Saturday, May 28, 2022



As far back as I can remember, every year on my nameday, which also happens to be my birthday, at exactly the same time, I would receive a telephone call from my parish priest Father Panayiotis, conveying wishes. Every year that is, except this year, for he died on that day. 

I had visited him in hospital just the week before. As soon as he saw me enter the room, his eyes grew wide and he attempted to rise from his chair, snorting in disdain when he failed to do so. «Ο Θεός σε έστειλε,» he exclaimed and then, transfixing me with his gaze, he observed: “I do not fear death.” I shrugged this awkward comment aside. There is something innately uncomfortable about having the priest who welcomed you into the church on the fortieth day of your life, who baptised you, gave you communion week after week, married you and baptised your children speak of death. Yet this same priest around whose life our own are inextricably entwined also buried every single member of my family that has gone to rest. There is not one important event of our lives, familial, communal or otherwise that he has not been part of. As the congregation of our parish was originally largely comprised of members of both of my parents’ villages, he knew us intimately, understood how we interrelated with each other, the intricacies of our interactions and the context which informed our thoughts and actions. In knowing us, he was our firmament, the fixed point upon which the rest of our lives revolved. To contemplate the loss of one’s fulcrum is inconceivable. 

Indeed, I did not accept the possibility of Father’s passing. After all, this was a man who, having had his license taken away from him at the age of ninety, for age-related reasons, managed to have it returned to him. Every day without fail, for the forty-eight years that he served our parish of Saint Dimitrios in Ascot Vale, he would drive to church. Driving past the church on my way to school, and in the years that followed, on the way to or back from work, I would see him standing upon the steps at the entrance to the church. “Father Panayiotis is in church and all is right with the world,” I would think. “For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will serve the liturgy,” Father Panayiotis would remark. “There is no such thing as retirement for a priest.”  

Years later he would speak to me of his experiences serving the people of Darwin and battling the forces of nature in the outback in order to reach isolated members of his flock. It is that sense of pioneering indomitability, the conviction that nothing is impossible and all must be made possible in the service of his people that informed his attitude towards his vocation and provided the foundation for our community. Highly driven as he was, for him the priesthood was not a job. It was the meaning of his life and every single gesture, every single word, every single glance was subordinated to its purpose.   

At the altar serving the liturgy, at the pulpit giving a sermon, his was an intense presence. There was no attempt to court popularity or fame, to indulge one’s ego or seek familiarity. For him the Liturgy was an awesome mystery and in the austere manner in which he performed it inculcated deeply in all of us, a visceral understanding of that which cannot ever be fully described in human tongues. All my life, I have loved watching him raise his arms proclaiming:  Let us lift up our hearts,” and then bowing deeply and reverently towards the icon of Christ, his arms across his chest, declaring: “Let us give thanks unto the Lord!” At that moment, his eyes invariably closed and one could perceive in this intercessor on behalf of all of us, the humility and gratitude he felt. 

He was a deeply reserved man, taciturn yet never withdrawn or distant from his interlocutor. Instead, his eyes would scan yours intently, reading more from your body language than the words themselves which he could deconstruct and reduce to their essence, stripped of flattery and self-justification, in seconds. There was simply no time and no room for self-delusion. Instead, Father Panayiotis would tell you what he felt you needed to know, rather than that which you may have wanted to hear. And each and every word was underpinned by endless compassion, bolstered by almost a century of wisdom. 

I remember listening in astonishment discussing with a visiting prelate, the legacy of Eleftherios Venizelos, that astonishment growing exponentially when I realised that Father Panayiotis’ life spanned a time in which that historical figure, so seemingly remote to us now, was current events. I also remember shivering as he narrated harrowing experiences in the Civil War, culminating in his emerging from a hiding place in a barn, only to find the corpses of murdered fellow villagers lying on either side of the road. These were eyes that had seen and known much, but there was no self-pity, only a desire to bolster and uplift humanity. 

He bore the loss of his wife at a much too young age stoically, applying himself, along with his priestly duties, to selflessly and quietly looking after his large family. A few years later, my grandfather died and I remember Father seated in the living room describing to my grandmother, the various stages of grief. Father had not ever undertaken any training in psychology or counselling. He was neither a self-help, well-being pundit nor a therapist. But he had suffered and felt the pain of others deeply. And in their moment of need, there was no effusive monologue of consolation, peppered by well-worn cliches providing the semblance of sympathy. Instead, with a simple gesture, a hand on a shoulder, a squeeze of the arm, he conveyed down to earth, practical advice designed to help the bereaving party through their grief.  

It was this approach that saw many people beyond his parish, turn up at his door, seeking his insight and no one was ever turned away, for long before empowerment ever became a buzzword, Father Panayiotis eschewed the role of a guru, instead, providing each person in his care, the moral and ethical building blocks from which to construct their own solution to their problem or find ways of coping with the challenges they faced. Those building blocks invariably came from the teaching of the Church but they were couched in straightforward, unostentatious language, with direct relevance and application to people’s daily lives. Though he seldom spoke of it, he also read widely. I remember him coming to my classroom when I taught at the parish Greek school, holding a compendium of the writings of the Ancient Greek philosophers. “This is for you,” he stated, placing the book on my desk. “I learned a good deal from this and I’m sure you will appreciate it too.” Before I could thank him, he was gone. 

As he grew older, Father Panayiotis’ dark sense of humour became more pronounced. Fearless as he was, I remember him telling a visiting bishop who was expounding his own vision of church and community: “I don’t know pappouli. The problem is that sometimes, when you bishops put on your mitres, you forget that you come from the people and you can’t see people as people.” The bishop, considerably younger than him, taken aback, agreed. When asked what could be done to address this problem, and in particular to allow him to see people as people, rather than just as an amorphous flock, Father Panayiotis remarked: “Just take the mitre off from over your eyes, once in a while.” Simultaneously, he shot me a stern look to ensure I did not burst out laughing. 

As an acute reader of people and a fierce critic of hypocrisy, Father Panayiotis’ fair and uncompromisingly honest judgment and counsel was highly sought after by his superiors, especially in matters of discipline. For this and his long service to the Church (he was ordained in 1960) he was, on the initiative of Archbishop Makarios, made an archimandrite of the Oecumencial Throne in 2019. When I congratulated him on achieving this singular honour, he attempted to shrug it off, stating: “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” in his usual self-deprecating way. Yet his eyes were shining and his face was beaming. It was a fitting pinnacle to a lifetime of altruistic, self-effacing service, one that continued through the pandemic, where he continued to serve the Liturgy as well as tend to the needs of his flock via telephone. 

“I have to go now,” I told Father Panayiotis on my last visit, having detailed to him the labyrinth of tangled tales I had to tell in order to be granted access for I had arrived outside of visiting hours, causing him to cluck his tongue in mock-derision. Squeezing my hand so tightly that it began to ache, he replied: “So do I. Take me home.” 

I did take him home that night, and every other night, in my heart and in my memories, recalling his enigmatic smile, mulling over every word he had ever uttered in my presence, re-evaluating and re-interpreting each gesture and finding in all of them, previously undetected depth and significance. For Father only revealed of himself and his knowledge as much as you were ready or willing to comprehend and I will be forever seeking to strip away the layers of my experience with him in order to arrive at his core, knowing that it has been there, at the centre of my own consciousness, all along. 

When Father left this earth on the anniversary of my birth, in my grief, I initially completely misunderstood the point he was trying to make. Henceforth now, I shall mark the days of my own sojourn against those of his departure, knowing that he is, as he had always been, beside me, overlooking my works and deeds with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 May 2022

Saturday, May 21, 2022


 One wintry Sunday afternoon, as we in Melbourne were enmeshed in the throes of the 2020 lockdown, my eldest daughter came to me and said: «Μπαμπά, όλο γράφεις και γράφεις αλλά ποτέ δεν γράφεις τίποτε για εμάς τα παιδιά». 

“Get some paper and a pencil and come and sit beside me,” I asked her. Over the following days, scribbling furiously, I would write a paragraph and read it out to my daughter. She would variously critique it, ask for clarifications, or suggest amendments of her own. In this way Soumela, the young girl from Pontus and her magic kemenche that sets her upon a remarkable adventure were born. 

Soumela and the Magic Kemenche has its inception in our communal efforts to preserve the memory of and seek recognition of the genocide of the Greeks of Pontus. Over the years those efforts have as a by product, produced interesting works of art. One of these was the locally produced 2008 film “Pontos” which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. While viewing that film, I wondered what it would have been like to be a child witnessing the harrowing and brutal crimes of that era, for children are generally those whose voices are least likely to be heard. I considered that if I were a film-maker, I would like to tell the tale from the point of view of a young child by filming everything at knee height, that is through the eyes of the child, and with distorted voices giving the viewer a taste of just how enormous and bewildering the world of adults is to children at the best of times, heightening thus, the enormity of the betrayal when these adults fail to make that world a safe place for their progeny to thrive. 

I am no film-maker but I dabble in music and have been enthralled by the Pontic lyra or kemenche, ever since childhood. In my youth, Pontiaki Estia had their clubrooms in close proximity to my neighbourhood and walking in with my parents one day to witness a lyrari expertly draw his bow across the strings, producing a sound both primal and yet infinitely complex, linear and yet three dimensional, I embarked upon a love affair with the kemenche which persists to the present day. I resolved that one day I would write a story about a kemenche that was possessed of magical properties. Throughout the years, I would revisit this motif, but somehow never found the time to broaden its scope so as to develop a coherent narrative. 

At the same time, growing up, I devoured fairy tales of all description, from the Brothers Grimm, to Hans Christian Anderson and beyond. Yet the tales I enjoyed the most were those of Alexandros Papadiamantis and Andreas Karkavitsas, dark in a way that touched the soul and yet as familiar is psyche and ethos as the tales of hardship and despair my great-grandmother used to tell me. Growing up within a community of toilers who had seen terrible things during the war, lived a life of privation in their home country and were still struggling to establish roots in a foreign country, it was these tales that I could identify with the most. From my great-grandmother I learned that the Greek world for fairy tale, «παραμύθι» was traditionally a synonym for “consolation.” Our tales are therefore far from  frivolous studies in superficiality. They are as dark and poignant as humanity itself and if they are to end “happily ever after,” this is only so as to provide the requisite consolation to go on, to persist in having faith in a world in which everything will go awry, until such time as we are old enough to navigate its tortuous twisting paths of fate ourselves. Paramythia, therefore, are an understudy of life itself, something that can often be missed by those brought up on a diet of Disney. 

The conviction that whilst navigating the Greek and the western story-telling tradition as Greek-Australians, we were struggling to articulate our own authentic story-telling voice also informed the writing of “Soumela and the Magic Kemenche.” Indeed, finding the right voice to convey our stories to our children is a task fraught with difficulty. Modern Greek children’s writers such as Evgenios Trivizas have produced remarkable works that appeal to all ages. Nonetheless, we have sojourned in this country for over three generations. Our understanding of Greek culture and our traditions goes back to a time before the development of much of modern Greece and thus to slavishly copy the mores and modes of expression of Helladic literature is to alienate oneself from one’s own local identity. Similarly, Greek-Australian children’s writers who write in English often fall into the trap of presenting their narrative in a manner acceptable to or predetermined by the dominant culture, and by consequence, of treating the “Greek” elements in their story as exotic and foreign, instead of organic and thus, over-explaining. Having been brought up listening to the dulcet tones of Rena Frangioudaki narrating Greek fairy tales over community radio, in my mind hers was the most authentic voice to tell the tale and it is her voice that resounded in my mind as the narrative unfolded. 

Upon his arrival in Australia, I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with Archbishop Makarios about the needs of children and their integral place within the Greek-Australian community, a place which I fervently believe, our community institutions have not always appreciated to the depth that they should. Conscious of the importance of children’s literature to the formation of a unique Greek identity grounded in the locales in which we live, Archbishop Makarios upon being presented with the text of “Soumela and the Magic Kemenche,” suggested that it be published by St Andrew’s Orthodox Press. He set two conditions: the first: that the story be bilingual and that the two texts appear side by side on the page. “It doesn’t matter if there are children who cannot read the Greek text,” Archbishop Makarios remarked. “I want them in the least to be exposed to the Greek alphabet, to have visual contact with the Word.” What resulted out of his suggestion are two parallel narratives that while similar, are not exactly the same, as the way one tells a story in Greek or in English is invariably informed by a myriad of cultural and linguistic factors that give each text a unique identity of its own. 

The second of Archbishop Makarios’ suggestions was that a suitable illustrator be found to give life to the text. In his mind, this was the most important element in the production of a children’s book. As he put it, there needed to be communion between the author, the illustrator and the story so that the pictures could personify and subsume the text itself. In this regard, I could look no further than passionate Pontian and talented artist Stephanos Eleftheriadis, who has been grappling with similar problems of authentically portraying aspects of inherited tradition in a manner relevant to our place of abode, in the visual medium. The communion Archbishop Makarios spoke of was established the moment that Stephanos read the text. When I reviewed his preparatory sketches, I felt little Soumela come to life, exactly in the manner in which I had imagined her. Stephanos proceeded to illustrate the book with no direction from me. It was not needed. The incorporation of his drawings makes manifest the saying: “all that is uttered in words written in syllables is also proclaimed in the language of colours." 

“Soumela and the Magic Kemenche” works on many levels and can be read by people of all ages. For the young, it can operate simply as a tale of a young girl who embarks on an amazing metaphysical adventure. Older children and adults on the other hand can try their hands at unpicking the symbolism embedded within the text. Who is the mysterious person who helps Soumela on her way? What is the meaning of the message of the Magic Kemenche? Which psychological and metaphysical phenomena are best placed to assist us when faced with trauma? Where is Pontos and what happened to its people? Why does genocide take place? A discussion based on these final questions can be facilitated by reference to the resources provided at the end of the book, after the tale is concluded.  

“Soumela and the Magic Kemenche,” from its conception, to its writing, illustration and publication could not have existed without the Greek community of Australia and its ancillary institutions, all of whom informed and supported the writing and dissemination of the book. Writer Denise O’ Hagan in her review of the book, deems it an “artefact which enables parents to carefully educate even their youngest children in their history, including its more confronting aspects.” Ultimately, in seeking to do so, the challenge is to tell our story in a sensitive manner that avoids inspiring hatred or rancour but instead instils in our young readers sympathy and compassion for all of those innocents who are victims of a world that would not be so cruel, if adults behaved themselves. It is for this reason, that the book is dedicated to all the mulberry stained children of the world. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 May 2022


Saturday, May 14, 2022



“My people and your people, my Syrian 

Brother, are dead ... What can be 

Done for those who are dying? Our 

Lamentations will not satisfy their 

Hunger, and our tears will not quench 

Their thirst; what can we do to save 

Them between the iron paws of 


Gibran Khalil Gibran: “Dead are my People.” 


It took an inordinately long time for scholars to appreciate that the premeditated slaughter of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks by the Ottomans and after their downfall, the Kemalists, formed part and parcel of the same Genocide, that of the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. It appears that it will take an even longer time for interested Greek parties to realise that the genocide of the Pontic Greeks and the genocide of the Greeks of Eastern Thrace and the rest of Asia Minor, is also part of the same event,  which is why in Greece, paradoxically, two separate genocides are commemorated. That aberration notwithstanding, the haphazard manner in which Assyrians were rounded up and murdered along with the Armenians attests to the genocide not being based upon nationality, but rather upon religious criteria. 


It is as a consequence of this understanding of the Genocide as being directed against the native Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire, rather than any specific nationality, that the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities in Australia are increasingly collaborating in both commemorating and lobbying for recognition of the Genocide, notably with the recent formation of the intercommunal “Joint Justice Initiative.” Yet even that conceptual framework requires review, as the Genocide narrative, as it is currently being formulated does not yet encompass all of the native Christian groups that were subject to genocide. 


The Maronite Christians of Lebanon are a case in point. Originally adherents of the monothelite sect, the Syriac speaking Maronites eventually entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Numerically significant in Lebanon and Syria, they currently form the majority of the Christians in Lebanon, where the Constitution prescribes that the President of that country must be a Maronite. In 1860, the Maronites rose up against their Druze overlords, followers of an esoteric Islamic sect with gnostic elements and the Druze in turn, massacred 20,000 Maronite Christians on Mount Lebanon, destroying 380 Christian villages and 560 churches. A further 25,000 Maronite Christians were also slaughtered in Damascus. 


The slaughter of the Catholic Maronite Christians caused France,  recalling its ancient role as protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire which was established by treaty in 1523 to intervene, landing troops in Lebanon to protect the Maronites. France also compelled the Ottomans to grant autonomy to Lebanon under a Christian governor, a precedent recalled with alarm by the Ottomans in 1878 when they were compelled by Russia to give greater autonomy to the eastern provinces of their Empire where Armenians existed in large numbers. As a result of the intervention of a World Power on behalf of the native Christians in each case, from the Ottoman point of view, the sympathies and loyalty of both the Maronites and the Armenians were suspect and they were considered as a potential fifth column in the event of a conflagration. 


That conflagration was not long in coming. The First World War saw France and Russia, protectors of the Maronites and Armenians respectively, pitted against the Ottoman Empire. An Allied naval blockade in the Eastern Mediterranean was creating great damage and upheaval to the Ottoman economy, resulting in food shortages in Syria. On Mount Lebanon, Maronite heartland, the effects of the blockade were even more deeply felt, given that the area was not particularly fertile and heavily dependent upon  food imports from the adjacent Bekaa Valley and Syria. Making the situation worse, a plague of locusts descended upon Mount Lebanon, eating the few crops that were able to grow.  


In 1914, after the storming of the Beirut granaries, the governor of Beirut was able to organise the delivery of relief food supplies. In 1915 however, the Commander for the Fourth Ottoman Army, and key member of the Young Turk triumvirate that was ruling the Ottoman Empire, Jemal Pasha, decided to restrict the delivery of food supplies to Mount Lebanon. He did so knowing full well that his decision would cause the inhabitants of the region to starve.  


The results of Jemal’s targeted starvation policy were felt almost immediately. In a letter to Mary Haskell, dated 26 May 1916, famous Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran wrote: “The famine in Mount Lebanon has been planned and instigated by the Turkish government. Already 80,000 have succumbed to starvation and thousands are dying every single day. The same process happened with the Christian Armenians and applied to the Christians in Mount Lebanon.” 


Gibran here was alluding to the fact that Jemal Pasha was in charge of overseeing the final leg of the Armenian Genocide: ensuring the death, by starvation, illness or murder of those Armenians who were able to survive the harrowing death marches across Anatolia and into Syria. Gibran also served as secretary of the Syrian–Mount Lebanon Relief Committee which ultimately raised $165,815 in two and a half years from about 15,000 Syrian subscribers in America. 


In his seminal novel Al-Raghif (The Loaf), Lebanese writer Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad described in devastating detail, the horrifying effects of the Ottoman imposed famine: 


“There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited... Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.” 



Edward Nickoley, 1917, an employee with the Syrian Protestant College, later to become the American University of Beirut, was an eyewitness to the targeted destruction by famine, of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon. Accordingly, recorded their plight in his diary: “Starving people lying about everywhere; at any time children moaning and weeping, women and children clawing over rubbish piles and ravenously eating anything that they can find. When the agonised cry of famishing people in the street becomes too bitter to bear, people get up and close the windows tight in the hope of shutting out the sound. Mere babies amuse themselves by imitating the cries that they hear in the streets or at the doors.” 

Even Turkish feminist author and Ataturk devotee Halide Edib was profoundly moved by the plight of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon writing in her memoirs: “The nights….were atrocious: You heard the whining and screaming of starved people: ‘Hungry, hungry.’”  


Professor Aaron Taylor Brand, of the American University of Beirut, believes that the Armenian Genocide also exacerbated the suffering on Mount Lebanon:  “The conditions of the refugees from the Armenian Genocide and those fleeing to the cities in search of work or food increased the incidence of epidemic disease during the period. The increase in susceptible individuals and the wet springs of 1916-1918 meant there were more mosquitoes feeding on more people, allowing the spread of malaria to reach crisis levels by 1917. The anaemia and diarrhoea of malaria, combined with malnourishment, was a bad combination, probably subtly contributing to the death tolls.” 


Around 200,000 people starved to death at a time when the population of Mount Lebanon was estimated to be 400,000 people. At 50% of the total population,  the targeted Mount Lebanon famine caused the highest fatality rate by population in World War I. Bodies were piled in the streets and people were reported to be eating street animals. Some people were even said to have resorted to cannibalism. 


Jemal Pasha was never brought to trial for his role in the Genocide. He was assassinated in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1922 by Armenians seeking revenge for his pivotal role in the genocide of the Armenians. He was never compelled to account for his decision to deliberately starve the Maronites of Mount Lebanon to death. 


The targeted starvation of the Maronite Christians further serves to reinforce the conviction that all Christians of the Ottoman Empire were considered a security risk and were thus ultimately expendable, despite any variations in the timing of method of their extirpation. Their plight must be included within the broader narrative of the Christian Genocide, if the full extent of the genocidal intent of the Young Turk regime and the effects of their policies upon their Christian subjects are to be fully comprehended. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 May 2022

Saturday, May 07, 2022



“The Cretans are vastly picturesque: great number of blacks, male and female.” 

Edward Lear 1846 


According to the British consul in Chania, Crete, writing in 1858 about British efforts to stamp out the slave trade in the Eastern Mediterranean described how “the whole black population of the isle” looked up to him “as their best friend and benefactor.” According to the research of Michael Ferguson on Enslaved and Emancipated Africans in Cretethere were so many trans-Saharan Africans living in Crete at that time, that another British consul, writing in 1885, argued that African slaves freed on the high seas would be better off housed with their compatriots already living in Chania. In this respect, Ferguson points to the account of Mary Adelaide Walker, who in her 1886 book ‘Eastern Life and Scenery’ observes that: “industrious” trans-Saharan Africans had “planted their village on the sea-shore” at the foot of the city’s fort. This village was “composed of small, square, flat roofed houses,” with a mosque at its centre. 


While the struggles of the Cretan people for independence loom large in Greek historiography, the same cannot be said about the sojourn of non-Europeans on the island. It is a little known fact that right up until 1922 and beyond there was present in Crete, a significant Greek speaking population of trans-Saharan Africans. Their presence on the island owed much to the importance of Crete as a way station for ships plying the Ottoman slave trade between Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Brought to the island as slaves, domestic servants, soldiers or wives, the Africans of Crete dislocated from their homelands, converted to the religion of their enslavers and associated with those oppressors by virtue of that religion by the Christians of the island, were caught between two worlds, belonging to neither. Ultimately, with the advent of nationalism, their continued presence on the island proved untenable and little remains today to testify to centuries of their habitation in Crete. 


There are many accounts as to the arrival of African slaves in Crete. Ferguson in particular refers to a compendium of these including an account by F W Seiber in 1817 whereby he recorded a ship arriving in Chania with “nearly fifty Negro slaves on board, who were soon landed and sold singly to Turkish inhabitants a house servants.” In his ‘Report of Egypt and Candia,” John Bowring estimated that in 1840, there were about two thousand of them. They were mostly situated in Chania, where visiting in 1864, artist and poet Edward Lear observed: “the queer village of the blacks, with houses in a cluster was pretty.” British traveller T A B Spratt also recorded seeing a “perfect little African community” at Chania. 


Although ostensibly Muslim, the African Cretans had developed a vibrant culture of their own, preserving many of their own traditions and beliefs. In particular there are in existence, Ottoman accounts such as those by writer Leyla Saz attesting to the existence of a Zar or Bori cult, involving possession by a spirit and ecstatic dancing in Crete. There are also description of African Cretans commemorating the festivals of Islamic saints in traditional African ways including dancing, the beating of drums, and cooking traditional African dishes. 


The Africans of Crete were locally known as “Halikoutes” This word, as researcher Charidimos Papadakis maintains is still heard in some parts of Crete, mainly as a pejorative term, to describe someone of ragged or slovenly appearance, as the porters, butchers and labourers of the African community were of low social and economic background and were often reduced to poverty. According to one account, the term is derived from the Arabic command “Hal il kuti”, meaning “put the box down”, a phrase commonly used among African porters, who generally spoke Arabic. 


Coexistence between the Christians of the island and the African Cretans was not harmonious, especially during the intercommunal strife on the 1890’s when the Christian Cretans sought unification with Greece. There were considered a violent and subversive element, to the extent, as Ferguson points out, that the Christians of Chania wrote to the British, in a set of demands tabled in Parliament, insisting: 

“All Africans who have taken part in the late murders, plunders… are to be exiled from the island; also those who do not possess real property of 10,000 piastres, and no more emigrants from Africa are to be admitted into the island.” 


It is fascinating that the Ottoman authorities in response, sought to focus on the “othering” of the Africans by their Christian counterparts, asserting their equality and inherent right to remain on the island. Thus, in a letter written to the British consul, the Ottomans asserted that the African Cretans were “born here and have become our fellow citizens… they possess an equal title with us to our civil rights and cannot be looked upon as other than real natives of the country.” 


The polarisation of the population of Crete into opposing Muslim and Christian factions, with the African Cretans placed by virtue of their faith with the Muslim faction meant that in the eyes of the Christian population, they were a subversive element: an obstacle to independence, an organ of the oppressors and thus had to be removed. Ferguson, in citing Papadakis’ research contained in his work “The Africans in Crete,” describes how in 1901, a Christian official took the opportunity of ordering the demolition of the African quarter of Chania while local newspapers alleged that police had found swords and other weapons while setting African Cretan homes on fire. According to Papadakis, the African Cretans demonstrated outside the local parliament against the destruction of their homes, protested to the consuls of the European powers and planned to write a letter of complaint to the Sultan. There was no intervention by any party and as a result, African Cretans continued to be targeted by the local authorities, with children being rounded up for deportation, Ferguson believes to Crete, but most likely to Asia Minor. As a result of their ill treatment, African Cretans began slowly to leave the island, many seeking work around Smyrna, where they would encounter another Christian community and similar ethno-religious tensions. 


As Muslims who had acculturated to Crete, despite their African origins, and the fact that by this stage their only language was Greek, the African Cretans were considered Turks by the Treaty of Lausanne and were thus deemed exchangeable. They were thus officially deported between 1923-1926. 

Ferguson cites the memoirs of African Cretan Mustafa Olpak, who claims that his family still existed in some state of bonded servitude to a Muslim Cretan family in 1923. On the eve of their departure from Crete, he alleges that their master sold a female member of his family to a family in Constantinople. Olpak then relates how in 1926, the family was freed and they headed to Ayvali in Asia Minor, denuded of its Christian inhabitants and resettled with Cretan Muslims. 


Papadakis in his work cites the cases of three African Cretans who remained behind after the population exchange. Salis Chelidonakis who died in 1967, was a fisherman who saved the lives of five soldiers at sea during the war, fed hungry children, one of which is a migrant to Austalia and remembers him and gave away his pension to the needy. He was the last of the African Cretans. His sister Ayesha Chelidonaki remained on Crete until the 1950s, when she migrated to Egypt. Able Nuriye Marmaraki, who worked as a nut seller in the market, was the last female African Cretan. When she died, Salis Chelidonakis performed the customary prayers at her funeral, as there was no longer an imam on Crete. Ali Koko (named thus because of his dark skin) on the other hand, worked as a dock-hand until 1926. Not wishing to be deported, he jumped off the boat and attempted to swim to land. Captured by the authorities, he was sent to Asia Minor. 


Kostis Kourelis points to other populations of Africans in Greece, including one at the Black Caves" on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens, whose population was again subject to exchange. 


In modern Turkey, African Cretans were the recipients of discrimination because of their lack of knowledge of Turkish and the colour of their skin, and popular prejudices and superstition still remain within some quarters. In Crete, the land they called home for centuries, they are largely forgotten by a narrative, which like its Turkish counterpart, has up until recently, called for complete homogeneity. 



First published in NKEE on 7 May 2022