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Out of the Balkans



I am a first generation American ~ a Greek-American. Ironically, neither my mother nor my father was born in Greece. My mother, my maternal grandmother and their ancestors came from a Greek speaking, Greek Orthodox community in Sozopolis, Bulgaria. They were Bulgarian citizens of Greek ethnicity. My step-grandfather, in every way but blood my grandfather, was born a subject of Victor Emmanuel, the King of Italy. His family was from Avellino, Italy, which is located in the mountainous region east of Naples, the ancient, seventh century B.C. Greek colony of Neapolis.

My father was the child of a Greek speaking, Greek Orthodox family that lived in a mountainous Balkan region populated by Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbians, Vlachs, Turks and communities of Jews. Many villages were dominated by one or another of the ethnic groups. At the time of his birth in 1900 Macedonia was a province of the Ottoman Empire; so my father was a Turkish citizen. When western European powers redrew the Balkan's national borders in the early twentieth century his village, which might easily have been incorporated into today's Bulgaria or Serbia, became part of Greece.

In my youth I rebelled against the label 'Greek-American' and disliked attending the Greek speaking, Greek Orthodox Church. I, like my friends in school, considered myself an American. My father tolerated my rebellion and allowed me to find my own identity. Eventually I came to celebrate the amalgam that is me: Greek, Hellene, Macedonian, Thracian, Bulgarian, and adopted Italian; Greek Orthodox, for a time an Episcopalian; an American, born in the United States, and veteran of its armed forces.

Knowledge of my origins began with stories about the life of my family's most powerful personality, my grandmother, Eleni, who was legend. Born ten months after her death I never saw her face nor heard her voice. Yet, among my strongest childhood memories are anecdotes told about her by my aunts, uncles (by tradition I called my mother's first cousins aunts and uncles), cousins, family friends and especially my mother, Lily.

Eleni, beloved matriarch of the family, was bigger than life. She was celebrated as beautiful, strong, gracious, smart, generous, courageous, and devoted to her daughter. Her portrait was on our mantle and photographs of her were in our family albums. She seemed to live on in our home even after her death in 1933.

My impressions of my grandmother were so powerful that as a child I sensed her next to my bed as I drifted to sleep, or sitting close by the piano as I practiced. Years later I felt that she was standing behind me late at night as I wrote term papers for my college classes. Her spirit was welcome and comforting, and I spoke to her, acknowledging her presence.

Much of what I learned of Eleni came from my mother who spun romantic and stirring tales ~ not all accurate ~ of her early years in Bulgaria, Greece and America. My mother had memories of surviving smallpox, seeing bodies carried off in handcarts to be burned at the edge of a city, escaping a Bulgarian pogrom against the Greeks, living in Greece, coming to America with her mother, and at the age of eight, being lonely when left alone in a log cabin in St. Paul, Minnesota while her mother worked. As a self-absorbed child and teenager I asked few questions about their lives or about my grandfather, Eleni's first husband. I knew only that he did not come to America but according to vague references, died in an accident in Bulgaria.

My father, Demetrios Athanasios Mavrovitis, was born in a Greek village named Mavrovo in Macedonia. As we hunted and fished together in the countryside near the Hudson River, northwest of New York City, he told me about his life as a young boy, his family and village, and the center of his childhood world, the small nearby city of Kastoria located on a promontory that jutted out into a mountain lake.

While I was a child and teenager, my father's mother, Kalliope Mavrovitis, and others of his family still lived in Macedonia. They were only names to me until I helped fill boxes with food and clothing to ship to them during the Second World War. In the early 1950's, after the end of Greece's devastating Civil War, two of my first cousins Nick (Nikolaos) and Thanasi (Athanasios), sons of my father's brother Constantinos, immigrated to New York City. My father's youngest living brother Aristede and his wife Filareti followed. With their arrival and participation in our family life my attachment to my Macedonian relatives grew.

In 1955 while on leave from military duty in Germany I visited Greece. There I met my grandmother, my uncle and aunt, and many family members who lived in Kastoria and Mavrovo.

Ten years after my mother's death in 1967 my daughter, Demetra, spent time with her cousins in New York City. On her return to California she told me that that she had heard rumors of secrets about my mother and father, and their marriage. When we were young my sister Helene and I asked our parents about their wedding. There were no photographs except for one taken on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. They told us that no one had elaborate weddings in those days and that they had gone on a simple honeymoon.


The Balkan Peninsula was frequently in the news in the 1990's ~ news of war and ethnic cleansing, of genocide. With their independence newly gained after Soviet Russia's collapse, latent antagonisms of the people of Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia(1) erupted into conflict rooted in five hundred years of captivity, degradation, ignorance, and absence of social, political and economic development. Political tyrants used legends of past glories, very often more myth than history, to gain popular support for renewed national and ethnic struggles. Slogans like "A Greater Albania,"(2) or "Macedonia for Macedonians," awakened and promoted dormant hatreds. Finally, religious hostilities surfaced: Muslim against Orthodox Christian, and Catholic guarding against both. Perhaps deep in the hearts of Orthodox Christians, fighting Albanians was and is a proxy for war against the Turks, whose religion many of the people of Albania and Kosovo embraced, thus gaining privilege in the Ottoman world.(3)

In 1806, Nicholas Biddle, a graduate of Princeton College who became a noted nineteenth century politician and financier took leave from his position as secretary of the American minister to France and sailed to Greece. Biddle was a child of the American Revolution, raised with enthusiasm for his newly established country and full of confidence in the future of its free society. He traveled to the Balkans, to the soil of the enslaved Greeks before creation of an independent Greek state. He, like other travelers of the time, brought with him and doubtless shared with his hosts and new acquaintances the philosophy of the eighteenth century's Enlightenment, the story of the American and French revolutions, and an intimate knowledge of their political institutions. He unwittingly fed fuel to the fire of the imminent Greek rising against the Turks.

Biddle was a young man of clearly great potential. He kept a journal, and just before he left Greece, he wrote the following in a letter to his brother:(4)

The situation of that country is afflicting beyond description. The descendants of a free nation ... who may one day rival the brightest glory of their ancestors now live under the most frightful despotism which ... penetrates the feelings (&) the hearts of these wretched slaves. The soil is covered by a host of little tyrants, who openly purchasing their power, repay themselves by the most unlimited extortions ... I thought I had seen as much as nature could bear under the despotism of civilization; but it has since been my melancholy good fortune to witness the proverbial terrors of eastern tyranny. Independently on any of the acts of cruelty to which they are every day liable the general relation between the Greeks and Turks is that of master and slave. The Turks pay no taxes; the whole burden falls upon the Greeks ~ all the offices are in the hands of Turks. The Turks always go armed; all kinds of weapons are forbidden to the Greeks. A Turk takes without restraint from the peasants whatever he may want, & occasionally as a favor pays for it. Such in short is the alarm which their very name inspires, that it is the practice of the country to pacify children in the cradle by saying there is a Turk coming.

The higher classes are more alive to these misfortunes from the sad remembrance of what Greece once was; & even the meanest among them who has forgotten that he is a Grecian, feels that he is a man. Within some years past their hopes of deliverance have become more strong; & the few Turks who now govern them tread on the treacherous ashes, the smothered embers of sedition & revenge. But divided among themselves, jealous of each other without arms & without a leader, they dare not express their indignation but wait for foreign assistance."

When foreign assistance came to the Greeks from the British and French it came begrudgingly, not out of noble decisions to free, finally, the land from which sprang democracy and western civilization. It came because the British and the French were fearful of Russian designs in the Balkans. It came out of a wish to prevent the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which provided political and economic advantage to the British and the French and served as a bulwark against Russian expansion.

In the six centuries that preceded formation of the Kingdom of Greece western and central Europe proved to be friend neither to the Byzantines, nor to the Greeks, nor to any of the Eastern Orthodox of the Balkans. Witness:

Enmity between the people of the Balkans grew late in the eighteenth century as the Ottomans sought to save their failing empire. The Turks played one ethnic group off against the other and followed policies designed to maintain control over them, and to prevent any from slipping out from under the Yoke.

Guerilla warfare in Macedonia during the first decade of the twentieth century pitted Greek, Bulgar and Serb, each against the others, as they fought to establish territorial rights. Greek successes in Macedonia provoked Bulgarian pogroms against Greek communities in Bulgaria. The cities of Anchialos, Burgas, Sozopolis, and Varna suffered arson, murder and expulsion of their Greek populations.

Guerrilla warfare was followed by two Balkan Wars; the first to rid the Balkans of the Turk; the second, to the settle division of the spoils, specifically, the disposition of the region known as Macedonia.

Eleni, Evangelia and Dimitraki were there, in the Balkans, in the early years of the twentieth century.


Bette, my bride from the Peloponnesos (née Panayiota Gianopoulos), was enthusiastic and encouraging as I researched my family, studied history and wrote these pages. And she was patient and understanding when I buried myself for hours on end in books about Greece, Byzantium and the Balkans. Many evenings while at my desk I enjoyed listening to her play the piano and sing as I wrote. Finally, she was my constant and discerning critic and editor.

My thanks go to my cousins Ralis Pierides, of Alexandria, Virginia who provided extensive oral and written information about Sozopolis, the Zissis and Capidaglis families, and his grandfather and my great uncle, Constantinos Capidaglis; and Nick Mavrovitis, who in long telephone conversations shared his knowledge about the Mavrovitis family and its origins, and told me of his experiences as a child and young man in Mavrovo and Kastoria.

I am indebted to Stavri Nikolov, Ph.D. A graduate student at the Technical Institute in Vienna in 1995, he took a trip to Sozopol and Burgas, Bulgaria for a holiday and to explore my family history for me. The information he uncovered and sent to me, including copies of documents with translations, maps and photographs was invaluable. A native of Sofia, Bulgaria, Dr. Nikolov now conducts research in medical image analysis at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Transliteration and Pronunciation

Ancient place names and transliterations from Greek, except for given and surnames, are italicized throughout this text.

Transliterations from Greek are challenging. For example, anglicized, the Greek "K" most often becomes a "C"; thus Kapidaglis becomes Capidaglis. The Greek "X" (chi) is pronounced as the "h" in "hoary" or "Harry" Hariclea, Chariclea, and Hariklea. The Greek "I" (iota) is pronounced as the French "i"; the "i" in Dimitraki is pronounced as in oui.

In modern scholarly works and novels spelling of Greek words in translation and transliteration is inconsistent and idiosyncratic. Variations in spelling of names and places in this text appear both in quotations from books and in my writing.

I accept responsibility for both intentional and unintentional biases that the reader may find. I apologize now to those living and past for misinterpretations of intent or action, or misstatements of fact.


[Skip the Notes]

  1. The awkward name, "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," is employed because of the existence of the Greek Province or "Deme" of Macedonia. The Greek government opposes the new state taking the name Macedonia. In 2002 the two governments were negotiating to settle the dispute. [Return to the text at note 1.]
  2. There is no historical basis for a Greater Albania, a geographic area containing Albanian and other populations, whose borders merely reflected the territory in the Ottoman Vilâyet governed from Ioannina by the Pashas. [Return to the text at note 2.]
  3. In accordance with Islamic Law, conversion to Islam brought full civil rights and equality with Turks. [Return to the text at note 3.]
  4. Nicholas Biddle and Richard A. McNeal, Nicholas Biddle in Greece: The Journals and Letters of 1806 (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 225. [Return to the text at note 4.]
  5. William Miller, The Latins in the Levant a History of Frankish Greece (1204-1566) (London: J. Murray, 1908), 1. [Return to the text at note 5.]
  6. Ibid. [Return to the text at note 6.]
  7. Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (Cambridge: University Press, 1965), 190. [Return to the text at note 7.]
  8. (Gr. "in charge of the family") Patriarch is the title of the highest prelate in the Orthodox Church. Today there are eight Orthodox prelates called patriarchs. [Return to the text at note 8.]
  9. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch lived in Constantinople in a district called the Phanar (also Fanar), meaning lighthouse. [Return to the text at note 9.]
  10. (Gr. "representative with full authority") An Exarch is the head of an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, usually an Archbishop, representing the head of the Church (i.e., Patriarch) in the administration of a national Church. [Return to the text at note 10.]

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