Mikrasia Revisited: A Glimpse of Peristasi in Eastern Thrace

by James L. Marketos, Esq.

Even in the dimmest light, the small gold leaf icon of the Virgin and Child that stands on top of my dresser glimmers like a beacon. Greeks would immediately recognize it as the Virgin Glykophilousa, a stylized portrayal of the young mother tenderly pressing her cheek to her son's. But my icon is Russian, and Cyrillic letters embossed on a tiny banner proclaim the image to be the "Virgin of Vladimir."

Russians, it turns out, have had a special affection for the Virgin Glykophilousa ever since the twelfth century when a processional version, painted in egg tempera on wood and venerated in Constantinople by the Comnenoi, was brought to Kiev. This Byzantine prototype was later removed to the Cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir and as the "Virgin of Vladimir" became the palladium of the Russian church and state, saving Moscow from Tatar invasions, it is said, no less than three times. The original, much copied, still exists and can be seen in Moscow's Church of St. Nicholas.

Virgin of Vladimir Icon

My little golden imitation entered my mother's family during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. It is said to have been left behind by Russian soldiers, possibly officers, who had commandeered the home of Dimitrios and Elisavet Cosolias, my maternal great-grandparents. The Cosolias home was in Peristasi, an ethnically Greek seaside village of eastern Thrace, then a province of the Ottoman Empire (now part of Turkey) bordering the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara. At the end of January 1878, an exhausted but victorious Russian army, having battered its way through the Balkan mountains in a legendary winter campaign, reached the Sea of Marmara and remained in the vicinity of Peristasi through mid-August.

The Cosolias family, merchants for many generations, were relatively well-to-do. Their house was probably requisitioned by the Russian solders because it was among the village's largest and finest--the only one with a fanlight over the front door.

Like many other Ottoman territories beyond Greece's then-existing borders, eastern Thrace has a sizeable Greek population that yearned for union with Greece. But despite the Russian victory in 1878, it remained firmly in the Ottoman grasp right through World War I. Greeks there, including the Cosolias family, lived in increasingly tense political and social conditions brought about by the resettlement of large numbers of Muslim refugees generated by Ottoman territorial losses elsewhere, especially in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

The final blow came in September 1922 when Mustafa Kemal's Turkish nationalist troops set fire to Smyrna on the Asia Minor coast, annhilating thousands of Greek and Armenians Christians in a ghastly seaside holocaust. Foreseeing themselves as Kemal's next victims, the Greeks of eastern Thrace immediately began fleeing their farms and villages in droves, most trekking westward in grim processions through early winter mud to the safety of the Greek frontier. But despite the slaughter at Smyrna and the mass exodus from eastern Thrace, large mixed populations of Christians and Muslims still remained in Greek and Turkish territories. Such mixtures had become untenable, and they were separated by the compulsory exchange of populations imposed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

Among the 1.3 million Greek Orthodox evacuees from Turkish territory was my maternal great-grandmother, Elisavet Cosolias, by then a widow in her seventies whose six children had already relocated to Greece and America. When the time for evacuation came in 1923,m she and the other remaining Greeks in Peristasi were loaded into boats launched firectly from the beach. These met transport ships waiting offshore, which would deliver the evacuees to refugee camps set up in Athens. Either as Elisavet's boat left the beach or as she boarded the transport ship, Turkish authorities dumped her trunks overboard. So she arrived in Athens with only what she had packed in her suitcases. This included the Virgin of Vladimir icon, which the Russian soldiers had left with her forty-five years earlier. The following year she emigrated to Utica, New York, to live with my grandfather and his family. She later moved to her daughter's home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she died in 1937.

During a summer trip to Greece and Turkey in 1969, my mother decided she would visit Peristasi (by then renamed Ôarköy) to see the places she knew from descriptions heard as a young girl, perhaps even to gaze at the Cosolias house. My father and I accompanied her there on a sunny August day, anxious for her sake about what she would find.

Just as she had been told, the village was set gem-like beside the sea, its main square opening directly onto a sandy beach--no doubt the same one from which her grandmother and namesake, Elisavet Cosolias, had been evacuated in 1923. But aside form the marine setting and the orientation of the main square, the Peristasi of my mother's childhood narratives eluded her completely. None of the landmarks she had heard so much about and expected to see revealed themselves that day. What we came upon was a thoroughly Turkish village of about 4,500 souls lacking any vestiage of its Greek past. No one
spoke Greek, and no one remembered much about the Peristasi of old.

Our evident bewilderment must have inclined the town's young French-speaking veterinarian, Necdet Taki, to introduce himself and make us feel welcome. At at cafe in the square he treated us to coffee. But as obliging as he tried to be he was too young to answer my mother's questions about old Peristasi. In particular, he did not know of a house with a distinguishing fanlight. Then he struck on the idea of calling for Ahmet Hilmi Do-an.

This brough forth a leathery Turk who looked to be in his eighties and could still remember a bit of Grek. IN response to my mother's questions about hte Cosolias house, Ahmet asked whether she was searching for the home of Dimitrios or Constantinos. His question bespoke an accurate memory of two Cosolias brothers, one of whom--Dimitrios [Elisavbet's husband}--owned the house with the fanlight.

Elisavet Cosolias (seated) with her son Dimitrios
(the author's grandfather) and grandchildren (left to
right) Helen and Nick Kazepis (children of Elisavet's
daughter Zoe) and Elizabeth Consolias (the author's
mother). The photo was taken in Ann Arbor in 1926.

Now, at least, my mother was reassured that Peristasi was more than just a disquieting dream. So we set off from the cafe to find the house, Ahmet and the kindly veterinarian leading us through the town's unpaved streets. Our group swelled as we went, enlarged by a steady accretion of adults and children (and even some animals), all curious to know what these Americans had come to find.

At a non-descript storefront just off the main street, Ahmet halted. Here he said, pointing to the store, was where the house of Dimitrios Cosolias once stood, a large two-story building destroyed by an earthquake. Around the corner had been the home of brother Constantinos, now also gone. We snaped a photo, my mother still dazed by the confusion of seeing yet not seeing Peristasi, sadly realizing that this was as close as she would come to finding the ancestral home she felt she new and had so acutely hoped to see.

As we stood in the street trying to reconcile ourselves to these disappointments, a tiny old man, perhaps in his nineties, came forward through the throng proffering a tattered letter written in Turkish and signed in Greek with the name "Timoleon Kalfas." He spoke a few words in Turkish to the veterinarian, who then informed us that this old man was Timoleon Kalfas's brother. My mother recognized the Kalfas name from childhood and deduced that the old-timer standing before her was a distant relative by marriage. He was one of the very few Greeks who had not left Peristasi, but he could no longer speak his mother tongue. His eyes moistened when the veterinarian explained to him who my mother was, for old Kalfas remembered playing as a young boy with her father.

So on a sunny afternoon in August 1969, the unsolicited kindness of a young Turk and the healthy memory of an old one brought my mother face to face in the dusty street of Ôarköy with a teary old man--perhaps the last Greek left there--who remembered her father. In the brief moment of their encounter, they shared a glimpse of all-but-forgotten Peristasi, where more than a century ago a small Russian icon was left in a Greek house--the one with a fanlight over the front door.

(Posting date 02 July 2010. Reproduced with permission of the author. The article has also appeared in
Odyssey magazine, November/December 2007, pp94-95, under the title "A Glimpse of Peristasi.")

Mr. Marketos is a lawyer and serves as Chairman of the Washington-based American Hellenic Institute. HCS encourages readers to view other articles and releases in our permanent, extensive archives at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/contents.html.

2000 Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.