Greek History In London This Summer

| 28 July 2006
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photo shows wooden carving of grapes and people

Once part of a now-vanished Greek church on London Wall, these carvings were rediscovered a few years ago in the crypt of St Sophia's cathedral.

Greeks have been coming to London since classical times. Historian Jonathan Harris tells us about the pre-20th century Greek community in London and what remains of it today.

Later in August Evangelina Georgiou takes up the story, and describes the more recent Greek arrivals, including the large Greek Cypriot community, now numbering about 220,000 people, living mostly in North East London.

In the meantime, we pick out a few exhibitions in London this summer that tell you more about Greek history, ancient and modern.

photo shows winged woman sphinx

A sphinx made by the potter Sotades in Athens between 470 - 460BC.

Ancient Greece

1. The British Museum of course hold many objects from Ancient Greece - you can find them in rooms 11-23; 68,69 and 77.

The displays include a room looking at the pre-history of Cyprus: which changed many times in early history because of its strategic place between Mediterranean empires before developing a distinctively Greek culture. This winged sphinx was created in 5th century Athens by the potter Sotades - you can find out more about his work here

The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum remain deeply controversial with the Greek government, and some members of the Greek community demanding their return to Greece. Complex arguments and accusations of damage to the marbles are offered by both sides. The debate has been ongoing since 1816, and still shows no signs of being resolved.

2. Smaller collectors of Greek antiquity included the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. You can see many of the objects he bought at his London home which is now the Freud Museum.

Architecture that owes its style to classical Greece is of course everywhere in London - for a long period, any building that wanted to signal its majesty and cultural importance would have Greek columns as frontage - from the British Museum itself to the Bank of England. This extended to temples of the industrial age: this used to be the frontage of Euston Station until a major redevelopment in the 1960s.

photo shows huge greek columns with euston written at the top

Euston station in the 1960s. Courtesy of the Museum of London

Greek books

3. A small display at the British Library is showing some of the finest Greek manuscripts in its collections. Many date from before the fall of Constantinople, when many experts in book illustration and design lived in the city.

In particular the display describes international attempts to reunite the Codex Sinaiticus in a virtual form. The book is one of the two earliest Christian Bibles and is written in Greek.

The display also shows rare examples of Greek bookbinding - in many cases the very curved spines of old Greek books were removed by their Western collectors long before they reached the British Library.

Whilst the Reading Rooms of the British Library are only open to ticket holders, anyone is free to explore the exhibition spaces for free. You can see the Codex Sinaticus display in the John Ritblatt Gallery.

photo shows statue overgrown by ivy

The Greek part of the West Norwood Cemetery

18th and 19th century

A substantial Greek community was only established in London in the 18th century - as Jonathan Harris tells us, some members were very rich and involved in magnficent building work. You can still see examples today.

4. The great Greek families of Victorian London were mostly buried in West Norwood cemetery. West Norwood is one of the Magnificent Seven - impressive Victorian cemeteries built for the middle classes as London expanded. The tombs and mausoleums of the Greek part are now even more attractive for being a little overgrown - visitors get the impression of wandering through a deserted classical city.

photo shows icon in silver frame

An icon of Christ in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Sophia

5. By contrast the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Sophia is still an emotional centre for Greek London after 150 years - further gifts from the community mean that the Cathedral is always and evolving work in progress.

In October, a very small museum will open in the crypt of the church - showing some of the rarer icons and other gifts to the church, and a revolving display of some of the archives of the Greek community in London. You can read more details of the small museum on this site shortly.

photo shows elderly woman with cross around neck

Mrs Katerina Sentoukari. Courtesy of the Greek Cypriot oral history project.

Recent histories

6. Bruce Castle Museum continues to host a large oral history exhibition and film telling the stories of Greek Cypriots who came to London from around 1930 -1960. Read more here

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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