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Greco-Nordic relations: Architecture, Royalty and Ikea meatballs

Updated: May 10, 2021

Scandinavians have brought many great things to mankind: the Nobel Prize, Abba, IKEA, Lego, and existentialism. But Greece’s relationship with the Nordics is a little bit more special than just those wonderfully amazing things.  At Big Olive we came up with the idea of taking a quick survey of the long and beautiful story of Greco-Nordic relations.

From left to right: H.C. Andersen, Theophil Hansen, Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Swedish meatballs.

From left to right: H.C. Andersen, Theophil Hansen, Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Swedish meatballs.

Literature The relationship started well. In the 1840’s Danish author Hans Christian Andersen visited the newly established Greek kingdom where the celebrations taking place in Athens during Greece’s national holiday left a powerful image in his memory. In his travelogue, A Poet’s Bazaar (1871), he left us a fine description of the festivities:

The sixth of April is the Greek Feast of Freedom. I was at Athens this year on the day of the feast. It was a beautiful, sunshiny day; not a cloud in the sky; not a cold breeze from the mountains. The streets, the balconies, and windows where filled with Greeks, one head by the side of the other. Thousands of red fez, variegated jackets, and white skirts were displayed in the sunshine. The handsome men and boys were pleasing to look upon. Of the women there were not many, and those we saw were ugly.

Another notable account of 19th century Greece is found in the memoirs of Christina Lüth. Lüth, a Danish expat and wife to the court chaplain, followed the royal couple on their travels throughout the country; her records are a precious source for historians. Two of her children died in Greece and are buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Athens.

Architecture During Andersen’s visit, Greece was a young nation-state founded upon the ruins of an ancient civilization. Greece’s first King, Otto of Bavaria, found the architecture of ancient Greece a suitable model for his new kingdom. One of the most important architects working in the Neoclassical style was Theophil Hansen from Denmark. His famous Athenian buildings include the Observatory, the Zappas Exhibition Hall, the Ophthalmic Hospital and an outstanding example of architectural signage know as the Athenian trilogy: a trio of buildings consisting of the Academy of Athens, the National Library and the University (the latter being designed by his brother Christian Hansen). Throughout the year you can take a guided walking tour of downtown Athens to discover the city’s rich neoclassical heritage.

The National Library of Greece

The National Library of Greece

Royalty Otto, having never really learned to temper family pride and dynastic ambition with pragmatism, was finally deposed in a revolt on Oct. 23, 1862, and returned to Bavaria. He was replaced by Prince Vilhelm of Denmark who ascended to the Greek throne as George I. To honor the arrival of the new king, an unknown Athenian pastry chef created a dessert named after George’s native Copenhagen. Copenhagen is a syrupy dessert that looks like baklava with a crunchy phyllo crust and an airy almond whipped-egg filling. King George founded a dynasty that would rule Greece through the reigns of six kings. After many coups and counter-coups, abdications and exiles, all of which resulted in the monarchy being re-instituted, a plebiscite voted for a republic in 1975 and definitely ended the monarchy in Greece.

Philanthropy Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a Norwegian polar explorer, scientist, diplomat and humanitarian who led a number of expeditions to the Arctic (1888, 1893, 1895–96). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace (1922) for his relief work after World War I (1914–1918). The First World War and the Greek-Turkish war (1920–1922) led to a territorial restructuring of the entire region and to systematic compulsory movements of population. Nansen was entrusted by the international community to deal with the vast refugee flows and became one of the central figures in negotiating the deal whereby Greece and Turkey deported their religious minorities, not by a unilateral act of force but by international agreement. An exchange of populations was affected between the two countries, it involved approximately 2 million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Christians and 356,000 Muslims in Greece), most of whom were forcibly made refugees and de jure denaturalized from their homelands. Through Nansen’s efforts a League of Nations loan was provided to the Greek government in order for the poverty-stricken country to cope with the crisis. Nansen spent the rest of his life working tirelessly for refugees – In the last years of his life he took up the Armenian cause.  UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award in his honor in 1954.


Fridtjof Nansen

Archeology The Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Danish Archeological Institutes founded in 1948 , 1984, 1989 and 1992 respectively advance knowledge of Greece in all periods from the ancient world to modern times by training young scholars. These Nordic institutes also sponsor conferences and lectures, and participate in a range of archaeological projects.  In 1995 all three jointly founded the Nordic Library, a research library focusing on archaeology and the study of ancient culture.

Text by Nicolas Nicolaides

#GuidedtoursinAthens #RestaurantsinAthens #AnatolianRefugees #GreekRoyalFamily #archeologicalinstitutesinAthens #neoclassicalarchitectureinAthens #Nordiccuisine

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