Glimpses of the Greek Community from the Dhaka University Gravestones

By Helen Abadzi

Press on the Photo to see the Photographic Archive “The Greek Community in Bengal”

The Monument

A small yellow building that looks a little like a Greek temple faces the campus wall near the Teacher-Student Center of Dhaka University.  It looks old and was in very bad state until the 1960s, when university authorities renovated it.  A mysterious inscription is written on the frieze above the entrance to the building.

Many students and professors over the years have passed by this small building and wondered what the strange letters said. Those who peeped inside the usually locked gates and behind the furniture that is often stashed there, saw several plaques with inscriptions and wondered what they were.  This article solves the mystery.  It provides translations of the inscriptions and makes some inferences about the people commemorated there and their families.

                          The Inscriptions and Translations
On the frieze of the front entrance, facing the Nazrul Islam avenue, it is written in capital Greek letters:

                         “Happy are those whom you chose and took with you.”[1]

Without seeing the inscriptions inside, a reader of ancient Greek might think that the happy ones are the students admitted to the university!  However, the inscription was carved long before students starting strolling casually by the little building.  It refers to the nine gravestones which are embedded in the walls.  Four are written in Greek, four in English, and one is in both languages.  They belong to Greek families who lived in Dhaka 150-200 years ago.

The Gravestones

Counterclockwise, the nine gravestones have the following inscriptions in Greek, English, or sometimes in both.  (See table with original scripts and languages pdf1 and pdf2.)  

Gravestone 1 (bilingual inscription) 

Here lies Sultana, wife of Alexander [son of] Kyriakos Philippou Politou (or Philippou from Istanbul); 1800; January 25 [by the Julian calendar].  Paid the common debt in Dacca. [Greek language] 

Under this stone are deposited the mortal remains of Mrs. Sultana Alexander, who departed this life on Tuesday the 6th of February 1800; Aged 34 years. [English language] 

Gravestone 2 (Greek): 

Here lies the late Theodosia, wife of Theodore [son of] George Philippou Politou (or Philippou from Istanbul).  1805; April 10.  Paid common debt in Dacca.  May her memory be everlasting. 

Gravestone 3 (English) 

To the memory: Mrs. Magdalene and Sophia Jordan; also to that of their husband, Mr. Joseph Jordan of Cesareah, Merchant at Narayangange.  The latter departed this life the 10 of February 1819; Aged about 60 years.  This monument is erected as a tribute of affection to their memory by their afflicted orphan children. 

Gravestone 4 (English; the Urdu poem is in Latin characters, translation by the author)

To the memory of Nicholas Demetrius Elias, elder son of Demetrius Elias Esq. Died 5th March 1843; aged 46 years.  His desired verse:

Dune_ka jomuza hain           The enjoyments of the world [after I die]
hurgeze_ cumnu honga        will never [emphatic] become less
churcha ahe ruhaga              there will be talk of sighs [my pain]
ufsose humnu honga             it is sad [emphatic] that I will not be there 

Erected by his sincere friend, Basil Demetrius, in 1859 

Gravestone 5: (Greek, ornate stone centrally located) 

Here lies the late Jacob Essai Iakoboglous, from Caesarea; died 1819, June 22 and was 48 years old.  The one who sees this stone from above, God, may he forgive him.

 Gravestone 6 (English) 

Sacred to the memory of Basil Demetrius, Clerk, St. Thomas Church.  Born 5th Sept. 1800.  He faithfully served as Commissariat Assistant IX [9] Years, Writing Master & Teacher in the Dacca College X [10] Years, Clerk in St. Thomas Church Dacca XL [40] Years. 

 Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God
Matthew V.8 MDCCCLX  [1860] 

Gravestone 7 (Greek) 

This is the grave of Father Nathaniel; holy and saintly, preaching about Jesus through word and life.  Second appeared Thomas priest in the inimitable happy Dhaka.  And at the same time, his fatherland was Sifnos [an Aegean island], where he saw the light in 1736.  The [date in] which he died was 1810, March 12.  Happy is the one who by paying homage respects.

 Gravestone 8: (Greek) 

The husband-loving woman who has not forgotten her husband’s affection has erected this sign as an indication of her everlasting passion to her husband, Constantine [son of] George Mavrodoglou, whose home town was Istanbul and who spent his life as a merchant and was relieved [of his life] on July 24 1806.  Dhaka. 

Gravestone 9 (English) 

Sacred to the memory of John Demetrius Ellias, second son of Demetrius Ellias Esquire, who was killed by a tiger whilst out shooting at Mirzapore 25 milles N.W. of Dacca on Sunday the 31st of January 1836.  Aged 35 years.

Three noble brothers lie mouldering here
named Nicholas, John and Constantine
famed as brave Hunters and to kindred dear
who erst to sport did their merry lives confine.
Erected by his cousin and godson, Manuel Ellias Mitchoo.

History of the Greek Community in Dhaka

The existence of Greeks and Armenians in Dhaka is known from Dr. James Taylor who wrote in a book called “Topography of Dhaka” and referred to the immigrant communities.  Greeks were late-comers to the Bangladesh area, after the Portuguese, Dutch, and Armenians.  Alexis Argyris, the founder of the Greek community in Calcutta, died in Dhaka in 1777 and left considerable property, which was divided among his sons who took up their abode in Dhaka and Bakerganj.  The Greek community apparently was small.  According to Dr. Taylor, there were 40 Armenian and 12 Greek families in 1838.  Like the Armenians, the Greeks were chiefly engaged in the inland trade, and there were a few who dealt extensively in salt at Narayanganj.  Apparently some achieved wealth, like the Elias family whose sons could afford to live a life of sports.  The most prominent Greeks at the time Dr. Taylor wrote his book were the Ralli brothers, who had a jute factory at Narayanganj. 

According to Dr. Taylor, the Greek church was built in 1821.  Its name, St. Thomas, (one of the 12 disciples of Jesus who is presumed to have lived in India) refers to a saint commemorated much more by South Indians than by Greeks and may indicate a tribute to Indian Christians.  Since the church was built in 1821, most university gravestones predated it.  This means that maybe a smaller church existed previously or another church had been used for community events, such as a South Indian, Russian, or Armenian church.  The priest attached to the church came from the ancient monastery of Mount Sinai in Egypt.  A community center and a cemetery with about two bighas of land also existed in Maulvi bazaar, at and around Gulbadan house.  The gravestones were dug up in recent years, and a high-rise building was built on the site in 1990, apparently illegally.[2] It is reputed that some more gravestones are still to be found in the immediate vicinity of the cemetery.

The St. Thomas church was demolished in the severe 1897 earthquake.  By then the area had become valuable property, and the colonial government took it over to build the Mickford medical school (now Salimullah Medical College).  Taking over a church site was unusual and an indication that the Greek community had limited membership or wealth at the end of the 19th century. Interviews with knowledgeable people suggest that land was given elsewhere as compensation, at a site at or near the current fine arts building of the university.  In the beginning of the century, Ramna had a garden and a cemetery, so taking the gravestones there may have been seen as appropriate.  At about 1905, the British took over the Ramna land to build buildings for the East Bengal and Assam province.  After several buildings were built, the province plan was annulled in 1911.  The land given to the Greeks, therefore, was at a new city location rising in value as a result of British administrative activities.  Reportedly, the Greek community owned other buildings in that area in the 20th century.

The little monument must have been built to house gravestones that were left exposed after the church was demolished.  It is a rough imitation of a Greek temple (which the British would associate with Greeks) rather than a miniature byzantine church, which one would expect given the gravestones in it.  It is not a family crypt, because most people listed on the stones appear unrelated to each other.  One wonders why the gravestones and the bones that must have been underneath them were not interred in the cemetery that continued to exist until recent years.  Perhaps those were the earliest burials or the gravestones were removed from the ground even before the church was destroyed.  The good condition of the stones suggests that they were not exposed to the elements for long.  They may have even been dug up to make room for the church in 1821 and some may have been stored in or around that church.  Some examples of old embedded gravestones on walls of buildings do exist, as in the 9th century church of St. Lazarus in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Typical to the style of other foreigner burials (such as the Armenians) two English-language inscriptions say “Sacred to the memory of..”  The Greek inscriptions are written with Byzantine letters that are ornate and rather difficult to read.  The language of the gravestones is ancient (like classical Sanskrit) and similar to the language spoken 2000 years ago.  It is likely that only the priests knew how to compose the inscriptions. (The inscription on the frieze, in particular, is part of a hymn known mainly by priests.)  There are a few spelling and syntactical mistakes, but the complexity of the sentences shows that the writers were well versed in ancient Greek.  The likelihood that priests composed the inscriptions is reinforced by the use of the Julian calendar in at least one case.  The older Julian calendar, which shows dates 12 days later than the Gregorian calendar, was still used by the Orthodox church in the 1800s.  The Sultana Alexander gravestone mentions two dates, January 25 in Greek and February 6 in English. 

The quality of most letters suggests that there were engraved by persons who knew what they were writing, but some plaques (such as that of Iakoboglou) contain errors in letter design that suggest the opposite.  Probably these gravestones were made elsewhere, such as Calcutta.  At the bottom of gravestone 9, which is in English, the name Murdoch appears in small-sized letters, probably indicating the stonecutter company that made it.  One may compare the engravings with those in the Armenian cemetery, which also seem carved by experienced writers but were indeed engraved in Calcutta, as inscriptions indicate.  Contrary to many Armenian plaques which were made of Italian marble that was imported to Calcutta, eight of the Greek plaques were made out of a black stone, perhaps granite.  One large plaque was made of a whiter soft stone and is slowly being eroded by moisture. 

The inscriptions do not permit us to see what language these people spoke.  Most were from Asia Minor, Istanbul and Caesarea (now called Kayseri, a city of 600,000 in the central Anatolia of Turkey), and one priest was from Sifnos, an Aegean island.  Asia Minor Greeks spoke an archaic dialect, which has become nearly extinct after the removal of Greeks from Asia Minor in about 1927.  Persons from Istanbul spoke a dialect that linguistically resembled Urdu, that is it contained many Turkish and Arabic nouns.  Greeks from certain parts of Asia Minor had lost Greek altogether and spoke Turkish.  In much of the Ottoman empire, teaching of Greek letters was forbidden and was done secretly by priests, who were the keepers of the written language.  Ancient Greek inscriptions, therefore, served as a marker of Greek nationality for persons who could hardly understand them.

The People and Their Stories

What family relationships and stories do these gravestones tell?  Below is what can be deduced without further research.

1) Philippou (possibly Philippou Politou).  The names mentioned on the gravestones are: (a) Sultana, wife of Alexander, son of Kyriakos Philippou (nickname Alexandris) who was born in 1766 and died in 1800 at 34; (b) Theodosia, wife of Theodore son of George Philippou, who died in 1805.  Since the two men do not have a common father’s name, they sound like cousins, or perhaps an uncle and nephew.  The word Politou may imply either that they were from Istanbul or possibly from Philippoupolis, a city now in Bulgaria.

2) Jordan (from Caesarea).  Joseph Jordan was the husband of Magdalene and later Sophia.  He was born in 1759 and died in 1819 when he was 60.  Children from both wives are mentioned but not named.

3) Ellias (correct spelling should be Elias).  The father, Demetrius, had at least three sons and one nephew: a) Nicholas, the eldest (born in 1797), who died at 43 in 1846; b) John, the second (born in 1801), who was killed by a tiger at 35 in 1836; c) Constantine, with no dates mentioned.  The nephew was Manuel Ellias Mitchoo, godson and cousin of the three sons (dedicator).

Among Greeks, Elias is a first name, not a family name.  (Family names using this name could be Eliades, Eliou, Eliopoulos, etc.).  It is possible that Demetrius gave up his last name in favor of his father’s first name, Elias, which serves as the middle name of Greeks.  This seems likely because the cousin of the three men also had the middle name Elias.  If so, then the original last name of the family may have been Mitchoo like the cousin, Manuel [son of Elias] Mitchoo.  The Greek custom of having one name only and naming children after grandparents helps establish the relationship among these people.  Manuel apparently was a third cousin by British reckoning, nephew of the three brothers by Greek reckoning.  (The fact that he was John’s godson indicates that he was younger.)  This relationship indicates that a family with lateral relatives became established in Dhaka.  They were apparently rich, and the sons could spent their lives in hunting and other sports.

The focal point of the three brothers’ gravestone (“three brothers lie mouldering here..”) is John Elias, who was killed by a tiger in 1836.  However, the plaque includes Nicholas and Constantine, who appear to have died earlier.  Manuel, John’s godson, financed the plaque for his godfather’s tragic death and seems to have reburied previously exhumed bones for the two other brothers.  Greeks have an old custom of exhuming their dead, sprinkling the bones with oil and wine, and putting them on the side of subsequent burials or keeping them in boxes.  “Three noble brothers lie mouldering here…” implies that this gravestone was placed over the remains of people exhumed.  The bones of one were moved when another was buried and placed inside the later burial.  In the case of the three brothers, at least, there seemed to be relatives in the area who were interested in doing the appropriate ceremony. 

One other gravestone was erected for a Nicholas Elias (spelled with one l) in 1859, 13 years after Nicholas Ellias’ death.  Are they the same person?  They both have the same father’s name.  The name Elias is not so common among Greeks that two persons named Nicholas Demetrius Elias (both having given up their last names in favor of their middle names) could be easily found in Dhaka’s small community.  Perhaps Nicholas Ellias and Nicholas Elias were the oldest sons of two cousins who also had the same name.  If they are the same person, then there are two gravestones for one person, and that is quite strange.  The gravestone dedicated by Manuel has John as the focal figure, yet includes someone who died seven years after John’s death.  Perhaps the “Three noble brothers…” was carved later on blank space.  Manuel’s direct reference to John as “his cousin” implies that initially there was no inscription in between.  However, the space that would have been left accidentally is considerable, and the letters on the plaque do not change appreciably to indicate newer writing. 

What else could have happened?  Perhaps the stone was erected on the occasion of Nicholas’ death by the nephew who specifically wanted to commemorate his godfather’s death.  The two inscriptions could have been composed independently, and the syntactical difficulty was not visible until later. But why did Basil Demetrius put up another stone for Nicholas much later, in 1859?  Perhaps the 1859 gravestone is a commemoration of an earlier death rather an actual gravestone, but Greeks do not have such a custom.  Or perhaps, one of the dates is an engraver’s mistake, and the latter gravestone is Nicholas Ellias’ original gravestone before he was reburied with his brothers.  The correct explanation, which was probably quite simple, has been lost with time.

The fact that friends and relatives put up the Ellias family gravestones suggests that the brothers died childless or that their children lived elsewhere.  It may also indicate that the family’s fortunes diminished after a life confined to hunting and other sports.  This mention on the inscription seems to be a deliberate hint.

4) Basil Demetrius.  He was born in 1799 and died at 61 in 1860.  The stone mentions no family. 

Basil Demetrius was educated but apparently not rich.  He was a commissariat assistant for nine years before he became an English teacher at Dhaka College for 10 years.  If the engraving dates are correct, he was also a clerk at the St. Thomas church for 40 years.  This implies that he became a clerk at age 20, two years before the church was built.  This is possible, since there were community events and at least one priest who died in 1810, before the building of the known church.  Basil died much later than the other persons mentioned on the gravestones and at a time when there was a separate cemetery.  Perhaps he was buried near the church as an honor for his life-long service.  If the gravestones were transferred to the university grounds from the church area, then this later burial was included.

Basil Demetrius must have known the Ellias family; he was two years younger than Nicholas and two years older than John Elias, who may have been his childhood friends.  He erected a gravestone for a Nicholas Elias in 1859 (near the church rather than at the cemetery), shortly before his own death.  His own gravestone as well as the Nicholas, which he financed, are both written in English and indicate that he was primarily an English speaker and oriented towards the British.  This indicates that Basil Demetrius and the Ellias sons and cousins were second-generation Greeks, who were born in the Dhaka area or came as children.  They had obviously British education and perhaps they did not speak Greek. 

As in the other cases, it is unclear what Basil’s last name was.  Demetrius is a first name in the nominative case and could not be a Greek family name.  The name in the genitive case (Demetriou – son of Demetrius) it is indeed a common family name.  Basil’s family could have a last name that was dropped in favor of a simple father’s name which became the family name, like other families did (such as Jacob Essai).  But the family name Demetriou could have possibly acquired an incorrect final s, as some contemporary Greek-American names are known to do.  Probably the former explanation is most likely.  If the latter is the case, then it is an indication that Basil did not know much Greek.  At any rate, the family name Demetrius lived on in Dhaka.  The cemetery of the Armenian church hosts Mary, widow of the late Gregory Demetrius.  The inscription is in English and states that she was born in 1853 and died on October 12 1929 at age 76 years and three months.[3] Gregory could have been a son or a nephew of Basil.

Despite the British education of the second generation of Greeks, one sees a tendency to adopt elements of the local culture: the poem Nicholas Elias desired for his gravestone was in Urdu (possibly written by Mirza Ghalib) and showed that he understood the language and the poem’s somewhat convoluted reference to death.  Urdu was never spoken widely in Bengal, and the grammatical mistakes on the plaque indicate that the person who wrote out the verses for the stonemason did not understand it word for word.  (The idiomatic verb conjugation appears to be from the Hyderabad area, but the song could have been transmitted by Hyderabad singers.)  It is possible that Nicholas learned Urdu in other parts of India or that he had considerable contact with the Urdu-speaking Nawabs of Bengal. 

5) Nathaniel and Thomas were two priests.  Nathaniel seems like the assumed name of a celibate priest, and the fact that last names are not mentioned reinforces the impression that they were priest-monks.  (Orthodox Christian priests may be married or single.)  Perhaps Thomas was the priest from the Mount Sinai monastery mentioned in Dr. Taylor’s book, and the Dhaka church may have been named at his honor.

The inscription referring to the priest is confusing.  The gravestone clearly states that it belongs to Nathaniel, but then a second priest, Thomas, is mentioned as having appeared, with subsequent dates of birth and death.  Since these dates are quite early (1734-1810), they must refer to the older priest, Nathaniel.  Thomas then must have merely erected the stone.  The priest who died was 74 (quite old for the times).  He was 40 years old when Alexis Argyris founded the community in 1776, and it would seem reasonable that he moved there a few years later.  He may have been the individual who composed the 1800 and 1805 inscriptions of the Philippou Politou wives and the touching, quite complex dedication of the Mavrodoglou widow.  Certain points in the inscription of the priests are unclear, but Dhaka is mentioned as a happy, inimitable place looked upon as a fatherland for the priest.

6) Constantine Mavrodoglou had a wife (unnamed) but was not local; he was a merchant from Instanbul, who may not have had other relatives in the area.  The affectionate dedication and lack of mention of children suggest that perhaps they had not been married for very long.

7) Jacob Essai Iakoboglou has the most ornamented, centrally located gravestone, indicating a man of some means who came to Dhaka and died middle-aged at 48.  Aside from the priests, he is he only person with no relatives or connections mentioned.  Again, the father’s name has become a last name, but Jacob’s last name was mentioned in the gravestone, so it is known.  The ending of the name Iakoboglou (son of Jacob, denoting that Jacob may have been the decedent’s grandfather or great-grandfather) is Turkish, as it often happens with Greek names from Asia Minor.  A final s has been inserted, however, to make the ending more compatible with Greek grammar.

What did the Greeks (and other immigrants) suffer and die from?  Tuberculosis, childbirth infections, malaria?  The cause of death is only mentioned in a killing by a tiger, and the fear of the event may have caused the detailed description of the location of the accident.   Burials from the US at about that time indicate that many well-to-do families still suffered from malnutrition and serious health complications.  Deaths of children must have been common, but none of these gravestones belongs to young people or to children buried with parents.  The youngest burial is that of a woman who died at a relatively advanced age of 34.  At least four people were in their 30s and 40s, but three others reached old age, including the 74-year-old priest.  Perhaps these persons who were of Asian heritage enjoyed relatively good health in Dhaka, unlike some Europeans.

Predictably, men and women are treated quite differently in the inscriptions.  Only two graves are women’s, perhaps indicating a lopsided gender ratio and a society where men came but did not bring wives.  Five women are mentioned in the stones, but practically nothing is said about them.  One dedicated a loving plaque to her husband, but her name was not deemed worthy of reference.  On the other hand, there is considerable detail on some men’s stones, some of which appears unimportant, such as service as a commissary assistant.  The only characterization of women does not say much.  The two Philippou wives “fulfilled their common debt in Dhaka”, i.e. lived in Dhaka.

Many of the people mentioned in the inscriptions were clearly first-generation immigrants; their place of origin is mentioned.  Lack of mention of a family in some cases makes one wonder whether lonely, transient men came and died in Dhaka.  Joseph Jordan and his two wives had children which are mentioned as “afflicted orphans”.  This implies small children, which 60-year old Joseph may have had with his second wife (who also predeceased him).  If they did not have relatives in this country, the children may indeed have been afflicted. 

Why did Greeks come to Dhaka?  Greeks have always been people of diaspora, and large numbers have lived throughout history outside the traditional Greek lands (which include Asia Minor).  In this case, they were perhaps attracted by the relative freedom and human rights they enjoyed under the British in comparison with the Ottomans who conquered the Byzantine empire in 1453.  One guesses a tendency to identify and merge with the British or other Europeans.  As mentioned earlier, most persons mentioned in the inscriptions anglicized their last names or used the easier fathers’ names as last names.  Therefore, we really do not know their exact last names.  This makes it difficult to trace subsequent generations in Bangladesh or elsewhere and leaves them unaccounted for in history.  What happened to the second generation of Greeks?  Did they mainly merge with the locals and other foreigners or did they leave?  There certainly was intermarriage with other foreigner communities, such as the Armenians and the British.  Some until recently knew of Greek ancestors, such as the Lucas family (whose name may have also been a father’s name turned to a family name).  At any rate, the community did not live to see the independence of Bangladesh.  Greece became independent in 1827 and eventually became a homeland for Asia Minor Greeks who were expelled from Turkey around 1927.  Political disturbances in the last 50 years encouraged even long-time resident families to migrate, leaving behind them property which local keepers later expropriated.  Five Armenian families were still left in 1994, but no Greek family now lives in Bangladesh.Faced with names and data of people who lived two hundred years ago, one wonders how those people viewed their past and present.  Greece had not yet regained its independence; the mainland and Asia Minor had been under the Ottoman empire since 1453, and the Greek population lived with memories of the Byzantine past.  (The two-headed eagle, the emblem of the Byzantine empire, appears on the central J.E. gravestone.)   The 1757 British occupation of Bengal had only taken place 50 years before most of the Greeks died.  In their lifetimes they must have watched the British consolidate their domination over Bengal, which still had a figurehead Nawab.  What did they know about Bengali literature and culture?  One expects that at least the second generation (such as the Elias family) spoke Bangla, but the only indic linguistic reference is in Urdu.  Greeks occasionally became literary figures in countries where they lived, but at the end of the 18th century Bengali literature was heavily sanskritized and mainly comprehensible to people with brahmanical education, which Greeks clearly did not seek.  Most of the gravestone people lived and died before Rabidranath Tagore and Vidyasagar made Bangla accessible to the more common people, comprehensible, and interesting.

The stories of these people are fading fast, though documents may still be found in Calcutta, Dhaka, or Greece regarding their acts.  If more were known, their lives would be better understood.  Perhaps some day a doctoral student will research the archives and write a dissertation on the Greek community.  But whether or not any more is ever known, the university has in its grounds an interesting memorial of people who came, learned, and apparently found Dhaka a good place to live.


[1] Part of a prayer for the dead chanted by a priest at the altar during commemorative services in Lent.

[2] Saroar Kabir.  Purano Dhakar Armanian Kabarsthan Mafiader Lobhatur Drishthi.   Bortoman Dinokal, 30 November-5 December 1992, p. 37-39.

[3] The gravestone reads: “In loving memory, our dear mother, Mary,  Widow of the late Gregory Demetrius,  born 1853 died 12 October 1929; age 76 3 months. 
           We loved her in life and will not forget her in death…