellenic ancestry.

But it is the community's cemetery that offers a telling commentary as to the transient fate of all human endeavours. Litter is strewn across the overgrown grass and creepers that conceal the graves, and the cemetery has clearly been used as an impromptu lavatory by the junior officers who sleep out under canvas behind the adjacent police station. It is Ghines’ hope that one day, the graves of the pioneers who founded his community will be tended and given the respect they deserve. He levels criticism at a Greek government who has completely disregarded the fate and historical memory of the ancient Greek community of Sudan and has given it scant assistance. Further, as he sees it, in renascent South Sudan, there has not been awarded a place to white-skinned ‘natives’ in the national narrative.

This is despite the fact that Ghines’ commitment to his country is undoubted. After a decade and a half wandering around the Middle East and North Africa, the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war finally gave him the opportunity to return to his native town. He arrived just six days after its signing. In fact, he is the only pure-blooded Juba Greek to have returned. "People my age, my classmates, all of them have rebuilt their lives outside south Sudan which makes it difficult for them to come back."

Tantalisingly, there are still offspring of mixed marriages in the town. He says the wife of southern regional president Salva Kiir, Yalouri, is herself the daughter of a Greek father and a Dinka mother."We have 25 to 30 children of mixed marriages, we meet quite often. We are trying to revive the Greek community in Juba."

From Ptolemaic Egypt, to Byzantium and beyond, the still surviving but immensely fragile Greek link with Sudan is both a source of pride and also, a cautionary tale of the inevitability of all things.

  First published in NKEE on Saturday 16th and 23rd March 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013


In an unprecedented move that has infuriated Australia’s Armenian and Assyrian communities, along with those in the Greek community that have some knowledge of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia, Australia’s Foreign Minister, the unelected Senator Bob Carr, responding to a question, by the Armenian National Committee president, Vache Kahramanian at a recent function at the Lowy Institute, as to Australia’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, responded thus: “As a Government we don’t take a stand on this historic dispute.”
Tormented Armenian woman with her child
Collection Russian language "Iskri" newspaper, 18 October, 1915

A priori, it is worth commending Mr Kahramanian and the extremely vigilant Armenian community for posing his question. After all, it is not often that one would witness a member of the Greek community managing to extricate themselves from the quagmire of insular politics for long enough in order to raise questions of such importance at such a prestigious and mainstream forum as the Lowy Institute.

That being said, Senator Carr’s answer could not but inflame and infuriate the passions. After all, it was this self-same Bob Carr who, as premier of New South Wales, led his government to a unanimous recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 1997. The motion had called on the Federal government of Australia to follow New South Wales and recognise the Armenian Genocide as well. Furthermore, it was the unprecedented success of the New South Wales recognition, that caused Greek activists in South Australia to feel empowered enough to seek support from such eminent politicians as the former attorney general Michael Atkinson for the recognition of the genocide of the Pontic Greeks.

It is quite difficult to reconcile Senator Carr’s stance with previous statements on the issue of the Armenian genocide. In a letter of 24 April 1996 to the Armenian community, he wrote: “The world should never forget the Armenian Genocide was the murder of a nation. There are no grounds to deny it – the European Parliament voted to recognise the Armenian Genocide in 1987.”

On 17 April 1997, Premier Carr, as he then was, rose in the New South Wales Parliament to ask: “Why is it appropriate that the New South Wales Parliament commemorate the Armenian genocide? Firstly, because it was the first known genocide of the twentieth century…Turkey must face up, as Germany has, to crimes committed in its name….the world must acknowledge this tragedy..”
Armenian Children from Adana, from whose bodies’ pieces of flesh
were ripped off with cotton hooks and whose kneecaps were severed.
On 24 April 1997, Premier Carr, while delivering the keynote address at the Armenian Genocide commemoration in Sydney, called upon his audience to: “honour the victims of the Armenian genocide…. It is of value to see that Turkey accepts its responsibility and undertakes reparations.”

In May 1997, Premier Carr wrote to the Armenian National Committee that: “Worthwhile causes such as the commemoration of 1.5 million Armenian victims of this horrific crime deserve the unanimous support of people’s representatives and the community as a whole.”

As late as 2005, when Premier Carr met a visiting Armenian dignitary, he was welcoming “…heightening awareness of the Armenian genocide” and calling “for justice-acknowledgment and remembrance.”

Starved Armenian woman with two children, 1915
Collection of Armin Wegner Society
When someone repeatedly tells you that they not only recognise the genocide but also demand reparations and then, execute a volte face, maintaining that the Australian government takes no stance, one’s natural reaction is to accuse the speaker of lying either as to the first or the second statement. Yet it would be wrong to accuse Senator Carr of being a liar, as many incensed members of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities have done. Rather, his most recent statement, reveals much about the nature of Australian politics and how ethnic agendas can be utilised for various ends, catching ethnic communities unawares.
Armenian children, the victims of the Turkish atrocities
Collection of "Armjanski vestnik" weekly, Front page photo, 27 November, 1916

Senator Carr, if pressed, could justify his inconsistent behaviour by pointing out that between 1997-2005, when he was vociferously proclaiming his recognition of the Genocide, he was doing so on behalf of the New South Wales government. In 2013 however, in the guise of Australia’s foreign minister, he is merely pointing out that the Federal Government of which he is a member, chooses not to take a stance on the issue. Senator Carr could argue that there are many issues that politicians feel strongly about that do not meet cabinet approval, thus causing their convictions to contrast with government policy and foreign policy is no exception. There is scope therefore for Senator Carr to differentiate the Federal Government’s position from his own. If Senator Carr does so however, he should be asked, based on his statement of May 1997, whether he still believes that, in the face of Cabinet refusal to take a stance on the issue, the recognition of the Genocide “deserves the unanimous support of people’s representatives,” and if so, what steps he is taking to secure this unanimous support.
The remains of Armenian children, drowned in the Black sea, Trapezus, 1916
Collection of the "Album of refugees 1915-1916"
Widespread community consternation therefore does not centre upon whether Senator Carr has compromised his integrity by stepping away from an issue he has so passionately supported. After all, in an Australian political zeitgeist dominated by spin and sound-bytes, we have now been conditioned to expect ambiguity. Rather, consternation derives from a sudden realisation that while State Governments, who after all have no constitutional powers in relation to foreign affairs, may be willing to take stances on such issues as are important enough to ethnic minorities that they translate into votes, these stances carry little practical weight where real political power resides, in Canberra. In this context, even a domino effect of each and every Australian state succumbing to lobbying or pressure in order to recognise the Genocide, would have absolutely no effect upon the Federal Government’s foreign policy, which tends to value its good relations with Turkey far more than any demand by ethnic groups to recognise the first genocide of the twentieth century and the prototype of the Holocaust.
Starving Armenian deportee children in desert, 1915
Collection of St. Lazar Mkhitarian Congregation
And herein lies the problem. Australia’s humanitarian record has been a laudable one for which, on the whole, we can justifiably be proud. It is because of this record that when cynicism and pragmatism seem to take precedence, we feel indignant and hard-done by. For some reason, rather than seeing it as a crime against humanity, the current political incarnation of Bob Carr implies that Australia views the Genocide as an ethnic conflict or dispute it wants no part of. This is sickening.
Armenian children victims of Erzerum massacre, photo by 1895
Collection of Nubarian Library

Yet there is some benefit to be derived from Senator Carr’s honest admission. He has given us to understand that State governments are merely pandering to the ethnic vote when they take stances on causes that they have no power to further. This is proven by the following clarification from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “Although various groups at state and local level have expressed or might express different views … these do not represent Australian Government policy.” Our communities should resist being used in this cynical way and instead, re-direct their energies to those corridors of power where they can actually effect change rather than merely be seen to be doing so. Furthermore, given that at least in theory, the members of the government are our representatives, should we not be co-ordinating our efforts in order to demand more moral rather than self-interested approaches commensurate to Australia’s consciously cultivated image as a humanitarian leader in foreign affairs? Should we be tolerating a political culture that allows political magicians such as Senator Bob Carr to alter the colour of the policy rabbits that he periodically pulls out of his various hats? Consider the view of the Turkish ambassador to the European Union, Egemen Bagis as expressed to a Swedish member of parliament: "What have you Assyrians accomplished by using the [genocide] question like masturbation by proclaiming it in the media and in the Swedish parliament? Why do you involve the Pontic Greeks into the question?"
Armenian child starved to death, 1916
Collection of Armin Wegner Society

Given that this is an election year and the propensity of politicians to provide subtle clarifications upon stances otherwise taken for granted, it would be a worthwhile exercise for members of our community to write to our Federal politicians, seeking their views on issues pertinent to us. A proper judgment can thereafter be made on the suitability of said candidate for parliamentary election.
Starved Armenian woman with her son in Syrian desert, 1916
Collection of the Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute Archive
On 17 April 1997, Bob Carr referred in New South Wales Parliament to Adolf Hitler’s infamous quip, in 1939, where he tried to justify Nazi persecution of the Jews: "Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" In 2013, he answered his own question. He doesn’t speak of the annihilation of the Armenians today, because it is not in his government’s interests to do so. Yet we must speak of the annihilation of all of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks of Anatolia, of genocide, brutality and racial intolerance in all its forms throughout the world and demand of our government that it abandon its cowardly and insulting policy on this historical fact, for it is in acts of moral cowardice that injustice is permitted to thrive. This is why when we go to the polls, all of us should speak of the annihilation of the Armenians.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 10 March 2013

Saturday, March 02, 2013


I find the proposition that people should learn Modern Greek because this will improve their English vaguely amusing. Granted there do exist an extremely large number of Greek loanwords and Greek-derived neologisms in the English language but more often than not, English speaking Greeks tend to learn the Greek word AFTER they have discovered its English version. Mourad Didori, Lecturer in Arabic Language Studies applies a similar rationale in his course of lectures “You already speak Arabic,” where the number of Arabic words utilised by colloquial English, including apricot, on-loaned from Byzantine Greek, is astounding. While Greek is not the mother of languages as some cultural supremacists would have us believe, it is a little known fact that the Greek language profoundly influenced the languages of the Middle East, especially Arabic and through it, Persian. My first experience of this was when a Persian friend referred to a grape as estafil. Said Persian friend caused my jaw to drop and my mouth to gape over when proceeding to refer to a right angle as a gonia. The borrowings from Greek into the various Iranian languages began in pre-Islamic times, with words such as simino ‘made of silver, silverware,’ attested in Bactrian, didm or diadem attested in Middle Persian, ispir or sphere in Parthian, ‘ysimarye’ for smaragdi or emerald in Pahlavi and yakund, for hyacinth, also in Pahlavi. Most interesting from my point of view is the word palau,originaly meaning bowl, from which the word pilaf is derived. This word appears to be a Khotanese borrowing from the Greek word phiale, also meaning bowl.

Borrowings after the advent of Islam in Persia vary according to genres of texts and to disciplines of learning. Thus in contrast to Islamic religious scholarship (exempting the Koran’s Greek loanwords, which naturally passed into Persian) the syllabus of Aristotelian philosophy, medicine and its ancillary fields, and the occult disciplines—would seem to be primary loci of Greek terminology. Other channels by which Greek words entered Persian were commerce and administration. Eventually, most Greek elements to remain in Persian usage were proper names, especially of ancient authorities, and names of merchandise and of units of measure. Basically any Greek word encountered in Arabic could be incorporated into Persian, whether simply as Arabic or correctly identified as to its Greek origin or intermediate Greek stage.

In addition to division by semantic fields, Greek lexical items in Persian can also be distinguished by trajectory and period of borrowing, considering the marked historical caesurae that delimited periods of potential contact and the fact that, for most of their history, the two linguistic areas of Iranian and Greek were not contiguous. The Muslim conquest and with it the demise of the Sasanian dynasty, and the linguistic shift in Iranian, and the ensuing period of literary latency of what subsequently emerged as New Persian represented a watershed in the introduction of Greek into Iranian. Here a few closely interrelated questions arise, in regard to the period of original borrowing and as to the subsequent destiny of the borrowed lexical items. A fundamental difference exists between the Greek words that entered Persian before the Muslim conquest and the Greek loanwords dating from the post-conquest period. The former passed either directly or via Aramaic from Greek into Pahlavi, the pre-Islamic form of the Persian language while the latter inevitably had Arabic as their proximate origin before entering Persian. This holds true for most of the Greek terms of medicine and pharmacy used in Persian (such as tafisa from the Greek thapsia, and qarabadin, from the Greek graphidion meaning “booklet”). There are, however, a number of notable exceptions that were passed from Greek into Old and then New Persian directly and are not restricted to use in medical contexts, such as yara (Greek. hiera “holy”), teryak (Greek. theriake “treacle”), ster (Greek. statir “stater,” and deram, derham “dram, dirham,” (Greek. drakhme). Conversely and in greater numbers, Greek medical and medicinal terms, first borrowed during early Byzantine times and then, falling into disuse in Persia were taken over into Arabic and were later re-introduced from Arabic into Persia, such as qawlanj from the Greek kolik meaning colic. From astronomy, examples of comparable late Middle Iranian Greek loanwords which first passed into Arabic before making their way back into Persian are the names Batlamiyus (from the Greek Ptolemaios,) and Majesti (from the Greek Megiste, referring to Ptolemy’s great mathematical work, the “Almagest.”

The reception of large numbers of Greek loan words into Persian is only astounding today, owing to the fact that Iran culturally and politically seems extremely distant and foreign to a modern European-oriented Greece. Yet for most of Greek history, Iran was the other, the utter opposite that fascinated and served to define the Greeks and cause them to construct their own identity. Greek and later Byzantine imperialism, it could be plausibly held, developed from, or aped Persian precedents and it is no coincidence that Greek imperialist expansion primarily took place in the East, over what was once Persian held territory. Cultural exchanges intensified with the transplantation of Greek colonists into Bactria and Byzantine imperial ceremonial was heavily influenced by that of the Persian Sassanian kings, who incidentally referred to their Greek counterparts as “brothers,” considering them to be the only rulers that were their equals. Diplomatic presents usually took the form of the exchanging of texts, engineers and philosophers, while it must be noted that upon the closure of the School of Athens by the Emperor Justinian, Greek philosophers were invited into Persia by its shah, and re-settled in Ctesiphon. Heretical theologians and Greek political refugees were treated likewise so it is no wonder then that the following amazing range of Greek words entered the Persian tongue:

Toponyms: Atiniya “Athens,” Eskandariya “Alexandria,” Ankuriya “Ankara,” Qaysariya “Caesarea,” Rumiya “Rome,” Atrabolos “Tripoli”; Senub “Sinope,” Sivas “Sevasteia.”

Astronomy: Barsavos “Perseus,” Dalfin “Delphinus,” Qanturis “Centaurus,” Qitus “Cetus,” and Qifavus “Cepheus.”

Biblionyms: Abidimiya, from Epidimia “the Epidemics of Hippocrates,” Urganun from Organon “the Organon of Aristotle,” Isaguji from Eisagogi “the Isagoge of Porphyry,” Bari Armanias from Peri Hermineias “Aristotle’s De interpretatione.”

Units of currency and measure: pul from obolos; qesta from xestes, “pint,” qerat from keration “carat.”

General terms: eqlim from klima, “clime,” sabun from sapion, “rotten, putrid,” manjaniq from manganikon, “pulley,” buqalamun from hypokalamon, “moiré cloth,” qamus from okeanos “ocean,” abanus from ebenos “ebony,” tumar from tomarion “document, tract,” qalam from kalamos “reed,” qertas from khartis “sheet of papyrus,” qanun from kanon “straight-edge, rule,”

Medical terms: In addition to Galen and other major authors of works on medicine in Arabic, Dioscorides’s classic on materia medica, provided a wealth of Greek medical terms. Not only was the text studied in Arabic translation, but it was also rendered into Persian. A few samples to permit a glimpse into a rich, existing repertoire: fantasiya for phantasia, “display; imagination,” ilaaus for eileos, “intestinal disease,” faranites for phrenitis, “frenzy,” malikulia for melancholia; anisun for anithon “dill, anise,” qulqas for kolokasi- "Egyptian lotus,” qalqand for khalkanthon, “copper sulfate solution.”

Philosophical terms: hayula for hyle, “wood, timber; matter,” faylasuf for philosophos “philosopher.”

Alchemical terms: eksir for xirion “desiccative powder for wounds,” telasm for telesma “payment, outlay,” and kimia for khimeia “melting; alchemy.”

Religious terms: Eblis for diabolos “slanderer; the Devil,” enjil for euangelion “gospel.”

Of course Persian would get its own back after the fall of Byzantium whereupon through Turkish, a multitude of Persian words would flood the Greek vocabulary, the vast majority of which are still in daily use in the Modern Greek tongue today. Nonetheless, from the first attested appearance of Persian into Greek, being a few garbled words in Aeschylus’ play “the Persians,” until the modern era, there has been a continuous, fascinating and ultimately enriching exchange of culture and vocabulary, absent of which, both our people’s cultures would be much diminished. Next week, a look at Ancient Greek loanwords from Semitic languages. Until then, its an αρραβώνα, which, of course, is an ancient Assyrian word for promise of pledge.


First pubished in NKEE on Saturday 2 March 2013