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What happened to the once “Great Greek Maritime Glory”?

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay 

Written by Navid Homayoun

Shipping and maritime industry is a critical part of the Greek economy, with a long history dating back to ancient times. Greece's strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa has made it a hub for international shipping and trade. In the year 2023, we are invited to look at an overview of the past, current, and present state of the shipping and maritime industry in Greece and how it is intertwined with the fabric of Greek society and culture. 

Greece has a long and rich maritime history, with a strong tradition of seafaring dating back to ancient times. Ancient Greece was one of the first civilizations to develop a significant maritime and shipping industry. The Greeks were renowned for their seamanship and sailing skills, and their ships were used for both trade and warfare. The Greek city-state of Athens, in particular, was a major naval power, and its ships played a critical role in the Greco-Persian Wars.

This industry has been an integral part of Greece's economy and society, contributing significantly to its development and growth. However, beyond its economic and commercial significance, Greek maritime industry has also played an essential role in shaping Greek culture and identity, reflecting the intersection between humanities and the maritime industry. The maritime industry has always been entangled with human culture and society. From the earliest days of seafaring, humans have relied on the sea for transportation, commerce, and exploration. As such, the maritime industry has been an essential part of human civilization, influencing cultural norms, social structures, and values. In Greece, the relationship between the maritime industry and humanities has been particularly strong, with seafaring and shipping occupying a central place in Greek culture and identity.

After the fall of the Greek city-states, the Byzantine Empire continued the tradition of Greek maritime and shipping. Byzantine ships were used for trade, diplomacy, and warfare, and played a key role in the empire's economic and military power. The Byzantines also developed advanced shipbuilding techniques, such as the use of "dromons," or warships with multiple decks and oars.

The importance of the maritime industry in Greek culture is reflected in the country's rich literary tradition. Greek maritime literature dates to the ancient times, with epic poems like the Odyssey and the Iliad highlighting the significance of naval exploration. These literary works not only celebrate the bravery and skill of sailors and seafarers but also shed light on the cultural and societal norms that governed seafaring communities in ancient Greece. In modern times, Greek maritime literature has continued to reflect the intersection between the industry and humanities. Works like Nikos Kazantzakis' "The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel" and Vassilis Vassilikos' "The Captain Michalis" offer contemporary insights into the cultural and societal aspects of Greek maritime industry. These works explore the values, beliefs, and practices that shape the industry, highlighting its impact on Greek society and culture.

During the Ottoman Empire's rule of Greece, the Greek maritime and shipping industry declined. However, Greek sailors continued to play an important role in the wider Mediterranean shipping industry, and many Greek sailors worked on foreign ships. This diaspora of Greek sailors helped to spread Greek culture and language throughout the Mediterranean world. The Greek War of Independence, which began in 1821, marked a turning point in Greek maritime and shipping history. Greek sailors played a critical role in the war effort, using their knowledge of the Aegean Sea to launch surprise attacks on Ottoman ships. After Greece gained its independence in 1832, the country's shipping industry began to flourish once again.

Beyond literature, the maritime industry has also influenced other aspects of Greek culture and humanities, including art, music, and architecture. Greek seafaring communities have a rich tradition of music and dance, with styles like rebetiko and syrtaki reflecting the influence of seafaring and shipping. Similarly, Greek maritime architecture is characterized by distinctive features like whitewashed walls, blue-domed roofs, and seaside balconies, reflecting the industry's influence on the architectural settings and wider environment.

The Greek shipping industry specifically flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with Greek shipowners controlling a significant portion of the world's merchant fleet. During this period, Greece became a major player in the global shipping industry, and its shipowners built a reputation for excellence in shipbuilding, navigation, and trade. In this time, Greek ships were used for trade, shipping, and tourism. Greek shipping companies such as Onassis and Niarchos became household names, and Greek sailors continued to be renowned for their seamanship and navigation skills.

Today, the Greek maritime and shipping industry remains a vital part of the country's economy. Greek shipowners, control around 20% of the world's merchant fleet in terms of tonnage, making Greece the largest shipping nation in the world. The industry employs around 200,000 people in Greece, and contributes approximately 7% of the country's GDP.

Looking ahead, the Greek shipping industry faces several challenges, including increased competition from other shipping nations, changing global trade patterns, and environmental regulations. To remain competitive, the industry must continue to innovate and adapt to these challenges. Greece has already taken steps to promote innovation in the industry, such as investing in digitalisation and promoting sustainable shipping practices.

Greece's dominance in the global shipping industry can be seen in comparison to other major shipping nations. For example, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Greece has the largest merchant fleet in the world in terms of tonnage, followed by Japan, China, and the United States. In terms of shipbuilding, South Korea is currently the world leader, followed by China and Japan. However, Greek shipowners have traditionally preferred to purchase ships from foreign shipyards rather than building them domestically. In addition to that, Greece has seen a major decrease in its leisure cruise economy which is now taken over by UK, Italy, and other Mediterranean rivals.

The maritime industry is becoming a highly competitive and tight space, with major players such as China, Japan, and South Korea racing to dominate the field. The key drivers of competition include technological advancements, economies of scale, and the availability of cheap work force. When compared to its competitors, the Greek maritime industry has struggled to maintain its position due to factors such as a lack of investment in modern technologies and a high tax burden. The ESG (Environmental Social Governance) regulations and legislations in Europe enforcing greener fuels and imposing the shift towards renewable and more sustainable energy sources is another big cause of Greek maritime industry to struggle harder against its Asian and non-European competitors.  

Greek maritime literature reflects the country's deep connection to the sea and its importance in Greek culture and identity. The industry's impact on Greek society is significant, with many coastal communities relying on shipping-related activities for their livelihood. A decline in Greek maritime industry could also suggest the weakening in the vividness and brilliance of the fabric of society and culture since this industry has played a major role in shaping the country's national identity, with the Greek flag being one of the most recognizable flags in the maritime industry.

To become a global hub of shipping and maritime industry once again, Greece must focus on several key factors. These include investing in modern technologies, reducing tax burdens, and enhancing the country's infrastructure. The industry must also adapt to changing market conditions, ESG related regulations, and increase its competitiveness in the global marketplace. This industry has provided employment and economic opportunities for generations of Greeks and has helped to shape the country's national identity.

Greek maritime industry's intersection with humanities is a testament to the industry's significance beyond its economic and commercial value. The industry's influence on Greek culture, identity, and society highlights the profound impact that seafaring and shipping have had on human civilization. As Greece looks to the future, it is essential to recognise the vital role that humanities play in shaping the maritime industry and to leverage this connection to drive the industry's continued success and growth.


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