A few months ago, as I was wandering the busy hallways of an international airport waiting for my flight, a marble plate captured my attention. I leaned over to read the words carved in it:

“All mortals should live like one, united, and peacefully working towards the common good. You should regard the whole world as your country, a country where the best govern, with common laws, and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people, as many narrow-minded others do. I am not interested in the origin or race of citizens; I only distinguish them on the basis of their virtue. For my part, I consider all, whether they be white or black, equal.”

I wondered, “Who uttered these words? A representative of the United Nations? A member of a coalition against racism? A religious leader?”

To my astonishment, it was a Greek well known to me, Alexander the Great! This was a speech given by him to his troops more than 2,000 years ago, and yet it seemed so contemporary.

Many countries have contributed in significant ways to science, the arts and other important areas — and Greece is among them. Names like Hippocrates, Aristotle and Socrates need no introduction. But while approaching the Greek national holiday, Greece Independence Day today, I considered: What is Greece today? What do these achievements mean to the rest of the modern world? Does Greece continue to contribute to universal improvement and evolution as its ancestors did?

The answer is yes.

In the medical arena, cervical cancer had been killing women for centuries. Difficult to diagnose, it is usually widespread and incurable when discovered in later stages.

A young boy from the Greek island of Evia had a dream to become a doctor and help the world. He succeeded. His name was Georgios Papanicolaou. A medical doctor, biologist and researcher of the early 20th century, he developed the “smear test” or Pap smear, as it is now widely known.

The impact of his invention is enormous: Countless women have lived productive and disease-free lives because the Pap smear allowed their otherwise fatal cancer to be diagnosed at an early, curable stage.

In the area of preventive medicine, the world has benefited from the work of Dimitrios Trichopoulos. Trichopoulos is a medical doctor and director of the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

His research work has contributed to the discovery of passive smoking as a cause of lung cancer, the association between psychological stress and heart disease and the identification of diet as a risk factor for developing cancer. The increased public awareness of the effects of smoking, and the resulting changes in public policies, can be directly linked to his work.

In the realm of physics and mathematics, Greece has a long tradition started by Pythagoras, Euclides and Archimedes. It continues with Dimitrios Nanopoulos, a physics professor at Texas University.

Nanopoulos has made significant contributions to the fields of particle physics and cosmology. His work on the string unified theories, fundamentals of quantum theory, astroparticle physics and quantum-inspired models of brain function has advanced the science of physics to new levels.

Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara is saluted as one of the world’s most promising young physicists. Only 31, she is trying to blend Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum theory in an attempt to explain the nature of space and time.

If her “causal spin networks theory” is correct, it would mean that the universe functions like a giant quantum computer. This could forever change the way we think about the structure of space. She is now an assistant professor in the physics department at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler is a prominent international figure in the area of classical and Byzantine studies. Her achievements in history, politics, language, culture and ethics have made her known throughout the world.

An established Byzantine expert specializing in social history, she became the first woman head of the department of history at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1967, and nine years later she was elected president of the Sorbonne, the first woman in such a position in its 700-year history. She now serves as president of the European University, and is considered a major contributor to the genesis of the European consciousness.

Poetry has long been considered a form of the highest art in Greece, so it is not surprising that Greece has two Nobel prize winners.

The first, Odysseus Elytis, is the “poet of the Aegean” and Greece’s leading writer. Elytis expresses the pain and hardship of war and the mourning of the lost heroes. He illustrates the dedication of the Greek people to the ideals of freedom and justice. In 1959 he wrote “The Axion Esti,” a long poem on the history and life of Greece, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1979.

In this work Elytis echoes the light and colors of Greece, the love of life and joy, which the combination of the bright Greek sun and the Aegean blue brings out. It is a poem that attempts to identify the vital elements in Greece’s 3,000-year history and tradition, and where the Orthodox liturgy blends with the images of the sun, the sea, and the Christian element with the pagan.

The other Nobel Prize laureate was Georgios Seferis, one of the most-accomplished poets in Greek history and a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963. Being aware of the heavy ancient Greek tradition resting on his shoulders, he perceived Hellenism as a continuous unity of spirit throughout the centuries — its main purpose to maintain and propagate the principles of equality, freedom and democracy.

Seferis was able to combine the beauty of the Greek traditional poetry with the modern European ideas. His poetry is full of rich symbols and is characterized by precision and clarity of style.

Another distinguished and well-known Greek poet is Konstantinos Kavafis. Hellenism was for him one of the universal expressions of world culture, perhaps one of the most refined.

One of his famous poems is “The Road to Ithaca.” It is about the life-long journey of all of us toward our goals and wishes in this life. He concludes:“Always keep Ithaca in your mind.To arrive there is your ultimate goal.But do not hurry the voyage at all.It is better to let it last for many years;and to anchor at the island when you are old,rich with all you have gained on the way,not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.Without her you would have never set out on the road.She has nothing more to give you.And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.Wise as you have become, with so much experience,you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.” Although not primarily a poet, Nikos Kazantzakis of Crete was also a great novelist and thinker. His best-known novel, “Zorba the Greek,” was turned into a movie in 1965 and became an international success. It is the story of a character who lives every moment of life to the fullest.

A simple, yet complex person, Zorba astonishes the reader with his primitive energy and love for life, combined with a deep philosophy and understanding of the world around and inside him.

Acting also flourished in Greece. The ancient theater of Epidauros is still well-preserved and serves as an eternal witness to Greece’s contribution to the art of acting and directing.

Actress Irene Papas is considered the incarnation of the spirit of Greek tragedy. Like no other contemporary actress, she revived Antigone, Electra, Iphigenia and Medea. She is also well known as the sensuous and eventually tragic widow in “Zorba the Greek” and the suffering wife of political martyr Yves Montand in “Z.”

With her intense playing and with her dark, expressive features she added new dimensions to classic tragic plays. In 2002, she was elected “Woman of Europe” by the European personalities committee in recognition of her contribution at an international level to humanitarian activities, culture and arts.

Movie director Elia Kazan immigrated to the United States at a young age, but kept Greece in his heart. Kazan is considered a great director who inspired his actors and encouraged them to be creative. His movies were worldwide successes: “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden” and “America-America.” He discovered many famous actresses and actors, such as Marlon Brando.

In the area of music, Greeks have excelled. Pythagoras gave the world the basics of harmony, and his successors continued on his path. Mikis Theodorakis is one of the greatest living, modern Greek composers.

He wrote the music for many well-known films such as “Z,” “State of Siege” and “Serpico.” His musical portfolio ranges from classical compositions to popular songs, such as the popular oratorios “Axion Esti” and “Canto General.” His work always combined an exceptional artistic talent with an extraordinary deep love of his country. He is dedicated to heightening international awareness of human rights, environmental issues and peace.

Manos Hatzidakis was the composer of many musical pieces of popular nature, among them “Piraeus’ Children” (“Ta Pedia tou Pirea”), sung by Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday,” for which he won an Oscar. He wrote music for many movies and theatrical pieces for piano and ballet.

Iannis Xenakis has produced work for 40 years and had an impact on the fundamentals of contemporary music. His innovative concept of “polytopes” led to multimedia creations involving sound, light, motion and architecture. Xenakis was a pioneer in computer music and algorithmic composition.

As one would expect, along with so many composers comes talented singers.

In the classic repertory, Maria Callas was the “casta diva” of the opera and one of the greatest and most versatile operatic singers in recent history. Her voice was unique and her scenic appearance dramatic and grandiose. She sang an incredible variety of roles, always praised for “the distinctive color of her voice” and the dramatic depth of her performances. Her soul expressed the agony, love, sadness and joy of the famous heroines of operas.

What do all these Greeks have in common? Many of them studied and worked abroad. Many left Greece at a young age. Some did not even speak Greek.

Yet, I believe that all these people vibrantly demonstrate that Hellenism is not a remnant of the past to which we sometimes pay respect and admiration. Hellenism — as understood by poet Seferis and others — is a living, breathing, vital component of contemporary life.

These people influence our ethics, shape our art, structure our literature, strengthen our democracies and advance our science and technology.

Greeks are devoted to promoting idealism, perfection, beauty and excellence wherever they go. Since the ancient years, Greeks loved to travel and see new places, meet new people, and engage in new challenges. When they settled in a foreign country they never felt like strangers. They used their skills and all the means available to them to create crafts of spirit, gifts of love and concern to the place and people who welcomed them in their lives and in their countries.

Like Odysseus in Kavafis’s “Return to Ithaca,” they arrived at a “richness of wisdom” after a long endeavor and constant interaction with the broad world around them. They embodied experiences gained in the process; starting from different walks in life, finding themselves under different circumstances, but being homogeneous as to their love for “Ithaca,” their Hellenic cultural heritage, with which they identify.

The legacy of ancient Greece, with all its benevolent implications, has survived to a large extent due to the living and participatory presence of Greeks in most parts of the world. Everywhere, they have been making diverse contributions that have been integrated into the local societies and beyond.

Greece is a country in Europe, but Hellenism is a living idea, which through the achievements and contributions of its sons and daughters, continues to assist the human struggle towards the higher, the better and the nobler.

Odysseus is very much alive inside the Greek soul and his never-ending trip around the globe will always result in the quest for universal development and perfection.

Dr. (Maj.) Antonios Liolios is a doctor at the health-care clinic at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, Belgium. He is also an assistant to the Greek national military representative.

Greece in SHAPE spotlight

Each year, two countries represented at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Brussels host an exhibition and festival offering a taste of their nation’s customs around the time of their national holiday.

This year, it is Greece’s turn. Members of the Greek community at SHAPE put on an exhibition on the history of Greece, conducted a painting contest on the spirit of the Olympics and threw a party complete with Greek dancing. Events culminated with a formal reception.

This article on the living spirit of Hellenism is part of the community’s presentation.

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