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The Many Faces of Hellenic Identity: Finding the roots … of a Greek Village in Syria

I hope that a radiant smile will  soon be visible on these tired war faces in Syria and especially those of the young syrian children born into war conditions.

For Roula Tsokalidou, of the University of Thessaly, the Greek language enjoys special prestige in the Eastern Mediterranean area, both as a medium of commercial transactions and as an instrument of upward social mobility. It is a language which it is used to establish closer relations, for both professional and educational purposes, with a European country, which, nevertheless, is geographically and culturally close to the Middle East.

Touched by the Mediterranean Sea and all the delights that an Arabic country can offer, Al Hamidiyah is a small village that is not much different to any other found in Syria. Except its population speaks Greek. (Video in English:)

Before the war there were over 1 million Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox worshipers – a phenomenal statistic in a strong Muslim country. This is a legacy of the Byzantine Greek presence in Syria. The Greek Orthodox Church is known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (formerly a Syrian city that is now in Turkey). It is the successor to the church founded by Apostles Peter and Paul. The church is now based in Damascus.

Al Hamidiyah is a town on the coastal Syrian line about 3km from the Lebanese border. The town was founded in a very short time on direct orders from the Turkish Sultan ‘Abdu’l-Hamid II circa 1897, to serve as refuge for the Muslim Cretans fleeing the ethnic cleansing in Crete in the aftermath of the departure of Turkish troops from the island.

The community, though living away from Crete (and Greece) for over a century, still speaks a Cretan dialect and has held on to Greek customs. They keep up with Greek politics, current events, and entertainment by catching the Cyprus TV signal on their satellites.

Crete fell to the Turks in the sixteenth century, after long and stubborn resistance from the Venetians who had ruled the island until then. In the following centuries, many Cretans changed their religion, converting to the doctrines of Islam and becoming Alevites, the dominant religious sect among the Turks. In those days, it was not uncommon for people to change religions back and forth, following the tides of constant rebellion against the Ottoman Empire.

It was 1866 when the final revolution in Crete broke out, eventually culminating in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897.

Cretan rebels clashed with the occupying Ottoman army, seeking independence and union with Greece. The island was torn by strife and fratricide. As before, religion divided many Cretan families. The Ottomans employed bands of armed Muslim fanatics, some of whom were native Cretans, who rampaged through Christian villages.

To some, it seemed that allegiance to religion surpassed allegiance to one’s nation. And yet, there were many among the Cretan Muslims who fought beside their Christian brothers against the common foreign enemy.

cretan muslim

Despite this, many Christians came to regard Muslims as their arch enemies, regardless of common bloodlines. After the final withdrawal of the Ottoman army from Crete, most Cretan Muslims fled the island, fearful of revenge.

The last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdul Hammid, provided them with a safe haven on the Syrian coast, in a village named after him-Hamidiyah. Almost 100 years have passed since then.The Hamediyahians are Syrian citizens, fully integrated into their host society.

Many of them fought in the Six Day War, as well as in Lebanon, and were duly decorated for their bravery. They do, however, keep their distinct identity as Cretans. They speak Greek to each other in their everyday conversations. Their instincts and aspirations are also different from their surrounding fellow-Syrians.

They are extremely hard-working and well-off compared to them. They have a strong sense of community; very rarely does a Cretan marry a non-Cretan. They have kept the traditions of their motherland very much alive, insisting on following customs long extinct on Crete itself.

At the core of this phenomenon of cultural preservation seems to lie the bond of family.Hamidiyah is certainly not the most beautiful place in the world. The road leading there from Tartus follows the coastline, passing by the ruins of Amrit, the ancient Phoenician colony, and then rushes through cornfields and vegetable fields towards the Lebanese border. This is the southernmost corner of Syria and it is not pretty; the beaches here often serve as dumping grounds for non-recyclable plastic.

The village itself has a cold industrial air about it, aesthetics guiltlessly sacrificed to the altar of functionality. When you enter Hamidiyah, this is what you see: one-story, stone-built houses, each with a small patio in front; dirt roads separating a mosque, a school, and a caf?; posters of President Assad and his son, stuck like advertisements on every wall and every shop window; people sitting outside their homes drinking tea; and barefoot children playing on the beach.

cretan muslims turkey
A Cretan Muslim family sent to Turkey after the population exchange in 1923.

Despite all this,Hamidiyah is a true Cretan village. Most of the wounds caused by the violence of the late-nineteenth century have slowly healed. Many families in Hamidiyah still have Christian relatives in Crete with whom they maintain contact. Television plays an important role for ethnic minority communities like Hamidiyah. The proximity of Cyprus to the Syrian coast provides a rich source of cultural contact via Greek TV stations, whose programming is pivotal in helping Hamidiyahians maintain their language.

In Hamidiyah, mothers teach their infants Greek from the cradle. We speak it amongst ourselves. That’s how we managed to preserve it so far, for 100 years!

A tour to Hamidiyah may not be included in your visit to Syria, a country replete with ancient Greek monuments. However, a Greek visitor to Hamidiyah will be happily surprised to hear the Cretan dialect spoken by the residents of this Syrian village.

The Hamidiyahians speak the Cretan dialect in its unadulterated form, as it was spoken on Crete during the last century. They are very hospitable and friendly while the elders do not hesitate to relate the circumstances that forced them out of Crete at the end of the 19th century. Although natives of Crete, they had been forced to adopt the Muslim religion. However, this did not prevent them from joining the cause of their Christian compatriots against Turkish occupation of the island.

cretan muslims turcs

The Hamidiyahians love Crete. You can see it in the spark of their eyes when they speak of Crete. It comes as no surprise then that they have remained faithful to the Cretan customs and language. Occasionally, Hamidians employed on fishing boats come to Crete, to return to Hamidiyah, where they rekindle the love for the land of their forefathers.

Here, two travel bloggers recounts their travel experiences in Al-Hamidiyah. They write:

 When you hear Cretan songs being sung from the heart, from a man who has never been to the island, you realise how strong the Cretan presence is felt in Al Hamidiyah. These songs spoke of Crete in a different age, they were beautiful to listen to.

I was told that the dialect they speak was learnt in the home as it is not taught at school. The Hamidiyans love Crete and this family is a clear example of that. You can see it in the spark of their eyes when they speak of Crete. It came as no surprise that they, like the rest of the village, appreciate the Cretan customs and language.

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