BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
My quest to visit Armenian communities took me to Athens, the venerable capital of Greece. As most people will agree, Greece is a heavenly place to visit with plenty to admire.
The first time I visited that beautiful country it was in 1975, when a history professor at my college had arranged a group educational trip to learn about the ancient civilization of Greece.
While in Athens, by chance, I met a young married couple. The wife was Armenian and the husband Greek. We were both elated to come across each other. I was curious to learn about Armenians in Greece and in turn they wanted to know all about Armenians living in Iran, where I was from, and about the Shah, who, in those days, was very much in the news.
We spent a whole day together. They took me around Athens in their car. We visited an Armenian bakery and an eatery. The wife said “My family was not so well to do. However, now, my husband provides me with everything.” They took me to their apartment, which was nicely decorated and I could tell that they enjoyed good social standing.
Through them I learned a little bit about the Armenian community and generally about the economy and life in Greece. Unfortunately, our friendship stopped there. I never had the opportunity to return their hospitality.
About 10 years ago while on a cruise ship, I had another opportunity to visit Athens. However, at that time I wasn’t on a mission to write.
This time I was. So on Monday November 5, 2018 when our cruise ship docked at the Athen’s port, Piraeus, I was ready to explore.
The line-up of taxis at the port made it easy to choose one. We asked the driver, who incidentally knew the address of the Armenian school, to take us first to the Armenian neighborhood and then to the touristic area of Plaka.
We arrived at the school, which was gated, around 9:30. The driver rang the bell and through the intercom he said that a woman from America wants to visit the school. Chutzpah! I’m thinking of my grit…
After that introduction by the taxi driver, the principal Ricardo Yerganian, came to the door and welcomed and directed us (my husband and me) to the office.
To tell you the truth, I was a bit uneasy to appear at the door of the school and ask to see the principal. However the amiable Yerganian put me at ease.
The timing was just perfect. As we entered the office, the recess bell rang, and the kids filled the playground and the teachers walked into the office for their coffee break.
At the office, as if they were expecting us, at table there were all kinds of refreshments—drinks, fruit and baked goods. An Armenian teacher from Syria, had made Zaatar, a baked bread with spices. I helped myself to a piece of Zaatar and coffee. It was so great to have a chance to meet all the teachers.
Our visit was short, but I left the school with a wonderful impression. The teachers, including the principal, were very friendly and the kids in the playground had cheerful and playful attitudes. I got all the information that I needed about the school and the Armenian community.
It goes without saying, that I was so pleased that even without making any prior arrangements by leaving it to the chance, all worked out so well.
Here’s what I assembled about Armenians of Greece:
Ricardo Yerganian was born in Buenos Aires to parents who had immigrated from Greece to Argentina in the 1950s. He had moved back to Athens 27 years ago in 1991. And for the last 18 years he had been the principal of the school.
The school is in a neighborhood called Neos Kosmos, meaning “New World,” with a large concentration of Armenians. The school was built in 1962. It is named after the benefactors Levon & Sofia Hagopian who undertook the cost. It is also supported by the Armenian “Blue Cross” of Greece, which is an Armenian charitable organization throughout Europe.
The school has 150 students from 4-year-old up to 9th grade. It offers bilingual education. It has eight (Non-Armenian) and four Armenian teachers.
Most of the operational cost of the school is subsidized by the government. The monthly tuition is only 70 Euro per child. The monthly fee to use the bus service is 50 Euro.
There are two additional Armenian schools in Athens. One is the Gulbenkian and the other Zavarian school which was built in Kokinya neighborhood in 1928. It goes up to 6th grade.
In Early 1920s many Armenians who had fled the massacres in Turkey, settled in the outskirts of Athens, about a few kilometers from the center of the city, at an area where there was a Beer Brewery called “Fix.”
The brewery had lent its name to the area. The Armenians who lived in Fix had arrived with few personal possessions and lived in wooden or tin shacks. Families of four or five shared a single room with no running water and no sewers.
In that neighborhood, Armenians built a hall which had multi functional use. It served as a school, a church and a community center.
During World War II, the “Fix” neighborhood was hit hard. They stopped to have functions at the hall and instead used the Catholic Armenian church.
Later, with the help of the Armenian Diaspora and other Armenian entities in Greece, St. Garabed church was built in the Fix neighborhood.
In 1969, due to the deterioration of the neighborhood the church stopped its operations. In 1983 a new St. Garabed Apostolic church opened its doors to the Armenian community of Neos Kosmos. I’ve been told that the Neos-Kosmos and Fix neighborhoods are interlocked.
In Neos Kosmos there’s also a Catholic Church called St. Gregory the Illuminator. The church was established in 1925. Today the church conducts Sunday schools and during summer, it provides summer programs for kids. It has also a youth club. There are about 103 Armenian Catholic families connected to the church. Also some Armenian families belong to the Evangelical church in Athens.
Today the Fix neighborhood has become a hipster place that has an urban village quality. The millennials in their 30s, in a way, find Fix to be the perfect neighborhood to raise their families.
There’s a rough estimate of 40 thousand Armenians in the whole Greece, from which, mostly they live in Athens. The number of Armenians in Greece reached its peak of 120,000 people, in 1923.
After the World War II, Armenians from all over the world, due to a summon by Stalin, decided to repatriate to their homeland, which at the time was one of the republics under the Soviet Union. Due to that mass immigration movement, the number of Armenians in Greece was drastically reduced. About 60 thousand Armenians from Greece moved to Soviet Union.
Armenians also have two newspapers: the over fifty years old daily “Azat Or” (Free Day), which has the largest circulation all over Greece and the weekly “Nor Ashkharh.” (New World)
The Armenian Political “Dashnaktsutyun” party with its branches of Hometmen, Hamazkayin and AYF are quite active in Greece. They offer sporting, Scouting and cultural events. Ramkavar political party has also some followers.
Although Greece and Armenia don’t share a common border, their ties, both emotionally and historically, have been very strong since the Byzantine era. The two countries are separated by the stretch of today’s Turkey, and due to that geographic placement, and also both being Christian nations, have shared similar culture. Both Greeks and Armenians have been victims of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Ottomans.
After that impromptu visit to the school, our taxi driver dropped us at the most touristic area in the heart of Athens— at the Plaka neighborhood.
We asked the driver, what he knew about Armenians. He said, “All I know Armenians are rich and are in the jewelry business.”
He also said that in Neos Kosmos, there is a very popular Armenian kebob eatery, called Tomas, where people line up to have a bite. However the timing was not good to visit that restaurant.
At the Plaka, we strolled and explored its narrow and winding lanes, filled with souvenir shops, to the Syntagma Square, where in front of the Parliament, we watched the official changing of the guards.
That day we didn’t visit any historical site, but we took our time to do some shopping, eat at the wonderful outdoor cafés and most of all enjoyed the weather, which was sunny in in the low 70s. We returned to our ship around 5 PM
What you’ve read here, about Athens, in part I learned from Ricardo Yerganian and in part I gathered it from my own research.
Here is a paragraph I came upon and I wanted to share with you. It is by Henry Miller, the iconic American writer, who had traveled to Greece and had stayed in Athens in 1939. This is how he describes Neos Kosmos, in his travelogue called “The Colossus of Maroussi.”
“Despite the fact the Armenian quarter of Athens had been created out of the rubbish heap there was more charm and character to this little village than one usually finds in a modern city… In the midst of the most terrible poverty and suffering there nevertheless emanated a glow which was holy; the surprise of finding a cow or a sheep in the same room with a mother and a child gave way instantly to a feeling of reverence.”
I wrote this tale with much interest, and I hope you will enjoy reading it.