Thursday 12 May 2016

B is for Burial in Greece

Burial in Greece: Not Exactly the End of the Story

A new project for a blog called The First cemetery of Athens: Fables of Identity (1) has meant visiting Athens’ First Cemetery quite a lot lately to identify the graves of the famous and their imposing monuments. It is a wonderful place, on the surface anyway. 

But there is a dark underside to all that glorious marble and beautiful foliage and it is this: in Greece today, many of the dead do not stay buried for long…

Greeks often use the word Nekrotafio (meaning the burial of the dead) for cemeteries, although the word koimiterio (κοιμητήριο) from which our word cemetery is derived, is more apt, expressing the Christian idea more clearly. It means a sleeping place.

 The Orthodox dead are not quite dead.  Their souls do not go to Purgatory like the Catholics. Purgatory is not in the Orthodox lexicon; their actual status after death is somewhat mysterious, like so many concepts in Orthodoxy. There is, however, the idea that the dead can be affected by our prayers and certainly our prayers for the dead can even affect to some extent their ultimate fate when judgment day finally arrives.  In this sense, those buried are connected with the living and the Church until the Second Coming (Parousia) when their bodies will be reunited with their souls in heaven. 

For this reason, many ceremonies are held at the grave sites of the dead during the first year and usually on the anniversary of the death thereafter.

Cremation is forbidden by the Orthodox Church for reasons that made sense a long time ago: that, because of the Incarnation, the flesh was also made immortal and because cremation was a pagan practice and therefore, by definition, bad. The echoes of Hell fire and brimstone involved in the cremation of remains did not make the idea very attractive to new Christians either.

According to any Orthodox website (2), the Church supports the idea of the inviolability of the body and therefore insists on inhumation with all of the attendant services and respect shown for the dead. That was fine, I suppose, in the days when the dead stayed buried…


Population growth and crowded cities have changed burial customs radically. Now, in Greece, a family has the choice: either pay for a permanent grave site (3) in the local cemetery (usually a family grave) or rent a grave for three years and then exhume the body, wash the bones in wine, and place them in an ossuary in the cemetery – usually for another fee, in city cemeteries anyway.

Even the purchase of a family grave does not ensure that the body rests in peace.  When there is a new death in the family and space is limited, the body is dug up. In the case of a single family grave, the bones might be placed in a sack at the foot of the new coffin until burial number three (don’t ask why), or the bones are gathered and placed in an ossuary. I had what I can only call the macabre experience of seeing my father-in-law’s thigh bones sticking out of a gunny sack at one end of the grave, newly opened for my mother-in-law.

A Large Family Grave in the First cemetery of Athens

A large family grave, like those in the First Cemetery in Athens, is built with future burials in mind and a large underground room is built with small drawer like spaces in the walls to accommodate the bones of loved ones if the space for many full sized coffins is too small. 

So, even in the case of a family grave, the bodies are disturbed, rendered into pieces, boxed – then placed in the vault in acceptably small packages (the thigh bones determine the size of the new container).
Rent a Grave

In big cities like Athens, most people rent a grave for three years – the time it is estimated that a body needs to disintegrate. Then there are hard choices. Usually the marble surrounding the grave is reusable and the headstone detachable so that, if, for a suitable fee, a small square plot is available, the body, neatly packaged, is reburied and the original headstone reused over the tiny grave. 

The other choice, as mentioned above, is to place the bones in the ossuary on site or in special   squares very much like safety deposit boxes placed inside the cemetery walls – for a fee.

Problems No One Wants To Discuss

With the advent of wonder drugs, bodies no longer disintegrate on demand.  The disinterment at the three year mark, must legally be attended by a family member (a priest is optional – cemeteries are run by the municipality and, in fact, are a municipal business) and, quite often, the grave diggers have bad news: the body is not quite ready. The same grave can then be rented by the month (at quite a large fee in big cemeteries) until nature has done its work, or the body can be temporarily reburied in a less expensive spot until nature allows the transference of bones to an ossuary – or the body can be abandoned – in which case, it will be buried in a common grave with some disintegrating agent and that is that - not quite the respect for the human body envisioned by the Orthodox Church.
Most of my Greek friends do not like to talk about this (death and taxes!). In fact talking about death is a no no, accompanied by spitting against the evil eye, but because of my new project with my friend Filia on the First Cemetery of Athens, the subject has come up enough to make talking about their own painful family experiences possible. The truth is that many people feel compelled to abandon their loved one’s body after three years whereas wealthier members of the population can afford to purchase a lifetime single grave site and stay buried.(4)

The economic crisis has made abandoning bones to a common and unidentified grave an even more likely choice.  

If people do not pay, the bones are exhumed by the cemetery and the gravesite re-allotted. I was disturbed by what I saw on my way up to Section Four one day at the back of Agioi Theodorioi Church in The First Cemetery. 

I am assuming these are the bones of those who could not pay. But what is curiouser (aside from the venue in a shed) is that all the bones in the box appear to be the same size. I am flummoxed…  Any ideas?

Time for the Church to Rethink Burial Customs

There is a lot of bitterness today about these temporary burials, their cost, and the gut wrenching necessity of attending these exhumations. 

 Although a crematorium has been on the books for Athens and Patras for several years now, the Church has said it will not bury cremated bodies with Orthodox honours because that would be a desecration the body.

Obviously, there is a tremendous gulf between the religious theory behind inhumation and the present reality. Some might call it hypocrisy – especially after attending the disinterment of a child or parent.

Cemeteries in Greece are run by the municipalities and are a business. Even a huge cemetery like The First Cemetery in Athens has no resident priest. They are brought in for the funeral service and have no legal say in how the cemetery is run. But I have yet to find a priest who has expressed any real distress over disinterment although they are most often present -invited by the family (for a fee) to give the ordeal the dignity of a religious rite of passage.

The implications of disinterment versus the ‘sacredness’ of the human body  is just not on the Church’s radar - and it should be.
It is time for a change.


(1)  The new blog ‘The First cemetery of Athens’ by Filia Xilas Pattakou and myself is scheduled to be up and running in June 2016!

(2) says:  Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with kolyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed in such instances, inasmuch as the similarity between the “kernel of wheat” and the “body” has been intentionally destroyed.
(3)  A permanent grave in one of the best parts of the First Cemetery in Athens can cost as much as 100.000 euros – in a less prominent part, perhaps 25,000. See


Thursday 24 December 2015

N is for The Nativity Icon

The Nativity Icon

 Christmas came a bit late for early Christians. It was not declared a separate holiday from the Epiphany until 354, but once in place it has become the most important holiday after Easter to the Orthodox and perhaps trumps Easter just about everywhere else.

Some version of the tableau below has no doubt arrived at your home in the form of a Christmas greeting over the holidays. Since the image has been in vogue since the 4th century AD, I decided explain a little about its traditional symbolism.

Mary as central to the Incarnation is the largest figure and she is either surrounded by a red mandorla (halo) or wearing a red cape, the colour of immortality over a blue dress
symbolizing her mortality. Christ sleeps beside her in a cave or just outside of one. This cave is present in almost all Greek icons and represents the unredeemed state of man until, of course, Christ’s sacrifice restored Human nature to the state it was in before the Fall. That’s a heavy weight of symbolism but Orthodoxy has never shied away from that!
Christ is wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a crib. Both the wrapping and the crib  could equally suggest a burial,- quite purposefully as the image is meant to foreshadow His death – something Mary appears to sense as her gaze is always more pensive than happy.

This three small figures riding up to the cave are the Three Wise Men, bringing the traditional gifts that would have been presented to royalty in those days: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In early icons, they were dressed in the alien garb of Persians, stressing the willingness of eastern religions to give way to the new religion.

A donkey and an ox always hover over the new born, warming Him with their breath. They have been there from the earliest times and represent the tribes of the Jews and the Gentiles, both of whom will receive the “Good Word” (a reference to Isaiah). They seem to multiply in both number and species in modern Nativities thus losing their original symbolic oomph. 

At the top of the icon  Angels sing praises and announce the child’s arrival to a shepherd ( or two or three) as stated in the Gospels and below and to one side poor  Joseph always sits rather glumly because, no matter how wonderful, he is still a father to a child that is not his own. 

The old man talking to him is not always present. He is the external form of Joseph’s doubts the devil himself telling him reject the entire sequence of events.  Of course, Joseph resists this negative message. The halo proves that. This little bit of domestic realism would have appealed to the icons’ intended audience in the Graeco-Roman world and would have given proof that doubters, even someone in Joseph’s unenviable  position, could be won over by the Christian message.

Since there is no Time in icons, Christ can be bathed by a servant girl or two) at the same time he is resting in his cradle. The entire sequence of events,  angel’s announcement, the birth, the father’s moment of doubt, the washing of the child, the arrival of the Magi are happening, iconically speaking sub aeternitatis: under the aspect of eternity.

Mary has three stars on her cloak, one on her head and one on each of her shoulders. Their symbolism is weighty – that she was a virgin before conception, during her pregnancy and after Christ was born – to me a strange notion, but one that the Orthodox Church has insisted upon. (See M is for Mary in the Blog)

At the top of the icon, a circle of some sort and a ray points to the child, to show His heavenly origin, symbolized in more modern icons by a pointed star.
Other figures may be added, but this is the essential tableau!

Saturday 28 November 2015

Tzisdarakis Mosque, Athens

The Tzisdarakis Mosque (Τζαμί Τζισδαράκη)
In Monastiraki Square, Athens

The Mosque 

Like so many places in the Greek capital, a walk into Monastiraki Square is a walk into Greek History. Deep underground are ancient ruins while sunken just below street level is the katholikon of the Byzantine Pantanassa Monastery which gives the square its present name. It is all alone now with the exception of a 19th century bell tower but it was once surrounded by out buildings whose disappearance explains the openness of the square today. Pantanassa once owned most of this neighbourhood and was the hub of the area’s commercial activity. During the Ottoman period, the square was a busy market place complete with a large fountain which was the water source for the surrounding community.

Like so many places in Greece, the square has had multiple names over its long history:  Ambadtzidika (Αμπατζήδικα) was one because the production of a cloth called Ambades was centered in the monastery and its surrounds. The Market of the Lower Fountain was another.

 But the Tzisdarakis Mosque which has dominated the square for over 250 years will never get the nod.  It is one of the few remnants of Ottoman Athens and Ottoman Athens has been pretty much erased from the city’s landscape. Greeks do not really want to be reminded of this era of foreign occupation.

In 1759, The Ottoman voivode (governor) of Athens, Mustapha Agha Tzisdarakis, built this imposing building. Of course he would have dated its inauguration differently. As far as he was concerned, he built it in 1172 AH, (year of the Hegira). (1) 

The mosque was also known as the "Mosque of the Lower Fountain" (Τζαμί του Κάτω Σιντριβανιού) or "Mosque of the Lower Market" (Τζαμί του Κάτω Παζαριού) because of its proximity to both or simply as the  Pasha Dzami’ (the Pasha Mosque).

The mosque in 1835 without its minaret but with the fountain

When he built it, he had no idea that 60 years or so later his mosque would be taken over by ‘infidels’ who had no real interest in preserving it for posterity.  So he built it with the best materials he had at hand. The story goes that he chose a pillar from the ancient temple of Olympian Zeus and had his men blow it to smithereens in order to make high quality plaster for his mosque. That desecration of an ancient column led to his dismissal. According to Ottoman law, ancient monuments were the exclusive property of the sultan and Tzisdarakis had not got the proper permission through the pasha in Chalkis to which Athens was administratively dependent at the time; he was fined and exiled from Athens.

As it once was…You can just see the minaret peeking out over the porch. 
(Thanks again to Irini Kakoulidou’s excellent blog

The more popular explanation for his dismissal goes like this: the Turkish population considered it a sacrilege to destroy an ancient column because they believed its destruction would free evil spirits trapped under it allowing them to escape and plague the city. Greek Athenians shared this very same belief; they held very similar feelings about the Corinthian column incorporated into their own church of  Agios Ioannis Around the Column in Psyrri (see Churches in Athens on this blog) (2). Their worst fears were confirmed when Athens suffered a plague later in 1759. So it was the popular belief that this plague not only proved the legend true but that it caused Tzisdarakis’ dismissal!  

The Architecture
The mosque is simplicity itself:

Square in plan, it had two levels with the lower level opening directly onto the square. The upper level contained a lofty rectangular prayer hall covered by a large hemispherical dome sitting on an octagonal base. 

The dome as it appears today

On the western side an open colonnaded porch with three arches and three domes fronted the prayer hall. Because it looks slightly out of proportion to the building, some speculate that it was added on at a slightly later date.

 A minaret once stood right at the southwestern corner of the mosque describes the interior more succinctly than I could so I quote: The building, now two levels, was originally unified. Two rows of windows around the sides of the mosque, and smaller circular windows at the base of the dome, provide light for the prayer hall. 

The prayer hall as it is today after renovations in the 1980s. According to my source, the gallery is a Greek addition, not original to the building.

A many-faceted mihrab is still embedded in the eastern wall. It is set within a rectangle with two inscriptions and painted panels of decoration. 

 The exterior entrance to the hall was from the western façade facing the square. Above its central door the founder's inscription can still be seen and small mihrabs were incised to the left and right of this door to give directional cues to those who preferred to remain outdoors while praying.

You can see the outdoor mihrabs in this photo

During the prolonged Greek War of Independence, the building was used, (whenever the Greeks managed to hold it) as an assembly hall for the town elders. Sometime during this period, the minaret was torn down.

After Greek independence, the mosque was used in various ways. It had to be. Athens was not a large town before the revolution and by 1834, when Athens was tagged to become the capital of Greece, most of it had been reduced to rubble.(3) Not even this overt symbol of Ottoman domination could be spurned.

 In 1834, because of its generous size, and simply because it was still there, the ‘mosque’ hosted a ball in honour of King Otto of Greece.

As Athens grew and acquired its own neoclassical public monuments, the mosque remained intact but languished, - first as a barracks, then as a prison, and then as a storehouse.  Its lower level was both invaded and surrounded by a rabbit warren of small shops either built into the building at ground level or sheltering under awnings hard against it – just as they do today. 

Around the turn of the last century, the area under the porch was turned into a small “oinomageireio.”  (oινομαγειρείο) whose specialty was grilled animal innards for the hungry market clientele. This became quite a local ‘hot spot’, so much so that the locals began to call the area Τζιερτζίδικα. Τζιερτζίδικα means a place that sells liver and spleen (τζιέρι) and such, quite a delicacy then as now! (4)  I imagine this is one of the few times, that the name for lamb guts has trumped the name of an imposing church!



The mosque as a “Τζιερτζίδικα circa 1910 (

In 1915 the prayer hall was renovated under the supervision of architect Anastasios Orlando and became the Museum of Greek Handwork (now called the Museum of Greek Folk Art). The commercial stalls on the ground floor stayed.

There seems to be a strong connection between Ottoman religious monuments and ‘cultural centers’ as if, while being rigorously secularized, the buildings are still somehow being treated with a modicum of respect. Agia Sophia in Istanbul is a museum for pretty much the same reason. It makes you wonder if at some time in a Utopian future there will be a mutual exchange of ‘cultural centers’ between Turks and Greeks.

The prayer hall had a small moment of glory again as a mosque in 1966 when it was offered for a time to the deposed King Saud of Arabia during his exile in Athens. Even in 1966, the lack of a mosque for Muslim visitors to Athens was a problem. I wonder what the quid pro quo was in this case.  Saud was deposed because of his prolific spending habits so one hopes that he at least paid the Ministry of Culture for any necessary alterations! 

In 1973 the Museum of Greek Folk Art moved to Kydathinaion Street but the mosque remained an annex of the museum. In 1981 it was severely damaged by an earthquake, repaired, and re-opened to the public in 1991 to house the The V. Kyriazopoulos ceramic collection.

Every once in a while an Athenian journalist(5) writes a moan about the mosque having been taken over by shops and makes noises about it being treated as a cultural monument.
As I write, the mosque has been closed to the public for yet another renovation and is slated to be reopened in 2017.

You can be sure this alteration will not include a minaret and it is highly unlikely that the building will ever again function as a mosque. (6) So far, the shops under it remain and I rather like them. They evoke the spirit of those long gone days when the market square was filled with vendors, and Ottoman worthies sat placidly smoking their nargiles before being called to prayer. 

(1) The Hijri year (AH anno hegirae is the year-numbering system used in the Islamic calendar. It begins from the first day of the year of the Hijra or emigration of Muhammud and his followers to Medina in 622 CE.

(2) I have run across this superstition before in Evrostina in Corinthia when I was writing a text on Agios Giorgios there. This time the ‘column’ was a tree and the villagers were convinced that the tree held the power to kill anyone who tried to cut it down. My source for the columns in Agios Ioannis is William Miller.

(3)  Athens had 3,000 buildings in 1821, but only 300 were still standing in 1834. As Thomas-Gasset who visited Greece in 1834 said: “ Athens, in fact, no longer exists”.

 (4) The term oinomageireio is a bit hard to explain. It literally means wine and cooked food. These plain fast food restaurants were once very popular – and just a few tables and benches away from being street food stalls. They flourished in markets everywhere in Greece. Until very recently you could have the experience at Diporto directly behind the produce market on Athena Street. From its tiny basement it served from early morning until after lunch for the stall vendors. 

Diporto as it was: just to give you the idea (www.in2life,gr)


You can try your luck at the restaurant inside the central meat market on Athinas Street or the trendier places like the Karamanlidika on Evripidou Street. The atmosphere is similar!  gives the story of the oiomageireio.

(5)See Kathimerini: 29, 08, 2009:Το τζαμί στο Μοναστηράκι είναι παζάρι και όχι μνημείο

(6) Even the new mosque currently being built by the Greek government will not have a minaret.