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The Year in Byzantium

Local families showcase treasures at the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum
by: Polina Olsen Andreas Papachristopoulos of Tigard holds icons painted by his mother and sister. Both still live in Greece.

Organizer Joan Liapes calls it a labor of love.

'The Year in Byzantium' a new exhibit at the Holy Trinity Greek Cathedral in Northeast Portland showcases parishioners' devotion to their families, history and church. They've gathered heirloom icons, costumes and jewelry. Hand-embroidered pillows and crocheted lace decorate a recreated village living room. Over at the musical instrument section, a lyre has a donkey's head carved into the handle. An altar scene includes the incense burners and candles often used in prayer.

Many of the treasures, Liapes said, come from parishioners who live in the Beaverton and Tigard areas. Their ancient icons and other religious objects glow in the display case across the back wall. Those parishioners opened their homes, as did Beaverton's sister church, Saint John the Baptist Greek Orthodox, to answer questions and share stories from Greece and the new exhibit.

Andreas Papachristopoulos lent the exhibit the icon titled 'She who shows the way.'

'It could be 700 years old,' he said. 'My father's brother got it in the Holy Lands.'

Born in Athens shortly before World War II, Papachristopoulos grew up across from a military depot and next door to the royal horse trainer.

'During celebrations the king rode in an open car with white horses in front and dark horses in back,' he said. 'My neighbor rode a white horse right next to the king. He was dressed like Napoleon. When his daughter had a party, she invited Prince Constantine who later became king. So I knew Constantine since we were little guys.'

Papachristopoulos studied at the University of Oregon and returned to Greece with his American bride. The couple immigrated to Oregon after the 1967 military coup that deposed his childhood acquaintance. Now, he said, asking if he keeps Greek art in his Tigard home is like asking at a candy store if they carry candy. There were vases on the mantle, paintings on the wall and, of course, beautiful icons.

'Icons are a visualization of what the saints, Christ and Mother Mary looked like,' he said. 'When you pray, you can visualize whom you're praying to. I have two icons of Saint Andreas, and one of Saint Catherine, my wife's name. Most of them are above the dresser hanging around the wall.'

Papachristopoulos said much of his artwork reflects a Byzantine influence.

'It was a period when the Roman Empire flourished, and at the same time the Byzantine Empire flourished,' he said. 'At some point they split because the Roman Empire wanted the pope as head of the empire. The eastern or Byzantine empire wanted a different head of the church. The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks. Greece was under the occupation of the Turks until 1821.'

Like Papachristopoulos, John Makris lent the exhibit a family icon. He and his wife Sophia have lived in their Tigard home for 31 years. Sophia's parents live downstairs. Their daughter, Vanka, joined the conversation.

'My grandmother left it to me before she died,' he said, about the icon that has passed down through generations. 'The last date we can see on the back is 1496.' Traditionally, the family inscribes the first son's name on the back of an icon.

The heirloom recounts a sad history. Makris's grandmother was a 20-year-old schoolteacher living in Kusadasi, Turkey, during the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War. During this period, a compulsory population exchange between Muslims in Greece and Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey meant several local families had relatives who fled for their lives.

'She tied her younger siblings to her by their belts, grabbed the icon and fled to Greece,' Makris said. He later came to the United States as a student and met Sophia at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. 'The church is where everyone congregates for religious and social gatherings,' she said. 'There is that sense of community.'

Koula and Nick Fkiaras of Beaverton lent the museum a prosphora seal. Used for stamping bread made for Holy Communion, the seals are found in many Greek homes.

'I found it in my mother-in-law's house,' Koula Fkiaras said referring to the family home in Greece. 'It's about 90 years old. She got it from her mother-in-law. I keep the tradition. I make the bread sometimes and use this seal. I keep it in a drawer with a special towel to cover the prosphora when I take it to church.'

Fkiaras enjoys sharing her rich culture with others, and hopes people of all ages visit the exhibit. Thomaida Hudanish, St. John the Baptist, parish administrator couldn't agree more. Holy Trinity parishioners founded her church as a mission to the increasing Westside membership. Their complex across from the Nike campus includes Agia Sophia Academy, Portland's only Orthodox Christian school.

Hudanish hopes the exhibit helps people understand Byzantine ties with Greece and the development of Christianity during the era.

'The Byzantine empire was Orthodox,' she said. 'It's important to see the beautiful things that have been preserved. Byzantine and Orthodox culture are so intertwined.'

The Year in Byzantium runs through December 2011 and is open on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 2 p.m. The Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum is located on the second floor of the Fr. Elias Stephanopoulos Center at 3131 N.E. Glisan St, Portland. Admission is free.

Special tours may be scheduled for schools, organizations and individuals. For more information, call 503-234-0468 or visit hellenicamericancc.org.