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Greeks and commerce and industry

Dean Kalimniou reflects on the merchants and businessmen who set about securing the necessary infrastructure that would ensure the viability of an emerging Greek state, as lessons for the present

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06 December 2016

I have in my collection an 1805 book by the great scholar of the Greek enlightenment and bishop Evgenios Voulgaris, titled What Philosophers Prefer. On the cover page, there exists an inscription informing readers that the costs for publishing this book were borne by the Zosimas brothers, wealthy businessmen from Ioannina in Epirus, who, among other things, financed the construction of the Monetary Museum of Athens, the National Library, of Adamantios Korais, one of the major contributors of the Greek Enlightenment movement, the Zosimaia college in Ioannina, and an orphanage in Patmos, as well as donating significant sums to the Philiki Etaireia for the purposes of carrying out the revolution.

The inscription goes further to say that the purpose of the Zosimas brothers' sponsorship is to ensure that the book, which is a philosophical treatise summarising the major currents of thought prevailing in Europe at that time, is distributed among Greek youth free of charge, for the purpose of their edification and the cultivation of their souls.

The breadth of the Zosimas brothers' vision is breathtaking. Having made vast fortunes in Italy and Russia, they and many other Greek pre- and post-revolution merchants and businessmen living abroad, most of whom came from Epirus, arguably the most impoverished region of the Greek world at that time, set about securing the necessary infrastructure that would ensure the viability of an emerging Greek state.

Thus, Evangelos Zappas, from Lambovo in Northern Epirus, provided the necessary funds of the revival of the modern Olympic Games. He also founded Greek schools in several Greek-populated villages and towns, all over Northern Epirus. In Constantinople, which until 1955 had a large Greek population, he also founded a complex of nurseries, primary and secondary schools, which were collectively known as the Zappeion Institute. Quite apart from funding the modern day Zappeion building in Athens, he also deposited a large amount of money in the National Bank of Greece to provide scholarships for Greek agricultural students in order to conduct postgraduate studies in western Europe.

George Sinas, from Moschopolis in Northern Epirus, who became chief director of the bank of Austria in turn, financed the construction of the university of Athens, a number of medical and archaeological institutions, as well as the Athens National Observatory.

Apostolos Arsakis, from Hotahova in Nothern Epirus, who at one time served as interim prime minister of Romania, provided large sums of money for the establishment of a female educational institution in Athens, housed in a luxurious mansion at the city centre and known as the Arskeion School.

George Averoff, from Metsovo, Epirus, founder of the School of Agriculture in Larissa, funded the construction of the Evelpidon Military Academy, donated to the Athens Conservatory, and provided for the refurbishment of the Panathenian Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games were held. He also funded the completion of the National Technical University of Athens and provided a donation for building the Averoff flagship of the Greek Navy.

Christakis Zografos, from Kestorati in Northern Epirus, donated an enormous amount of money for the erection of middle level schools in Constantinople, one (the Zographeion Lyceum) in the district of Pera in Constantinople and another, a girl's school in Yeniköy on the Bosporus, as well as sponsoring the rebuilding of a Greek library in the city. At the Universities of Munich and Paris he made a 1,000 franc endowment for awards in the fields of Greek literature and history. He also founded a teachers college, known as the Zographeion School in Epirus.

Similarly, George Stavros, from Ioannina in Epirus, founded the National Bank of Greece and served as its first director. At the same time he, like most of the other great Greek benefactors, provided ample funds for the construction of institutions to serve the Greek communities abroad in which they lived and thrived.

Ioannis Pangas, from Korytsa, Northern Epirus, provided the most extreme form of philanthropy yet. Not content with building schools in his hometown, on 16 August 1889, he donated his entire fortune to the Greek state and all of his possessions, as an act of philanthropy to aid the rebuilding of Athens and the growth of the painfully emerging Greek state. He retained only 1,000 drachmas per month in order to lead a decent life.

A common thread can be perceived in all the above-mentioned benefactor's activities. They all believed that it was vital, if the Greek nation was to be liberated and stand upon its feet in the modern world, that the Greek people were educated, understood the context and zeitgeist of the region in which they lived and able to play a significant role in the broader global community, as they had done, in the countries to which they migrated, George Sinas, for one, being responsible for the founding of many of Vienna's beautiful buildings.

This then is the reason why the Zosimas brothers felt it necessary to distribute philosophical treatises to the book-starved youth of Greece, for free. True emancipation, in their view, had its starting in the mind and soul and not in the physical. True liberation would be achieved only when the book worked in concert with the sword and of course the moneymen. In order to achieve this lofty goal, the book would have to be given precedence, something which along the way, the feuding hoplarchs, oligarchs and politicians of modern Greece seem to have forgotten.

For it is trite to mention that without commerce and industry and without the active involvement of its practitioners in the founding of modern Greece, it is unlikely that the said state would have been able to get up off the ground, let alone endure as a going concern. Their example, that of planned, ideologically driven but methodical benefaction, is one we here in the Antipodes could emulate, and it is for this reason that community groups that have been founded and exist to celebrate Greek involvement in commerce and industry provide exciting scope, not only for organised involvement with the current cultural, social and welfare activities of the broader Greek community, but also in setting the foundations for a future.

Henry Ford was prescient when he opined: "If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability." However, undoubtedly, being able to target and fund endeavours that fulfil perceived needs without having to constantly go cap in hand to various government agencies and navigate the ever-changing swirl of policies and priorities that dictate grants does offer a modicum of independence to a community whose current community institutions are, in their majority, outmoded, and failing their members.

Though the Greek communities of Constantinople and Alexandria have been decimated by the vicissitudes of politics and fate, their welfare is still being provided for to the present day by the generous and far-sighted donations of the Epirote benefactors over a century ago. That in itself speaks volumes as to how a Greek community could, in partnership with commerce and industry, conduct its affairs so as to independently plan its future as a coherent and cohesive whole, where as many people as possible are provided for.

Discarding the already well-worn ethos of pat on the back social clubs for wealthy Greeks that have made it, let us all embrace Greek commerce and industry community institutions that a) can provide or facilitate vocational training for young Greeks within the businesses of the community, b) can mentor promising or needy young Greeks throughout their schooling or early professional life, c) can identify key areas of communal need such as aged care, child care, kindergartens and Greek schools and set up coherent funding strategies, via peer funding and d) identify key areas of expansion to meet the needs of the future such as credit co-operatives, programs facilitating enhanced contact with Greece, and e) fund those engaging with and assisting newly-arrived members of the Greek community.

The fact that our current commerce and industry community institutions appear willing to engage in this way, with a community in transition, is as invigorating as it is inspiring. For time is of the essence …

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