New York.- By Catherine Tsounis
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) celebrated International Museum Day on May 18th, 2013. Museums display and protect the “Memory of the World”, sharing a common vision of safeguarding heritage for the benefit of society. “We celebrated International Museum Day on Saturday, May 18 by having the community visit the Heritage Museum of Epirus between 11am and 5pm,” explained Chrisoula Zikopoulos, Director of the Heritage Museum of Epirus. “Founded in 2003 under the auspices of the Society of Epirotes “Anagenesis” and the Ladies’ Auxiliary “Souliotisses,” the Heritage Museum of Epirus is the only functioning Greek Heritage Museum in the New York metropolitan area. We encourage all to explore the museum’s rich collection of loom-woven textiles, traditional clothing, hand-crafted jewelry, agricultural and household tools and photographs.”
Director Zikopoulos said “the museum is located in the heart of the Greek community of Astoria, Queens. It is dedicated to preserving the culture and cultural traditions of Epirus, Greece. We are making Hellenic heritage accessible in ways that enrich present and future generations through exhibitions and public programs. I took over as Director two months ago. We must open the museum to the public. This is our gift to our children. I pledge to bring our children to our pride, our treasure, the Heritage Museum of Epirus. No one has what we have. We recently celebrated the one hundred year anniversary of the liberation of Yiannina in 1913.” The museum is located on the third floor of the Epirotan Cultural Center at 2514 Broadway (between. 29th St. & Crescent St.) in Astoria. It is conveniently located 3 blocks from the Broadway stop on the N and Q subway lines.
Mr. Christos Kosovitsas is the Museum’s founder and Director Emeritus. In his welcome address, he said “the idea of a museum was born at a general meeting. We have a tradition that Odysseus had come to the Oracle of Dodoni to take prophecies regarding his return to Ithaca. We were helped by other organizations to make our dream a reality.”
The shrine of Dodona was regarded as the oldest Hellenic oracle, possibly dating to the second millennium BCE according to Herodotus. Situated in a remote region away from the main Greek poleis, it was considered second only to the oracle of Delphi in prestige. Priestesses and priests in the sacred grove interpreted the rustling of the oak (or beech) leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken. Aristotle considered the region around Dodona to have been part of Hellas and the region where the Hellenes originated. The oracle was first under the control of the Thesprotians before it passed into the hands of the Molossians. It remained an important religious sanctuary until the rise of Christianity during the Late Roman era. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodona).
Prominent persons attended including : Evangelos Kyriakopoulos of the Greek Consulate; Samouel Zisis, Greece Trade Attaché, Chrysostomos Dimou, President and Chairman of World Council Epirotes; Efthemios Pappas, President of Anagenesis; Persey Kouloumbinis; Eva Kantlis; International Artist Marianthi Raptis. George Lolis, Treasurer of the Society of Epirotes “Anagenesis”, said “we are Epirotans who are proud of our heritage. We want to show the next generation where we come from and our ethos.” Mr. Paul Kotrotsios, publisher of Hellenic News of America and Hermes International Expo believes “it is a great honor to be at this celebration. We are encouraging all youth, groups, organizations and Phil-Hellenes to come and see our unique collection of Epirus. Today, we have the donors of the museum’s exhibits. I am here to help make the Epirus Museum a meeting place for Hellenic culture. The first Greeks, the ‘Elli’, came from Epirus.” According to the ancient Greek historian Strabo, Epirus was inhabited by fourteen Greek-speaking tribes. They expanded out of this area into mainland Greece and the Peloponesse around the 12th century B.C.
Mr. Kotrotsios told me that my name, Tsounis, is a two syllabus name, characteristic of Epirotan family. It is probably true since the first Greeks came from Epirus. The Encyclopedia Britannica states “In the Neolithic period Epirus was populated by seafarers along the coast and by shepherds and hunters from the southwestern Balkans who brought with them the Greek language. These people buried their leaders in large mounds containing shaft graves. Similar burial chambers were subsequently used by the Mycenaean civilization, suggesting that the founders of Mycenae may have come from Epirus and central Albania,” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190156/Epirus).
Community leaders who are primary sources were present. “Under my leadership we bought the building that was one floor,” recalled President of Anagenesis Efthemios Pappas. “In 1988, we completed the second floor that houses the Epirus Museum. All members and friends lent the Syllogos (Society of Epirotes “Anagenesis”) five thousand each. We did not have to take a five hundred thousand dollar mortgage because of everyone’s generosity. We repaid all donors. We had two wonderful tenants who helped us cover our expenses, motivating us to create our Museum. We invite all to come and call us at 718 274-3753 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chrysostomos Dimou, President and Chairman of the World Council of Epirotes Abroad, said “we are the people who make the first steps. We want to give back to our Patritha (country). Our youth must get involved. This museum is important to us. Our traditions are kept alive. We walk jointly with the University of Yiannina. Epirus has been hit hard by the economic crisis in Greece.” Mrs. Eva Kantlis, the backbone of the Ladies’ Auxiliary “Souliotisses,” believes “Epirotes are straight, trust worthy. They have logic and honesty of the highest degree.” Mr. Takis Zikopoulos, my teacher from St. Demetrios Parochial School in Astoria and his late brothers epitomize these qualities.
Eleni Lolis is a Yianniotisa from Yiannina. “I have been here from 1968,” she recalled. “As President of the Ladies’ Auxiliary ‘Souliotisses’, we helped organize the Museum. It is our joy to show our heritage. We invite Epirotans and friends to come.” Their stand at Souli was a true tale of mythic proportions. Revolution was raging all over Greece. Americans were impressed by the courageous women of Souli. They fought war like men. Many compared them with the Amazons of Greek mythology. When the Souliotisses realized their village was lost, they danced the immortal “Horos tou Zalongou”. Over 50 women, holding their children in their arms, danced on the cliff at Zalongo. One by one, reaching the leading side of the circle dance, they threw themselves over the cliff. The story of the mass suicide at Zalongo soon became known in the whole region and throughout Europe. This song of freedom is still remembered today. (http://fotios.org/files/fotios.cc/papers/articles/greece_contingency/part3.htm)
Museum Curator Anna Konstatatos described the wedding outfits, Epirotan clothes and jewelry. “Epirus has a harsh terraine, with mountains,” she explained. “There were no factories. Life was agricultural. The donors brought artifacts of their agricultural background.” Epirus for the Greeks represented the “epitome” of a hardy, often inhospitable land that was unsuited for cultivation. Hard labor was needed to yield a livelihood. It was “eýandros”, the land of hardy, good men. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epirus). Epirus produced a large percentage of immigrants who amassed large fortunes. They gifted their wealth to the Greek nation either to fund the armed struggle against the Ottomans or to provide valuable structure for the creation of a new State. Epirotan Benefactors rebuilt Greece.
These Benefactors included the following persons: Evangelos Zappas rebuilt the Panathenean Stadium and the Zappeion mansion; Arsakis, who also served as foreign minister and prime minister of Romania, built a women’s college on Panepistimiou, the “Arsakeion”; Tositsas built the Athens Polytechnic, scene of the famous uprising and the Eye Hospital; George Stavrou founded and directed the National Bank of Greece; the Zosimades brothers built the Athens Numismatic Museum; Evangelos Averoff, donated moneys towards the refurbishment of the Panathenaean Stadium, built the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, the military academy, a jail, horticultural schools in Larissa, the Athens Odeon and most famously, the warship Georgios Averoff, which saw service during the First World War, created schools, hospitals and churches for the Greek community of Alexandria, Egypt and Baron Sinas built the Athens Astronomical Observatory. Their financial funding was astronomical. Most of these institutions are in operation today, because of the interest accumulated from the original cash deposit (http://diatribe-column.blogspot.com/2009/01/benefactors.html). The Society of Epirotes “Anagenesis” and the Ladies’ Auxiliary “Souliotisses,” are continuing this tradition of giving back to society through the Heritage Museum of Epirus.
Museum Donors Sophia and Pavlos Nikolos were present. “We are from a village outside of Yiannina,” Mrs. Nikolos said. “I donated my Mother’s wedding dress, my brother, Evangelos Roussis’ geleko (vest), my mother-in-law’s and mother’s belt and the prosphoro stamp (holy bread stamp). It is an honor to see my family traditional clothes and personal possessions in a museum.” Mr. Pavlo pointed out his family’s brass candili (Lantern) at the Center’s fireplace. “We did not have electricity,” he explained. “We read under the light of the candili. I brought it to America with me, remembering childhood memories. We have a portrait of His All Holiness Patriarch Athenagoras, who helped Epirus and the United States.” A significant amount of the museum pieces were donated by the Nikolos family, making them one of the primary donors.
The following are shown in many of the exhibits: costumes from Yiannina, Souli and Pogoni; the Chapraki decorative piece and costume from; decorative belts from 1850; handmade jewelry that include brooches, pins, bracelets and earrings; agricultural and shepherding tools; replica of Ali Pasha’s pipe; cooking utensils and other items form everyday folk art.
Marianthi Raptis, international Epirotan artist, is president of the Dolou Pogoniou Society of Epirus. “On Sunday, May 19th, we will have an artoclasia (holy bread blessing) at Holy Cross Church of Whitestone in memory of Agios Christoforou, the patron of our village,” she said. Traditions are kept alive in the USA by Epirotan Societies.
A modern Epirotan hero is Vasilis Bollanos, the Mayor of Himara, of the Greek speaking region of Northern Epirus, Albania. A low key person, Mayor Bollanos has put his life on the line representing freedom in the former Iron Curtain country. Electrician Billy Litos, a Northern Epirus immigrant, views him as a national hero of Hellenism. “Being a hero is staying in a hostile political area and championing the right to practice one’s Hellenic culture, Greek language and Greek Orthodox religion,” he said. “Vasilis Bollanos is that man.”
Pyrros Dimas, “the Lion of Himare” is the Greek weight-lifting athlete who will go down in history as the only person to win four gold medals in his field. Pyrros Dimas has carved his own legend. He is famous for his 1992 summer Olympic victory, when he shouted “Gia tin Ellada” (For Greece). The Olympian is named after the legendary King Pyrrhus of Epirus. Pyrrhos of Epirus, who lived from 319 B.C.-272 BC, was a Greek general and statesman of the Hellenistic era. He was king of the Greek tribe of Molossians. King Pyrrhos was an opponent of Rome. Some of his successful battles cost him heavy losses from which the term “Pyrrhic victory” originated.
Dionysios Tsokos oil painting, “The Flight from Parga” (1847), is on display in the National Gallery of Athens. The painting, that was obtained through the help of former Benaki librarian Pitsa Tsakonas, displays a boat navigated by a maritime captain in a turbulent sea. The boat has average persons: despondent young, middle age and old in Greek dress, with a priest holding an icon and cross. Many Americans are descendants of refugees fleeing their homes with few belongings. This oil painting shows the pain of Epirotes escaping their homeland with their religious faith. The Heritage Museum of Epirus expresses the universal values of love of one’s roots.