Greece, the southernmost of the countries of the Balkan Peninsula. Geography has greatly influenced the country’s development. Mountains historically restricted internal communications, but the sea opened up wider horizons. The total land area of Greece (one-fifth of which is made up of the Greek islands) is comparable in size to England or the U.S. state of Alabama.
Greece has more than 2,000 islands, of which about 170 are inhabited; some of the easternmost Aegean islands lie just a few miles off the Turkish coast. The country’s capital is Athens, which expanded rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. Attikí (ancient Greek: Attica), the area around the capital, is now home to about one-third of the country’s entire population.
The population of Greece, in particular that of northern Greece, has always been characterized by a great deal of ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. Migrations, invasions, imperial conquests, and 20th-century wars all contributed to this cultural diversity, which continues to characterize modern Greece—in spite of several instances of population exchanges, which occurred as a result of treaties between Greece and Bulgaria in 1919 and between Greece and Turkey in 1923, along with long-standing government policies of assimilation, or Hellenization. According to the dominant ideology of the Greek state, all the people of Greece are, or should be, Greek. As a result, the existence of ethnic and national diversity in the country has remained a sensitive issue. The Greek government’s official position is that there are no ethnic or national minorities in the country and that virtually the entire population is Greek. The only minority officially recognized by the Greek government is a religious minority, the Muslim minority of Thráki (Thrace), whose existence was acknowledged in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Nonetheless, the population of Greece includes people who identify themselves as Turks, Macedonians, Albanians, Aromanians (Vlachs), and Roma (Gypsies). Greek is the language of the majority of Cyprus’s population, and enclaves of Greeks—as defined by the language they speak—are to be found to different degrees in southern Albania, southern Italy, Turkey, and Bulgaria. Greek expatriate communities play a distinctive role in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and South Africa.