Greece 2017. Part Six: Theologos

This is my maternal great-grandmother, Stathoula Zaharakis, of Theologos. How I wish I could have met her. Her eyes pierce my soul and her look of strength and determination inspire me.

I have written previously in this blog about my search for her and the Zaharakis family of Theologos. One of my biggest research “to do” items this summer was to visit Theologos and learn more about the family. Much to my delight, this has happened in a way that was beyond my wildest dreams.

The seeds for success began with Facebook. I had found a Zaharakis family in the U.S. with roots in Theologos. Georgia Zaharakis of Sparta actively commented on the posts, and I “friended” her. The moment we met in Sparta, there was an instant connection.

Within 48 hours of meeting face-to-face, I was driving with Georgia and her mother to Theologos to celebrate the saint day of Agia Paraskevi. To reach the village, we drove for five kilometers up a narrow one-lane road with hairpin turns until we arrived at the very top of the mountain, a breathtaking sight overlooking the village.

View from the mountain top, overlooking Theologos. July 2017

The church of Agia Paraskevi was built in the late 1800’s at the pinnacle of the mountain. It is very small but the interior is beautiful. Liturgies are chanted there only once a year for the festival of its patron saint, or at the request of a family. The original church bell hangs on a nearby tree. Its clapper is missing and to hear it ring, children hit it with pine cones.

Agia Paraskevi icon and church; church bell. Theologos, Laconia. July 2017

After the liturgy, villagers gathered for coffee and sweets outside the church. As I walked the grounds, my mind wandered back 150 years and I envisioned Stathoula also celebrating this feast day at this very place. At that moment, I felt so very close to her.

Coffee time, Agia Paraskevi Church, Theologos, July 2017

Georgia had told me that there were many members of the Zaharakis family living in Theologos. Imagine my thrill when she began introducing me to new cousins!

l-r: me, Georgia Zaharakis, Kanella Zaharaki Koutrobi, Pavlos Zaharakis

As one cousin introduced me to another, I was embraced with the warmth and affection that permeates Greek families. Georgia proposed having a Zaharakis family reunion, and all agreed to meet at the platea the following Monday evening. I arrived early to visit the cemetery and the Zaharakis gravestones. The sign indicated that the cemetery was dated 1893. It is likely that Stathoula’s parents would have been buried there, but by now, any old graves are long gone.

Cemetery, Theologos, Laconia. July 2017

The Zaharakis family reunion was a joy beyond description. Young and old arrived at the platea, chatting animatedly and excited to be together. I had printed out Family Group Sheets in Greek, and people clustered around Georgia to relate their family information. We have yet to sort out all the information, but for a family historian, this was a thrilling sight to behold.

Capturing the Zaharakis family history, Theologos, July 2017

The family told me that not only was this the first time all the Zaharakis’ met together, but it was also the very first reunion of any family held in the village! A restaurant on the platea provided endless food and drinks, and the festivities lasted into the night.

One of the tables of the Zaharakis family of Theologos, July 2017

Many Greek villages have organizations known as syllogos , which work to preserve the history and culture of the village. A new women’s syllogos for Theologos was recently formed with Georgia as the organizer and president. One of their goals is to convert an old stone schoolhouse, no longer in use, into a museum. As a descendant from this village, I joined immediately and offered to be of help to them. In this day and age, being across the ocean does not hamper collaboration!

l-r: Georgia Dounia, Georgia Zaharakis, me; Women’s Syllogos of Theologos, July 2017

Logo: Syllogos Women, Agios Ioannis Theologos, Love.

All that happened in Theologos was as a dream to me. I am now connected with the descendants of the Zaharakis family and I have many new “sisters” in the Syllogos. Online research has its place, but so many blessings come when we can visit our ancestral homeland.


Greece 2017. Part Five: Researching in Greek Cemeteries

Sparta. Siesta. Nothing to do between 3:00-6:00 p.m. in July, when the thermometer hits 40 celsius (104 fahrenheit) and every shop and business is closed. A smart traveler seeks a cool oasis in an air conditioned hotel; but a fanatic researcher will not waste three precious hours. That’s when I visited the cemeteries.

Entrance to Amykles cemetery, 2017

Greek cemeteries are fascinating to explore. In modern times, they have become memorials to the deceased. Photos, flowers, icons, candles and personal items decorate the gravestones, making each unique. They become a sanctuary of mourning for the bereaved.

The first thing a visitor notices is that all of the gravestones are constructed of white marble and sit atop the ground.

Sikaraki, Laconia. July 2017

This gravestone for Panagiotis G. Koniditsiotis in Amykles is unusual, because the marble slab on the top has been replaced with grass. It exudes an oasis-like feel under the hot July sun.

Panagiotis G. Koniditsiotis, 7-7-1938 – 16-6-2013, Amykles, Laconia, July 2017

Invariably, the headstones face east. My research indicates that this is a common Christian tradition, based on the belief that when Jesus returns it will be from the east; thus, the deceased will rise from the grave to face Him.

Lysandros K. Giannakopoulos, Died 20-3-1999; age 87. Theologos, Laconia cemetery, July 2017.

As the photo above shows, these east-facing gravestones posed a serious problem when taking photos in mid-afternoon: shadows. As the sun moved west towards the Taygetos mountains, it shone over the top of the headstones, casting silhouettes on the engravings of the marble slabs. Also, it shone directly into my eyes, making it almost impossible to see the image I was photographing. It was pure luck that I was able to get decent pictures.

Many families have purchased cemetery plots, and the gravestone becomes a memorial for the entire family. Information about parents and their children are inscribed. It is especially helpful to find a married daughter buried with her parents, as her “new” surname will be etched in the marble. When photos are included, one has a visual mini-snapshot of the family structure. In the picture below, notice that Spyridon’s middle name was “Char” (Charalambos),  the name of his father. This takes the researcher back one more generation.

Tsakonas family grave, Agios Ioannis, Sparta. July 2017. Spyridon Char. Tsakonas, born 1884, died 26-2-1965; Sarantos Sp. Tsakonas, born 1934, died 10-10-1943; Aggeliki Sp. Tsakona, born 1907; died 28-7-1995; Lygeri Tsakona Skouli, born 11-14-1937, died 6-10-2010.

The older gravestones are especially poignant. Some are in disrepair and have suffered neglect. Others are empty holes but the names are still inscribed on crosses–an eerie reminder of a Greek custom described below. This grave in Sikaraki, Laconia, especially touched my heart.

Georgia A. Chelioti, Sikaraki, Laconia, July 2017

Georgia A. Chelioti died 21-11-89 , age 85, Christian martyr of Jehovah. The inscription is taken from the New Testament, John 6:40:  And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life and I will raise him up at the last day.

Georgia A. Chelioti, Sikaraki, Laconia, July 2017

An empty hole is indicative of a long-standing custom in Greece to bury a person for only 3–5 years, after which the remains are exhumed, the bones are cleaned, and then placed in an ossuary box. This is a sacred religious ritual, performed by a priest and attended by family. The ossuary box is placed in a building on the cemetery grounds known as an osteofylakeion. The candles, photos and other memorabilia that had been on the gravestone are transferred to the ossuary box kept in the building. I was hesitant at first to step into an osteofylakeion. I thought I would feel creepy; but to my surprise, I felt like I was standing on holy ground.

Osteofylakeion building, Sikaraki cemetery, July 2017

Interior of osteofylakeion building, Sikaraki cemetery, July 2017

While exploring cemeteries in Agios Ioannis (Sparta), Amykles, Sikaraki, Mystras and Theologos, I took photos of gravestones inscribed with surnames that appear on my family tree. Many tombstones provided information that I had not found in documents procured to date. If I saw that “my people” were memorialized with photos, I felt a surprising and joyful sense of kinship. As I walked the narrow paths separating the gravestones, a sense of peace filled me. Many of these people were related by blood, by marriage, or by collateral relationships such as in-laws or godparents. Now they rested together, facing east, awaiting the resurrection promised them by their Orthodox faith.

Greece 2017. Part Four: Sparta – Ancient & Modern

Dimos Sparta

Spending three full weeks in Sparta presented numerous opportunities to explore and savor this region of my heritage. In both ancient and modern times, Sparta has been integral to the history of the Peloponnese, although its role as the major political and cultural center has fluctuated.

My home base was the Menelaion Hotel, situated on the main street (Konstantinou Palaiologou) in the center of town. Contemporary Sparta is vibrant and engaging. During my three-week stay, everything I needed was easily accessible.

Fresh food and baked goods enticed me and kept me fed daily, July 2017


My favorite sign!

One of my the most beautiful stores in Sparta is owned by my cousin, Dimitris Papagiannakos. He keeps it stocked with items both beautiful and practical. I love to visit with him and share news of our families. I never leave without buying lovely treasures that delight my family.

Papagiannakos Home Goods Store, Sparta. Dimitris Papagiannakos and Carol Kostakos Petranek, July 2017

Like much in Sparta, the buildings are a mix of old and new. The main street is wide and lined with towering palm trees. Despite the parking spaces on both sides and in the center, people double and triple park, making it difficult to navigate. On the side streets, cars are parked on the sidewalk with all four wheels off the road. If they can do it, so can I, but…I left two wheels on the road because I panicked at trying to maneuver the entire car onto the sidewalk. I awoke the last morning in the city to find a parking ticket on the windshield. I was fined 40 euros for blocking traffic. Even worse, the police removed the license tags from the front and back of my rental car, thus ensuring that any violator pays the fine!

Sparta, July 2017

The Dimarheion, or Town Hall, and its platea is the hub of the city. By day or by night, people congregate at outdoor tables to dine, visit, listen to concerts and even watch soccer matches. With Greek night life in full swing at 9:00, where else would you find a concert that begins at 10:00 p.m.? I love the sociality of the city; you don’t ever have to be alone!

Dimarheion, July 2017

Life at 10:00 p.m. – a concert at the platea; men watching soccer game; others chatting in a cafe

The Ancient Sparta archaeological site is within walking distance at the edge of the city. On the way, I passed the imposing statue of Leonidas, king of the city-state of Sparta from 490 to 480 B.C.; immortalized when he and his 300 soldiers were killed by the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae.

King Leonidas and me! July 2017

I visited the ruins in the middle of the afternoon–3:00–when locals were sleeping and other tourists were smart enough to rest in their air conditioned hotels.

As I walked the paths around the ruins, the modern city was visible; a constant reminder of old and new.

Sparta, old and new, July 2017

I tried to imagine life in the old city. Peoples’ everyday lives were very different from ours in substance, but not in human experience: birthing, growing, learning, loving, laughing, mourning, dying–are we not all the same?

History captured in stone, July 2017

Panorama, July 2017

Walkways and structures, July 2017

If these edifices could talk…. July 2017


Leaving Sparta was hard. What I miss:

  • Family
  • Friends who are like family
  • Dry air
  • Plateas
  • Sidewalk dining and outdoor living
  • Fresh squeezed orange juice
  • Fresh veggies from my cousins’ gardens
  • History
  • Churches everywhere
  • Taygetos mountains
  • 10:00 pm concerts on the platea
  • Philoxenia

What I do not miss:

  • No traffic lights
  • Driving in the city
  • Parking on the sidewalk
  • Motorcyclists
  • Limited store hours
  • Graffiti
  • Disrepair

Till next time!!❤


Greece 2017. Part Three: Corinth

I have wandered along many paths of my ancestral villages, but in Corinth I walked where the Apostle Paul walked. Standing on holy ground was a sacred experience which renewed my connection to my faith and to the Lord.

Ancient Corinth, Temple of Apollo

After he preached to the Athenians on Mars Hill, Paul continued his ministry in Corinth where “many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.” Paul’s first mission in Corinth lasted 18 months, A.D. 50-52 (Acts 18:11).  As he walked the narrow stone paths, he established the church of Christ and preached His gospel.

Stone inscribed with the words of Paul ( 2 Corinthians 4:17).

Spot where Paul was put on trial before the proconsul Gallio in AD 51. The case was dismissed and Paul was released (Acts 18:12-17).

Ancient Corinth was one of the largest and most important cities of Greece, with a population of 90,000 in 400 BC. Both destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans, it became the provincial capital of Hellas with a mixed population of Romans, Greeks and Jews. Situated halfway between Sparta and Athens on the Isthmus of the Peloponnese, it was the crossroads between northern and southern Greece. In addition, its two ports–west on the Corinthian Gulf and east on the Saronic Gulf—positioned it as the major trade route between Asia and western Europe.

The archaeological sketch below (photo taken at the site) depicts the magnitude of the ancient city.

The ancient city of Corinth

I had to stretch my imagination to visualize the city portrayed above, with what remains today.

The Museum was filled with artifacts excavated from the site. They were meticulously preserved and displayed in a manner befitting the glory of the ancient city.

Museum interior at Corinth

Every display case was a “feast for the eyes” and a delight to the historian. These are just a few of the photos I took.

Museum artifacts

Museum cabinet

The life-size statuary both inside and outside the Museum were astounding to see. The marble carvings remained remarkably pristine throughout the centuries.

Statuary, interior

Statuary, exterior

Immersing myself in the site of Corinth reminded me that one can be a tourist, or one can be a traveler (see the difference). I prefer the latter.

Greece 2017. Part Two: Athens & The War Museum

No matter how many times I come to Athens, I am enthralled with the city–its beauty, vibrancy, and timelessness. Athens is the epitome of classicism and the locus of history. It pulsates with an energy that is thrilling and contagious. No one leaves without being changed.

Ruins dot the neighborhoods and surprise you at every turn. The city is built upon layers of antiquity. Excavations for renovations or new buildings provide continuing sources of artifacts. When I asked a friend why the smaller pieces are not safely placed in museums, she commented that there are too many archaeological relics everywhere to preserve; thus, many are left exposed and unattended.

Ruins in an Athens residential neighborhood

The Acropolis towers over Athens, a constant reminder of where you are and with whom you are mingling.  Although Greeks can be divisive in their politics, they are united in their pride. Even the unschooled know their country’s history and innumerable contributions to democracy, literature, art and science.

Acropolis, Athens

Nestled under the Acropolis, both the Plaka and Monastiraki Square are hubs of vendors, craftspeople, shops and cafes. There is a surprise at every turn of the winding streets. From dawn to midnight, natives and tourists mingle to barter over trinkets, food, works of art; and to eat and drink in innumerable venues.

The Plaka, Athens

Knowing my love of history, my friend, Giannis, wanted me to experience the past from a different perspective. He took me to the War Museum of Athens, established in 1964 to honor those who fought for freedom from ancient times to post World War II. He promised that I would learn much about history; and, although “war is not my thing,” he was right. The past opened before me in manner unparalleled. Photos, paintings, statues and exhibits portrayed a country under continuous invasion and occupation, with everyday people struggling to maintain their lives and safeguard their families. I have never seen so many guns, rifles, swords, and other tools of destruction in one place!

After I recovered from the shock of seeing thousands of weapons, I focused on the displays in each room. Many of us had ancestors who fought during the Revolution of 1821. Some received Aristeia awards which are earned by soldiers for exemplary actions in battle. Aristeia comes from the word άριστος (aristos) which is defined as “excellent.” In Greek warfare, an aristeia (αριστείο) is an award of great prestige and distinction. I was thrilled to see these medals on display.

Awards: (left) Aristeia for the Revolution of 1821; (right) 1843 Constitution

One family story that I am trying to verify is a link between my Papagiannakos and the Maltsiniotis families. In 1887, the Maltsiniotis brothers established an armaments company which was later merged into Pyrkal, one of the oldest defense companies in Greece. Imagine my shock when Giannis pointed out these displays that were clearly marked with the Maltsiniotis name!

Maltsiniotis armaments

One photograph, thankfully unrelated to war, caught my feminist attention. In 1952, shortly after the end of the Greek Civil War (1949), women gained the right to vote. This picture captured that historic moment, and I felt the triumph of the “silent majority” who were silent no longer.

Women voting for the first time in 1952

When men left to fight, women emerged as fierce protectors of the homeland. I am enthralled with the story behind the painting of this strong Maniate woman, holding a scythe in her right hand. During the 1821 Revolution, there was an invasion in Diro, Mani (in the southern Peloponnese). The men were gone, fighting in the battle of Verga, and the women and children were left to tend the fields. When 1,500 Ottoman soldiers attempted to conquer Diro, church bells rang to rally the citizens. Women ran from their fields with scythes in hands. They fought off the invaders and forced them to retreat back to the sea, thus stopping the armies of Ibrahim and preventing an invasion. I love how this woman’s eyes shine with fervor and determination. No one was going to take her land!

Woman of Mani, 1821 Revolution

This is the plaque further describing this amazing story of heroism.

Plaque describing the Maniate women halting the invasion of Ibrahim, June 1826

As I walked each room of the War Museum and studied the myriad of displays, I was reminded that this is but one small country which has been through countless wars and invasions. Hundreds of photographs and paintings depict faces haunted and places destroyed. How senseless war is!

Every visit to Athens is a new lesson in history and culture. I am ever grateful to friends and family who ensure that I will leave with a renewed appreciation and understanding of my ancestral land.