Corfu is an island in the northwest corner of Greece.
A Forgotten Armenian History on a Small Greek Island
August 28, 2019 at 3:07 pm Alex Sakalis
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, who 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.’”