Madam Rallou in the komboloi museum

Madam Rallou among her treasure trove in the komboloi museum

Madam Rallou is agitated.

“A Greek komboloï is not a worry-bead” she insists. It’s a mistranslation. Write it down”.

I’ve arrived in Nafplion, one-and-a-half hours out of Athens, below the ancient Mycenae and Argos. It’s December, there is an astonishing 20C outside and I’m visiting Greece’s first and only worry-bead, sorry komboloï, museum. Madam Rallou and her husband arrived from Athens with their collection of amber, bakelite and ivory beads from all over Asia and southeastern Europe  and started the museum in April 1998.

“Please don’t take any pictures inside,” she says. “There have been many imitators.”

Indeed the old centre of Nafplion is full of komboloï workshops trying to emulate the success and fame of Madam Rallou’s labour of love.

Upstairs the museum is small, but impressive and very, very comprehensive. There are Hindu beads that appeared about 800BC, called Mala which means ‘prayer book” some made out of ivory some out of silver. Buddhists took the idea at around 560BC, carving faces on the beads, while Muslims took them up a millennium later .

Muslim worry-beads are called Shepha (Arabic) or Desbi (Turkish) both meaning ‘prayer book‘ and are either made out of 99 beads, one for every name of Allah, or 33 for a set of prayers.It was an Arab scientist, Faturan, who invented a special method that produced beautiful, dark red amber and bakelite beads in the eighteenth century. They are rare, expensive and the methodology has been lost. Madam Rallou’s museum has a fantastic collection of such Faturan antiques. They are her pride and joy.

In 1260 the Crusaders brought back the first worry-beads to Western Europe and the Catholic church adopted them and called them rosaries. There is no gap between rosary beads, unlike in the East.

“Greeks are the only ones who don’t use the komboloï for religious purposes. They use it to play and pass the time”, says  Madam Rallou. “Also there is a large gap between the head bead and the rest which are larger and thicker than their Muslim or Catholic counterparts. That’s what makes noise and that’s what the name means in Greek: ‘continuous sound‘.”

“Now these are worry-beads“, she says and plays them on her hand like conkers. “They are there to make noise: taka-taka-taka”.

A set of worry-beads

Worry-beads come in couples and are used like yo-yos or conkers.

“While this is a proper Greek komboloï“, she demonstrates with pride.

A Greek komboloï

A Greek komboloï: note the gap between the head bead and the rest. It’s this gap that makes the cracking noise.

And she gives me both as presents.