The culture of Aspropotamos : The Vlachs
|THE VLACH CULTURE : THE CULTURE OF ASPROPOTAMOS
The history of aspropotamos, is the history of its people: the Greek Vlachs.
The history of Vlachs
The word Vlach is an Indo Aryan word, which means speaker of a foreign tongue. Over the millennia, in its various forms, this appellation has been applied to the inhabitants of Southern Romania, Wallachs, the French speakers of Belgium, Walloons, the Welsh of Britain and the indigenous Slav tribes of Eastern Germany, Wends.
The Vlachs, who speak a Latin-based language, are one of the last remnants of a people who preserve a wholly pastoral lifestyle rather than a national 'race' as a determinant of their identity.
Indeed, the scholarly debate over the origin of the Vlachs that has raged over the years signifies the failure of the idea that race is determinant of identity.
The Vlachs emerged into history in the European Middle Ages, primarily in the region south of the Danube. It has been claimed that they are to be descendants of the ancient Romans who in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. occupied Dacia, a Roman province located in Romania.
Another theory suggests that their ancestors were a Thracian tribe, native to the Roman province of Dacia, which intermarried with the Roman colonists and assimilated their language and culture.
After the Romans evacuated Dacia, the area was subjected to a series of barbarian invasions. According to some scholars, some of these Thracians moved south of the Danube, penetrating the Balkans. Another theory suggests that the Latinised tribes were of Thracian and Greek origin and that the Vlachs living in Greece today are descendants of the Latinised Greek tribes.
These Vlachs, or Aromunians, settled on the mountains of Thessaly. According to the 12th - century Byzantine historian Anna Komninou, they founded the independent state of Great Vlachia, which covered the southern and central Pindos Mountain ranges and part of Macedonia.
After the establishment of the Latin Empire at Constantinople in 1204, the Greek Despotate of Epirus absorbed Great Vlachia; later the Serbs annexed it and in 1393 it fell to the Turks.
Anna Komninou described the Vlachs as communities of shepherds who moved with their flocks between their winter pastures in Thessaly and summer pastures of the Gramos Mountain and Pindus range.
During the next six hundred years, the independent kingdoms of the Vlachs were defeated and brought under the authority of the Ottoman Empire. Although most historians regard the years of Ottoman rule as a wretched period, marred by cultural stagnation and economic depression, for the Vlachs the reverse seems to be the case.
Vlachs thrived as traders, shepherds and craftsmen. They formed the backbone of Balkan economic activity and did much to prepare the Greek nation for the struggle for independence, identifying themselves as Latin-speaking Greeks. Thus in the nineteenth century, the Vlachs rose against Turks, participating in the Greek War of Independence and provided many of its leaders. Subsequently, the Greek state benefited from very generous donations of prominent Vlachs who had made fortunes in Europe, such as the Northern Epirots Zappas and Tositsas.
Following the emergence of Romanian nationalism in the mid-1800's century, Romanian agents penetrated the Balkans and endeavoured to create a Romanian, or at least a distinct, non-Greek national consciousness among Vlachs in the Southern Balkans. The movement started in the Pindos area in the 1860's, with a multitude of Aromunian textbooks using the Latin alphabet being published. Romanian schools were created in the Vlach areas of Ottoman Empire, but the most prosperous Vlach families continued to favour a Greek education and identified solely with Hellenism, persecuting the few who were taken in by the Romanian propaganda.
Today it is estimated that there are about 30,000 Vlachophones in Greece and another 20,000 in Albania. Today, Vlach ethnic identity is perceived by many members of the community as distinct from that of the other Greeks who have Greek as their mother tongue but as fully compatible with Greek national identity, which includes those who feel Greek.
The use of Vlach language is weakening and it is used mainly by elderly and middle-aged people, but younger generations use it much less. That is the case in the villages of Aspropotamos as well.
Since the 1980's though, a very interesting Vlach revival has been noticed. An annual festival, with an increasing participation of Vlach cultural associations takes place, usually in Metsovo (the heart of the Greek Vlach culture). These associations have created a national Pan-Hellenic Union of Vlach Cultural Associations.
Records and cassettes with Vlach songs are produced and books about the Vlach culture and history are published. Aromunian ( Vlach tongue) is even a research subject at the University of Salonica. It should be noted, though, that most of the people involved in this revival are hostile to a possible teaching of Vlach at schools.
False claims about Greek Vlachs
From time to time, Romanian and expatriate Vlach groups in the USA make fantastic claims about the suppression of Vlach culture and their persecution by the Greek nation. On the Turkish Foreign Ministry's website, purported outrages against the Vlach population of Greece are published from time to time. Not only there is no evidence to support those ridiculous claims but every Vlach if asked will confirm this, and he/she would say that Vlachs are more Greeks than the rest Greeks.
The Vlachs are famous for the ease with which they assimilate, identifying with Hellenism. However, they hold their Vlach identity in reserve, giving them a sense of pride and also superiority over other cultural groups. It seems that rather than being an ethnic group, being a Vlach is a way of life. They present a fascinating case study of a traditional society adapting to modern life and assimilating within its norms once again.
Their resilience will ensure the survival of their cultural distinctiveness as a progressive Greek group, into the next century and beyond.