A museum in northern Athens is preserving the memories of Asia Minor Greeks

Objects that once belonged to Greeks in Asia Minor often make their way to the Eskici Yusuf antiques store in present-day Izmir. “Many customers come here to sell Cretan divans, sculpted wood furniture, embroidery, post cards and other relics of a life that came to an abrupt halt,” the proprietor, Sadan Yusuf Durkan, whose mother hailed from Kavala in northern Greece, told Kathimerini recently.

A few years ago a young woman entered the store carrying a wooden suitcase which she had inherited from her grandmother, who, in turn, had been entrusted with it by a Greek woman who taught sewing and embroidery before having to flee Smyrna. The box contained samples of students’ work as well as materials the seamstress used for wedding gowns, mostly lace and pearls. The young woman also brought a wooden chest to the store filled with the dowry of an unnamed Greek woman.

“That is when I thought, with my wife who is Greek, that all these should be preserved and exhibited somewhere, as a sample of the traditions of Asia Minor,” said Durkan. So, shortly before New Year, the couple donated the contents of the suitcase and the chest to the Asia Minor Folk Museum in the northern Athenian suburb of Nea Erythrea (Karastamati & 2 Driveti, tel 210.6209.814), an institution which opened in 2013 in a space donated by the municipality.

“Among the small clothes, we also discovered some love letters written between a couple,” said Durkan’s wife, Evangelia Kaskani, as she showed me black-and-white photographs of elegantly dressed men and women.

The contents of the suitcase and chest have now been put on display among another 2,000 objects donated by families from Asia Minor to the association that runs the museum.

“Those who were forcibly expelled could not bring even a fraction of their belongings with them. But those who came to Greece in the population exchanges or abandoned their homes before the 1922 disaster were able to bring along valuable objects and family heirlooms,” explained the association’s president and caretaker of the museum, Kyriakos Martakis, as he showed me around the exhibits.

The first hall contains photographs by families from Asia Minor taken when they settled in various parts of Attica, as well as handicrafts and old newspapers.

The tribulations of these uprooted people are not the focus of the museum. Rather, it tries to present their daily lives and show how they expressed themselves through arts and crafts. The museum, for example, boasts clothing that once belonged to Roza Eskenazi, the quintessential voice of the Greeks of Asia Minor, as well as traditional wedding dresses and men’s suits.

“We are fighting tooth and nail to preserve this 1750 costume from Ikonio,” said Martakis. “Here we have an evening gown that was designed in Paris, launched at the Quai in Smyrna but was mostly worn by its owner on Stadiou Street [in central Athens], where she settled after the expulsions.”

In another hall, there are rich displays of domestic life in 1800 and later, such as an oven, a mincer and an ice cream-making machine, though the real show-stopper is a bedroom, complete with double bed, a child’s bed and a low dresser, as it was the custom for women to sit on cushions on the floor to make themselves up in the morning.

A mirror that once belonged to Martakis’s mother is also on display in the same hall. He managed to salvage it from her old home, which had been turned into a pension. “It took a lot of diplomacy but I was able to bring it back to Greece with me,” he explained.

The 76-year-old pensioner first visited his parents’ hometown, Cesme, after his father died at the advanced age of 105. Using his father’s memories of the past as his map, Martakis eventually found his father’s family home.

An elderly Turk opened the door and said, “Finally, you’re here!”

“I got weak at the knees,” admitted Martakis. “It was my grandfather’s protege who had guarded the house and all of its contents ever since, convinced that someone from the family would come back one day.”