Lingering Memories of the Past & State-Promoted History

Some reflections on state-promoted history and the lingering memories of the past provided by Sam Adam, an undergraduate student in the Department of Global Humanities at SFU and aspiring Byzantinist.

The peeling green paint on the old school desks in Sykamnia’s Museum of Folklore engenders a cross-generational nostalgia which bonds the visitor to the absent subject of the exhibition: the early 20th century student. Poorly secured paint has always been irresistible to me, much as it likely was for some of the students who once sat behind these green desks. Scratch after scratch, I would steadily peel off such paint to escape the endless drone of a boring lecture. In boredom, a student’s distracted eye may glance around the room. In Sykamnia’s reconstituted classroom the gaze would land on one of the many posters which decorate the walls.

As a visitor, I was drawn to a poster, that linked the execution of the patriarch of Constantinople Gregory (1821) to that of Bishop Chrysostom of Smyrna (1922). This stark image relates to students the state’s official narrative and in both scenes, we see the Ottoman/Turkish perpetrators as a fez, yelek, and turban-wearing lynch mob led by either official or soldier. Did all students grow up with such a black-and-white understanding of their Ottoman past?

Molyvos’ culturally rich townscape and houses suggest that at least a few students might even have encountered at home wall paintings, like those found in the Krallis mansion, where they would cast their gaze on fez-wearing individuals modelling the very behaviors expected of gentile individuals like themselves. Here, guarded by a seraph, princes in Turkish attire court princesses on palace grounds. On opposing panels, their western-dressed counterparts do the same, albeit without an angel’s benefaction. This is a world where east and west comfortably coexist. Meanwhile, soldiers not unlike those in charge of Chrysostom’s execution in the school poster guard villas populated by affluent citizens who sport both oriental and occidental clothes.

Like Dora Giannakou Parisi, growing up in the Giannakos house, our imaginary student may have encountered this disjunctive imagery by looking at their home ceiling and walls. Here, a student may also play the “archeologist”: As a child, Dora’s sister, Maria, chipped away at the white plaster on her home’s walls and revealed an old painting of Constantinople, complete with Ottoman flags. When the wall paintings in the Krallis and Giannakos houses are therefore set side by side, they reveal just how nuanced some students’ preconceptions of the Ottoman past may have been in Molyvos.

There are, nevertheless, differences even here. The painted ships in the Giannakos home (which had belonged to an Ottoman official before 1922) all sport Ottoman flags which are readily identifiable by their white star and crescent emblem. Meanwhile, even though the ships in the Krallis home also bear a red flag, the star and crescent emblem is missing. In fact, two ships in the School of Fine Arts house feature a white cross on the red flag backdrop. Likewise, a minaret on the Krallis mansion’s walls is adorned with a cross (was this a post 1912 addition to the old painting? Who can tell?).

Lastly, while both mansions are adorned with a cityscape of Istanbul, the one in the Giannakos house depicts the imperial palace without portraying Hagia Sophia, while the one in the Krallis home features a sizeable Hagia Sophia, eschewing the Topkapı. In a time of change, then, as homes built in the Ottoman era live on in the Greek national state, the imagination of a few young students from Molyvos world have remained Ottoman, albeit with the occasional Christian twist.

Although some of these paintings were eventually plastered over, the nuanced worldview they represent took time to fade. After all, as related by his grandson Stratis, in his old age in the 1930s, Komninakis, the owner of the Krallis mansion, member of the council of elders and mayor of Molyvos under Ottoman and Greek rule respectively, set aside his western attire and put on the more traditional and apparently comfortable Turkish habit, even as the state produced posters for the school classroom walls frequented by younger generations that warned against the Turkish fez.