Beyond the Basics: Aristeia Awards, 1821 Revolution

March 25 is a day of celebration and pride for Hellenes throughout the world, as we celebrate the commencement of the War of Independence from 400 hundred years of Ottoman rule. Men throughout Greece banded as brothers to battle for the freedom of their homeland. Those who fought with exemplary actions and bravery were awarded an aristeia (αριστείο). The word άριστος (aristos) means excellence; and the award is one of great prestige and distinction.* Men who received an aristeia displayed exceptional bravery in battle and were considered heroes.

There are three levels of Aristeia awards: silver, iron, and bronze. These are on display at the War Museum in Athens, which I visited in 2017 with my friend and guide, Giannis Mihalakakos. (Take a virtual tour of the museum here.)

War of Independence Awards, display of Aristeia awards

Many fighters of the Revolution received aristeia awards from the Government of Greece. Among them are members of my extended family. In a previous post, I wrote about Ioannis Zaharakis, born circa 1798 in Theologos, who received an Aristeia for his service. I have since learned of others, and on this commemorative day, I recognize these men of my family with honor and pride:

  • Mihail Aridakos / Aridas of Agios Ioannis
  • Efstratios and Dimitrios Iliopoulos of Agios Ioannis
  • Christos Kostakos of Anavryti
  • Georgios Christakos of Agios Ioannis
  • Christos Lerikos of Agios Ioannis
  • Dimitrios, Vasileios and Nikolaos Maltziniotis of Agios Ioannis
  • Kalogeros Papagiannakos of Agios Ioannis
  • Ioannis Zaharakis of Sellasia/Theologos
  • Dimitrios, Ioannis and Georgios Zarafonitis of Sklavohori

This image shows recipients Kalogeros Papagiannakos (line 42) and Georgios Christakos (line 51) of Agios Ioannis who received the Iron Medal.

Aristeia Awards, Line 42: Kalogeros Pappagiannakis; Line 51: Georgios Christakos, both of Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Research by Konstandinos Koutsodontis, 2020

The General State Archives of Greece is the repository for Aristeia Records. It has thousands of lists, each filled with thousands of names. There are files online at the GAK , but working through them to locate villages and names is beyond my ability. Researching in this collection is best left to Greek genealogy professionals. Those who have examined these archives for me are: Gregory Kontos of, Konstandinos Koutsodontis of Greek Genealogist, and Giannis Mihalakakos of Maniatika. I am grateful to each of them, my colleagues and friends. 🙂

Next year on March 25, 2021, and throughout the year, the 200th anniversary of the Revolution will be celebrated. Konstandinos, Gregory and Giannis will be writing about the men who freed Greece from captivity. Use their resources to find the heroes in your family, and contact them for research help. Gregory Kontos’ “Tracing Freedom: 1821” collection has just launched with searchable lists of captives from Lakonia.

Your ancestors fought and secured the freedom of Greece, thus securing a sovereign nation for the birth of your family. They deserve to be recognized and honored.

*A Hellenic historian shared the following: Aristeia is an ancient Greek word meaning “prize for excellence, prowess, the best and the bravest.”

Kosta’s Map

I love speaking with the villagers in Sparta. They know their land with a level of intimacy that astonishes me:  every hiding place in the Taygetos mountains, every olive tree on their land, every goat trail that leads to an abandoned kalivia (shepherd’s hut), and the origins of every family in the village. Last summer, simply by hearing the surname, Christos told me that my great-grandfather, Andreas Kostakos, was from the now-abandoned village of Perganteika (read that post here).

The Kostakos family origins have mystified me for years and have morphed into my never-ending quest. The -akos suffix designates the Mani region, but I can’t find the family in any records outside of the Sparta area before 1844. The reason? Greece became an independent country on February 3,1830, after 400 years of Ottoman rule. It took time for the new government to begin record keeping; not much exists prior to 1840. Thus, all Greeks have the proverbial brick-wall during this timeframe.

Christos’ insistence that the Kostakos family was first in Perganteika, then in Anavryti, then in Agios Ioannis after the War of Independence (about 1835-40) has not satisfied my desire for proof. (An elusive commodity in Greek research). So, I pester anyone whom I meet with many questions. In return, I get bits and pieces, and sometimes a treasure like the one below (click on image to enlarge it).

Last July at the home of Peter Adamis in Pellana, I received an exensive history-geography lesson from Peter’s friend, Kosta. A native of the area and a renowned stone and marble mason, Kosta’s artisan work is found in government buildings, churches and homes throughout Lakonia. He has a comprehensive knowledge of the region and its people. And he shared much with me.

Kosta explained what I heard many times:  people fled to the towering Taygetos mountains to escape Ottoman dominion; after 1830 they started their descent into the valleys to begin a life of freedom. Kosta patiently and carefully sketched the map above to depict “layers of villages,” beginning at the top of the Taygetos range and descending into the plains of Sparta. I could now plainly see how the villages were staggered and, at times, stacked upon each other. As his pen moved down the page, I could almost visualize people moving down, incrementally, from the peaks. It was a logical movement of humanity and a powerful moment of clarity.

Kosta’s stories mesmerized me. These people–my people–were resilient, tough, inventive, smart, and scrappy survivors. The more I hear about village life in the 1800’s, the more I want to learn. I love Kosta’s map. It has not solved the Kostakos origin mystery, but it has enhanced my understanding. My respect for my ancestors grows with each fact I learn, and I am proud to be their descendant.

Papou’s “Pistopoitiko”

A pistopoitiko (πιστοποιητικό) is a document issued by an authorized agent attesting to the proof of a fact. In Greece, these are predominantly used to certify birth (πιστοποιητικό γεννήσεως), marriage ( πιστοποιητικό γάμου) or death (πιστοποιητικό θανάτου). Thus, it is likely that a genealogist will encounter this document at some point in the research process.

For anyone seeking Greek citizenship, the pistopoitiko of birth for a parent or grandparent is mandatory. It certifies that the ancestor is registered as a citizen in Greece and proves the applicant’s Greek heritage. Knowing that it is an important genealogical record and could be of future value to my family, I went to the KEP (Citizen’s Service Center) in Sparta to obtain a pistopoitiko for my paternal grandfather, John Andrew Kostakos (Ioannis Andreas Kostakos – Ιωάννης Ανδρέας Κωστάκος).

KEP Office, Sparta, Greece

Before a pistopoitiko of birth can be issued, a copy of the Male Register (Μιτρώοv Αρρένον ) listing the ancestor must be procured. These can usually be found at a regional office of the General State Archives of Greece. If the Archive office does not have the Male Register for your ancestor’s village, it will be at the Mayor’s office (Dimarheion), the Civil Registry Office (Lixarheion) or the KEP.

One of the first documents I obtained in Greece years ago was the Mitroo Arrenon for my papou Kostakos. He was born in 1879 in Agios Ioannis, and his name is on line 6 below.

Mitroon Arrenon, village of Agios Ioannis, year 1879

I brought a copy of this to Greece with me, and I’m glad I did. It made the process very easy because I did not have to locate it at the Archives or the KEP office.

At the KEP, the first question asked was:  “for what purpose do you need a pistopoitiko?” I replied “for Greek citizenship,” because I knew that was an acceptable response whereas “genealogical research” may not be. I was then asked the name, birth year and village of my grandfather so that a search for his Male Register could commence. This is when I took out the copy and handed it to the clerk. She asked if I obtained the copy from the KEP, and I said no, that it was from the Archive office. She examined it carefully and looked at me several times; I wondered if it was an acceptable copy. Without a word, she turned to her computer and began typing. This is what she handed me:

Pistopoitiko of Birth, John Andrew Kostakos. Obtained at the Sparta KEP office, July 2019.

Certification that:  Kostakos, Ioannis of Andreas is written in the Mitroo Arrenon of the village of Agios Ioannnis of the Municipality of Mystra of the Dimos Sparta, Nomos Lakonias, with the birth year of 1879 and serial number 6. He was born in Agios Ioannis and is of Greek nationality by birth. His name was deleted from the Mitroo Arrenon with A.N. 10393/9-11-1982. This pistopoitiko is issued for legal use. The document is signed by an official, and also by the mayor, Kyriakos D. Diamantakos.

Being in Sparta, having the Mitroon Arrenon, and going in person to the KEP made the acquisition of this document an easy process. From a remote location, one could obtain the Mitroo through the regional archive, then contact the KEP office in the area of one’s ancestral village, send the Mitroo, and request a pistopoitiko. Alternatively, the entire process of obtaining both the Mitroo and the pistopoitiko can be done solely through the KEP. The issue is always, will the KEP office respond in a timely manner.

My recommendation is:  if you will be in Greece and you want a pistopoitiko of birth, marriage, or death, plan time in your visit to obtain this in person. Having such a document in your possession may someday be important to you or a member of your family. I am thrilled to have this certification of birth for my papou.

John Andrew Kostakos; my grandfather’s photo from his naturalization papers, 1931



Greece 2019 – Cooking with Eleni

Every summer, I look forward to a cooking lesson with my cousin, Eleni Kostakos. Last year, we made κεφτέδες (keftedes, meatballs). This year, δολμάδες (dolmades, stuffed grape leaves) were on the menu. A google search will bring up dozens of recipes, but none are as good as Eleni’s.

Her grape leaves come from her brother’s vines and are picked when young and tender. She freezes them with no loss of flavor. Fresh, even frozen, leaves are infinitely better than the brined and salted ones which come in jars; but since I have to use jarred leaves, Eleni recommends boiling them to remove the salt and vinegar.

Frozen grape leaves, thawing at room temperature

Our first task is to cover the table with a laminated brown paper, which absorbs fluids and drips. Next, the meat mixture is prepared.

1 kilo (2 pounds) ground beef
2 very large onions (Eleni used red onions)
3 eggs
1 can tomato paste (6 oz)
1 cup rice, rinsed
salt, pepper (no measurements)
dry mint (a handful, rubbed)
about 1/3-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
fresh mint leaves

Fresh mint dot the grape leaves

1. Soak fresh mint in water.
2. Begin to separate grape leaves. Put a layer in the bottom of a casserole, add a few fresh mint leaves, then another layer of grape leaves and mint.
3. Put ground beef in large bowl.
4. Finely chop onions in a food processor. There should be absolutely no chunks! Add to meat along with tomato paste, eggs, oil, salt, pepper, dry mint and rice.
5. Mix, mix, mix by hand until everything is smooth and shiny. The oil acts like glue to hold the ingredients together. DO NOT use bread crumbs or other fillers.

Eleni measures the rice. Note the bowl on the left with meat ingredients, ready to be hand mixed.

When the meat is ready, the grape leaves are stuffed. This is a tricky process. When Eleni and her husband were owners of a taverna, her dolmades had to be picture-perfect. She showed me her method of folding the grape leaves around the meat and tucking the ends of the vines inside so there is an exact mitered angle. I tried and failed. So we did it the easy way–by putting the meat inside the leaves, folding in both ends, and rolling. I learned that the meat is put on the bottom side of the grape leaves (where you see the veins), so that the shiny and smooth side is visible after rolling.

Eleni rolls the dolmades. You can see that this “easy” method does not yield mitered ends.

My handiwork!

The rolled dolmades are carefully placed in the pot on top of the mint and vine leaves. Boiled water is poured over them, the pot is covered, and the dolmades simmer for one hour. If they start to open, put a plate over them. After one hour, drain the liquid from the pot and reserve.

Simmering on the stove

Now comes the lemon-egg sauce — the final touch that gives that unique flavor. Use four eggs and the strained juice of two large lemons. Beat the eggs at least five minutes until they are smooth and creamy. Add the lemon juice one Tablespoon at a time. Finally add about 1/2 cup hot liquid which had been drained from the pot. Pour the lemon-egg mixture over the dolmades and heat thoroughly. Don’t boil or the egg will curdle!

Lemon-egg sauce is added to the pot

Dolmades can be kept in the refrigerator for one week, and can be successfully frozen. Make a batch and enjoy with traditional Greek salad, olives, feta cheese and crusty bread. You will feel like you are in Sparta!

A perfect meal!

And next summer’s lesson? Γεμιστά, stuffed peppers and tomatoes ❤

Starting Anew: A New Citizen in a New Land

Becoming a citizen of a new country is an emotional and life-altering event. I saw this first hand on September 17, 2018 when I worked as a volunteer at a Naturalization Ceremony held at the National Archives in Washington. Thirty one new citizens from twenty-five countries renounced allegiance to their former homelands and pledged allegiance to the United States.

A new US citizen reviews the Oath of Allegiance she will recite

Prior to the ceremony, candidates met with officials of USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) to complete final paperwork and receive instructions on caring for their new Naturalization Certificate.

As we walked from the waiting room to the Archives Rotunda,  I sensed their anticipation as the end of a long process had finally arrived. I wondered what they were thinking–their thoughts for a new future here, their memories of their homeland and those left behind?

The Rotunda is ahead, and the end is near

The impressive Rotunda, home to our Charters of Freedom

Archivist David Ferreio and former ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, greet the new citizens

Throughout this ceremony, I kept thinking of my grandfather, John Andrew Kostakos, and many others in my family who strode the path of citizenship. Although 84 years has passed since my grandfather took the Oath of Allegiance, I imagine that his feelings and experiences were similar to these new citizens. I know my grandfather took great pride in his citizenship. He rose from being a peasant orphan to becoming a restauranteur, real estate owner, and successful businessman.

John Andrew Kostakos, Declaration of Intention, 1931

John Andrew Kostakos, Petition for Citizenship 1933

John Andrew Kostakos, Certificate of Arrival, 1930


John Andrew Kostakos, Oath of Allegiance, 1934

John Andrew Kostakos, proud citizen of the USA

We who are native citizens simply cannot comprehend the impact of this experience and all that preceded it:  saying goodbye to loved ones; leaving the village (often for the first time) and traveling to a port (by walking? donkey ride?); perhaps working for a few months at the port city to obtain funds for the journey and to have enough money to enter the U.S. (at least $50); the boat ride across the Atlantic; the Ellis Island arrival experience; connecting with friends and/or family in the U.S., finding work; deciding to become a citizen; going through the vigorous process of paperwork and exams; and finally raising the right hand to swear allegiance to a new land.

Whether then or now, the process requires grit and determination. Those who embark upon and complete this task exhibit strength and fortitude. They do this not only to  improve their own lives, but also to  ensure that their posterity will reap the blessings of their decision. Thank you, papou.

Family of John and Hariklia Aridas Kostakos, 1930. l-r standing: Frieda, Andrew, Pauline, Georgia. Seated: Hariklia, Alice, John