Growing up I remember hearing stories of a far-away place, a beautiful place with a protected shoreline, beautiful beaches, water so full of fish that my grandmother would allow the hem of her dress to get wet so that she could scoop them up from that luminous blue palate of the Black sea. This place, Agathopolis, was where my mother’s mother was born and lived until she was 14. My Yiayia Eirini, her mother and siblings all were abruptly forced to leave, never to return. My father’s father was also born in Agathopolis but left eight years before the forced exodus. He set out to make his fortune in America, with the hopes of sending money to his widowed mother Anna, sister Maria and brother Demetrios. Like my Yiayia Eirini, Papou Savas never returned.
Agathopolis has a rich history, dating back to the end of the 7th century BC when it was established by Anaximander from Miletos, Asia Minor, on the west coast of Turkey, near the island of Samos. It became known as the walled city or by some as a walled fortress. The entrance may have resembled that of the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, strong, striking and almost impenetrable. The walls remained until Agathopolis fell to the gunpowder and cannons of the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
At some point between 1836 and 1865, Yiayia Eirini’s grandmother, along with several other girls from her village on the island of Chios were captured with the intent of bringing them to the sultan as members of his haram. The captain of the ship that had been consigned to bring these young girls to the sultan was a Greek man whose heart broke when he saw these beautiful young girls. Upon leaving the island of Chios the ship most likely traveled north through the treacherous Dardanelles Strait, to the Sea of Marmara, bypassing Istanbul, to the first seaside town on the Black Sea.
And so began part of my family's history in Agathopolis.
The inhabitants of Agathopolis lived in peace and prosperity under Turkish rule for close to 500 years as fishermen, farmers, and mariners.
Despite Turkish and prior occupations by Persians and Romans, Agathopolis remained culturally Greek. The outbreak of the Balkan wars in 1912 changed that when the Bulgarian army occupied Agathopolis. At first, the Bulgarians were received with open arms and seen as liberators from the Turks. Believing that there would be “Enarsi” (the joining with the Greek motherland) as a result of this union, the Agathopoliti acted in complete accord with their Orthodox Christian brothers. Unfortunately, that was not the intent of the Bulgarian Nationalists. In October 1913, the Bulgarians established themselves permanently in Agathopolis and renamed the town Ahtopol. A forced change to the writing in the churches, on buildings and signage to Bulgarian signaled the end of the Greek culture in this ancient city.
Soon after, high taxes were levied upon the Greeks, they were arrested indiscriminately, and heavy fines were imposed upon them. The Greek language was prohibited and the schools and churches were appropriated by Bulgaria. On July 11, 1914 my kin and rest of the Greeks were forced into exile. Four years later a massive fire conveniently destroyed most of the buildings in the town. The Bulgarians blamed and continue to blame pirates for this arson.
As an adult I tried to gain first hand information about Agathopolis from my Yiayia. Sadly, she was unable to say much and was brought to tears, becoming quite agitated, as she began to relive the events that occurred when she was forced into exile. I learned that the exodus was tumultuous, with only three hours to assemble their belongings. My family fled like thieves in the night. Forced aboard a boat with guns at their backs, they headed to Greece where a population exchange was taking place. During this crossing, my grandmother's youngest brother went overboard. The initial attempts to rescue him met with opposition, but fortunately, they were able to save Paraskeva, my great-uncle.
Catalyst for the trip to Agathopolis
A little over 100 years later, my father’s youngest sister encouraged me to visit Agathopolis and to take as many photos as possible so that she, and her children could see the beautiful land that her father had lived in, the place from which so many family members were forced into exile. My cousin Anna and I decided it was the right time to visit our ancestral homeland. With the assistance of my husband and other family members, we excitedly planned our short trip.
How we got there
We researched several ways of getting to Agathopolis and finally decided to fly from Athens to Alexandroupolis. We would spend a few days with family in Komotini, and then drive to Agathopolis. Renting the car was an interesting ordeal as we needed a “green card” to take the car across the border. We could not do this in advance and were fortunate that the paperwork was completed in a few hours instead of the typical five days. The drive from Komotini is usually about 5 hours. It took us longer because about midway between Komotini and Ahtopol we stopped in the picturesque town of Plovdiv. Here we spent an hour or so photographing amazing examples of Street Art and ate a delicious lunch.
What we saw along the way
Below are some examples of the Street Art that we saw
We arrived in Ahtopol in the evening. After checking into our hotel, the Colorful Mansion, we walked into the town for dinner. Post WWII buildings and early drab communist style buildings were the norm. Thankfully we were able to use our cell phones and relied heavily on Google translate to converse with our servers.
Remnants of the Past
In the morning, after a sumptuous breakfast we headed back into town to find the few remnants that still exist from our grandparents time.
Today, a school, a church, and one home and a lighthouse are completely intact
Miraculously, this one nave, one apse church from the 18th century survived, the icons are no longer with Greek letters, but with Bulgarian.
The house below was not identified by the locals as a house that existed before the Bulgarians came, but, based on its architectural style, it may also be a house that was in Agathopolis while our grandparents lived there, and in that case there may actually be two houses that predate the exodus.
The streetscape may be different than it was prior to 1918 with the buildings above as the only survivors, but the landscape, vegetation, and wildlife are probably relatively unchanged.
Boats are still moored on the hill side...
There are still coves with boats ...
The Street Art is a new twist...
There are still birds...
As we continued to explore the area we went to the beach. We felt the peace and tranquility that my ancestors felt as we heard the gentle crash of waves and smelled the salted air. We enjoyed a delightful mid-September swim with the air and water temperatures hovering around 30 degrees C or about 86 F.
They may have seen a man in thought as he was looking towards the sea..
or stacked stones while sitting on the beach
What Agathopolis looks like today or what my grandparents would not have recognized
Street Art and Sculpture abound
With the exception of the Colourful Mansion and the new Bulgarian Orthodox Church the architecture does not elicit an ooh-ah response. Thankfully there seem to be many artists in the area and wonderful murals beautify what would be blasé buildings.
Sculpture can be found throughout the town
While Aktopol can no longer be seen as Greek, it is still rich in history with beautiful landscapes composed of cascading cliffs that descend into the Black Sea. It is a nice place to visit.
For the tourist
September is a beautiful time of year in Agathopolis. The rates are reasonable, there are still good restaurants open, it is warm enough for swimming and the summer crowds are gone.
We enjoyed our short stay at the Colourful Mansion and recommend it as it was clean, colorful, in a great location, with helpful English-speaking. multi-lingual owners, and the breakfast was delicious.
Good and reasonably priced food which was similar to Greek food but lacking the greens could be found at the кафе Диана (Diana). We also learned that although the appearance of the letters in Bulgaria is similar to those use in Greek, they do not make the same sounds. In Greek the sign below would sound like grra..nia but in Bulgarian it is Diana….. This made finding places based on suggestions very interesting.
The eggplant salad, seen above is a must if you make it to кафе Диана (Diana).
The Perla Restaurant was also highly recommended , the food was good, the mural on the wall was a pleasant addition, and there was a very chatty caged bird.
There are also places on the beach to eat. We had some delicious fish at one of those after we had a swim.
If you go to Agathopolis with the understanding that it is now Ahtopol, Bulgaria you will not be disappointed. It is a walkable seaside resort, nice for a short visit, and it is minutes away from the Velka River where you can hike and enjoy nature.
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"The History of Agathopolix and Northeastern Thrace", E.G. Vafeos, New York, 1948