Sublime Trieste, a mosaic of nationalities with haunting Greek remnants

There are few cities so sublime as Trieste. It is a work of art, architecture, geography topography and variety. Its people are a mosaic, at once Byzantine, Hapsburg, and Italian, and at all times cosmopolitan.

At the top of the Adriatic Sea, literally hemmed in by the crags of the Alps, which rise, at a clutch-burning grade from its port, lies the city of Trieste, in, but somehow not of, Italy. For nearly seven hundred years, the city served as the Austrian Empire’s key commercial port, the outlet of Central Europe to the Mediterranean and beyond. Like the Austrian Empire itself, Trieste became a mosaic of nationalities.

In this goulash of ethnicities, Greeks and Serbs formed a key element. As the perennial maritime people, it was natural that Greeks would form a major, perhaps controlling, part of the shipping community. In the Austrian Empire, however, the Greek merchant community involved in overland trade with the Ottoman Empire was equally important. Here in Trieste the Austrian Greeks’ two key activities came together and several Greek houses grew to prominence and, in some cases, became members of the Austrian nobility. Here in Trieste the more normatively landbound Serbs are numbered among the largest of the Orthodox shipowners.

Greeks and Serbs of Trieste

The Balkan Orthodox, primarily Greeks and Serbs, settled here in various waves. The Austrian Emperor Karl IV proclaimed an edict granting the city the coveted status as a Free and Royal City in 1719, which the Triestines exploited to great commercial advantage. With the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1717, Austrian Empire was finally at peace with the Ottoman Empire after nearly a century of war, and trade between the two neighbouring states, by land and sea, naturally fell on the shoulders of the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the maritime Greeks and the land-bound Serbs. These two nationalities controlled the bulk of the growing trade between the two empires.

Greeks and Serbs flocked to Trieste but were obviously concerned about guarding their religious identity in a fiercely Catholic realm. Fortunately, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa granted religious toleration in 1751, setting the stage for Orthodox religious institutions. The Triestine Orthodox community rightfully reveres Maria Theresa for her religious tolerance. I have found a similar reverence for her in Sombor, my wife’s Serbian hometown, as this part of Serbia had been under Austrian control and Maria Theresa also bestowed upon Sombor the coveted status of “Free and Royal City.”

READ MORE: New Orleans: the First American Diaspora

Neobyzantine architecture. Photo: Pixabay/Gerhard Bögner

In Trieste, the Greek (or more correctly) Orthodox community formed a church community at St Spyridon’s Church on the city’s Grand Canal. This initial community included many Serbs, who subsequently took over the Church of St Spyridon to celebrate liturgy in their own language. The Greek Community built St Nicholas Church, which, like so many of our churches in the Diaspora, conformed to the architectural styles of the day.

The Greek community broke ground for this elegant church in 1784 and celebrated the first liturgy in 1787. Like so many churches in the Austrian Diaspora, the church is older than Greece itself. The twin belfries and the façade are neoclassical, a nod, perhaps, to the Greeks’ classical heritage. The interior exhibits a mixture of styles, from Byzantine, to baroque. The wealthy community hired the best artisans of the day to decorate their beloved church, named after the patron saint of the seas. The church is a landmark of the waterfront and it is visible at a considerable distance from sea. A short distance away, on Trieste’s Grand Canal, the Serbs rebuilt St Spyridon Church, in 1869, in Byzantine rather than the baroque or neoclassical style favoured at the time. A local Greek we met in town commented to us that the Serbs chose “to stamp their identity architecturally in the midst of a baroque Austro-Italian city.”

The merchant and maritime activities, under a multinational society governed by a relatively benevolent absolute monarchy, provided an atmosphere in which the Greeks thrived. The “business” of these Greeks, to paraphrase United States President Coolidge famous quote, “was business.” Trading companies, shipping, and maritime insurance all had a large Greek participation, but intellectual and artistic endowments were also important to this socially prominent community, which, at its height, in the late nineteenth century, numbered five thousand. Greek shipping families from all of the key maritime islands had a large presence in Trieste, and Triestine Greeks often played key roles in establishing Greek communities elsewhere, such as New Orleans in the United States, or Alexandria in Egypt.

READ MORE: ‘Rigas Feraios, My kind of hero’

Trieste Grand Canal. Photo: Vilma Billinis

Trieste played a key role in the Greeks’ fight for freedom. Rigas Pheraios, the first martyr of Greek independence, was arrested by the Austrian Secret Police right outside the Greek-owned Café Tomasso. Triestine Greeks actively fostered the flow of arms, volunteers, and money to the Greek insurgents, as commercial connections were repurposed for political and military uses. It is fitting that the first Greek Consulate abroad opened in Trieste in 1830. The city formed part of the nascent Greek state’s life support system.

Living prosperously in an environment both Mediterranean and Central European, Trieste’s Greeks inexorably assimilated with their fellow citizens. Some followed the Austrians and Hungarians back to their home countries after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered in 1918, and the Italians took over. The Italians actively encouraged assimilation. Today the Greek community numbers several hundred, assimilated to a considerable degree, yet maintaining their faith and their links with their homeland at the bottom of Adriatic. Unlike Greek communities in Germany, America, and Australia, there is little impetus for Greeks to immigrate to Trieste (though, with current economic conditions, this may change), but the Serbian community has grown by several thousand as a result of the dismemberment of Yugoslavia.

St Nicola on the waterfront of Trieste. Photo: Vilma Billinis

Trieste’s Greek community is similar to other long-established Greek communities outside of Greece. Geography dictated that Trieste and other Italian and Austrian cities would be natural magnets for Greek and other Balkan immigrants. These hardy souls, forerunners of later immigrants, sought both the greater freedoms available in the West and the economic opportunities. Over the course of time, their own success pulled them into the larger societies in which they lived. It is, to a great extent, our story. Every time I visit the remnants of a Greek community a shadow of its former size, I feel both sadness, and comfort that their descendants, for the most part, remain vibrant members of the countries they call their homes. In many ways, these vanishing communities may be the fate of our own, if we fail to nourish our roots repeatedly and in all generations.

* Alexander Billinis is an instructor and graduate student at Clemson University. His thesis concerns the history of the Greek merchant marine. His book, ‘Hidden Mosaics: an Aegean tale’, is available on Amazon.