A Forgotten Armenian History on a Small Greek Island

Photo: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

The island of Corfu, which lies off the west coast of the Greek mainland, is no stranger to foreign influences. Its unique culture is a fusion of Greek and Italian elements, with later British and French additions, reflecting its varied history as a much coveted and strategic holding in the Mediterranean.

Corfu, unlike nearly all of Greece, never fell under Ottoman rule, remaining a Venetian possession for four centuries. As a bastion of tolerance and freedom compared to the Ottoman Empire, a large number of Christian refugees from the Balkans began to emigrate to the island in the sixteenth century. They founded villages with names reminiscent of their origins – Lakones (from Lakonia), Arkadades (from Arkadia) and Armenades, which was founded by Armenian refugees around 1550.

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The village of Armenades is situated in a deep depression in the north of the island, surrounded on all sides by ravines and thick, undulating hills and forests. In contrast to other Corfiot villages, known for their colorful Italianate architecture, the houses of Armenades are stark and white. Little is known about the origins of the village, except that it was founded by Armenian refugees from the Ottoman Empire, and that their main line of work was olive cultivation.

About a century later, the residents of Armenades decided to move to Rachtades—a much nicer village on the crest of the mountain which had recently been vacated by its inhabitants. They all adopted the surname Armenis as part of their assimilation into Greek society. Two notable natives of Rachtades were the brothers Ioannis and Petros Vrailas Armenis—the former was a highly regarded writer and doctor on the island, while the latter served as Foreign Minister of Greece in the 1870s.

Even today, the majority of the residents of Rachtades still have the surname Armenis. Though the villagers are vaguely aware of their origins as Armenian refugees, nearly five centuries later they have completely assimilated and identify solely as Corfiot or Greek.

The story of Armenades and its founders is an interesting one. Quirky and poignant. But it is not the story. For that we need to travel south to Corfu Town, the island’s imperious capital, and to the Markosian coffee shop, perhaps the most striking symbol of Armenian history on Corfu.

Markosian coffee shop

The mostly pedestrianized George Theotoki Street is one of the main arteries connecting Corfu’s old and new towns, lined with shops, restaurants, bars and banks. Amidst all of them lies the Markosian coffee shop. With its faded oriental storefront and distinctly un-Greek name, it stands out amidst the trendy bars and effete clothing shops.

Although I had passed by it many times, I had never actually been inside. But I had always wondered: Just how did an Armenian coffee shop end up on our small island? By chance, my return to the island for Greek Easter coincided with the annual Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Motivated by this coincidence, I decided to wander in.

—–

Arsak Markosian was born in 1863 in the village of Kemah near Erzincan in what is now eastern Turkey. From an early age, he devoted himself to the family coffee business, importing and roasting beans and serving coffee to the villagers. He married Zaroui, his childhood sweetheart.

In the early 1900s, tired of the persecution being suffered by Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Arsak and Zaroui packed up their things and traveled west – through Anatolia, Thrace, Macedonia – before stumbling upon the island of Corfu. Impressed by its tranquillity and openness and spying a gap in the market for quality, Armenian-style coffee, they decided to settle down.

Shortly after founding his new coffee business on the island, Arsak met another Armenian, Bogos Tzarougian, who had also recently stumbled upon Corfu. Even more serendipitously, Bogos was in the coffee trade, and they hit it off immediately.

Original Tzarougian-Markosian coffee shop

Together, they decided to open a coffee shop in Corfu Town named Markosian-Tzarougian. The business was a huge success. Unlike other parts of Greece and the southern Balkans, Corfu had never come under Ottoman occupation and traditionally looked towards Venice rather than Constantinople. The ‘eastern’ style of coffee culture which the Armenians had brought to Corfu was something of a novelty and proved a revelation among the Corfiots, bringing the two Armenian business partners great respect and wealth.

—–

Leo Markosian is the owner of Markosian coffee shop and the grandson of Arsak and Zaroui. A sharp-witted man in his early 60s, he speaks a number of languages including Armenian and English, the latter of which he picked up as a university student in California. His shop, with its antique old bean roaster in the back, has diversified to sell sweets, spices, liqueurs and an assortment of other goods. He is proud of the shop, which has become something of a landmark in Corfu’s old town.

“I guess what first attracted my grandparents to the island was its lack of minarets,” he says with a cheeky smile. “But also the friendliness of the people, very welcoming to outsiders, which made a contrast from the tense twilight years of the Ottoman Empire.”

The family remained largely removed from events further east until 1915, when a small number of Armenians showed up on the island, stammering out horror stories of what was happening in Anatolia. Events accelerated in 1922, when the destruction of Izmir and the Greek-Turkish population exchange saw around 35,000 Christian refugees arrive on Corfu. Among them were about 3,000 Armenians, many of them orphans.

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The few Armenian families on Corfu were instrumental in helping these new arrivals. Arsak Markosian, who spoke about 12 languages, acted as an interpreter between the refugees and the Greek, British, American and French relief workers on Corfu. The first few years were tough for these new arrivals. Many lived in squalid conditions; in abandoned factories and rotting old Venetian manors. Tragically, many Armenian orphans lost their lives when the building they were living in was bombed by Italian air forces in 1923 during a brief diplomatic spat between Italy and Greece.

Nonetheless, Armenian life—for the first time ever—flourished on Corfu. Many of the refugees who arrived threw themselves headlong into their new surroundings, starting businesses utilizing the skills and trades they had brought with them. The Yerakian and Bagtantian families resumed their shoe-making businesses, the Yeramian family was in furniture, the Messian family in baking, the Kolsouzian family in fabrics, and many more. Perhaps most notable were the Karsian brothers, who opened a silk factory in Corfu Town which at its peak employed 150 people and provided the interiors for Greece’s Olympic Airlines. The prominent Istanbul-born writer Teotig also lived on the island during this time.

At its peak, the community was large enough to support a school, a theater and two churches. In 1924, a memorial service for the Armenian Genocide was held at the island’s main cathedral by the Greek Orthodox archbishop. Arsak and Zaroui also gave birth to a son around this time, whom they named Markos.

During World War II, Corfu was heavily bombed by the Italians and then again by the Germans. One casualty was the original Tzarougian-Markosian shop, which was reduced to rubble. By that time however, the two men had decided to go their separate ways, opening up rival coffee shops in town.

In a symbolic way, it marked the beginning of the end for the island’s Armenian community.

—–

Pavlos Tzarougian

I meet Pavlos Tzarougian in a bar by the island’s old fort. He is in his late 60s—retired from work, but certainly not from life. He arrives by motorcycle and orders a coffee from the waiter before even getting off. He smokes an e-cigarette and wears a stud in his left ear. Like Leo, he can speak Armenian among several other languages. “Where do I start?” he says.

Pavlos’ paternal grandfather Bogos was born in 1875 in Pakarich, a village near the city of Erzurum in what is today eastern Turkey. Like Arsak Markosian, he came from a family of coffee producers, and also like Arsak he married a local girl, Vartoui.

Growing weary of village life, the two of them began traveling across Anatolia and the Balkans, doing business from Van to Vienna. In 1908, the ship that was meant to take them from Trieste to Istanbul made an unannounced stop in Corfu.

Tzarougian Family, 1952 (Pavlos is the young boy pictured in the upper middle.)

The Tzarougians disembarked and wandered into town where they happened to meet one of the only other Armenians on the island—Arsak Markosian—who had also newly arrived. Intrigued, Bogos and Vartoui skipped their boat to Istanbul and decided to stay on the island. That same year, Bogos and his new business partner Arsak, opened their joint coffee shop in the center of Corfu’s old town. Within a year, they effectively dominated the coffee trade on the island.

In 1918, in the midst of the Armenian Genocide, the Tzarougians traveled to Istanbul to try and learn what had become of their family back in Pakarich. The news wasn’t good. “All of them were killed,” Pavlos tells me. By chance, they ran into one of the few survivors from Pakarich, Bogos’ cousin Soghomon Tehlirian, who would later achieve notoriety for killing Talaat Pasha, one of the architects of the Genocide. Soghomon invited Bogos to join him in his crusade to assassinate those responsible for the genocide. Bogos was tempted.

“He was very close to going,” Pavlos tells me. “But his wife had just given birth to their first son Katziazouni – my father – and she begged him to return with them to the safety and tranquility of Corfu. So he did.”

Bogos Tzarougian at work

Bogos returned to business with Arsak Markosian, but the two gradually grew apart. As they grew older, their sons Markos and Katziazouni took over the coffee shop. When the shop was destroyed by bombing during World War II, the two used it as an opportunity to go their separate ways, setting up shop on their own. The relationship between the two was not always cordial. Katziazouni married Ermine, who had been born on the island to Armenian refugees. Markos married Maria, whom he had met while on a business trip to Athens. She was the daughter of an Armenian couple who had fled the destruction of Izmir. Leo and Pavlos—the children from these two marriages—are who I am speaking with today.

—–

Beginning in the 1930s, many Armenians began following their Corfiot compatriots in emigrating for economic reasons. Many went to Athens, but more still went to Switzerland, France, the US and Canada. Armenian orphans were often sent to orphanages and foster homes on the mainland, where they gradually assimilated into Greek society. Intermarriage between Armenians and Greeks was common. After the Second World War, Athens and Moscow signed an agreement allowing Armenians in Greece to ‘repatriate’ to Soviet Armenia. Many took up the offer.

In the 1950s, the island’s Armenian church closed, effectively calling time on the Armenian community of Corfu. Despite its small size and peripheral history, many Armenians living in Armenia, Europe and North America will have ancestors who at one point passed through this island.

—–

In a sense, Pavlos and Leo are the last witnesses and gatekeepers to a once vibrant Armenian heritage on the island. When they pass, the last living connections to the island’s Armenian past will be severed, and their stories will essentially disappear. Both Pavlos and Leo are proud of their Armenian roots but identify solely as Greek or Corfiot. Neither of their children speak Armenian or have any affinity with the nation, and it’s likely that a few generations down the line, they will become like the villagers of Armenades: Greeks with only the faintest inkling of their Armenian origins.

Today there are a handful of families with Armenian surnames left on the island, but there’s little interaction among them. “The only time we meet up is for the annual Genocide commemoration, unfortunately,” says Pavlos.

Both of his children live in Athens, while Leo has a son in Athens and a daughter studying in England. Neither of the men are optimistic that their children will return to live on Corfu. “It’s a small island,” shrugs Pavlos.

In 2015, an event commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Genocide was held on Corfu, sponsored by the Albert Cohen Foundation. Among the guests was the Armenian ambassador to Greece; during his speech, he thanked the people of Corfu for providing sanctuary to Armenians fleeing the Genocide. It was likely the first time many Corfiots had ever heard of this chapter of their island’s history.

—-

Before I leave, I ask Pavlos what his children are up to in Athens. His daughter is a photographer, and his son is opening a café in Monastiraki—a trendy neighborhood in the center of the city.

“What’s the name of his café?” I ask.

“It doesn’t have one yet,” says Pavlos. “But I hope he names it ‘Tzarougian.’”

Alex Sakalis

Alex Sakalis

Alex Sakalis is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the BBC, The Economist and openDemocracy among others. He lives in Bologna, Italy.
Alex Sakalis

@alexsakalis

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24 Comments

  1. A wonderful story. The first Armenian from Greece I met was on the orient Express from Venice to Thessalonike in 1966. His name was Sarkis Sarkissian, born in Greece of Armenian Genocide survivors. Later in the early 70’s, I met another Greek Armenian on the Paris to Brussels train, an older fellow who had a thermos filled with “Turkish” coffee. We shared our strong distaste for the murderers of our people. This ‘distaste’ will remain in my blood until the end of my days and beyond.

    • Demetrius, forgive me for replying to your comment, I can see from your hatred that you will most likely reply to my message with a lot of foul words, but still can’t ignore your message and will embrace whatever comes from your side… Unfortunately the history of human kind is filled with war crimes, genocides, rapes, killing innocent babies etc. No race is exempt from this, not yours not mine no ones. Race is only a concept made by human kind. We can’t be responsible for what our ancestors did in the past. Our responsibility is not to repeat those mistakes. Unfortunately living in the past and inheriting a hatred can easily lead to making the same mistakes done to your grandfathers. My nation, which is obviously Turkish- also endured a lot of genocides lead by western civilisations in the past under the name of “holy crusades”, and probably the same propaganda has been used during the WW1 to create a hatred towards Ottoman citizens ( onl Ottoman empire was not a Turkish empire until ww1) from Armenian and Greek origins. Ofcourse it is within your rights to hate us until the end of your days and beyond, but I do hope at least the message I am trying to deliver makes a bit of sense. The phycology of war is totally different and insane and hard to understand in normal circumstances . German people of today can’t make sense of their past same applies to sensible Turkish people of today. I know most of my nation does not believe that genocide happened as they can’t see themselves doing such a crime but I do know human nature and can see from certain recent events that it could easily happened during stressful times. You might have seen the great war or ww2 as a war for your independence but on my side it was an attack to our nation -there are always two sides of a story- and when you are under attack unfortunately ugly things happen. not trying to defend anything that happened in those dreadful times, but trying to explain a picture is not always black and white. It is a shame that we can’t get along when we share so much history, and when we are so similair, I know no naive approach can fix this yet one hopes that it will be forgotten one day. I shared an apartment with a very dear Greek friend of mine, and he makes the best “Turkish” coffee. We did exchange a lot of foul comment about our nations and laughed about it, I hope you can do that one day as well.. All the best.

    • You’re exactly right Halil, we have to recognize our history in order not to repeat the same mistakes. The sad thing is that Turks will never recognize the genocides(I want to believe this is because of your government’s propaganda and not raging nationalism). That’s why you see the Turkish government constantly making war threats against Greece and Cyprus and constantly invading their territories. You don’t recognize history, you don’t learn from the past and you’re about to repeat the same mistakes

  2. what a beautifully written article ,so interesting ,my grandfatger was one of the orphans whonwas taken to Corfu ,before 3 years i took a group of tourists to Greece ,we also visited Corfu and stumbled upon the matkossian coffee shop which was quite interesting to us ,wheb inreturned back to Lebanon i was telling my uncle how beautoful was Corfu etc …than ehat i heared realy gave me a shock ,my uncle told me that his father (my grnadpa ) waz one of the orphans who was taken to cofru orphanage …and later on i heard that the sisi’s Summer palace waslater turned into an orphanage (while we visited the guide didnt even tell us that it was used as an orphanage for Armenians ) maybe my grandad used to live there ,it gave me really mixed feelings knowing that there wrre many armenians there and now just some several traces …also i saw a shop called arteen from the bus ,the name was armenian ,by night i decided to visit the shop to meet this armenian ,the drink place was next to the sea ,i entered the shop there was a greek man ,couple of drink bottles and a huge picture of Mr. arteen himseld ,i asked the guy ,he didnt knew anything he just told me that he used to be the older owner of this shop ,as for hia children etc.. he doesnt have an idea…

    Armenians went all over the world and left beautiful traces which today sadly disapearing beacause of mix marriages
    ..

  3. what a beautifully written article (a must read )

    So interesting ,my grandfatger was one of the orphans who was taken to an orphanage in Corfu .

    Before 3 years i took a group of tourists to Greece ,we also visited Corfu and stumbled upon the markossian coffee shop which was quite interesting to us ,

    When i returned back to Lebanon i was telling my uncle how beautoful Corfu was etc …than what i heared realy gave me a shock ,my uncle told me that his father (my grnadpa ) was one of the orphans who was taken to cofru orphanage …and later on i heard that the sisi’s Summer palace was later turned into an orphanage (while we visited there the guide didnt even tell us that it was used as an orphanage for Armenians )

    Maybe my grandad used to live in that orphanage that we visited ,it gave me really mixed feelings knowing that there were many Armenians there and now just some several traces …

    Also i saw a shop called arteen from the bus ,the name was armenian ,by night i decided to visit the shop to meet this armenian ,the drink place was next to the sea ,i entered the shop, there was a Greek man ,couple of drink bottles and a huge picture of Mr. Arteen himseld ,i asked the guy ,he didnt knew anything he just told me that he used to be the older owner of this shop ,as for his children etc.. he doesnt have an idea…

    Armenians went all over the world and left beautiful traces and did huge accomplishments which today sadly disappearing beacause of mix marriages
    ..

  4. I have visited that shop which in the late nineties and made a point of meeting and talking to the friendly Armenian elderly couple who owned it. When I asked if their children would continue the business, they said their son, who was married to a Swedish woman, already helped them and the young couple had a little girl who alas… did not speak a word of Armenian. Another relevant incident from my visit to Corfu eas that on the same day I found the couple and their shop, I also noticed the name ARMENIS written in bold, red letters across the window of a jewellery shop. On entering, I asked about the name to the friendly man in his mid-forties. He said he wasn’t Armenian but he didn’t know how his family acquired that surname. Well, the article above explains it! Very interesting, thank you.

  5. I adore Corfu, Zante and Creta….It’s where I plan to hunker down during the Apocalyse! Avgolemono, dolmades and glowing fish!

  6. Very interesting article. It reinforces my pride in be Armenian. My mother and her family were expelled from Izmir and ended up in the city Piraeus. I want to express my gratitude to the Greek people for the help they have to so many Armenians in that very dark period in Armenian history.

  7. How lucky the Armenian society it was!
    ..ARMENİANS weren’t allowed to join the Ottoman army so that they could improve themselves in the merchandising area and they became very rich.

    ..according to Desmond Steward(British journalist who worked for many years in Cairo…graduated oxford in 1948)

    THE LİFE MAGAZİNE “Armenians merchants and financiers were thrived under the Ottomans” Empire …”

  8. What a fabulous story to read and imagine the old days! I feel really lucky to have been to Armenia🇦🇲 & Greece🇬🇷 totally fascinated by their culture.

  9. J’ai lu avec un très grand intéret cet article, ma mère et sa soeur ont été orphelines du “Lord majors found” et ont vécu de 1922 à 1925 à Corfou avant que l’orphelinat ne soit transféré en France à Marseille, puis au Raincy. J’ai écrit son histoire et ses pérégrinations si cela vous intéresse.
    Merci pour votre publication afin de ne pas oublier.

    • Oui, article important. Mon père a vécu à Corfù entre 1921 et 1933. Avez-vous publié ou numérisé l’histoire de votre famille. Mon père a publié ses mémoires en italien et arménien.

  10. To the Turkish guy. It’s rather tragic and disgusting that the Turkish people deny the genocide Armenians Greeks and Assyrians. I as a very young boy actually spoke to a man who saw his whole family slaughtered by the Turks.
    We have seen in 1821 the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church dragged out of the church and hung for several days.
    We have seen the Turkish government initiated podgroms and forced deportations of Greeks in the 1950’s and 1965 . In 1950 10% of the population of Instanbul was Greek. Why not now. We are not talking about ancient history we are talking about recent events. Why is the Turkish army occupying Cyprus since 1974. You gloss over. The crimes of your government and people but your skate is stained by blood. Because your people do not acknowledge what they have done and until they do there will be no reconciliation.

    • I agree. Every sentence of Halil Yildirim’s reply contains the usual excuses, deflections, distractions, distortions, whataboutisms, and lies of the typical Armenian Genocide-denialist Turk. And they always end with something like that deeply insincere “All the best”, but you know they actually wish you all the worst.

  11. Too Halil,
    My father once told me that one should not blame the son for the fathers sins. I firmly believe in that as long as the son admits to his fathers sins. Unlike Germany, The Turkish government has refused to admit and confess to their sins, therefore you and your children and their children will feel the stain even though you have revised your history books never to mention this sad era of your history,

  12. Merci pour cet article qui montre le sens d’hospitalité des Grecs.
    Mon père, Garabed Boranian, a aussi vécu 11 ans sur l’île.
    Nous y sommes retournés en famille en 1964 où nous avons connu la famille Zaroukian : le père Kaciaz et sa torrefaction, son épouse Hermine et les deux fils Paul et Edouard.
    Paul était un peu plus âgé et nous l’intéressions pas. En revanche,je me souviens davantage d’Edouard. Perdus de vue. Merci de ce rappel.

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