We all know about Jason and the Argonauts – a group of buffed up men who went on an epic voyage in 1200 BC. The Argonauts racked up more frequent flier miles than today’s corporate executives. They visited magical and mystical places across the ancient world, including the Black Sea kingdom of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. With plenty of assistance from Medea, Jason was able to defeat a dragon and other buffed up warriors and made his escape with the Golden Fleece and Medea to continue the journey back to his homeland.
The region of Colchis is in the modern day country of Georgia – and before you start singing “I got Georgia on my mind,” its worth considering this is not a state of America, rather it is a former Soviet Republic with a long history. The Greeks have certainly had a remarkable influence on the history of this country. In fact, the entire Black Sea region was home to hundreds of ancient Greek colonies and Byzantine (medieval) Greek cities. The name Georgia is also a Greek word, meaning farmer which is indicative of the main occupation of the people in the region.
Remarkably, the earliest Greek colonies commence between the years of 1000 BC and 550 BC (this does not include the Kingdom of the mythical Aeetes’ in Colchis 1200 BC) founding Naessus, Pitiys, Dioscuria, Guenos, Phasis (modern Poti), Apsaros and Rhizos. These cities formed the territory in and around Colchis, with the Miletians being the main sponsors of these colonies. A parallel kingdom was founded in the interior of Georgia. This was known as Iberia and it covers most of that country’s modern territory. Unlike Colchis, Iberia mainly consisted of people native to Georgia, however, over time they became Hellenised. The Greek language in Iberia would inevitably become the second language of the people until late medieval times.
This writer has always found it particularly amazing that in the years prior to high speed communications and the distances between mainland Greece and the various colonies, an area such as Colchis could maintain its Greek character. It became an important trading post between the Persian Empire and Europe, growing in wealth and status. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his generals divided his empire with the Pontian cities in the Black Sea going to Seleucus. Colchis was included in what became known as the Hellenistic Kingdom of the Seleucids. This kingdom provided many important figures of ancient times and like most Hellenistic kingdoms is generally neglected by modern historians.
I have always found it amazing that unless you studied history at a school in Greece, very little is mentioned of the Hellenistic kingdoms that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great. Most countries study up to Alexander, inadvertently overlooking the cities and achievements of the Hellenistic East that flourished after his death. These kingdoms lasted until Roman conquest and ensured that Greek became the equivalent of what English is today, spoken in most countries in the ancient world. You could travel to Egypt and speak Greek or live in the ancient Georgian area and your language would essentially be Greek. As they would say, “it’s all Greek to me.”
The Colchis region was eventually conquered by the Roman general Pompey in 64BC after a long struggle with Mithradates, the magnificent king of the Pontians. Mithradates bravely fought the Romans for 2 decades. This was one of the last Greek kingdoms of antiquities to fall to the Roman Empire, the last being the Indo-Greek Kingdom, 20AD.
Greek rule did not re-emerge in the Georgian area until the inception of the Byzantine Empire in the fourth Century AD. By this stage, the people of Georgia – Greeks and other ethnicities – had become the second place in the world to become an entirely Christian state. The Byzantines took control over a number of areas in the Caucasus until they were overrun by Arab warriors in the late seventh century. It was not until the rule of Basil II that the Byzantines regained control of the region for over a century starting in the late 900’s. Between the eleventh century and the year 1461, the Greeks vied for control of the region with the Persians, the Ottoman Empire and the rise of ethnic Georgian kings. When the Greek kingdom of Trebizond fell to the Ottoman Empire in1461, it was the last time that an independent Hellenic state had significant power in the Black Sea.
Trebizond is in the north of modern Turkey and at the time of its fall controlled various towns in the Black Sea, including a number of villages in what had formerly been known as Colchis. With the defeat of this last independent Greek kingdom of medieval times, the Greek influence in Georgia began to wane. Within 100 years the Greek language and culture declined significantly. Today there are few Greeks that actually live on the west coast of Georgia (ancient Colchis) and scholars have debated their ancestry – are they truly the descendents of the ancient Colchis or are they Pontian refugees from the former Ottoman Empire?
However, in the eastern areas of Georgia, there are thousands of Greeks residing in the towns in and around Tsalka and Tbilisi (the capital). Are they the descendents of the mythical King Aeetes and ancient Colchis? The easy answer is no, they are essentially the Greeks who migrated from Asia Minor and Pontus during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) and subsequent decades. The Greeks as well as many of the people who live in modern Georgia migrated from neighbouring countries – the Ottoman Empire and Russia, thus ensuring that modern Georgia has representation from over 100 different ethnicities and in a nation of just 4.6 million people this has led to many ethnic clashes and riots over the years.
By 1991, when Georgia was still a member of the USSR, the Greek population was over 100 000. Today that number is estimated at just 20000. In the Tsalka region, the spiritual home of the Greeks of Georgia, there are just 2500, down from the 35000 living there when Georgia gained its independence. Most of the Greeks are now older residents.
Whilst you would be hard pressed to find any ancient Greek ruins in Georgia, you will find several Byzantine churches and plenty of old Greek shops. In Aristotle Street in Tsalka you can find Café Ponti or the Dioskuria grocery store. You will also find a sculpture of Aristotle in front of derelict Greek school and if you listen closely you will hear Greek music in the neighbourhood. Metaxa is the favourite drink, especially at Easter time and of course you can always spot a Greek, regardless of what country you happen to be in.
The Tsalka region is 20 kilometres to the south of the charming capital, Tbilisi. There are over 20 villages where Greeks reside in and around the Tsalka region. What makes these Hellenes extraordinary is the fact that most do not speak Greek. When they were forced to migrate from the Ottoman Empire from the Pontus region, they were “gently” coerced by the Turkish authorities to stop learning the Greek language if they wanted to maintain their Greek Orthodox beliefs. So over time, the Greeks were prevented from learning their mother tongue and instead developed a dialect of Turkish – Urum.
Urum is a play on the Arabic word for Greek – Rumelia and it is a Turkish language that incorporates various Greek words. Urum is also spoken by the Tartar Greeks who fled to the Crimea (Ukraine) during the Russian-Turkish wars and as far as my research goes, it does not appear to be taught at state schools in either Georgia or the Ukraine. Research conducted by the historian Airat Aklaev in the 1980’s highlighted that 36% of Urum speakers considered Greek their native tongue despite not knowing the language and 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.
Since the collapse of the USSR, many Greeks of Georgia, including Urum speakers, have migrated to Greece. In fact across the Black Sea tens of thousands of Greeks made the trek “home” to their motherland to be greeted by the occasional ridicule of Athenians who find Pontians to be an excellent source of humour. Considering how difficult these Greeks have lived and how inspiring their stories are to maintain their cultural integrity, I always wonder who is the real Greek? Is it those that were born in Greece but lack a true appreciation of their historical identity or those brave immigrants with such a rich culture and understanding of what it means to be Greek?
The Hellenes of Georgia, including those that speak Urum, that have migrated to Greece have a tradition of returning to their places of birth at Easter. In recent years, this has become difficult for each time they return, they find squatters in their homes. Local authorities have also transferred many ethnic Georgians to the Tsalka region in recent years. This has resulted in a number of civil disturbances in the once quiet area. Clashes have occurred between the Greeks and their supporters against these new arrivals. On a positive note the Government has promised to buy Greek homes and they have accepted Greeks into the local police force in an effort to provide balanced policing in the area.
SAE – the Council for Hellenes abroad has been an active player in assisting those Greeks who remain in Georgia. Medical clinics have been opened and a number of vehicles have been donated to the local Police force. SAE also lobby on behalf of the people, as they do for the estimated (SAE Figures) 750 000 Greeks living in the Black Sea countries. The Greek media have also become strong supporters of the Greeks of Georgia as they increasingly realise the significance of these Greek minorities living outside Greece’s modern borders.
So should Jason and the Argonauts ever return to Georgia, they would be hard pressed to find the Greeks of Colchis, but a visit to Tsalka and the surroundings villages could unearth another Golden Fleece.
Author’s note there are many places to visit in Tsalka and the people of Georgia are known to be very friendly but if you intend to visit be mindful of the various ethnic tensions that effect many Georgian regions.