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A Forgotten Greece: The Pomakochoria

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Credit: istoria/John Kazaklis

The Pomakochoria in the Thrace region in Greece are villages were Pomaks, a Muslim minority, live in the Rhodope mountain range.

By John Kazaklis, *

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After miles of mountainous backroads north of the city of Xanthi, Greece lies a region that is commonly unmentioned when discussing modern day Greece. Far from the highly-photographed, whitewashed villages of the Greek Islands frequently featured in touristic brochures are the villages of Thrace known as the “Pomakochoria”, home to indigenous Turko-Slavic speaking Muslims.

Their diverse and complex identity is a result of the many empires and governments that ruled over this hidden region. When the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) exempted Muslims of this region from population exchanges between Turkey and Greece as an effort to homogenize both nations, this created a natural isolation for decades to come.

After getting to know several locals from the village of Echinos, I was able to learn more about this community of Greece that many never hear about.

Identity of the Pomakochoria

Imagine encountering a village of around 3,000 people that hold Greek citizenship, speak 3 languages (Turkish, Pomak, and Greek), practice Islam, and feel somewhat alienated from the rest of the Greek Orthodox majority of Greece.

Prior to our arrival to Echinos, I was expecting to encounter a community that had a clear identity or an affinity to a certain culture, language, or people group. I was quite wrong. Although their daily lives demand Pomak and Greek to be spoken outside of the home, the overwhelming majority of the population of Echinos speaks Turkish at home.

We were able to meet locals through the local kaffenion (Ottoman-style coffeehouse), where many of the older generation men spend their days sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes, and solving the world’s problems. What we concluded is that many of the locals in Echinos and in surrounding villages of the Pomakochoria claim Turkish roots, but are also somewhat pressured to claim a Turkish identity due to political reasons.

They also did feel like they were Greeks as well because of their geographical location and citizenship, but ultimately we felt that they claimed a Turkish identity. On top of that, there is the odd retention of the Pomak language within the community, which has no written tradition, but has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Support from the Greek Goverment

Even though we were in an EU country, I still had my reservations on whether or not the locals would feel like they could share the opinions openly, especially with us being outsiders. Our advantage, though, was that we were of Greek origin and could communicate in a language that they were fluent in, avoiding any language barrier.

The overall consensus was that things are much better than what they used to be. After peeling back the layers, we learned that prior to 1996, outsiders were forbidden from visiting the Pomakochoria region, consequently isolating this community. They were also not allowed to leave the region without gaining permission from Greek police.

Whether or not this was true, the locals conveyed that their situation has improved tremendously since then, even though things could still be better. When it comes to the essentials, the educational and medical needs of the community are being met by the Greek government. On the other end of the spectrum, I learned that the Turkish government does not play a role in the daily lives of the community, but if anyone from the Turkish-Pomak community wants to travel or gain residency there, it can be done with ease.

Local Economy

An industrious community, Echinos has approximately 2,000 of its residents living and working in Germany. It seems that this has sustained the village and region the last couple of decades and protected it from external factors (isolation, economic crisis, urbanization, etc.).

Unlike most of Greece, where the lifeblood of the economy is in crisis, Echinos enjoys a quiet prosperity due to family members sending money over from Germany. Interestingly enough, the villagers living in Germany own over 20 businesses there that specialize in repairing ships.

We met a local retired teacher, Ibrahim Sali, who was very inviting and warm, and loved giving us insight on the village’s history, culture, language. He even was willing to share some local gossip. He had his own take on how the majority of the community’s young men are away in Germany leaving behind their wives and families.

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Ehinos Xanthi Thrace Greece. Credit: Ggia/CC BY-SA 3.0

“The local women slaughter (metaphor) their husbands who are away in Germany. The men work in Germany, so the money here comes from Germany. Because the men are gone, you’ll see the women here spend their money on expensive clothes and shoes from Xanthi (nearby city) as a way to cope.”

Local traditions & culture

Like the rest of the villages in the Pomakochoria region, Echinos is overwhelmingly Muslim and quite conservative from the outside looking in. Traditional islamic customs and traditions are observed by the village, such as: strict observance of Ramadan and fasting (locally called Ramazan), the halal diet, and conservative dress amongst the women.

Although Islam forbids drinking alcohol, Ibrahim mentioned that it is common for locals to privately drink in their homes. When we asked Ibrahim about the character and culture of the locals, we were surprised with his response. “When the villagers leave their village, they act completely different and more mafioso.”

What’s more is that as we drove around and walked through the village, we noticed that there was no plateia or main plaza. This is always found in a Greek village as the epicenter of community and social life where one can find cafés, restaurants, and businesses.

Instead we found that the village had a couple of kaffenions and bougatsa shops scattered throughout, but no plaza or social epicenter. This showed us that the community was more reserved and quiet in comparison to villages populated by ethnic Greeks.

The Pomak language

Although Pomak, known in Greek as Pomakika, is not the language spoken at home in Echinos, we were able to have Ibrahim provide a small list of words in Greek and English translated into Pomak. Many of the words are Slavic in origin, but there also words that come from Greek or Turkish.

  1. Brother = Brat
  2. Sister = Séstra
  3. Mother = Maika
  4. Father = Ubaïka
  5. Goodbye = Mérhaba
  6. Thank you = Saöl
  7. Home = Kósha
  8. School = Mektép
  9. Store = Dükén
  10. Friend = Arkadásh
  11. Table = Masa
  12. Fruit = Yemish
  13. Meat = Miyoso
  14. Cheese = Sirinyé
  15. Church = Kiürsé
  16. Mosque = Joumayié
  17. Water = Vodá
  18. Watch (wristwatch) = Saat
  19. Food = Yemék
  20. Car = Kúrsa
  21. Stairs = Skála

*The article was first published at . Author and owner John Kazaklis gave permission for its republication at Greek Reporter.

Kazaklis says that the inspiration for istoria, were the diverse surroundings of his upbringing in the DC Metro Area as well as his family’s unique history.

“My paternal grandparents were refugees with roots in the Greek hinterlands of Northern & Eastern Thrace (present-day Bulgaria & European Turkey) where they eventually settled in Greek Macedonia around 1915. My maternal grandfather was the son of a Lebanese immigrant who left Beirut on a boat in the early 20th Century and made his way to Buenos Aires. He eventually settled in southern Bolivia where a small Arab colony was formed in the city of Tarija. My maternal grandmother was orphaned at a young age due to a catastrophic war between Bolivia and Paraguay. My parents left their native countries for the US in the 1970s with their suitcases and a legacy full of family history,” Kazaklis says.

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