YMHC #4: Mines in Northern Greece, 1912-1940 (PhD Thesis) – by D. Iordanidou

The fourth issue of the series Young Mining Historian Corner is online!

In this issue, Domna Iordanidou (General State Archives, Historical Archives of Macedonia) presents her PhD thesis, supervised by Professor L. Papastefanaki (University of Ioannina) and discussed in 2021, about Mining Industry in Northern Greece during the early 20th Century.


by Domna Iordanidou (Doctor in Economic and Social History & Archivist – Department of History and Archaeology, University of Ioannina (GR) – General State Archives, Historical Archives of Macedonia (Thessaloniki, GR) – domnaior@yahoo.gr)

The aim of this PhD thesis is to shed light on the situation of the mines in Northern Greece between 1912 and 1940. I am referring to the area of Macedonia and Thrace that today constitutes part of the Greek state. This area had been previously part of the Ottoman Empire. I begin my dissertation by examining the mines in the mentioned area during the period preceding the annexation to the Greek state. The main sources are the travellers’ or geo-scientists’ travel notes, Ottoman legislation and censuses, francophone press [1]. Although there was a certain interest regarding mineral resources dating back to the very beginning of the Ottoman expansion to this area, it was not until the Balta Limani treaty (1838) that the Empire got involved in the global economy and the mines began to constitute a sector of major interest for the European investors [2]. The Greek state which obtained a part of this area after the Balkan wars in 1912-13 (today Greek Macedonia) and another zone nearby (today Western Thrace-Oriental Macedonia) some 10 years later, had to produce a number of specific legislative measures in order to take under consideration even the rights emanating from the legal actions taken previously by the Ottoman administration regarding mines’ exploitation. In various international treaties the issue of the mining enterprises in the area were taken under consideration and were regulated. On top of it during the IWW the Greek Ministry of National Economy published a list of mining concessions according “firmans” (edicts edited by Ottoman rulers) and licences in the newly acquired lands, called “New Lands or New Provinces”, including Macedonia.

Through the documentation we realize the key-role that political power played in economic business. For example, the Thassos’ mines were given in concession, after the intercession of the German minister to the sultan, to a German firm. Till IIWW much more mines were opened but the situation remained far from satisfactory. Greek mining had a lot of problems: small mines were scattered all over the country, they were sort of specialized miners, of capital, infrastructures – mines near the seaside were in a privileged position – and finally mechanization was underdeveloped. An exception was the iron-pyrite and magnesite mines in Halkidiki (ca. 100 km. away from Thessaloniki) and the zinc mines in Thassos Island. Since the Late Ottoman period, those mines had been under the control of foreign companies.

There was another company, which was the very first mining company operative in the Ottoman Empire, whose aim was the exploitation of just one lignite mine in the area of Serres (Central Macedonia). Since the first years of the 20th century, lignite was subject of some harsh debates among Greek engineers, government officials, entrepreneurs etc. It was during a war period (1912-1923) that local lignite began to be used mostly in order to compensate the lack of – mostly British – imported coal. A whole chapter is dedicated to the lignite case although the golden era for the lignite arrives after the IIWW under a much different political and economic situation (Marshall Plan) when it is used in order to supply electrical energy in the whole country. Nevertheless I find it highly significant that the first serious attempt to estimate the available lignite deposits was in 1938 when a German University professor arrived in Greece in order to assess the problem. His opinion – that later was proved right – was that the richest lignite deposits in Greece were situated in the zone of Ptolemais in Western Macedonia. The issue of nationalization that affected mainly lignite and other mines in Northern Greece is also discussed in my thesis.

Gold mines on the other hand have been a priority since the ancient times of King Philipp and his son Alexander the Great. Gold mining in the years of the late Ottoman Empire and the first third of the 20th century in Macedonia involve a character similar to a hero of a treasure hunting novel: a military engineer of Austro-Ungarian descent, was the first to report to the sultan and subsequently to the Greek state the existence of a mine and he succeeded in obtaining a special law from the Greek government regarding a gold mine. Before the beginning of the IIWW a joint-stock company – owned by a Greek family – engaged in gold extraction gaining high profits in the post-war era. Greece had also some of the finest quality deposits of Magnesite, very useful mineral on lining furnaces and during the war the mineral’s value went up and its trade was very profitable.

The miner George Zoras, according to his granddaughter’s narration, emigrated from the mountains of Hepirus to the mines of Kassandra in order to work at the pits: “George was subordinated to the Great Need. He worked patiently in the mines during ten years… He died in the pits. … He was 29 years old. His life was sacrificed for the love of Maruda, left widow at 26, with her three children of 8, 4 and 1.” [3]

From quantitative research in official censuses to personal accounts in novels to news of deadly accidents in the Press the miners’ lives still remain in some extent unseen. Although the “Regulation of Mining Works in Greece” dates back to 1911 and Greece was one of the first countries to accept the 8-hours working day in mines in the International Labour Conference (Washington, 1919), the working conditions in the mines were extremely harsh and dangerous and the social security remained far from adequate. The trade-unionism among the miners does not seem to have been very promising. In comparison, the tobacco-workers, were at the front of the labour movement at this time. In 1901, a law was published creating the Miners’ Fund as the risk of accidents related to this profession demanded extra measures. The whole inter-war period was particularly troubled with social struggles. Strikes occurred, some of them leading to solidarity actions by the surrounding communities and to reaction by both the employers and the State. In particular, the strike that occurred in January 1929 in the Kassandra Mines, lasted a month, motivated the surrounding communities, allowed the issue arrived to be discussed in the Parliament [5]. The Prime Minister took action but another strike began at the same time in the mines of Laurium, near Athens.


[1] For the mines in the late Ottoman Empire v. Alaaddin Tok, The Ottoman Mining Sector in the Age of Capitalism: An Analysis of State-Capital Relations (1850-1908), Lambert Academic Publishing 2011.

[2] Cf. Şevket Pamuk, The Ottoman Empire and European Capitalism, 1820 – 1913, Cambridge University Press 1987.

[3] Aletheia Eupraxiadou, A glass of water tasting Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, [in Greek], Thessaloniki 1996: p. 62-64.

[4] Cf. Alexandros Dagkas, Recherches sur l’ histoire sociale de la Grece du Nord: le mouvement des ouvriers du tabac, 1918-1928, ed. Pierre Belon, Paris 2003. A lot of information about miners is included in this book.


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