Sunday, August 23, 2009


(Please click on photos to enlarge)

On our first evening back in Greece, last week, a stroll down the main street of Ioannina took us past reminders of the cataclysms that have racked this area for the past 200 years. The entire population of the city seemed to be outside, enjoying the perfect weather. Ioannina (also spelled Yannina) is the provincial capital of Epiros and the stepping-off place for my husband Nick’s village—about an hour’s drive farther north on a mountain just below the Albanian border.

I often remind myself, when I’m in Greece, that any Greek my age—old enough to remember World War II—is a survivor of the Italian and Nazi occupations, the terrible starvation that followed, and the bloody Civil War that rent the country after that. The Civil War still splits the populace along political lines when you bring up stories like that of my mother-in-law Eleni Gatzoyiannis, who was imprisoned, tortured and killed in 1948 for engineering her children’s’ escape from their occupied village. She began planning the escape when the Communist guerrillas started collecting children to send to re-education camps behind the Iron Curtain. (This was called the pedomasoma, and while many claim it never happened—like Holocaust deniers— in fact 28,000 children were taken from their parents and reared in communist countries.)

In Ioannina, as elsewhere, Greeks traditionally take an evening stroll—the peripato-- families walking together, pushing baby strollers, the youth checking each other’s fashion statements. Everyone eventually sits at an outdoor cafe to enjoy an iced coffee or a glass of wine or ouzo and watch the passing parade. (Dinner doesn’t start until ten p.m.). The peripato is especially popular in towns on the sea or on a lakeside harbor like Ioannina.

Tourists have not yet discovered this city, which is little changed from the days when Lord Byron visited the notorious tyrant Ali Pasha in the walled Turkish Kastro which still stands—its walls intact, its minarets and palaces now turned into museums.

In Ioannina we stayed in the new Grand Serai hotel, ornately decorated with marble, crystal chandeliers and copies of paintings showing Lord Byron and Ali Pasha—the Albanian vizier who tried to seize control of the area from the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople.

Ali Pasha had 300 women in his harem and 300 boys in his seraglio, so they say in Ioannina. Most of them were kidnapped from the neighboring Greek villages—pretty girls for the harem, promising boys to be trained as soldiers in the Janissary corps. Turkish rule ended in Northern Greece in 1913, but even after that, village women like Nick’s mother Eleni, warned their daughters to cover their faces with their kerchiefs to avoid being kidnapped for their beauty. Nick’s father, who was born in 1891, wasn’t sure of his exact birth date because his mother, like everyone else, lied about the age of the boys, making them younger so they wouldn’t be taken as Turkish soldiers.

Ali Pasha had a habit of drowning individuals who displeased him by sealing them in sacks weighted with stones and dropping them into the bottomless Lake Pamvotis below the walls of the Turkish Kastro. They say that in the morning mists over the lake you can see the ghosts of the women who died there, including Kyria Efrosini, the lover of one of Ali Pasha’s sons, who tried to sell her expensive ring in the marketplace. A famous painting portrays her and her maids, who were drowned with her, being rowed to their death by grinning evil Turks.

Today the lakefront is the scene of excellent restaurants and nightclubs which are filled to overflowing with the youth of the city, partying late into the night. Even at midnight, families are out, dining al fresco as children enjoy a Lunar Park of carnival rides and outdoor shows of traditional Greek shadow puppets. There are the gypsies, selling everything from mixed nuts to cheap Chinese electronics, and the little ferryboats, chugging to and from the island in the middle of the lake. Day or night the lakeside is a happening scene,

Ali Pasha was assassinated in 1822 in his summer home on the large island in the middle of the lake (which has many tavernas featuring freshwater fish like trout, plus eels and frogs legs.)

Ali’s wife was Kyria Vassiliki, who was kidnapped (if I remember correctly) from her village of Plessio at the age of 15. The old man trusted the lovely Vassiliki, but she learned of his plan to torch Greek villages and she abetted assassins sent by the Sultan in Constantinople—giving a signal which allowed the killers entrance to Ali Pasha’s island home, where they shot him from the floor below.

The Turks cut off Ali Pasha’s head and carted it to the Sultan in Constantinople, along with Vassilki as a witness—to prove that the tyrant was dead. His headless body was buried under an elaborate wrought- iron cage in Ioannina, still standing near the mosque that is now a museum.

In gratitude for saving her fellow Greeks, Kyria Vassiliki was returned to her village and became the first Greek woman to receive social security.

As we walked down the main street--Averoff— toward the lake front, we passed the entrance to the Turkish Kastro, and a shrine to two local Greek warriors who were hanged by the Turks from a nearby plane tree. They are now saints.

Then we passed a monument to the Jews of Ioannina, who lived mostly within the Kastro—near the ancient synagogue which still survives (although there are rarely enough men to make a minion.) A sign says in both Greek and English, “In memory of our 1,850 Jewish cohabitants who were arrested on March 25th, 1944, and executed in the Nazi concentration camps”. That is another story in Ioannina’s bloody history and one that is still being written about.

As we approached the lake, we passed a warren of shops featuring wares of hammered copper and brass as well as silver filigree: traditional handicrafts of Ioannina. Some of the objects are made from mortar shells left from the war.

Then we reached the lakeside, where the music was blaring and the populace was eating and drinking and admiring the view. Aside from some lakeside statues of veiled women, representing the victims of Ali Pasha, there was no sign of the city’s tragic history, only merriment and music on a balmy summer night.


Anonymous said...

Nice Try Greek. Before 1940 there was nothing greek about or in Ioannina. Greeks came in 1800s as workers to Ali Pasha slaves. You should do more research next time. There were no Greeks in Rumelia. those were the lands of Suliotes and Arvanites.

by Joan Gage said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm not a Greek, although I speak the language and have visited the country for over 40 years. But my husband is and helped with the following response:
You should read real history rather than submit to the jingoistic reveries of chauvinists. No Greeks in Ioannina? Read Homer who cites Dodoni outside Ioannina. Read Plutarch's Life of King Pyrrhus Read about Alexander the Great's mother Olympias. Read Aristotle who says in his "Genealogy" that the Greek race began in Epirus. Read something other than racist fairy tales!

Anonymous said...

The first Greeks were from Epirus and Dodoni was the first oracle built in Greece. Ioannina could not be anymore Greek dumb ass!!!

Anonymous said...

This first comment is coming from an Albanian origin, who believes that all Epirus is Albanian and all Epirotes are Albanian. Obviously he does not know any History, that this area is Greek-speaking since Homer and older ages, as that Dodona was the origin of Dorian Greeks who gave their name of Helloi to Hellenes (Greeks). Of course there were immigrations and invasions of Albanians but the majority is Greek speaking with many ancient words in their idiom. Ioannina were Ottoman for many centuries but the people remain Greek, all educated service of Ali Pasha were Greek and he himself used Greek as official language in court. All my ancestors were speaking Greek, even the Albanians did so and the Turks too. So Epirus was and is Greece of Greece, the root of Greeks. No Albanian has any right to claim the opposite.

Ble Matia said...

I own the movie 'Eleni'.

I am so sorry for what your mother-in-law and sooooo many others endured in Greece and throughout the world where tyrants rule.

I pray for the day that peace will reign everywhere and we will not have any more senseless loss of lives.

Ble Matia said...

I own the movie 'Eleni'.

I am so sorry for what your mother-in-law and sooooo many others endured in Greece and throughout the world where tyrants rule.

I pray for the day that peace will reign everywhere and we will not have any more senseless loss of lives.