Greece -- land of stark beauty and of a warmhearted, proud, and often overly sensitive people. Its contribution to Western civilization is unique: the 2 1/2 -millenia-old concept of Athenian democracy, the architecture of its ancient temples, its exquisite sculptures celebrating the beauty of the human form, its rich and inventive mythology finding poetic expression in Homer's Iliad, its philosophers and its masters of classical tragedy -- giants by any standards.

Wherever you go in modern Greece, the past of either history or mythology is at hand, be it in Athens or the village of Makrinitsa 200 miles northward up the Aegean coast in Thessalia -- both the subject of the pictures on this page.

Athens, the bustling capital of today's Greece, is dominated by the precipitous outcrop of the Acropolis, crowned with the glorious columned Parthenon and other splendors from the Periclean age of the 5th century B.C. Look up in their direction from almost any street -- and there they are, those splendid, unequalled monuments to men's imagination and achievements in an earlier age.

Makrinitsa, the village in Thessalia, has no striking remains from the classical past. But its whitewashed houses and steep, narrow streets cluster on the edge of a ravine under the shadow of Mt. Pelion. And the Pelion range, with its forests, is evocative of Greek mythology.

Here the Titans, rebelling against Jupiter, piled Pelion on Ossa (another mountain) in a vain attempt to strike at the gods in their abode atop Mount Olympus. Here roamed Centaurs. Here Achilles was brought up by the Chiron. Here Jason got his timbers for the Argo, the ship in which he sailed forth in search of the Golden Fleece.

Athens and Makrinitsa, metropolis and village of a few thousand, each belong in their way to near-eternal Greece, sitting as it always has, bathed in Mediterranean sun at the southeastern extremity of Europe, meeting Asia at the Hellespont. Twice in human history Greece has held the line for Western values: in the 5th century B.C. against imperial Persia and then 2,000 years later against the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottoman occupation of Greece, from the 15th to the 19th centuries, is still close enough in time for its memories to poison relations with modern Turkey. And this lingering feud spills over to complicate Greece's ties with the United States, trying hard to side with neither one nor the other.

But about the consequences of the Greeks' beating back of the challenge of Persian despotism at Marathon (490 B.C.), Thermopilai, and Salamis (both 480 B.C.), there can be no caviling.

Those Greek victories kept the door open for the movement of progressive civilization westward. Above all, for Western Christendom, it kept the door open for Paul, half a millenium later, to cross over from Asia Minor to Europe in response to that dramatic call: ''Come over into Macedonia, and help us.'' (Acts 16:9).

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