Awash in blue and white, Baltimore's Greektown played host yesterday to thousands celebrating the 180th anniversary of Greece's independence with a parade along Eastern Avenue that drew costumed marchers from across the region.
Begun as a small neighborhood event six years ago, the Baltimore parade commemorating the 1821 liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire now is considered the second-largest Greek Independence Day celebration on the East Coast, second only to New York's.
Members of Greek Orthodox churches and Greek schools and social organizations from Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania marched yesterday, each bringing a distinct cultural influence to a celebration akin to the one held on the Fourth of July.
"The Greek community is a lot like the country of Greece, where you have dozens and dozens of little islands and cities, and this parade brings them all together," said retired Baltimore police Col. John E. Gavrilis, a lifelong Greektown resident.
Baltimore's parade was launched in 1996, fashioned after Greek Independence Day events in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia. By the organizers' own admission, the first parade here was a modest event -- so modest that some community leaders don't even count it, saying that yesterday's parade was Baltimore's fifth.
The event's rapid growth -- last year's crowd numbered 10,000, and organizers said yesterday's rivaled that number -- is a testament to Maryland's active Greek community and its strong traditional ties. The parade is a place to highlight that cultural identity, said Mary Frangakis Clark, co-chairwoman of the event.
"The Greeks are very, very strongly tied to their ethnic region," each with its own traditions and cultures and costumes, Clark said. "We give them a place to showcase that."
The parade celebrates the fight for the independence of modern Greece. The Ottoman Empire had occupied the territory now known as Greece for nearly 400 years when in 1814 a group of Greek merchants living in Russia formed a revolutionary movement called Philike Hetairia, or "friendly society," that encouraged revolt.
What came to be known as the War of Independence was launched March 25, 1821 -- deliberately coinciding with the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, an important holy day in the Greek Orthodox Church.
The double celebration is one reason the holiday is held so dear by Greek-Americans, said the Rev. Constantine M. Monios, of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore, which Monios said counts about 4,000 Greek families. But he said the festivities also have broad appeal.
"I think it appeals not only to Greek-Americans, but to all Americans, because this is the Fourth of July for these people," Monios said.
Yesterday's sunshine drew thousands of spectators and hundreds of marchers, many dressed in elaborate Greek costumes from specific regions of the country. There were little girls in full skirts and velvet jackets and caps, and boys wearing knee-length pants and vests. Vendors along crowded Eastern Avenue hawked grilled kebobs, baklava and other pastries. Everywhere waved the distinctive blue and white of the Greek flag.
Cia Diakokomninos drove from Harford County with her two daughters, Annamaria, 10, and Lia, 2, to take in the sights and pass along a bit of Greek history and tradition.
"It's so beautiful, you can't miss it," Diakokomninos said.