Eleni Kyramargiou on a pioneering project addressing the material culture of refugees and the multiple layers of memory.

Eleni is Associate Researcher at the Institute of Historical Research / National Hellenic Research Foundation..

On October 2, 1924, in compliance with the terms of the Lausanne Treaty, the residents of Sinasos / Mustafapaşa left their homes and their homeland for Greece. They were ‘exchangeable’ refugees, so they were aware that neither they nor their families would be allowed to return. As a result, their exodus was not an abrupt, but rather a long, coordinated farewell. The residents of Sinasos had known they would have to leave since the signing of the population exchange treaty in January; all that remained was to await the details and date of their departure.

Although their story is typical of the population exchange process, one detail sets Sinasos apart. Before their departure, the residents of Sinasos, supported by their local council, photographed their houses and their community. Τhese photographs travelled with them, or ahead of them, first to Constantinople (Istanbul) and then, finally, to Athens, where the photo album Η Σινασός: το διαμάντι της Ανατολής, 1924 [Sinasos: the diamond of Anatolia, 1924] was published at the end of 1924. This album was a conscious attempt to preserve the past, namely the history, the traditions, and the collective memory of a community which does not exist anymore. The photographs coming from ‘there,’ and the short texts written by the refugees in their new ‘here,’ constitute an endeavour to reconstruct their old communal life, from its history and architecture to the local dialect and the songs they used to sing.

This album is more than a book. For the people of Sinasos who experienced the exodus, it is a living part of home, while for their descendants it is a way to learn about their past and their place of origin. For historians, this album is valuable historical evidence, not just because of the information it provides, but because it reveals the historical perception and perspective of its creators, as they set out to document the history of a place and a community that would soon cease to exist in that particular form. It is a precious object, despite the fact that it did not actually come from the homeland, but was instead made ‘here’ in order to preserve the history of a ‘there’ that had to be left behind, highlighting the multiple dimensions an object can acquire through the course of its ‘life’.

This photo album, the one created by the first generation of refugees from Sinassos, was one of the objects I encountered during my research on the material dimensions of the population exchange experience. The initial question was simple: what does one take in a moment of involuntary expulsion? What objects were considered to be valuable, useful, or symbolically important? What happened to them over time? And, assuming we were able to identify them, what value do they carry for their current owners? For our research team the album set in motion a wider examination of the objects that Christian refugees chose to take with them at the moment of flight. 

When we started this project, we believed that these objects would allow us to reconstruct the process of refugee integration into the novel Greek setting. Eventually, we realized that these objects have a second life: they acquire multiple meanings and generate diverse sentiments in the hands of their current owners

Clothes and personal items, jewellery and valuables, trade tools and religious icons, property deeds, documents, and letters are some of the most common things that the displaced chose to take with them when stuffing a few bundles with practical items for everyday use and objects of material and emotional value; the precious and the quotidian, side by side. We decided that a digital exhibition showcasing these objects would be the perfect medium to encapsulate and disseminate our findings. The objects themselves as well as the stories of both their original and current owners highlight the point where mobility meets material culture.

The oud of Vasilis Kaptanoglou from Prokopi, Cappadocia, and the music which still echoes in the ears of his granddaughter, Eleni; the weights of Georgios Tsouchnikas’ scale from Surmene, Pontus, which carry ‘the weight of our family history’ according to his granddaughter, Vasiliki; the medical bag and instruments of Anastasios Malkotsis from Panormos, Propontis, which his son Ioannis has donated to the Folklife and Ethnological Museum of Macedonia and Thrace; all these items harbour the refugee stories of their original owners. At the same time, as noted by Renée Hirschon, these objects and the memories they carry, as well as the use of memory itself over the past 100 years, have built ‘memory bridges’ for the owners’ descendants.[1]

As part of the project, we met 73 different object owners, none of whom is the original owner of the exhibited object. We also met the owners of objects donated to refugee associations or displayed in museum collections. We spent a long time talking with them, investigating the history of the objects and their families. Indeed, through the histories of these objects we managed to explore the life their owners and their refugee families had led at their place of origin, their journey and their resettlement in Greece.

Some owners had plenty of information to share, others knew little, with the latter usually regretting the failure to prod their relatives for more, thereby losing precious pieces of their family history. During our conversations we also delved deeper into what their refugee heritage means to them, what their family’s movement and resettlement was like, as well as whether they themselves still construct their identity today in relation to their refugee origins.

Only one of our informants, the owner of a samovar, told us that he felt ‘100% Greek’, that he had no wish to visit his grandparents’ place of origin, and that he just felt sorry that his widowed grandmother and his orphaned father had had a hard life in the Soviet Union, where they had initially found refuge before coming to Greece. All other informants had constructed a ‘refugee identity’ for themselves, especially over the past few years, and had in a way ‘created’ their own history, memories and recollections, regardless of factors such us how much they knew about their family history, whether they had visited their grandparents’ place of origin, or whether their parents had felt like refugees. What differed depending on their age and educational level was the intensity of the stories they shared with us. Older women, especially those with a better educational background, became deeply emotional when speaking of the ‘homeland’ their parents or grandparents had left behind. 

For the research team and me personally, this project raised many intriguing questions: How do subjects construct their multiple identities? How are personal recollections and personal history shaped through second-hand accounts? Or, even more generally, how are personal narratives constructed and how do they influence the big picture? Most of our informants have reconstructed their ‘refugee identity’ and have repositioned themselves and their families in history, in the past, the present and, possibly, the future. Kristina Gedgaudaite describes this process as ‘viewing memory as a portable toolkit’ and aptly characterizes this type of memory as ‘portable memory.’[2]  

These objects, alongside the stories and memories of the subjects, are fragments left behind on the trail of a long and arduous population movement which brought down the curtain on a decade of military conflict in the Balkans, which defined the national borders of Greece and Turkey, and which shaped the modern societies of both countries. Simultaneously, thousands of people and objects were crossing the Aegean in the opposite direction: Muslim populations leaving Greece, as stipulated by the Lausanne Treaty. Monumental as it was, that was not the first time that refugees had had to cross the Aegean Sea, nor would it be the last. Objects do not have a voice of their own. They are resilient markers of a historical moment and a reminder that even in moments of crisis people make choices: they chose what is valuable for them and what they imagine that will help them in encountering the unknown.


[1] Renée Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (London: Berghahn, 1989), p. 15.

[2] Kristina Gedgaudaite, Memories of Asia Minor in Contemporary Greek Culture. An Itinerary (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), p. 219. 

The digital exhibition 100objects is conducted at the Institute for Historical Research of the National Research Foundation. The objects exhibited were collected over the course of two research projects: Fleeing objects, funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Public Humanities Initiative and implemented at Columbia University during the period 2020-2021, and Objects in Motion, funded by the Ministry of Culture among other research on the meaning of expatriation on the occasion of the centenary since the arrival and integration of the Greek populations in Greece after the Asia Minor catastrophe.