The Kombolói – from prayer chain to toy

Traditional craftsmanship in Greece – The Kombolói, a prayer chain, Nafplion

The soft clicking of the komboloiá – the worry beads that are sliding through the men’s hands – is part of a Greek kafenion as much as is coffee.

From Asia via the Orient all the way to Europe
The seaport Nafplio has played a strategic role for trade and politics over centuries due to its geographic location in the Argolian gulf. Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans and lastly King Otto of Greece resided and reigned from this city. The idyllic old part of town is nowadays equally popular with Greeks and tourists. Rallou Gromitsari’s kombolói museum with shop and workshop is situated in one of the animated streets. The kombolói, Greek worry beads that slide through the fingers, has its origin in Asia and the Orient. Via India and Persia it came with the Turks to Greece. Whether for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims or Christians, the beads are a prayer chain that is subject to specific rules. In Greece the sacred object has turned into a profane toy whose rules, by continuous swinging and subconscious counting of the beads, leave interpretation up to each player. Especially men wear the chain as an accessory or talisman.

Collector’s passion for generations
Rallou Gromitsari and her late husband Aris Evangelinos opened the to date only kombolói museum above their workshop in Staikopoulou street in 1998. “Aris has inherited his fascination for kombolói from his grandfather”, Rallou tells us and adds with sparkling eyes: “He passed his collector’s passion on to me.” They had an antiquities shop for years, first in Athens, then they moved to Nafplio. The museum is a little gem that illustrates the history of the kombolói and the cultural bifurcations of its origin with many precious originals. On their numerous journeys, especially to the East, they searched for the origins of the kombolói and collected more than 1000 objects in over 50 years.

A loyal companion as talisman and pastime
The term kombolói can be traced to the Greek word kombos, meaning knot. The shape, material and spacing of the pearls determine the sound of the kombolói. Most of the styles that Rallou Gromitsari makes are replica of old komboloiá. The finesse of sound and suppleness are hardly noticeable at first glance. Only when taking the chain into the hand and sliding the pearls trough the fingers trying to play with them, the reaction of the hand with the toy becomes perceptible. The art of the kombolói is to be found in the detail of beads’ curving and the choice of material that can be amber, bones, horn, shells, corals, gemstones and wood or synthetic resin. The beads of a kombolói are, in contrast to a prayer chain, quite loosely spaced leaving them room for playing. “The kombolói is a loyal companion. When you lose it, you lose a friend” Rallou remarks with melancholy.