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The Last Remaining Greeks of Madan

[August 20, 2007]

The neighborhood of Madan is located some five kilometers from the center of Alaverdi. In the early 1990's it was exclusively populated by some 800 Greeks. Today, only twenty-four remain, mostly elderly folk. Greeks began to appear in Armenia starting in the second half of the 17 th century. In 1763 some 800 Greek families from Kyumushana in Turkey moved to the Akhtala region in the Lori Marz. That same year they built a silver foundry in Akhtala and in 1770 they constructed copper foundries, first in Akhtala and later in Shamlugh. The lives and livelihood of the Madan Greeks have been inexorably linked to the Akhtala copper foundry.

Successive generations of Greeks have worked in the Alaverdi copper mines. 68 year-old Mikhail Kodanov, an ethnic Greek from Madan, recounts that it was not only the men who digged in the mines, but women and teenagers as well, They would carry the ore out of the mines in leather bags strung across their shoulders like pack animals. The tools they used were the hammer, pick and shovel. Greeks continued to work in the mining industry as experienced miners even when French and Russian capitalists began to invest in the copper industry in the 19 th century.

In Mikhail Kodanov's family the tradition of working as a miner has been passed down through the generations. He was first taken down the mines by his grandfather and father and wound up working there for thirty years. The same tradition holds true in other Greek families of Madan. Mikhail says that the only way successive generations could get work in the mines was to replace their grandfathers or fathers. The old man recounts with a smile that, “ Today, times have changed. All my relatives have been living in Greece since 1992. You couldn't make a miner out of any of them.” Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union the nation of Greece has opened its doors to Greeks the world over, granting them a number of privileges. It was in this context that Greeks began to leave Armenia in the 1990's. According to 1979 census figures there were some 5,653 registered Greeks living in Armenia. In 2001 that number sharply dropped to 1,176, of which 853 were urban dwellers.

“ As ethnic Greeks my sons, daughters, in-laws and grandchildren all have received Greek citizenship. They all have homes and jobs in Greece. While I go to visit them I've decided to stay in Madan. This is where my house is which I built from the sweat of my brow working in the mines. My garden and home are the tangible rewards of my labor. How can I leave it all behind and go “ Mikhail continues.

Many of the Armenian friends and relatives of Greeks who've moved to Greece from Madan now watch over their empty homes. Some have even moved into their houses. No one believes that they'll ever return. We were told that some come back to visit but never with the intention to stay. They come to visit friends and relatives here. Those few Greeks who have remained in Madan are engaged in animal husbandry, like Armenians, and a few still work in the mines.

There used to be a Greek church in Madan but its now mostly a haunting ruin. The school where Greek once was taught is also in ruins and the village children now attend school in Alaverdi. This presents a big problem for both parents and kids as it's a good five kilometers away. There's no real gathering spot in the village to speak of other than the village store. The store is actually the house of one of the residents that's been partially converted into a place of business. As in many other villages, gas, water and telephone service are non-existent luxuries.

The relatives of 23 year-old ethnic Greek Alik Aslanov now live in Greece. He recently got married and has no intention of moving there as well. Presently, he's assisting his uncle build a restaurant. He says that no one has steady work in Madan. Whenever random work does become available its either road construction or woodworking related.

Pointing to the far reaches of the village Alik says, “ Only a few Greeks remain, mostly the elderly, who keep an eye on the homes of those who have left.”

All of 80 year-old Varvara Apostolova's relatives are also in Greece. The old woman now lives by herself in an empty home that once housed a large Greek family. She says that Madan has changed, that many have left, that customs have changes and that going down the mines is no longer considered dignified work. Varvara recounts that, “ In those days when many Greeks lived here we would celebrate New Years in grand style and with bountiful holiday tables, just like the Armenians. We'd visit all the Greek homes and exchange gifts. We'd also celebrate the holiday of “Fota”. According to tradition we would construct a cross and throw it into the river. The first person to retrieve it would be the contest winner and would be granted the right to keep the cross in their home for an entire week. Mostly the young people would take part in the contest. This holiday was followed by Easter (Pascha), during which we fasted. There wasn't a single Greek in Madan who didn't bake the traditional “koolich” Easter bread on that day. I know that Armenians would break their fast by eating pilaf with raisins, fish and eggs. But we Greeks could only do so on the morning of the following day. In the past, we'd perform all these celebratory services in the church that no longer functions as such. Animals now wander in and out of the place. But who is going to rebuild it, they've all gone.”

The Greek flavor of Madan is best preserved in the village cemetery. It's off to one side of the church and is quite different from Armenian cemeteries. The Greeks erect small house-like structures in which to bury their deceased. Peeking out from the overgrown weeds and nettle bushes are the gravestones of once prominent Greek families such as the Batmanovs, Spiridonovs, Kotanovs, Formanovs and Apostolovs.

Lena Nazaryan
Translated by Hrant Gadarigian