Treasures in the Benaki Museum

After four trips to Greece in the past five years, I finally made it to the Benaki Museum!  There are actually several buildings scattered throughout Athens, including museums of modern art, Islamic art, and toys. I visited the “main” building, which houses artifacts representative of Greek culture. It totally exceeded my expectations.

Entry of the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture

I spent five happy hours gazing, reading and learning about the collections spanning from the Neolithic period (6500) to the 1821 War of Independence. Although some people may tire of looking at pottery, jewelry and items unearthed during archaeological digs in Greece, I don’t. Each shard, figurine, jewel or stone is unique and fascinating. Fashioned by hands of the past, they depict a world unknown to me. They expand my imagination and add to my collective earth-life experience; for when I exit the building, I know a little more than when I arrived.

I hope that these photos and descriptive captions will help you envision the world of your Hellenic ancestors, whether they lived 3,000 or 300 years ago. If you click on the photos, they will expand in another window.

Artifacts from the Neolithic period, 6500.

Vases, 709 BC

Faience necklace beads and pottery, 1400 BC. (faience is glazed ceramic ware, in particular decorated tin-glazed earthenware)

Items from 9th century BC; in the front are gold hair rings, used to tame ringlets of hair

Figures on horses, 600 BC

Terracotta female, most likely a priestess, holding a lyre. 6th century BC

Tiny alabaster painted vases, 650 BC

Marble grave stele (monument or marker), mid-4th century BC

Terracotta female deities, 450 BC

Silver luxurious vessels, 6th-7th century

Grave markers found at Thebes which marked the location of graves, 3rd century BC

Inscribed grave stele of a farewell scene, 14 AD

Mosaic of Christ and Mary from Hagia Sofia Church, Constantinople, dated 867

Icons created on the island of Crete, 14th century

Costumes from various Greek islands

Costumes from various Greek islands

Pottery dishes, various dates

Carved wood loom from Crete, early 19th century

Reception hall from mansion on Hydra, 1800

Greek Orthodox Church censors and iconostasis, 1830

1821 War of Independence weapons and artifacts

The liberation of Greece, 32 lithographs, post-1821

Costume of an urban Greek woman and Mavromichalis, a leader of the people of Mani in the early 19th century

The core collection of the Benaki Museum comes from the holdings of  Antonios Benakis (1873-1954) a member of one of the leading families in Greece. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt  and eventually settled in Athens in 1926. His lifetime of acquisitions has educated and enlightened thousand of people. I am grateful for the time I had to explore this fascinating museum.


Papou was Robbed!

My friend Debbie, who reads old Greek newspapers as part of her research strategy, recently sent me a gem. As she was looking at a New York City Greek-American newspaper from 1917, an article mentioning Papagiannakos from Hoboken caught her eye. Incredibly, she remembered this was my grandfather’s surname, and she sent me the following newspaper page with this message:  “didn’t know if you would need this, but maybe?”

September 22, 1917; Ethniko Kirika

Maybe? Good heavens, YES! This is about my maternal grandfather, Ilias Papagiannakos.

News clipping about Ilias Papagiannakos, September 19, 1917, Ethniko Kirika

The article states that because he did not trust banks, he hid his money in an old shoe which was kept in the back of his clothes closet. A thief stole the fruits of eight years’ hard work and sacrifice, and now the money was gone.

The translation reads:

(Breaking News)
Hoboken, NJ. 19 September [1917]. The victim was a man who does not trust banks and is the owner of a restaurant, Ilias Papagiannakos from Agios Ioannis of Sparta. Mr. Papagiannakos had gathered his savings and stuffed and saved them in an old shoe in the back of a closet in a box in his room.  Two days ago, his wife went out to buy some household things, but unknown people got inside in his room and took his valuable but useless shoe which held all his savings of eight years hard work. The money was $900 in cash and jewelry valued at $300. Mr. Papagiannakos called the police about this action. He supposed that the burglar was known because he knew without difficulty where to find the very well hidden shoe.

My first reaction was shock, then sadness. An inflation calculator estimates that in today’s dollars, the sum of my grandfather’s loss would be $25,502.48, a significant amount of money! Ilias immigrated at age 15-17 under an alias to avoid conscription into the Greek army. He had no money and worked hard to accumulate enough funds to purchase a small restaurant in Hoboken. To save $1200 after eight years’ labor was quite a feat.

At first I wondered why my mother (Catherine) and her sister (Bertha) never told me this story; then I realized that they may not have ever known this happened. My mother, the oldest living child, was 6 months old in September 1917. When my grandmother went shopping on the day of the robbery, she would have taken my infamt mother with her. Many years later when my mother was an adult, they may have forgotten or chosen not to mention this unfortunate event.

There are many questions that will forever remain unanswered. Who could possibly have known where my grandparents stashed their money? If it was someone close to them, how could he/she have perpetrated such a breach of trust? How did my grandparents cope with the loss of their savings? My grandmother had $300 worth of jewelry — that is significant for immigrants! Were they wedding gifts?

I am so grateful to Debbie for finding and sending this article, which gives me insight into a difficult event in the lives of my grandparents. It is said that we can gain strength from learning how our ancestors met and overcame challenges. Knowing that yiayia and papou weathered this setback and continued on to financial freedom is encouraging and inspiring to me.

(My appreciation to Giannis Michalakakos for translating the news article)

Πανηγύρι (Panegyri) – It’s Time for Village Festivals

Music, dancing, food and friends–the perfect combination for a festive summer evening. This is panegyri  time and posters announcing village festivals are found everywhere.

Agios Ioannis, July 14, 2018

Each village has a church, and each church is named after a saint. Thus, each village holds its panegyri at the time of the church saint’s nameday or, if the nameday falls during a colder month, the festival is held in spring or summer. I attended panegyris in Amykles, Theologos and Agios Ioannis–three ancestral villages.

The photos and videos below depict the pure enjoyment of these festivities.


This is my “home village” — birthplace of three of my grandparents: Andreas  Kostakos, Hariklia Aridas, and Ilias Papagiannakos. I attended its panegyri with my cousins, Eleni and Panorea Kostakos. Eleni was anxious to arrive early as she was concerned that we would not get a table. When we walked into the platea (town square) at 8:00, I thought her worries were not valid as the area was empty. That is, until I saw that people had “reserved” their places by scrawling their names across the paper tablecloths!

The Georgiades family has marked its spot!

Eleni (left) and Panorea Kostakos are holding our table; I wrote our surname on the cloth

Food vendors worked throughout the evening. The tantalizing smell of souvlaki, roasted corn, smoked ham and Greek desserts enticed long lines of hungry partygoers.

Souvlaki, the staple of Spartan diets

Roasted and smoked ham

Panorea in the dessert line

Live music, singers and dancing brought villagers together to celebrate their heritage and their village.

Traditional Greek music enhances the festivities

And of course, there is dancing!

The platea quickly filled to capacity as families and friends table-hopped. The decibel level of voice and music increased significantly as the night progressed.

The platea is filled


This is the village of my great-grandmother, Stathoula Zaharakis, daughter of Dimitrios Zaharakis of Theologos and Giannoula Zarafonitis of Amykles. Situated 6 km straight up a mountain, it is quaint and beautiful.

Theologos nestled in the mountains

Me, under the sprawling tree of the Theologos platea.

Last year, my cousin, Georgia Zaharakis, organized a Women’s Syllogos of Theologos to preserve and maintain the culture and heritage of the village and I joined their sisterhood. On July 8, the syllogos held a panegyri.  I offered to help and was given the job of working with the tech crew. Being part of this was great fun, even though I scrambled to keep up with instructions given in rapid-fire Greek.

The technical crew, going over last minute details: l-r: Vassilis, Dimitra, Georgia.

The theme was centered on the grain harvest and making of bread. Video, literary readings and bread-making demonstrations brought the “feast of wheat” to life.

Village women demonstrate bread making

Over 300 people attended; the platea filled throughout the night

Women in traditional costumes, led by Vassilis Andronis, performed dances from all over the country.

And of course, the entire village also joined in!

The news media picked up this story; video and photos can be found here.


The ancient and historic village of Amykles was the home of my great-grandmother, Giannoula Zarafonitis. I visited Amykles early in my trip and wrote a post here. The syllogos of Amykles held a festival on June 3 to raise money to help the poor.

Invitation to Amykles festival, June 3, 2018

Under the shadow of the church, people congregated. A choir sang, and costumed men and women danced.

Amykles Panegyri

Amykles choir

Men and women engage in traditional dance

These panegyris are an important part of the social fabric of Greece. Villagers are extremely proud of their Laconian heritage and the traditions of their village. As I joined these festivals, I remembered that I was participating in the same rituals as my grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing so is one of the joys of “going home.”




Six Dots to Marriage

Do you have a family tree that looks like this?

If you were in Greece and planning to marry a person who had the same last name and  who was from the same village, this diagram might be on your marriage license. It represents the abbreviated pedigree charts of the engaged couple and would indicate whether their marriage could be performed by the Orthodox Church.

Marriages are not permitted between people who are closer than  six dots to each other (approximately third cousins). To simplify understanding the relationship, the village priest could create this chart which would show the couple’s connection to each other, back to their common ancestor.

This is how we would read the chart:  count the number of dots between the groom and the bride, including their common ancestor. If the groom was the second generation dot and the bride was the second generation dot, the 5-dot connection meant that no marriage could occur.

If the groom was the second generation dot and the bride was the third generation dot, a marriage could occur because the couple has a 6-dot connection.

This is the document which revealed this interesting and important rule.

Sparta Marriage Record #199, year 1930

In this letter requesting permission for marriage, the bride, Anastasia, is a 4th generation dot (left side) and the groom, Vaselios, is a 3rd generation dot (right side). Counting up the triangle to the common ancestor and down, there is a 7 dot connection. This meets the minimum of 6 and the marriage can be performed.

I love that the priest put an arched row of tiny dots to ensure that the chart could not be misread. Documents like this are a reason why I love digging into old records!


Arxontiko Taygeti: A Haven and A Cousin

Some time ago, I had identified one of my paternal great-grandfathers as Panagiotis Lerikos of Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Recently, I found his marriage record and discovered his wife’s name–Eleni Dimitrakakis of Mystras. That piece of genealogical information has turned a friendship into a “cousinship.”

Joanne Dimis-Dimitrakakis and I met virtually on Facebook as we were each researching our family history. We met in person in July 2016, when she invited me to her guest house, Arxontiko Taygeti, during my stay in Sparta. It had just been completely renovated and opened for visitors.

Arxontiko Guest House

A beautiful retreat from the heat and noise of Sparta, Arxontiko is situated near the top of the Taygetos mountains overlooking the city of Mystras.

 On the road to Arxontiko overlooking Mystras

Arxontiko was originally built by Joanne’s great-grandfather (and most likely one of my relatives), Kyriakos Dimitrakakis in the mid-1800’s. Situated in the mountain village of Taygeti, the view from several balconies overlooks the Byzantine castle of Mystras and the entire valley of Evrotas.

The Byzantine Castle of Mystras as seen from the balcony of Arxontiko

Although Joanne and I visit frequently in Mystras, I love to be in her guest house. It is beautifully decorated and boasts every modern convenience, including fast wifi (sometimes hard to access in Sparta).The architectural details make each apartment cozy and inviting.

Cozy and lovely!

Joanne welcomes visitors from all over the world who enjoy the hiking, the fresh (and cool!) mountain air, the lovely home and her warm and joyful hospitality. “An amazing guest house with exceptional views, warm hospitality and an outstanding hostess,” recently commented a guest.  So true!

Truly a “warm” welcome!

This evening, Joanne and I met in Arxontiko to have dinner and discuss our Dimitrakakis family connection. Over time, I had collected documents from Mystras and its surrounding small villages, and shared them with her. In turn, she gave me a book written about the families of Taygeti (formerly known as Barsinikos). She explained that Barsinikos was the Ottoman name for the village near the top of the  mountains, and in 1955, the Greek government ordered that Turkish village names be abolished and renamed. Thus, Taygeti was established.

The Dimitrakakis connection with Joanne reinforces my almost insatiable desire to gather documentation, books, and historical records about the villages immediately surrounding Sparta–and not just my ancestral towns. People from neighboring settlements married, and you never know who will be your next new cousin!