Monday, June 26, 2006


Men of letters, to use the old expression have traditionally been held in high esteem by our culture. The inference is that it was due to the efforts of these men that our civilization not only endured the mind-numbing and culture destroying years of the Ottoman occupation and that heir efforts to preserve the Greek language and literature provided the impetus required for the liberation and renaissance of Greece into the modern world. Thus, in the Pantheon of national mythology, scholars such as Gennadios Scholarios, Evgenios Voulgaris and Adamantios Korais rub shoulders with more rough and ready warrior types such as Kolokotronis, who by the way, emphasized in a famous speech to the schoolchildren of Nauplion that education and retention of the Greek language were the keys to their county's future, a sentiment echoing the valiant efforts of St Kosmas the Aetolian to bring culture to the masses and arrest their assimilation, a quarter of a century before him.
While in Greece, men of letters seem increasingly to belong to the world of nationalistic schoolbooks of a bygone era, having absolutely nothing to do with the game-boy and Fifty Cent's visit to Athens, they are of particular relevance to the Greek communities of the Antipodes. For in many respects, we are in exactly the same situation as our ancestors centuries before us, save that it is doubtful whether we will be able to arrest the seemingly terminal decline of our mother tongue usage or our increasing ignorance of the intellectual and literary tradition of our culture.
If men (and women) of letters do exist in our community, then surely they are to be classified as those who strive to ameliorate the abovementioned conditions through the promotion of Greek language and literature. They are many such persons and though they are of late increasingly frustrated and ambivalent about the future, they soldier on, guarding the Thermopylae of gnosis against the coming onslaught of barbarism that will inevitably come.
One such particularly noteworthy man of letters was the recently departed Theodore Tsonis whose personage this column has hosted before. He is worthy of mention because he devoted his whole life to the preservation and promotion of Greek literature and did so in a novel way that could only be paralleled with the endeavours of St Kosmas, traversing the whole of Greece in order to preach a Gospel of Christianity and Hellenism. As a bookseller, there were few Greek houses that Theodore Tsonis had not visited. I remember him one day pulling out an old Melway heavily pockmarked with circles, marking all the homes he had visited around Melbourne. "Have a look," he smiled, "there is not a half a page that hasn't received a Greek book over the years."
Tsonis' personal approach to books was fired by a unique understanding of the tradition of knowledge, as something handed down personally from one person to the next, not to be extracted impersonally from outside sources. He was fired with a zeal to lay the foundations for people of diverse walks of life to educate and improve themselves despite any self-perceived lack of qualifications on their part. Thus, instead of attempting to get rid of old stock or pandering to the quick and cheap sales of sub-standard romances of low quality material, he would more often than not be found convincing his customers why they must read a particularly 'useful' or 'important' book, often of lower value than the initial trash they had cast their eyes upon.
To have a bookseller assume personal responsibility for the quality of the books he purveys is unheard of in our market economy. Yet it is all the more plausible when one considers that Theodore Tsonis' love of Greek literature was so immense that he would take his books to the people, rather than, in the manner of most booksellers, wait for them to come to him. A trademark of the community in his iconic white panel van, he would trawl through the Antipodean streets of Melbourne with a huge smile on his face, books flying off the back seat and into his lap. Lonely, isolated or ill members of the community awaited his visits with great anticipation. A whole generation of migrants entrusted him with the development of their literary aesthetic and he provided them with the spiritual food they so desperately required. A visit to the Greek section of any local library will reveal that most of the books comprising any given collection have originated from him and they have all been lovingly chosen for maximum benefit. Similarly, a visit to almost every single Greek panygyri would reveal Theodore Tsonis and his wife Angela unassumingly purveying the keys to cultural self-preservation, amidst all the sybaritic festivity. Indeed, it was his unassuming and self-deprecatory manner, coupled by a pair of the most piercing and expressive eyes that served to convey his passion as well as his opinion of the most suitable book, to the reader.
Theodore Tsonis was no conservative, bent on retaining an idealized and ultimately time-frozen conception of Greek literary culture, without this having any relevance to our place of temporal transplantation. Instead, he constantly championed the need for the development of local Greek-Australian literature. To achieve this aim, he formed his own publishing entity "Εκδόσεις Τσώνη," which over the years published over one hundred books by members of the community. It was Tsonis' gentle encouragement of writers who were ashamed at their lack of formal education, unsure of their capabilities or the relevance of their message to break the eggshell of self-doubt and emerge triumphant upon the literary scene. Despite the fact that the publication of books in the Greek language in Australia is largely an unprofitable venture, he also single-handedly was responsible for the distribution of these books within the wider community, convinced as he was that the efforts of such writers deserved maximum recognition. He even went to the extent of regularly traveling to Greece to exhibiting Greek-Australian books there as well as organizing the various exhibitions of Greek-Australian books throughout Australia in order to ensure such recognition.
The breadth of Tsonis' vision was not limited to the first generation however. He proved instrumental in encouraging writers of the younger generation to publish their works. In my case, he became my mentor, plying me with books he felt I should read, causing me to compare the works of other Greek-Australian authors and seek the deep psychological reasons that compelled them to write, to criticize my own work and despite my initial reservations, publish it. In doing so, Tsonis wished to inculcate an appreciation and respect for the first generation among the latter generations, as he considered this instrumental if Greek-Australian literature was to have an unbroken and derivative lineage not only from the mother literature but from its founders as well.
Realising, despite his best efforts and with great pain that Greek-language literature in Australia will not enjoy an unlimited sojourn therein, and in order to maintain the link of cultural continuity he felt so passionately about, Tsonis championed the translation of first generation Greek-Australian writers' works into English by second generation writers. In this way, he felt that the communication gap that had given rise to the so-called generation gap could be bridged, this leading to a new level of understanding and ensuring that Greek literature would not, in the coming years be restricted to a Greek-speaking 'elite', but instead would be accessible for all to partake and rejoice in. Under his watchful eyes, several translations of pivotal works, especially in the genre of migrant autobiography were published, to the delight of English speakers who in turning the pages of his publications, found a whole world hitherto only alluded to by their parents, opening up before their very eyes.
Sadly, fate intervened to divert Theodore Tsonis from his work. Instead, it cast him upon another perilous path, that of fighting against a cancer that surreptitiously took hold of him. He applied himself to fighting it with the same gusto he had for life and Greek literature and he slipped away after an intense battle against it for six months, surrounded by those that he loved the most, his wife Angela and his children Antonis and Rita. I remember sitting with him earlier in the year while he told me: "It is imperative that Greek literature survives here. You need to go out and encourage people to write. When the first generation cannot or doesn't want to write, take down the details of their lives and make them known. There are some remarkable stories to be had there. And never forget who you are or what sacrifices have been made for you." When I laughingly remarked that there was plenty of time for that and we are not going anywhere in a hurry, his grip on my arm tightened and his eyes narrowed. Leaning close to my ear he whispered urgently in tones reminiscent of Father Seraphim Rose: "Do it now. It's later than you think."When national poet Kostis Palamas died during the German Occupation, his funeral served as a rallying cry for the Greek people to manifest their resistance against the fascist regime. Another poet, Angelos Sikelianos, moved by how just one man could embody the conscience of an entire people uttered the famous words: "The whole of Greece leans upon this coffin." It could easily be said that not only the Greek-Australian literary community but also the entire Greek-Australian community leans upon the coffin of Theodore Tsonis. For he was more than a fulcrum or a hub in the wheel of community life. He was and still is for that matter, the embodiment of the aspirations and conscience of a people as well as a worthy and sure signpost into the future. Αιωνία του η μνήμη.
First published in NKEE on 26 June 2006

Monday, June 19, 2006


"A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not." Jeremiah 31:15

The recent murder of young Alex Mekhishvilli in the northern Greek city of Veroea by five of his classmates has shocked the Greek nation to its very core, though not so much as one would expect, given that the Veroea municipal council has refused to endorse a silent vigil held by some of the city's inhabitants, in protest at such a heinous and unnatural crime.
The murder of children by children is horrifying. Its prospect is as bewildering as if the natural order of the world was turned upon its head. This is especially so when one considers that the Greek word for child, «παιδί» shares the same root as the word «παιδεία» (education) or «εκπαίδευση» (training). Thus, at least etymologically, the Greek conception of the child is of a living being whose essence is finite but whose nature is still developing. It needs to be trained, educated and formed before it can properly call itself by its name.
The concept of Greek society having to come to terms with such beings, not yet formed, assuming the energies of that which they will become long before they are ready comes in direct parallel with the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. They too lived in a blissful state, they too ate of what they were not ready or permitted to eat and as a result, they brought upon themselves a loss of innocence and ultimately death.
We have all been living in a Garden of Eden of our own vis a vis Greek society. The myth that we have constructed around ourselves is of a cohesive, generous society, founded upon a sound moral basis and humanitarian precepts. According to that discourse, the Greek is infinitely more attentive to his neighbour, generous to strangers, possessed of a strong social conscience based not upon abstract western liberal principles of utilitarian law and order but rather, upon one to one social interaction and experience. While in the interests of the exception proving the rule allowance has to be made for the existence of crime, such crimes are usually of a benign nature, or they are hushed up or otherwise explained away.
Thus, one of the most common perceptions, at least in the eyes of the public is that extrinsic factors are to blame for any perceived increase in crimes or their severity. This gloss upon the discourse propagates the myth that prior to the arrival of immigrants in Greece, people enjoyed security and a low crime rate. The other, is that even though the crime rate may have increased, the nature of Greek society is infinitely more cohesive and inclusive as to preclude the incidence of such extreme crimes as the Columbine massacre, which is held as evidence in chief of the breakdown of the much reviled American society.
Whereas behaviour in Greek society was traditionally predicated upon and limited by the vigilance and criticism of others to enforce social norms, western society is based upon each person excerising self-restraint. The increasing mindless adoption of superficial accoutrments of western culture without their ideological basis results in people unused to self-restraint and liberated from traditional extrinsically imposed compliance that once regulated their behaviour, facing a moral vacuum. Alex’s murder is the most extreme example of this.
Now that we have supped upon the fruit from the tree of knowledge, our eyes have opened. We see ourselves naked and our innocence is lost forever. No longer can we propagate the myth of our own social superiority. Instead, we stand face to face with that which we have known all long but feared desperately to admit: Who we are and who we say or think we are, are as disparate now, as the poles. The cultural, historical and traditional underpinnings of our 'great' society are exposed as eroded or discarded a long time ago and despite our reliance on those deceased underpinnings in order to inflate our sense of self-importance, all we see in our portrait of Dorian Gray, is an Anti-society, a coarse, vulgar and decontextualised parody of the Western society that we on the one hand reject but on the other hand so slavishly subconsciously follow. In truth, despite ours being a civilization of remarkable tenacity and longevity and despite our boasting of its superiority, since the time of Adamantios Korais, we are unhappy and insecure about who we are. The first act of this tragedy therefore, is that a young child was brutally killed by his peers. The second is that our society fostered the dysfunctional environment in which this act occurred. And the final tragedy is that given our illusory conception of the nature of our society coupled with the rejection of the society that we emulate, does this not mean that conceptually at least, we have cancelled the concept of society out all together?
And then again, maybe this is not a tragedy for us after all. Aristotle theorized in his Poetics that tragedy results in a catharsis of healing for the audience through their experience of the main characters' emotions in response to their suffering in the drama. He considered it superior when a character passed from good fortune to bad rather than the reverse. Only time will tell if the passions of the main protagonists can provide such a cleansing for us. I doubt it, if the conduct of the Veroea municiapl authorities is anything to go by. For it is unclear whether we are actually the audience of this drama or rather, the main protagonists. If this is so, then the plot of our own suffering is only just developing as Act One, Scene One and it is unfolding, not for our benefit but for the instruction of others.
In his Poetics, Aristotle spoke of the main protagonist in a tragedy being possessed of «αμαρτία,» in its character, usually translated as a 'fatal flaw.' This translation implies that the character makes one fatal mistake based on incomplete self knowledge, which will bring about its doom. In our case, is it not our own hubris in convincing ourselves that we are something which we are not that is resulitng in the stripping of the bandages of self-delusion from the sarcophagus of mummified ideals?
A favorite theatrical device of many ancient Greek tragedians was the «εκκύκλημα», a cart hidden behind the scenery which could be rolled out to display the aftermath of some event which had happened out of sight of the audience. This event was frequently a brutal murder of some sort, an act of violence which could not be effectively portrayed visually, but an action of which the other characters must see the effects in order for it to have meaning and emotional resonance. A prime example of the use of the ekkyklêma is after the murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus' Oresteia when the king's butchered body is wheeled out in a grand display for all to see.
Perhaps our «εκκύκλημα» is the seemingly senseless murder of poor Alex Mekhishvilli. It has great meaning and emotional resonance, but that in itself will not obstruct us as protagonists (which literally means the primary sufferers) from careering along our path to self-destruction, due to our own willful blindness not only to ourselves but to our past and thebeliefs it hasengendered..
Rene Guenon, a French thinker of the early twentieth century postulated that the reason why western society had become so dysfunctional was because it had consciously let go of its traditional roots and embraced concepts not only alien to its way of thinking, but also, destructive of a society that was the product of centuries of their manifestation. Characteristically, he wrote: "It is as if an organism with its head cut off were to go on living," and then went on to rather pedantically define a set of criteria to distinguish orthodox and regular traditions from their 'counterfeiting' and 'satanic' caricatures.
But is the answer to go return to the traditional basis of our society? Herein lies the greatest, most final tragedy. In Greek tragedy, a μηχανή was employed to hoist a god or goddess on stage when they were supposed to arrive flying. This device gave origin to the phrase "deus ex machina" (god out of a machine), that is, the surprise intervention of an unforeseen external factor that changes the outcome of an event.
For the final act comes as a deus ex machina telling us that our tragedy is not that in our loss of innocence, we can no longer perceive or find value in, or return to those 'traditional roots' as a panacea for all our ills. Rather it is the nihilistic belief that those traditional values were ever adhered to at all. If there never was a Golden Age, then there can be no excuse for our 'fall' and subsequently, no predetermined chance of elevation and redemption.
The word tragedy literally means "goat-song" and this is fitting considering the animalistic attributes that in our carelessness we have adopted. It is high time that protagonists and audiences alike acquire the gnosis needed to correct their terminal decline before they lose all conception of themlselves for eternity. We leave you for this week, with the particularly apt George Orwell's conclusion from Animal Farm: "Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Fist published in NKEE on 19 June 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006


"The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language/ after so many centuries of mingling/ with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners./ The only thing surviving from their ancestors/ was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,/ with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths./ And it was their habit toward the festival's end/ to tell each other about their ancient customs/ and once again to speak Greek names/ that only few of them still recognized./ And so their festival always had a melancholy ending/ because they remembered that they too were Greeks, /they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia; /and how low they'd fallen now, /what they'd become, /living and speaking like barbarians,/ cut off so disastrously from Hellenism." Cavafy, Poseidoniatae.
It appears from the above that there are two types of festivals that pertain to our discourse. The first is the no holds barred, no beg your pardons panygyri which stems from an innate desire to kick back and revel in being, well, ourselves in all of our gastronomical manifestations, whether that take the form of a fasolada festival, sardine festival, or wine festival. These festivals, though derived from the grass roots of a generation that has had intimate contact with and thus is a witness of an ancestral pre-migration society, generally tend to be poorly attended by latter generations and even by the target generation itself, indicating that their relevance to the current zeitgeist of our community is becoming increasingly slight. Nonetheless, they exist and it is comforting to know that in this plastic world of silicon implants, silicone tears and silicon sealed marble bench tops that memories of a time when one could delight in the simple act of devouring a sardine are soul-salving.
The second type of festival is that which is referred to by Cavafy above. Though the Poseidonians, inhabitants of a Greek colony in southern Italy gradually became latinised, they could not ever conceive of a reality divorced from their Greek heritage, even though this was increasingly a burden upon them. Consequently, their adherence to the rubrics of a Greek festival with dancing and singing was not merely going through the motions or attempting to resuscitate a dead culture. Rather, it was an expression of a desperate need to remind themselves of who they were at a time when the very identity they were clinging on to so desperately was finally eluding their grasp.
Our community's major festival here in Melbourne, is aptly named the Antipodes Festival, given that we are, compared to our ancestral homeland, at the opposite end of the earth. If indeed antipodes means opposite, then we find ourselves in a Lewis Carrol-like looking-glass world where the further we progress therein, the further social norms and logic is inverted, leaving us damned if we act but equally damned through our own inaction. This is a world where we are free to construct our own reality, yet according to the Alice in Wonderland paradigm, a certain amount of perception is required in order to identify whether we have, in the manner of French philosopher Jean-Bernard Klus constructed a myth to obscure our own art, and whether our house of cards will come crashing down after the first breath of wind.
The reality is that the Antipodes Festival ceased to be an organic and spontaneous gathering of our community years ago. This is evidenced by the iconoclastic and often scandalous manner in which it is referred to in the cesspools of community gossip-groups, the relative readiness in which your average community member will accept that moneys pertaining to the festival are being laundered and the fact that however successful or popular the overseas acts may be with the crowd that squeezes its way down Lonsdale Street like cancer cells coursing through a terminally ill body year after year, it commands attendance, but neither reverence or awe.
Indeed, much like the Poseidonian Festival, the focus, at least in the minds of the public is less upon enjoyment and more upon "showcasing our culture" to the mainstream. As a society for whom what is seen to be is infinitely more important than what actually is, we are obsessed with the face we will present to those who will define us because of it, simply because they lack the perspicacity or even still, the benign interest to attempt to look beyond that face. Surely then we are adherents of the Klusian maxim that "the artist is who he says he is."
Yet given the minimal participation and attendance of members of the mainstream culture in our festival of self-definition, surely such a focus is deluded. For the deep meaning of the festival is that it is not held in order for us to have fun, nor is it organized «για τα μάτια του κόσμου.» Rather, the reason for its existence is our sub-conscious resolve that this festival serves to remind us of who we are, regardless of whether our own self-imposed stereotype accords with reality or not. If we tell enough people our names today, they will succour us with a long-forgotten identity in the dementia-stricken pain of tomorrow.
It is amazing to perceive how many parallels exist between us and our Poseidonian ancestors. We too uphold our own dancing and songs as a method of retaining even the most tenuous of links with a mother culture that has evolved just as ours has into a proto-disparate form. We too recite old names or hold cultural exhibitions in order to remind ourselves of who we are even though that which we exhibit no longer exists anywhere within our wider discourse. And we go home satisfied and yet troubled, because in our looking-glass world, our best efforts seem to bring about the opposite of what they intended and we are hurt and bewildered in our intellectual and temporal isolation.
The Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria's decision to hold the Antipodes Festival late in order to coincide with the coming of the Greek National Football team was therefore a consistent, sensitive and highly symbolic one. For to conceive of a year without an Antipodes Festival is for us, tantamount to not celebrating Christmas and a harbinger of the inevitable consequence of all the work of our hands. Instead of taking it easy, the GOCMV has realized just how important it is for us that the links between us and our mother culture are maintained, knowing that even if cultural manifestations are no longer spontaneous, at least in their contrived and manufactured form, they act as a palliative for the pain of what is to come and attempt to stave that off as long as possible.
Thus it was us who needed to bask in the glory of the Greek Football Players and not vice versa. We needed to know that we are still Greek enough to be considered such by the inhabitants of our country of origin. Our deep-seated and hysterical feeling of the inadequacy of the hybrid, which does not permit us to enjoy or highly-regard the most excellent talents and class acts of our own home-grown musicians demanded that we lavish attention upon Stelios Dionysiou for his presence confers the legitimacy upon us that we so crave. It is to the journalists, notably Maria Alyfanti of Antenna to gloss over disparities though the twinkle in the eye of her own expressionless mask is enough to permit the more perceptive to understand that the disparity and indeed the hysterically Poseidonian nature of the festival is understood.
This year, albeit in a small way, I assisted in the preparation of the Festival, especially the most Poseidonian exhibition of old Epirotan handicrafts. I was quite literally taken aback by the passion and enthusiasm of its organizers, for whom the Festival takes on a monolithic ideology, all of its own. The amount of goodwill shared among those organizing and assisting in various aspects of the Festival was phenomenal and indeed rarely to be otherwise found within the confines of our community's organized endeavour. These are persons so committed to the survival of the Festival and its importance as a landmark in our community that they refuse to consider life or our community without it and rightly so. For in as much as the Poseidonians have been immortalized for the futility of their efforts, they persisted nonetheless and it is as much to their romantic example as to their logical conclusion that Cavafy points. Notably, the critics and the stay-at-homers get no such delicate treatment from the master of caustic verse. Our distant past, which is always with us, has a way of providing us with the consolation, strength, but also foresight that we so desperately need, if we are only astute enough to see it. Till next year then we leave you the scent of lotus and the sybaritic pennings of a modern day master: «Γιορτάζω, γιορτάζω/ ακούστε που το φωνάζω θα διασκεδάζω, ως το πρωί....»
First published in NKEE on 12 June 2006

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Move over Pontian Genocide activists, step aside Justice for Cyprus protesters and all you proponents of human rights for Constantinopolitan Greeks get out of the way. A new furor has erupted to jeopardize relations between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey and it doesn't look pretty. In the present case, all three suitors are inextricably locked in a bizarre love triangle, united but also consumed by their passion for possession of prestigious provender. And the object of their ardent affection? None other than the most delicious sweet and mainstay of all Greek cake shops, the baklava.
For some time now, Greek Cypriot baklava makers have been loudly proclaiming to all who would hear that the baklava was in fact invented by them. Prima facie, this is a justifiable claim, since it is common knowledge that the Greeks invented everything except for edible underwear. However, things came to a head when in preparing to celebrate Europe Day in May, the European Union published a poster claiming the baklava as a Greek-Cypriot national dessert. Predictably enough, this ignited infuriated protests by Turkish baklava producers who claim baklava as their own, with the support of State Minister and EU Chief Negotiator Ali Babacan in the EU General Secretariat.
While the rumour that there were plans for incensed protesters to invade the poster and establish their sovereignty over one third of its expanse, setting up a rival poster in that corner is most probably apocryphal, a protest in which banners proclaiming "Baklava is Turkish, we will not allow the Greek Cypriots to feed it to the world" were held in Constantinople. The owner of renowned baklava producer "Haci Sayid Baklava," Halil Dincerler fervently pronounced: "Baklava is Turkish, what the Greek Cypriots are presenting is just a copy. We will go all the way to Brussels, and we will let the EU ministers taste real baklava."
Pouring oil on the frying pan of this international food fight, President of the Baklava and Dessert Producers Foundation, Mehmet Yildirim stated that it was time for Turkey to stand up and claim its national treasures, and recalled that the Turks had brought baklava with them all the way from Central Asia. Yildirim also said that there were documents in existence which proved that baklava belonged rightfully to the Turks.
Interestingly enough, this conflict has been simmering for a very long time, not on the computer screens and chat-rooms of dorky ultra-nationalists but within the respectable circles of international academia. Vryonis (1971) for example, identifies the ancient gastris, kopte, kopton, or koptoplakous, mentioned in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus as baklava, and calls it a 'Byzantine favorite'. However, Perry (1994) shows that, though gastris contained a filling of nuts and honey, it did not include any dough; instead, it involved a honey and ground sesame mixture similar to modern pasteli or halva (kopte means 'pounded sesame').
Perry then assembles evidence to show that layered breads were created by Turks in Central Asia and argues that the 'missing link' between the Central Asian folded or layered breads (which did not include nuts) and modern phyllo-based pastries like baklava is the dish Baki pakhlavası. Further development would have occurred in the kitchens of the Ottoman Sultans, where the Janissaries had an annual celebration called Baklava Alayı.
On the other hand, Buell (in Christian, 1999) argues that the word "baklava" is of Mongolian origin, and mentions a recipe in a Chinese cookbook written in 1330, under the Yuan dynasty.
While this inter-ethnic strife is being played out in ethnic kitchens throughout the world and the main protagonists are oblivious to all else but their own self-righteousness, further suitors have arrived in the middle of the night as it were to claim the bride as their own. For the truth of the matter is that just like the baklava itself which is a composite dish comprised not of singular but several ingredients, so too have many nations taken the baklava to the boudoir of their hearts, indulged in it and left it changed forever.
Thus it was the Assyrians at around 8th century B.C. who were the first people that put together a few layers of thin bread dough, with chopped nuts in between those layers, added some honey and baked it in their primitive wood burning ovens. This earliest known version of baklava was baked only on special occasions. In fact, baklava was historically considered a food for the rich until the mid-19th century. In Turkey, to this day one can hear a common expression often used by the poor, or even by the middle class, saying: "I am not rich enough to eat baklava and burek every day".
The Lebanese claim that Greek seamen and merchants traveling east to Mesopotamia soon discovered the delights of Baklava. It mesmerized their taste buds and they brought the recipe back home. Our major contribution to the development of this pastry is the creation of a dough technique that made it possible to roll it as thin as a leaf, compared to the rough, bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough, hence the name "Phyllo" meaning leaf in Greek. In a relatively short time, in every kitchen of wealthy households in the region, trays of baklava were being baked for all kinds of special occasions from the 3rd Century B.C. onwards. The Armenians, their kingdom being located on ancient Spice and Silk Routes, were supposedly the first to integrate cinnamon and cloves into the texture of baklava. The Arabs introduced rose-water and cardamon. The recipe changed in subtle nuances as it started to cross borders. To the north of its birthplace, baklava was being baked and served in the palaces of the Sassanid Persian kingdom. To the west, it was baked in the kitchens of the wealthy Roman mansions, and then in the kitchens of the Byzantine Empire until its fall.
After the fall of Byzantium, until the decline of Ottoman Empire in 19th Century, the kitchens of Imperial Ottoman Palace in Constantinople became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire.
The bakers, cooks and pastry chefs who worked in the Ottoman palaces, were recruited from various ethnic groups that composed the empire. Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian and occasionally Serbian, Hungarian or even French chefs were brought to Constantinople, to be employed at the kitchens of the wealthy. These chefs contributed enormously to the interaction and to the refinement of the art of cooking and pastry-making of an Empire that covered a vast region of Southern Europe, the middle East and North Africa. Towards the end of 19th Century, small pastry-shops started to appear in Constantinople and in major provincial capitals, to cater to the middle class, but the Ottoman Saray always remained premier culinary center of the Empire, until its demise in 1923.
One can understand why baklava was of key significance to the house of Othman. Two principal ingredients of the exquisite dish, pistachio and honey, were believed to be aphrodisiacs when taken regularly. Certain spices added to baklava, have also helped to fine-tune and to augment the aphrodisiac characteristics of the pastry, depending on the sex of the consumer. Cinnamon for females, and cardamon for males were held to be beneficial, while cloves are unisex. We therefore have baklava to thank for the longevity of the Ottoman line.
From the 18th century on, there was not much one could do to improve upon the baklava's already perfected taste and texture. There were however, some cosmetic modifications in shaping and in the presentation of it on a baking tray (called Sinii). The Phyllo (called Youfka) which was traditionally layered and cut into squares or triangles, was given a "French touch" in late the 18th century. As the Empire began opening itself to Western cultural influences, the Kahyabaşi of the Imperial Kitchens hired Monsieur Guillaume, a former pastry chef of Marie Antoinette, who in exile at the Ottoman Turkish Palace after learning how to bake baklava, created the "dome" technique of cutting and folding of the baklava squares which was named "Baklava Francaise" after the nationality of its creator.
So which suitor earns the bride? One is astounded to learn that it could be the outside favourite, the Lebanese. Lebanon has been a leader in promoting baklava throughout the world. Lebanese baklava bakers such as Samedi were the first to Franchise it in the Gulf region, Europe and throughout the Middle East. In the United States the most famous Baklava is made by Shatila in Michigan. If Lebanon continues to promote this dessert it will be able to claim that it is the rightful owner of the baklava. As one Lebanese baklava maker told me: "Turkey and Greece therefore should stop this crazy Baklava war, because they both copied the dessert, but Lebanon did a better job at copying." Further they Lebanese maintain that a the original idea was the Assyrians' and that at that time Lebanon formed a part of that Empire, this gives them some sort of ancestral claim over our birthright.
Never! Let the FFA ban the public consumption of baklava at soccer matches for all I care. Our community will not take this lying down. We have lost too much as a people to suffer this final assault upon our culinary integrity. It is time we joined forces with our Turkish brethren and burned the pride of these upstarts in the oven-kilns of their own presumptuousness. What will be next? Boureki? Kataifi? These are sacred symbols of Hellenism that cannot be so blatantly abrogated by those among us with lesser cutting skills. We will julienne them, we will grind their pride in the mortar of our righteousness with the pestle of our indignation. Now join me for the national anthem: "Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη, του σπαθιού στο Ιμάμ Μπαϊλντί," or my particular favourite Christakis classic: "Παίζουν τα μπακλαβαδάκια."

First published in NKEE on 5 June 2006