It's all Greek to me

The Greek Colony is testament to Jerusalem's changing demographics.

greek colony 88 (photo credit: )
greek colony 88
(photo credit: )
During Hanukka, Israelis think of "Greeks" as the Hellenizing supporters of Antiochus IV who were defeated by the Torah-true Maccabees more than two millennia ago. But in Jerusalem, "Greek" also refers to the Greek Colony, the elegant, leafy neighborhood that 60 years ago was the home of the Holy City's 7,000-strong Greek community. Just as Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet immortalized the international character of Egypt's main Mediterranean port city in the decades before independence, so too fin-de-siecle Jerusalem had a strong cosmopolitan flavor with ex-pat settlements of Germans, French, British, Italians, Russians, Swedes and Americans who established their own institutions and lived in their own neighborhoods or compounds. The largest of Jerusalem's ex-pat communities was the Greek Colony. Located in the German Colony, the neighborhood symbolizes Jerusalem's changing character and demographics since 1948. Today most of its Greek Orthodox denizens have left their picturesque garden suburb. In their place the colony's main building, the historic Greek Community Centre at 8 Joshua Bin Nun Street which was established in 1902, has come to serve both Greek Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians. Some live in Israel permanently, and some commute back and forth between their two Mediterranean homelands. Known as "Lesky," the center is ostensibly utilized for meetings, social gatherings, Greek folk-dancing, Greek-language classes, cultural events and celebrations of Greek national holidays. But the community's website, which hasn't been updated in three years, suggests the center isn't all that active. Costa Zaharkis represents the generation of old-timers. A life-long member of the Greek Christian community here, he used to operate a simple family restaurant not far from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the crowded alleyways of the Old City's Christian Quarter. There he served moussaka, pastitsia and other favorites of the Peloponnesus, as well as dishes like humous which speak to the lasting culinary influence of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in both Greece and the Levant. Costa passed away in 1992, and his eponymous eatery has since been operated by Yussef Rabaya, a Palestinian Arab who had worked for him for 20 years. Zaharkis was buried in a Greek Orthodox cemetery here. The Patriarchate is the second largest property owner in the country, following the Israel Lands Authority which controls some 90 percent of the country's land. Four kilometers west of Kosta's Restaurant but a world away is the chic German colony, where the tidy stone villas built a century ago by German Templers and Greek businessmen now fetch several million dollars from wealthy foreign buyers. The finest example of the Greek Colony's architecture today is the Efklides Residence, a one-floor mansion with a red tiled roof and well-tended garden - which was restored between 1998 and 2000 by Elias Messinas. Since 1989 the Greek-born architect has split his time between Israel, Greece, and the United States where he lectures at Yale University's school of architecture. The house was built by Dr. Photios Efklides, who directed the first hospital built outside Jerusalem's medieval ramparts. Dr. Efklides, who was born in Brusa, Turkey, immigrated to then Ottoman controlled Palestine around 1900, and built his home shortly after. Jerusalem's Greek community reached its zenith during the years of the British Mandate (1921-1948), when more than 7,000 people lived there. Traditionally the Greeks lived in the shadows of the thick-walled monasteries owned by the Patriarchate where they could seek refuge if threatened. Around 1900 a monk named Ephthimious purchased 100 hectares (40 acres) in the Katamon area which was the genesis of the Greek Colony. (The name Katamon derives from the Greek meaning "near the monastery.") Who were the Greeks that settled in Jerusalem? Every child familiar with the story of Hanukka knows Greeks have been coming to the eastern Mediterranean since the time of Alexander the Great 2,300 years ago. Today an ever dwindling number of monks inhabit the many monasteries associated with the life and Passion of Jesus. But many of those Greeks who came in the 1920s and 1930s had more prosaic reasons for settling here. They had lost their homes and property in Asia Minor following the population transfers of Greeks and Turks after World War I. Rapidly modernizing Jerusalem, which was burgeoning under the British, seemed more attractive at the time than impoverished Greece. But Jerusalem's Greeks never forgot their ancestral homeland. During the Second World War, Anestis Zographos and Manolis Mikonas left the city to volunteer to fight the Italian fascists and their Nazi allies who had invaded Greece. Both Jerusalemites died in the service of the Greek Navy. After WWII, the Greek community became caught in the middle of the fighting between Jews and Arabs as the Union Jack was lowered. Many of the residents of the Greek Colony took refuge in the Patriarchate in the Old City and the monasteries on the eastern side of Jerusalem. A crucial battle was fought over the Katamon Monastery, which had been seized by Iraqi soldiers. The Greeks, like the Palestinian Arabs and in a larger sense the Jews from Arab countries, became refugees displaced by Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Many emigrated to Australia, the United States and Cyprus. Some returned to Greece. After the Six-Day War, divided Jerusalem was re-united and the Greek Community Center revitalized to serve the citizens of both halves of the city. Yvette Nahmia is a notable member of today's Greek Colony of several hundred people. A psychologist and Greek language instructor, she splits her time between Jerusalem and the island of Aegina not far from Athens. Prof. Kostas Moutzouglou teaches sirtaki and Greek folk-dancing at the Lesky center every Wednesday evening. And what would a Greek community be without live music? The Jerusalem-based duo Rebetiko, consisting of Elias Messinas on vocals and guitar and Moti Tzemah on bouzouki, plays both taverna classics and pop hits of Greek musicians like Vitali, Alexiou, Galani and Aggelopoulos. The band routinely plays at bar mitzvah celebrations and weddings where the toasts include both "yassou" and "l'chaim."