Full Circle

Spending two months in Sparta and Agios Ioannis this summer has turned my heart more deeply to this land. I love the vitality of the city and the peaceful nature of the village. This is where it all began for me, as it is the birthplace of my four grandparents. It continues to be the residence of my cousins, and my “home away from home.”

Dimos Mystra – Municipal District – Agiou Ioannou

I enjoyed many happy evenings in Agios Ioannis, visiting with family and absorbing the spirit that permeates the stone homes and verdant orchards. Agios Ioannis is nestled in the plains of Sparta, under the towering Taygetos mountains. What appears to be a ribbon across the mountain is actually the road to the village of Anavryti, situated at the very top on the right.

Road into Agios Ioannis, from Sparta

My Kostakos, Aridas and Papagiannakos grandparents hail from Agios Ioannis. These families have had a profound influenced in the village. Some remained and served; others emigrated yet “gave back,” never forgetting their origins.

The Aridas family owned and operated the regional bus line. My granduncle, Aristedes Georgios Aridas, was the proprietor who provided a vital service for the town’s residents. Aristedes lived in Agios Ioannis his entire life, and his descendants continue to live in the beautiful home which he had built.

Aristedes Georgios Aridas, 1905-1992

My second cousin, Grigorios Georgios Kostakos, also remained in Agios Ioannis and did not emigrate. He was very active in village affairs and held positions on the town council. He constructed the municipal building which now has many uses, including a preschool which his Kostakos cousins attend today.

Grigorios Georgios Kostakos, 1927-2001

This is the Agios Ioannis municipal building which Grigorios had constructed, and which has served the community for many years.

Agios Ioannis Municipal Building

This room in the municipal building is now used as a preschool, and where the children of Georgios’ extended family now attend.

Preschool room in the Agios Ioannis municipal building

Dimitrios Nikolaos Papagiannakos, (known as Jimmy Pappas) emigrated in 1914 at the age of 18 with several men (and relatives) from his village: Georgios Grigorios Kostakos, Constantinos Kolokotas, Christos Papagiannakos and Panagiotis Cavouris. Jimmy became a successful restaurateur in Brooklyn, NY. He returned regularly to Agios Ioannis, and had an earnest desire to provide children with a quality education. In 1957, he constructed the Papagiannakos School which continues to serve the needs of children in Agios Ioannis and neighboring villages.

The Papagiannakos School, built in 1957

My cousins–Jimmy’s family–attended here, as now do their children. I think Jimmy would be truly pleased to know that his contribution to the community continues, and that his dream is fulfilled.

Every village has a “war memorial,” inscribed with the names of those who died in battle, or in the Greek Civil War. It is sobering to stand in front of these, but even more so when you see your own family names. My first cousin once removed, Panos Kostakos, was killed execution-style by the Nazis in Mystras.

Panagiotis Grigorios Kostakos, 1913-1944

His is the third name from the top.

World War II War Monument

So we come “full circle,” from my grandparents to my generation, and to the ones continuing forward. Visiting an ancestral village brings me this perspective of beginnings and continuation. It is a comprehension that cannot be experienced virtually–you must go to understand.

In my last post, “Telos,” I wrote that my work of marriage record preservation in the Sparta Mitropolis this summer was part of my desire to offer service, and to “give back” in gratitude for my heritage and ancestral land. This post recognizes a few members of my family for the services they so willingly gave. They have influenced me profoundly. I recognize and honor their examples, and am proud to follow in their footsteps.




After two full months of working from 8:30-5 every day, our records preservation project in Sparta is finished! Dimitris and I have captured over 102,000 images of marriage records in the Mitropolis of Sparta, dating from 1835 to 1935–100 years of the oldest documents with precious and vital family information. It is a feat accomplished with much determination, pure love, and a sincere desire to be of service.


Determination is in my DNA, inherited from hardy and strong ancestors who lived as farmers, shepherds and workers in a land that challenged their daily existence. It came from my four grandparents who left that land to persevere in a country where they could not speak the language and where their limited skills did not stop their success in owning businesses, purchasing land, and raising honorable families.

Pure love is the feeling I have for my family, past and current. Without those from the past, I would not exist. Without me, my family line would not continue. It is a circle; beautiful and eternal. This love also extends to my countries of ancestry and birth. My four trips to Sparta in the past five years have engendered a deep affection and connectedness to that region which, quite honestly, has surprised me. Now, my patriotism and endearment straddles both sides of the Atlantic.

Service is part of who I am. It’s what I do. My daily life is comprised of volunteer work in my community. Now, that community has extended to the region of Sparta. I feel a deep and sincere responsibility to “give back” in some way. I am following the example of many people–including my own family–who return to their native villages and try to make life better. I have seen plaques on church buildings with the names of American donors. I know of a group who raised money to improve the mountain road to their village. I learned of a couple who built a lovely home for the priest of their village.

Others may donate funds for buildings and church bells; I donate my time to preserve historical documents. It is my privilege to do so.

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.

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.”




Faneromeni Monastery: A Treasure in Stone

The southern Peloponnese is a study of construction by stone.The hardy people of this region took the least of God’s creations and formed uniquely beautiful edifices: churches, homes, buildings, wells, towers. Boxy and square, tall and narrow, the stone buildings of this region belie what may be inside. A perfect example is the Faneromeni Monastery, the first stop on a tour of Mani led by Papa Georgiou of Sparta last Saturday.

Without a road sign, one would never imagine that this unassuming building was a monastery.

Faneromenis Monastery, Mani

An inscription reveals that it was built in 1079 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was  subsequently renovated in 1322-23 by Emperor Andronicus Palaeologus (Andronikos II Palaiologos). After the renovation, additional alterations were made which formed the building as it is seen today. The monastery was inhabited by nuns; the last one died a few years ago.

The interior of the church is stunning; the frescoes are captivating.

Interior of monastery church

The frescoes have been preserved from three different periods: 11th century, 1322-23 and early 17th century.

Papa Georgiou, accompanied by Father Konstandinos of Aeropolis, chanted a full liturgy service. Their voices sounded even more poignant when surrounded by the archaic faces on the walls.

Bread and wine at the conclusion of the liturgy

Having never been inside a monastery, I was curious and explored both inside and out. There is a central courtyard, a kitchen, dining area, and rooms for sleeping.

Looking down into the courtyard

This is the building where the nuns lived. As expected, the interior was “spartan.” But there was a corner cabinet which housed unexpected worldly treasures.

Living quarters, exterior

Sleeping area, interior

Worldly treasures

To me, the most amazing surprise of Faneromeni was its cave, situated to the left of the monastery, down a flight of stone steps.

Following the curve of the hill, I saw the opening, stepped inside and was stunned at what I saw–a mini-sanctuary complete with icons, candles and all required to hold an Orthodox service.

Church cave entrance

I marvel at the ingenuity and faith that created this sacred place! I stood inside for a long time, with so many questions and so many thoughts. It was the Orthodox Church which sustained the Greek peoples through 400 years of Ottoman rule. The astounding number of churches and monasteries in Greece is a testament to this fact.

The monastery grounds overlook the sea and provide a setting of tranquil beauty. It is easy to understand why this particular spot was chosen to house a building dedicated to God.