Greece, officially called the Hellenic Republic (Greek: Ελληνική Δημοκρατία), is a country in the southeast of Europe on the southern tip of the Balkan peninsula. It has land boundaries with Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Albania to the north; and with Turkey to the east. The waters of the Aegean Sea border Greece to the east, and those of the Ionian and Mediterranean Sea to the west and south. Regarded by many as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy, Greece has a long and rich history during which its culture has proven especially influential in Europe, Asia and Africa.
The territory occupied by the Greek nation comprises the southern tip of the mountainous Balkan Peninsula and an intricate complex of smaller peninsulas and islands that define the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Because of this combination of physical features, the topography of Greece is extremely complex and varied. Including all its offshore territory, Greece occupies 131,957 square kilometers. It is bounded on the north by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM--the name internationally approved in 1993 for that entity after its 1991 declaration of independence) and Bulgaria; on the northwest by Albania; on the east by Turkey and the Aegean Sea; and on the south and west by the Sea of Crete, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Ionian Sea
The sea is the most consistent influence on the physical environment of Greece. The elaborately irregular Greek coastline, one of the longest in the world, includes about 15,000 kilometers of shore. No point on the mainland is farther than 100 kilometers from the water, and Greece includes more than 2,000 islands--of which about 170 are inhabited. Crete (Kriti), the largest of the islands, is the southernmost point of the nation with a significant population.
The second major physical feature, mountains, cover more than three-quarters of Greece's surface area. Although their general pattern is from northeast to southwest, the mountains and the basins between them form irregular barriers to movement across the peninsula. In Greece's early history, the isolating effect of the mountains encouraged populations to develop lasting traditions of independence because of their lack of communication with the outside world.
Beginning in ancient times, the sea endowed Greece with a seafaring tradition; the best-known work of classical Greek literature, Homer's Odyssey, describes a long and dangerous voyage assumedly made across the eastern Mediterranean from Asia Minor. Sea travel has promoted contact among populations in Greece and with other peoples, but its exposed peninsula has also made Greece vulnerable to attack from the sea.
Drainage patterns in Greece are affected by the large percentage of land surface covered by rock, by the steepness of the young mountains in the north, which form gorges with narrow, twisting, and fast-moving rivers, and by the deep indentations of the coastline, which shorten the course of rivers across the land mass. The short Greek rivers have irregular seasonal levels that make them unreliable for navigation and irrigation. The three major rivers of Greece--the Vardar (called the Axios by Greeks), the Struma (called the Strimonas by Greeks), and the Nestos (called the Mesta by Bulgarians)--primarily drain other countries to the north and northwest.
The topography of both the mainland and most of the Greek islands is dominated by mountains; Greece has more than twenty peaks higher than 2,000 meters. The most important mountain range is the Pindus (Pindos), which extends from north to south in the center of the peninsula at an average elevation of about 2,650 meters (see fig. 7). The highest mountain in the range is Mt. Olympus (Olimbos), legendary home of the gods, which is 2,917 meters high. A southern extension of the Dinaric Alps of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, the Pindus Range consists of several rugged, parallel ridges, the longest of which extends from the Albanian border in the north to the Gulf of Corinth in the south. Geologically, the range extends across the Gulf of Corinth into the Peloponnesian Peninsula and southeastward to form the islands of the southern Aegean Sea. The northern part of the range offers magnificent scenery of jagged peaks and picturesque gorges. The continuous settling and shifting of this comparatively young mountain range makes the entire region, from Epirus on the Albanian border south to Crete, prone to earthquakes. The Pindus is sparsely populated and generally not cultivated, but upland pasturing of sheep and goats is common.
Traditionally, Greece is divided into nine geographic regions that are differentiated by topography and regional tradition but not by political administration. The six mainland regions are Thrace, Macedonia, and Epirus to the north, and Thessaly, Central Greece, and the Peloponnesus farther south. The three island regions are the Ionian Islands off the west coast, the Aegean Islands in the Aegean Sea between the Greek mainland and Turkey, and the island of Crete, which is considered a separate region. Each region is further divided, for administrative and electoral purposes, into prefectures. There are currently 51 prefectures.
The dominantes condition of Greece's climate is the alternation between hot, dry summers and cold, damp winters typical of the Mediterranean. But considerable local variation results from elevation and distance from the sea. Generally, continental influences are felt farther north and in the center of the mainland. The main climatic regions of Greece are the mainland mountains, Attica (the southeasternmost part of the mainland) and the Aegean, the west including the Ionian Islands, and the continental northeast.
In winter low-pressure systems reach Greece from the North Atlantic, bringing rain and moderating temperatures but also drawing cold winds from the eastern Balkans over Macedonia and Thrace as they pass into the Aegean Sea. The same low-pressure systems also draw warmer winds from the south, creating an average January temperature differential of 4° C between Thessaloniki (6° C) and Athens (10° C). Cyclonic depressions provide the lowlands of the west and the south with mild winters and little frost. Beginning in late fall and continuing through the winter, the Ionian Islands and the western mountains of the mainland receive abundant rain (snow at higher elevations) from the west, whereas the eastern mainland, shielded by the mountains, receives much less precipitation. Thus the average annual rainfall of Corfu off the west coast is 1,300 millimeters; that of Athens on the southeastern mainland is only 406 millimeters.
In summer the influence of low-pressure systems is much less, allowing for hot, dry conditions and an average sea-level temperature of 27° C in July. Summer winds have a moderating effect along the coast, but very dry, hot winds have a parching effect that causes drought in the Aegean area. The Ionian and Aegean islands are especially warm in October and November.
Elevation has an appreciable effect on temperature and precipitation at all latitudes, however. At higher elevations in the interior, some rainfall occurs year-round, and higher mountains in the southern Peloponnesus and on Crete are snowcapped for several months of the year. The mountains of Macedonia and Thrace have colder continental winters influenced by winds channeled through the river valleys from the north.
In the years after World War II, several factors placed severe stress on Greece's natural environment. Expansion of industrial activity, the rapid increase in motor vehicles, the influx of foreign tourists, and uncontrolled land use have lowered air and water quality and depleted Greece's already limited pristine regions. In response, over the past two decades Greek governments have passed many laws and general policies, but Greece generally has lagged behind other West European countries in environmental protection.
At the time of the 1991 census, the population of Greece was 10,264,156, an increase of 524,000 (5.4 percent) since 1981.