Before I start this article, let me invite you the reader to help me. From my castle in Sydney it is a struggle to obtain information on Trebizond so I have made an executive decision – to make this article interactive. Should you have any information on Trebizond I am happy to go back to what I have written and change it. So let’s make this an interactive article, written by moi and any of the readers out there.
Now a question for the reader
With my plea out of the way, let’s get on with the job of presenting Trebizond. I will pose a question for you, the same one I have been asking my friends. “When and where was the last Greek empire?” The responses have been as follows: Alexander the Great, the guys from 300, Mithradates, Byzantine Empire, the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Mytileneans (it is my home island so I had to mention them somewhere).
Those who mentioned the Byzantine Empire which came to end in 1453 came really close. It was actually a few years later, when the Empire of Trebizond fell to the Ottoman Turks. When I mention this type of trivia to my friends they either usually ignore me or simply think that my tendency to promote all things Greek has actually slipped into the realm of make-believe. It’s true, there really was an Empire of Trebizond.
Trebizond (modern Trabzon in Turkey) is a city that was founded in the eighth century by Greek colonists from Miletus on the Black Sea coast in northern Asia Minor which became known as the Pontus region. Xenephon in his classic fourth century BC book, ‘Anabasis’ describes the joy of his troops as they finally encountered a Greek city after a long and treacherous march from Persia encountering enemy and foreign countries. Trebizond prospered under the rule of Mithridates and the Pontian kings during the first century AD and was an important port for trade during the Byzantine years which commenced around 330AD.
In 1204, after many years of civil war and feuding, Constantinople was taken by the Crusaders through deception – aided and abetted by Emperor Isaac II Angelos for personal gain. A number of Greek successor states emerged, the Greeks of Nicaea in Asia Minor, who would win back Constantinople in 1261 (restoring the Byzantine Empire), the Greeks of Epiros who would be absorbed by the Nicaeans and the Empire of Trebizond.
If we backtrack to 1185, the Byzantine Emperor Andonikos I was overthrown and his family escaped to Georgia and the protection of Queen Thamar. In 1204 she provided Alexios I Comnenos (Andronikos’ grandson and her nephew) with troops to capture the Pontian cities in and around Trebizond. Alexios proclaimed himself Megas Komnenos (Grand Comnenos) and the ‘true’ Emperor of Byzantium. He was able to conquer a significant area on the Black Sea, from the borders of Georgia in the east to Sinope in the west. He also captured the Crimean peninsular in what is now in the Ukraine. A number of their descendents live in the Ukraine in and around Marioupolis and speak Greek.
Alexios never effectively controlled more than 100km south of the capital. However this was to his advantage for beyond the high range mountains that Xenephon and his men encountered in the 4th century BC, lay some of the most powerful enemies in the region. They included the Seljuk Turks, followed by the Mongols, a number of Turkish fiefdoms and ultimately the Ottomans. Thus Trebizond was fortunate to be protected by its natural position, the friendship of the Georgians, a series of alliances with Turkish princes, the Mongols, and the restored Byzantine Empire and a strong economy.
During the reign of John II (1280-1297), the Empire reconciled itself with Byzantium and ended its pretensions and claims to Constantinople and the entire Greek world. By 1282 the Emperor of Trebizond was known by the title of ‘Faithful Emperor and Autocrat of the whole of the East, the Iberians and the overseas province.’ This title was in agreement with the Byzantine Emperor.
The Mongols played an important role in Greek affairs. Whilst it is fair to say that no Mongol Khan or Greek Emperor enjoyed an ouzo or a souvlaki together, it was the Mongols who probably extended the life of the Byzantine Empire and inadvertently improved the economic strength of Trebizond. The Mongols destroyed Ottoman forces in 1402 at Ancyra, allowing the Byzantines breathing space to survive for another 51 years.
The Mongol threat prevented Turkish forces from mounting serious campaigns against Trebizond. In 1258 Hulagu Khan destroyed Baghdad. This event ensured Trebizond’s status as an important city on the on the Silk Road increasing the wealth and prosperity of the city. In 1295 Marco Polo visited the city on his way back into Europe.
A number of notable Greeks were born in Trebizond during the years of the Empire. This includes Gregory Choniades the astronomer, John VIII the Greek Orthodox Ecumunical Patriach, Basileos Bessarion a bishop and academic who had a great influence on the Renaissance, George of Trebizond who was born in Crete with a background from Trebizond and was a philosopher who influenced the Renaissance and Michael Panerotos the imperial historian. Furthermore, a number of famous politicians and actors were born in the vicinity of Trebizond during the last 250 years highlighting how important this area has been to Greek culture and history.
Its also worth commenting on what is known about the role of women in Trebizond. Whilst I’m not going to paint a picture of women being independent, it is worth noting that several rulers were indeed female. However, many of the royal girls were married to Turkish or Muslim leaders in order to maintain friendly relations. Male rulers generally married Christian women including from the royal houses in Georgia and Constantinople.
Now its time to use the word inevitable. Just like Xenephon and his troops inevitably came across Greeks after their long march, it was inevitable that the Greeks of Trebizond would quarrel in the same ways that had effected the Byzantine Empire over the centuries. In fact being Greek or rather Byzantines, meant that it would be inevitable for Trebizond to experience a series of civil strife and political assassinations from the period of about 1330 until the 1350’s. Inevitably, this precipitated a slow decline for Trebizond, with outlying provinces being taken by the Ottomans. Stability was restored late in the 14th century.
Churches and Public Buildings
The Greeks of Trebizond became known for building numerous churches and public buildings that are evident when one visits the picturesque modern day of Trabzon. A visit to the city with a current population of about 180 000 will reveal the high walls of the old Upper Town which are meant to resemble the walls of medieval Constantinople, the churches of Saint Ann, Saint Constantine, Panayia Chrysokephalos, Saint Andrew, Saint Eugene, Agia Sophia , Aghios Christophoros just to name a few. Most of the churches have either been converted to mosques or had stints over the years as such. A number of fortresses and monastries are also evident in areas that were once included in the Empire of Trebizond. I should point out that churches and other public buildings can be traced back to the ninth century, hence existing when the area was under the direct control of Constantinople.
Most historians usually tell us that the Ottomans captured the entire Asia Minor by 1350. However, it is worth keeping in mind that Philadelphia in the south and 100km inland from the city of Smyrna held out for many years. Philadelphia somehow managed to heroically survive until 1390 despite being surrounded by formidable enemies for so many years and of course the other city that remained independent was Trebizond.
When Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453 after a heroic fight to the death, the Byzantine Empire effectively came to an end. However, the Greeks of Trebizond who were predominantly Pontian Greeks and held onto their Byzantine heritage essentially inherit the title of the last Greek Empire. The Byzantine province of the Morea (Peloponnese) held out against the Ottomans until 1460.
As Xenephon can testify, all good things come to end. He was alive when the Spartan hegemony of Greece came to end against Thebes in 371BC and of course he was overwhelmed when his troops (the 10 000) finally ended their land journey when they reached Trebizond. The last empire of the Greeks came to a sudden end when the Ottoman Sultan decided to end the reign of King David (ruled from 1459-1461). After a month long siege, Trebizond finally fell on the sacred day of August 15, 1461.
Like all Byzantine cities, the impact of this Greek civilisation can still be felt. As mentioned above there are numerous churches and other buildings that are scattered across the modern city. There are approximately 250 000 Muslims in the area once occupied by the Empire of Trebizond who speak a dialect of Greek (Cappodician). Most of these people live outside Trebizond in about 50 villages and towns.
The end of Pontian history in Trebizond
During the final years of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Pontians as well as other Christians were killed or starved to death. There was discussion by the Allied Powers in Europe to create a Pontian state based on the provincial boundaries of the old Empire of Trebizond. Like so may Allied promises over the years, this never eventuated and by 1923 the sad population exchange between Greece and Turkey resulted in 1.5 million Greeks (including from the Pontus area) being sent to Greece. Also, hundreds of thousands of Pontians and other nationalities were forced to migrate to Russia and neighbouring countries. This extinguished the Greek presence in Trebizond, over 460 years after the end of the Empire of Trebizond.
I’m not sure what Xenephon would make of Trebizond today. One thing that is certain he would be surprised that the Hellenes are no longer there to greet him and his weary troops.