It’s spring 2012 and on the Aegean island of Rhodes, an earnest Greek shopowner clutching a fistful of worry beads tells me: “Yes, there is a problem, but we didn’t cause the problem.”
Greece’s debt crisis was in full swing and people were feeling the pinch. Three months before, the country was bailed out to the tune of €240 billion ($290bn). But what caught my eye were the beads. Were they for praying? Breaking off from his tirade, laughing, he said no, and then effortlessly made the loop of black stones dance through his fingers.
Like a child who had been shown a card trick or a disappearing coin, I asked to try. The beads rattled and clicked but became tangled around my fingers. Clearly, more practice was required.
So began a love affair with the Greek komboloi.
What is a komboloi?
This part of Greek and Cypriot culture doesn’t enjoy the same recognition as the Parthenon or sunsets on Santorini, but the loops of odd-numbered beads are a peculiar mix of pastime, stress toy, good-luck charm, heirloom, anti-smoking aid and – in their more expensive versions – status symbol.
In the Middle East, we are familiar with the misbaha, the strings of beads used in Islamic prayer. Greeks, who spent centuries under Muslim Ottoman rule, eventually adopted these beads, but their use and meaning changed radically.
Giving the misbaha new meaning
Eleni Evangelinou of the Komboloi Museum in Nafplio draws a clear distinction between the Greek komboloi and other beads or rosaries used for prayer. “Greeks took this object – the Muslim prayer beads – and turned it into something completely different, into something that had nothing to do with prayer or religion. They gave the beads space to move freely on the rope ... they created a happy ‘game’.”
In village squares across Greece and Cyprus, older men – and it is mostly men – can be seen chewing the fat, strings of komboloi hanging from their hands or making a soothing, clicking sound as their owners let the stones slip through their fingers, one by one.
But this image of the sleepy village grandfather with his beads is being supplanted by a new wave of komboloi designers, workshops and online stores that are offering a fresh take on this distinctive accessory for men – and, increasingly, women – sometimes as far away as the US or Australia.
A modern-day refresh
One of these far-flung komboloi suppliers is Jon Lambousis, who opened his Komboloi Shop in Melbourne in 2019. The son of Greek immigrants, he makes his kombologia by hand, and is clearly a man with a mission.
“The previous generation, as well as some people in the older range of my generation, unfortunately are stuck in the past with the misconception that the komboloi is solely for old men,” he tells me. “It certainly is not the case in Greece and not the case here in Australia, either.
“My job is to dispel that myth and that was the idea behind the store, to create modern designs whilst embracing traditions to reintroduce the komboloi to the next generations.”
Lambousis also sees the item’s use and function changing as his customer base expands to include younger people and more women. “A lot of the derivative products, such as komboloi-inspired bracelets and necklaces, have become very popular, as well as hybrid kombologia that can be worn as bracelets,” he says.
“Also, key rings are popular, as are kombologia as handbag ornaments. Overall, the komboloi is becoming an everyday carry item for a lot of people.”
Something to occupy the hands – and mind
The portable, everyday nature of the komboloi, some of which can be bought for as little as €2 at newspaper kiosks across Greece, helps to make it a sought-after present to mark special occasions such as birthdays, weddings or graduations.
One supplier, the Kombologadiko chain in Greece and Cyprus, also offers a shorter, open-looped version – called begleri – as a party favour or gift for wedding guests, all presented in attractive bags and packaging.
Eva Ieropoulou of Kombologadiko says that the relaxing, “anxiolytic” effect of playing with a komboloi is coming into its own during the pandemic. “We stay mainly at home so we need something to occupy our thoughts and our hands,” she says.
In Cyprus, Yiannis Ioannou says his online Kombologia business has experienced an increase in custom orders during the pandemic “since people had more time to choose and customise the designs of their preference”.
Despite some komboloi costing hundreds of euros – Lambousis’s Baltic amber versions go for about €540 – Ioannou, an engineer by training, has had no trouble attracting customers looking for high-end worry beads.
And, with no little irony, the beads that came from the Islamic tradition are finding their way back to the East. “The most popular kombologia for Greek people are the traditional ones with natural organic beads,” Ioannou explains. “But it depends on a customer’s nationality and religion. I have a lot of customers and friends from the UAE, Kuwait, etc, who always order pure amber designs.”
These beads can go for serious money. Komboloi NYC’s Grigorios Chatzicharalampous – a collector who began his business five years ago – tells me that his current top-range kombologia sell for about $400 online, “but we have had custom-made komboloi and prayer-bead sets for up to $2,000 to $3,000”.
Expensive amber aside, kombologia can be made from semi-precious stones such as tiger’s eye, agate and hematite. Labs in Greece produce synthetic resins for beads, but many connoisseurs prefer organic materials such as horn and bone, or aromatic woods. For serious collectors, the endless choice of shapes, sizes and colours can become a lifelong obsession.
The komboloi has its cousins, too. In Russia, the flat, open-ended chetki is flipped and threaded through the fingers. When Viggo Mortensen played an undercover Russian cop in 2007's Eastern Promises, he used an authentic, prison-made chetki for his scenes, crafted from melted-down cigarette lighters.
And in Turkey, aside from the religious tesbih, there is the sallama tesbih – an open-ended or flat set of worry beads. A sallama tesbih can also be a beaded cord, often stitched in football colours and made in jails.
The personal touch
Perhaps the secret to the komboloi’s enduring popularity is its personal touch. No two handmade kombologia are exactly alike. They are a portable companion and, with time, feel as if they take on something of their owner’s essence.
Year after year, the same beads are held in the same hands, subtly changing their colour, texture and shape with use. This relationship explains why, in some Greek households, the portrait of a deceased grandfather is adorned with his beloved komboloi.
Culturally, the komboloi holds a special place for Greeks and Hellenophiles. Leonard Cohen, who lived on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, was often photographed in later years looking dapper in a suit, cradling a small, elegant komboloi in his hand. And its connection to music is deep. “The word ‘komboloi’ means, in the Greek language, ‘an object that produces a repetitive sound’,” says Evangelinou.
Years after I bought my first komboloi in Rhodes, I was listening to an album of rebetika music – the Greek blues. On the cover, there was an old photograph of five guys in suits posing for the camera. They are wiseguys, Al Capones, underworld men. One holds his hat up to obscure his face, a dog stares down the camera and, on the left, one of the Greek wide boys lets his komboloi dangle from his hand.
From prayer beads to the Greek underworld to boutique shops, the internet and the pandemic, the humble komboloi has come a long way. And all the while the beads still slip through our fingers, marking the passing of time, one by one.