Saturday, February 15, 2014


In Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel, "Museum of Innocence," his hero is so besotted with his beloved that he collects various trivial ephemera arising from the times that he has spent with her and houses them in an otherwise disused apartment. In this, he anticipates the Epirotes of Melbourne who are also so besotted with their culture, history, and the rural life they left behind, that they have, over the years assiduously preserved a large number of artefacts, evocative of times long gone, imagined, or reconstructed.

The culmination of nostalgia, an innate tendency to hoard and an acquisitive nature is the Mobile Epirus Museum, now in its tenth year of operation. During the most of the year, the Museum sleeps in various drawers, cupboards and μπαούλα of Melburnian homes. Come Antipodes Festival time, however, all lovingly preserved items are resurrected, dusted off and carted down to Lonsdale Street, where the indefatigable Epirotes attempt to reassemble their past for the eye of the passing connoisseur.

The collection is vast, and most likely, important. At this year's Lonsdale Street festival, the focus was on nineteenth century silver jewellery from Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, said to be the centre of traditional silver-smithing in Greece. The collection included a large number of ornate filigree headpieces, traditionally worn by brides, intricately crafter bracelets, long, complicated pendants, traditional necklaces dripping with Ottoman currency and rather large turquoise encrusted hoop earrings, proving that such items were in vogue much earlier than their popularisation by JLo. Also on display were a number of male items worked in silver, such as the traditional kiousteki, worn over the breast and a palaska, an intricately worked silver ammunition holder. All these items are authentic and have been lovingly kept or acquired by the Museum contributors.

Also on display was one of the many old icons belonging to the Epirus collection. This particular icon is rare, not only because it is two hundred years old, but also because it depicts John the Baptist holding an infant Jesus, surrounded by Saint Nicholas, Saint John the Theolgian, Saint Catherine and Saint Paraskevi, a novel and anachronistic combination. Executed in the traditional egg tempera on gesso technique, it is a marvel in miniature and was so appreciated by passers-by at this year's exhibition, that already, a focus on Epirotic icons is planning for next year.

The Mobile Museum collection also contains a large number of costumes from various regions of Epirus, both reproductions and originals. This year, pride of place was afforded to a one hundred and fifty year old female costume from the region of Zagoria, where remarkably, the fine embroidery in gold thread shows minimum wear and is intact. A lavishly embroidered male vest, approximately one hundred years old, was also on display.

In pride of place on the back wall of the Museum's stall hung a curved scimitar. This scimitar, with its intricate damascened blade and bone inlaid hilt is of some historical importance. It belonged to Esat Pasha, the last Ottoman pasha of Epirus and was handed over to a prominent member of Ioanninan society, after the city's liberation in 1913.

While the abovementioned items seemed to draw the attention of younger visitors as well as non-Greeks, most older Greeks were drawn by the collection of household utensils and cooking pots. Though not older than a century, all of these items (save for a copper souvenir plate depicting King Leonidas of Sparta which inexplicably made its way into the display, we suspect by the neighbouring Maniot stall-holders, though possibly the President of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia had a hand in this affair as well,) were in use by families and an examination of them, reveals where the tin lining has worn off. Older women marvelled at the old, hewn-wood bread making trough, while everyone's eye was drawn to the traditional working loom, upon which a volunteer was demonstrating traditional weaving techniques. This demonstration elicited the sharing of a number of stories by visitors, all of whom spoke of their own parents or grandparents working the loom. Most felicitously, a number of visitors, enthused by the re-awakening of long forgotten memories, generously offered their own lovingly preserved handicrafts, in the form of the traditional woven flokati blankets, or embroidered cloths and woven rugs for the collection. Augmenting the cross-cultural experience, an Assyrian visitor who asked to work the loom, demonstrated a totally different technique used in her homeland.

Standing in a woollen foustanella in the forty degree heat in order to provide some olde worlde colour to the exhibition is a difficult task but a rewarding one. The amount of interest generated in non-Greek visitors to the Lonsdale Street festival is immense and this comprises a novel way to showcase various, not so prominently accessible aspects of Greek culture to broader Australian society. Chinese-Australians were taken by the similarity of traditional Epirote demotic music, also demonstrated through live performances, to that of their own tradition and were enthralled to learn that the reason for this is that both traditions are based upon the pentatonic scale. Indian-Australians identified a commonality with the cooking implements and were enthused when being informed that it was the gypsies, who migrated into Epirus from India aeons ago, who brought with them and preserved, a culture of working in metal that has endured in both regions until the present day. On the other hand, Iranian and Arabian-Australians found commonalities in the traditional clothing and in the antique photographs of Ioannina, wherein the two mosques that remain in the city were featured prominently. They were fascinated to learn of the Islamic history of the city, the survival of some Islamic customs in the traditional life of the Greeks of the region and of course, of the respect of the Epirotes for the cultural monuments that the Islamic population of the region left behind them. It appeared that the possibilities for the forging of cultural links between diverse peoples and Epirus were endless.

Particularly heart-warming was the passage of an innumerable number of younger members of the Greek community through the exhibition. Both their parents and the exhibitors took great pains to point out various artefacts that evoked aspects of traditional life, culminating in a photo with yours truly in Sarakatsanian form, said children posing with a traditional carved klitsa or Shepherd's staff, with some hesitation but no cringing. One could see their wonder at being able to examine, touch, ponder and peruse items of immense age at their leisure.

Without the support of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, year after year, the Epirus Mobile Museum's mission, one of outreach to the Greek, as well as the broader Australian community would not be possible. For it is one thing to be a repository of memories and quite another to be able to share them in a ware that they will be appreciated and touch another. On the strength of the support and enthusiasm of the community, the Mobile Museum is now planning a branching off into diverse areas of tradition, including an exploration of Greek typography during Ottoman times, Epirote printers in Venice being responsible for the printing of much of the literature that existed in Greek between 1600-1860. In the meantime, should you be walking down Lonsdale Street during the next festival in search of a souvlaki and come across a bespectacled individual incongruously clad in a sheep, step up and say hello. For if our vast collection of artefacts doesn't interest you, the home-made Epirotic tsipouro that we will shout you, surely will.

FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE on Saturday 15 February 2014