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Physical Features of Greece

Updated on April 10, 2014
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Greece is a mountainous country located in the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula. One of the ancient world's greatest civilizations flourished there. The modern state occupies not only the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula but also the Ionian Islands, lying off its west coast; the large island of Crete, to the south; and, except for Imbros (Turkish, İmroz or Gökçeada) and Tenedos (Turkish, Bozcaada), all the main Aegean islands, including Rhodes.

Within Greece there are wide variations of climate. The northern areas have the hard winter and torrid summer of southern continental Europe; the peninsula and the islands have the short mild winter and long dry summer of the Mediterranean area. Also, the western areas are much wetter than the eastern areas; thus Corfu is much greener than Chios. Within each district the mountains and the sea provide minor variations of climate, so that occupations and foodstuffs are varied.

Greece can be divided into the mainland and the islands and into highlands, hill country, and plains, each of which plays a different part in the country's economy. Capital, industry, and urban population are concentrated on the mainland in Athens and Salonika, situated in maritime plains, whereas Greek shipping is chiefly by islanders. The highlands provide timber, fodder, and pasture, especially for sheep; the plains are rich in cereals, tobacco, and rice; and the hill country provides olives, wine, figs, vegetables, maize, apples, pears, peaches, nuts, pasture, and charcoal. The seas breed fish, especially the tuna, in great numbers.

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The Mainland

The mainland consists of northern Greece, central Greece, and the Peloponnesus. Thrace, Macedonia, and Epirus, constituting northern Greece, are relatively rich in basic foodstuffs and large in population. Thrace and Macedonia have large plains and coastal flats that grow excellent cereals, cotton, and tobacco, and maintain cattle, while their mountains are forested at high levels with pine, fir, beech, and chestnut, and at lower levels with mixed deciduous timber. Apples, pears, and peaches are increasingly produced for export. Epirus, on the western side of the Pindus range, has fewer plains and more pasture. It produces cattle, sheep, maize, milk products, and, at Arta, olives, citrus fruits, and rice. Sheep graze in the mountains in the summer and in the lowlands in the winter.

In central Greece, Thessaly is the richest region. Cereals are grown and stock pastured on its three large plains, while the mountains and hills produce timber, fruit, nuts, and olives, and provide pasture. Trikkala and Larissa are the chief centers inland; Volos on the Gulf of Volos (Pagasai) is the chief port.

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To the south the plains of Phocis and Boeotia are rich in wheat. Attica, with its light soil and Mediterranean climate, is suitable for the culture of the olive; its cereal-producing plains are small; its indented coast is well wooded with the small Mediterranean pine. The Athens-Piraeus metropolitan area, linking plain and coast together, is by far the largest center of population in Greece. The political and cultural capital, it lies at the focal point of seaborne commerce and overland traffic between northern Greece and the Peloponnesus.

The western part of central Greece is much more mountainous. Parts of Acarnania and Aetolia are barren tracts of limestone; the population is relatively thin, except in the plain of Agrinion, where fine tobacco is grown and processed. The southern coast facing the Gulf of Corinth is generally rugged; Naupaktos and Itea are its chief ports.

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The Peloponnesus is entered by way of Megara, a wine-producing area. Corinthia, Achaea, and Elis grow most of the grapes for the currant and sultana raisins that Greece exports. The Isthmus Canal being little used, Corinth has become a provincial town. Patras in Achaea is the main center of export from the Peloponnesus. Elis, a rich farmland, has only one port, Katakolon. In the south the alluvial basins of Kalamata and Sparta are very fertile, but water for irrigation is in short supply. In the center, Arcadia's limestone mountains have meager pastures and pockets of arable land, the largest of which is in the area around Tripolis. To the east, Argolis and Epidaurus resemble Attica in climate and products, but the population is rural. The Peloponnesus, so nearly an island, has an ethos of its own; life is hard but sunny, and a diet of bread, cheese, olives, garlic, and wine seems to suffice.

The Islands

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The islands fall into groups. The western, Ionian islands, enjoying more rainfall, are more productive and more wooded than those east of the mainland; thus Corfu (Kerkira), which has the densest rural population in Greece, is able to export olives, fruit, and wine. These islands control the coastal trade, Corfu having special importance as the key to the Adriatic.

East of the mainland, Cythera (Kithira), Aegina, and Euboea controlled the coastal trade at various times in history but not today. Only Euboea is rich in its own right: it has timber, pasture, cereals, olives, and vines; it trades with the mainland opposite; and its channel offers shelter to small ships.

Between Euboea and the Dardanelles, the Northern Sporades have good harbors, little soil, and some olive groves; while Lemnos, having better soil, produces timber, cattle, cereals, and wine. Lemnos's harbor is magnificent. Well-wooded Thasos, and Samothrace with its granite peak, like the three prongs of the peninsula of Chalcidice on the mainland, have more rainfall and are more fertile than the outlying islands.

In the central Aegean the Cyclades are similar to Attica in climate and olive production, and the people engage in seafaring. Eastward the largest islands off Turkey -Lesbos, Chios, and Samos- are relatively rich in olives, wine, figs, fruit, and mastic gum. To the southeast the Dodecanese include small, almost waterless islands, where the people live mainly from the sea; two larger islands, Kos and Karpathos, produce olives, wine, and fruit. Rhodes lies at the southeastern gate of the Aegean basin . Once famous for its forests, Rhodes still exports olives, wine, fruit, vegetables, and honey.

The largest Greek island, Crete, forms the southern side of the Aegean basin. Its mountains, at one time forested with cypress, cedar, pine, and oak, are now mostly bare, but the rich arable plains and the fertile hillsides give it a favorable balance of trade. Its better ports face the Aegean.

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