Until last Sunday, my exposure to Greece was limited to the spanakopita I took second helpings of in Sweet Briar College’s Prothro Dining Room, the iconic motifs decorating New York’s Anthora coffee cup, and my mother’s account of being in Athens when the Greek coup d’état took place on April 21, 1967.
After checking out the 42nd annual Greek Festival hosted by the parishioners of The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Columbus, I have a new appreciation for the cultural heritage of Greece.
Held every Labor Day weekend, this four-day festival introduces visitors to Greek traditions through music, dance, visual arts and — best of all — food.
After you watched free “Learn to Cook Greek” lessons…
you could shop in the Aegean Marketplace Deli, a mini-grocery store stocked with the parish’s cookbook of Greek recipes and packaged Greek foods like honey, pasta and baklava granola offered as a parish fundraiser.
You could learn more about Greek history and traditions in the Cultural Center, choose from a selection of religious books and objects in the Annunciation Bookstore, and shop for imported Greek jewelry, clothing, music and gifts.
Other booths were filled with Greek-themed artwork, like the bold scratchboard prints of Evangelia Phillipidis, a Greek native who is the former editorial features illustrator for The Columbus Dispatch and owner of Galleria Evangelia.
At Maria’s Pastry Shoppe, I learned about St. Euphrosynus, a monastery cook whose icon is often found in the kitchens of Orthodox believers who pray to him as they fix meals. Then, I took home a box filled with honey-drenched baklava and traditional Greek pastries like kataifi, delicate nests of pastry strands wrapped around walnuts and dipped in honey; buttery kourambiethes cookies sprinkled with confectionery sugar; and twisted shortbread koulourakia. You could also try tsourekia, a traditional Greek Easter bread, and several varieties of pastes, three layers of cake with two layers of whipped cream.
Outside, I watched people in blue-and-white tents ordering souvlaki, gyros, lamb chop dinners and Greek fish served with fries seasoned with Greek spices, then washing them down with Greek Mythos beer. Inside, I took my place in a long queue for a la carte traditional Greek dishes like pastitsio, with its layers of macaroni in a tomato-cinnamon meat sauce, moussaka loaded with eggplant and ground beef in a béchamel sauce, flaky spanakopita, a Greek salad loaded with feta cheese and dripping with the tastiest dressing, and a dish of creamy rice pudding topped with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon. Next time, I’ll try the dolmathes, keftedes and chicken baked with potatoes and lemon.
The festival also provided plenty of opportunities to tour the cathedral’s magnificent interior. Ever since it was built in 1990, I’ve admired its exterior every time I pass its home at the corner of West Goodale Boulevard and North High Street.
Designed in the traditional Byzantine architectural style, the church reflects the shape of a Greek cross, with a central dome placed where the arms of the cross meet. The dome depicts the icon of Christ the Pantocrator surrounded by 24 Old Testament patriarchs.
In the half-dome behind the altar is a mosaic icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Four mosaic portraits of the Evangelists — Mark, Luke, Matthew and John — adorn four columns in the corners of the dome.
All of the mosaics inside the cathedral were made by Bruno Salvatori of Florence, Italy. They consist of about five million tiles of Venetian glass and 24-carat gold.
Thirty-six chandeliers imported from Greece illuminate the interior of the cathedral. The pendant at the bottom of the central chandelier depicts one of the six-winged angels, the Seraphim, while the pendants on the companion chandeliers portray the double-headed eagle, symbolic of the Byzantine Empire.
Peacocks not only represent eternal life in the Eastern Orthodox faith, but also were a symbol of the Byzantine Empire, a tour guide said. A cross formed by the representation of four fishes is reminiscent of “ichthus,” the Greek word for fish, and is a Christian symbol for Christ, he continued.
The throne of the Bishop is similar to those used by royalty in the Byzantine Empire.
The icon screen in an Orthodox church is a partition between the altar and the Solea, the area where the sacraments of the church are administered. An icon of the Last Supper is above the central doors leading to the altar.
The guide explained that the first panel to the right of those doors always depicts Christ, followed by St. John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel, while the panels on the left are decorated with an icon of the Mother of God holding the infant Christ and Michael the Archangel. The second panel on the left is always different because it depicts the name of the church. In this case, the icon represents the Annunciation.
On Good Friday, an embroidered cloth icon depicting Christ after he has been removed from the cross — known as an Epitaphios — is placed in an elaborately carved canopy decorated with flowers that represents Christ’s tomb, called a kouvouklion. Parishioners holding candles carry the Epitaphios and kouvouklion as they process around the outside of the church, then walk underneath it before they enter the church.
To learn more about The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and its next festival to be held September 4-7, 2015, click here.