Hellenic Ocean: Surreal Memories from the Black Sea

A disclaimer or rather a plea from the writer. No article can succinctly detail the Greek history of the Black Sea, for it is such a lengthy period. Virtually the entire ocean was covered by Greek colonies or Byzantine hierarchy.

I will merely provide you with a few personal anecdotes. The Black Sea first welcomed Greek settlers approximately 2800 years ago, naming it ‘Pontus Exine,’ meaning inhospitable sea. Each country that straddles the shore has been impacted by the Greek colonies, past and present. Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey are the modern masters though by no means the only beneficiaries of the Greek presence here. I can assure you that many more people have found a home here. Scythians, Assyrians, Persians, Tartars, Romans to name a few.

Bulgaria

I was drawn to the Black Sea on the back of many Greek stories and tales that I had read as kid. Hercules, Jason and his Argonauts pose…When I finally reached the beach on the Black Sea with my partner at the time, Nikoletta, I have to admit, we were initially disappointed. Both of us were raised on the aqua blue waters of the Greek island life and the Black Sea did not replicate what was visualised, imagined.

After a nice day in the ocean with a yacht and then sitting down with the locals in Nesebur for a cold drink, I could hear the pride in their voices. They weren’t here to discuss Mykonos style living. They had been raised on this Sea which had thousands of years of history to tell. History
that inevitably connected us from classical, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Modern Greek. A story for every town or city that lay on the shores of the Black Sea, an ocean that is small and occasionally murky, though massive on its importance to civilisation. And after my first visit, I would grow fond of the yellow sand and the calm water, to the point were neither of us wanted to leave (we even missed our flight back to Greece).

Taking a boat trip on the Black Sea was something I will never forget. Knowing that Greek sailors from the warriors of classical times to the powerful Byzantine navy had thrived here. On a very hot day, the flatness of the water and the number of ships in the distance added to the excitement.

We toured by car the coast for a week, taking in quaint spots that were once part of a Greek/Byzantine territory. Occasionally we bumped in to people who spoke Greek. What’s more
we came round to understanding that the Black Sea had been the home and lifeblood of many people, not just the Greek speakers. The Bulgars migrated to what would become Bulgaria just before the 600’s AD onward in an area that was known as Hellenised Thrace. As Bulgaria started to emerge as a kingdom, it would vie with the Byzantine Empire for control of the coast and most of Bulgaria for the next 800 years until the Ottomans gained total control.

Ukraine

I must confess, my visit to Bulgaria was not the first time I had been by the Black Sea. I have travelled to the Ukraine twice to visit Greek villages. There are perhaps 260,000 people of Greek heritage in the Ukraine as opposed to the 35,000 of Bulgaria. Unlike the Greeks of Bulgaria who can make regular visits to Greece, Ukraine is much further and not a member of the EU.

I will always remember the expression I was taught in the southern town of Sartana, “Ola kala — kai panta kala”. What an amazing town it was…. Every Greek house was painted blue or white or green and white, and they generally liked to refer to themselves as Romaoi (Byzantine Greek for Greek speaking Roman). In Sartana I remember a museum was opened specifically for me to visit. The curator, who had never been to Greece, spoke to me in perfect Greek and wore a Greek national costume. She read to me a few local Greek poems. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was a moment I could not dare to articulate. I felt honoured, a Greek from another land being given this surreal experience.

It was a bright Sunday afternoon and by chance my guide and friend, Athena Khadzhynova, had taken me past the Community Centre in Sartana. Poking our heads inside to listen to the music being played, we found ourselves at a local Greek wedding. This was the second day of the wedding: the feast day. True to the nature of Greeks and their generous hospitality, I was immediately invited in to sit at the main table and enjoy as much local cuisine and food as I could possibly consume. The only problem being that most of the people at the wedding were keen on meeting a Greek from another country and each person made it their mission to have a drink with me. One cannot be rude and refuse a drink in the Ukraine. Throughout the course of the day, I met many wonderful people, danced Greek and Ukrainian dances and listened in awe to stories of how these remarkable people have survived for so many years.

This was a taste of local Greek life. A wedding where most of the guests were Greek descendants — many still speaking the ancient and Byzantine dialect and many more could speak Modern Greek, I almost felt like I was back in Athens. At the end of my afternoon, with a full tummy and a dizzy head I thought I was going home, instead I ended up at the home of a lovely couple, Larisa Arnautova who is a Greek and her husband, Pavel Chumakov. Of course the drinking and hospitality started all over again. Ukraine, like many places in the Black Sea was an outpost for ancient Greek colonies. I had decided to visit the city of Marioupolis in the south­east of Ukraine in the Sea of Azov, which comes off the Black Sea. Marioupolis was founded by Greeks in 1779 with permission from Russian Queen, Katherine the Great. They were from the Black Sea, descendants of the colonies of antiquity (circa 700­-600 BC onwards) but were allowed to move from the Black Sea to avoid the harassment and pillaging by the Turkish troops in the Crimean War. Many of the Greek Gods would surely have visited the Black Sea and ancient heroes such as Hercules and Jason have also have come this way.

Marioupolis, known today as Mariupol is a city of 500 000 with just a small population of Greek speakers (perhaps 5%) however their influence in the city is everywhere, their legacy here is an industrial city marked by a lovely city centre. However, it is also a city that has suffered from a lack of government funding and years of communist rule. The Greek government maintains a consulate office in the heart of the city, which proudly flies the Greek flag.

A few years later I travelled to Odessa which is the fourth biggest city in the country with a population of over 1 million people. It is easy enough to get around and even easier to find a Greek restaurant. Except of course the Greek ouzeri – we had instructions, a map, a phone a friend option and a recommendation from other Greeks to go there but never found it.

What you need to know about Odessa is that this was the birthplace of the Greek Revolution, the Philiki Eteria was formed here and met in a house which is now the Greek museum. I was lucky to be given an afterhours tour. You can really feel a sense of pride being in there. The tables, chairs, the books, the couch, it was more surreal than my visit to Sartana. As a grown man I do not cry, however, I felt a tear well up before I showed my macho side and asked for a Greek beer (this was a museum not a bar and I hate beer, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances).

Crimea

The peninsular at the tip of the Ukraine is known as the Crimea. Whilst it may be in the Ukraine, it was virtually a Hellenic influenced state for most of the last 2,600 years. The ancient and Byzantine Greeks have had a tremendous impact on the Crimea. In the seventh century BC, a number of colonies were established, including Berezan, Chersonesus, Feodosiya, Panticapaeum. Within decades a Greek kingdom existed that maintained close ties to Athens.

Hercules made visits to the Crimea – known as Tauris in ancient times, it is also known for Achilles and his wife Iphegenia who ruled on the island of Leuce. Euripides wrote ‘Iphegenia in Tauris’ and many other famous authors of ancient times wrote about the region including the historian Herodotus. Many poems were also written about Tauris.

The Pontians captured the Crimea by 114 BC lasting until Roman rule arrived in 63 BC. The Greeks of Byzantium held the Crimea intermittently from the fourth century AD until gaining real control early in the eleventh century AD. In 1204 control of the Crimean tip passed to the Greeks of Trebizond until 1461. Greek was spoken as a major language in the Crimea for 2000 years. There are still many Greek speakers and descendants in some of the towns in the region, a truly amazing accomplishment.

There are a number of Greek sites in the region, for a more comprehensive coverage see ‘Ancient Greek Sites in the Crimean Peninsular,’ published by the Odessa branch of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

Georgia

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 corporate executives. They visited magical and mystical places across the ancient world, including the Black Sea kingdom of Colchis (the east of Georgia) in search of the Golden Fleece. With plenty of assistance from Medea, Jason was able to defeat a dragon and other buffed up and made his escape with the Golden Fleece and Medea to continue the journey back to Greece.

The region of Colchis is in the modern day country of Georgia, a former Soviet Republic with a long history. The Greeks have certainly had a remarkable influence on the history of this country. The name Georgia is apparently a Greek word, meaning ‘farmer’ which is indicative of the main occupation of the people in the region.

Remarkably, the earliest Greek colonies apparently 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. Today, there are around 100,000 Greek speakers in Georgia. Most of them are near the inland capital of Tbilisi and its surrounding villages. This is a contrast to the fact most Greek people prefer to be next to the coast.

Romania

I was in Romania in 2013 and was charmed by the people I met. I stayed in Bucharest which is in the middle of the country. This was too far to drive to my intended destination, Constanta which was a Byzantine city originally established in 600 BC as Tomis (translates to ‘section’ in ancient Greek). There is conjecture as to when it became known as Constanta. Sources will tell us that it was during the rule of Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the 300’s AD, however, it was only ever called Constanta in the 10th Century.

During the Ottoman reign over Romania, the Greek people were given special status as the best administrators of the Empire. They became known as the Phanariots and dominated civic life in Constantinople and outlying territory such as Romania which was seen as a wealthy province. There was a very large population of Greek speakers in Romania as highlighted by the 29.6 % in Constanta circa 1853 of Greek origin.

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 journey from Persia encountering enemy and foreign countries. ‘Thalatta, Thalatta’ (‘To the sea, to the sea,’ in ancient Greek) his weary and exhausted men exalted as they reached the safe haven of Trebizond after an journey from the Persians. 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 and continued until it became an independent state. In 1204, Trebizond formed its own Hellenic Empire, breaking away from Byzantium. The new empire was supported by the Queen of Georgia assisting them to conquer a significant area on the Black Sea, from the borders of Georgia in the east to Sinope in the west. They would also capture the peninsular on the Crimea (Ukraine).

The Empire of Trebizond controlled no 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. The Empire was defeated in 1461 by Sultan Mehmet. Like all medieval Byzantine cities on the Black Sea, the impact of this Greek civilisation can still be felt. There are numerous churches and other buildings that are scattered across the modern city and through Black Sea Turkey.

Greek Muslims in Turkey

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.

During the final years of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Pontians as well as other Christians were killed. This is a sad ending to what was generally a benign empire that was, overall, considerate to their subjects. 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 most Allied promises over the years, this never eventuated and by 1923 the disgraceful 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. Several hundred thousand Greek Muslims were forced to Turkey. This extinguished the Greek presence in Trebizond, over 460 years after the end of the Empire of Trebizond.

In the north of Turkey were the Greek Muslims live, it is hard to ascertain their true identity. If you are told that they are Turkish that would be a denial of their heritage. To say they are Greek, would similarly be a denial to the current identity and the religion they practise. They are however descendants of those who lived in the Pontus or Empire of Trebizond area.

I have been to Turkey twice and enjoyed my visit immensely. When you tell them you have Greek heritage they go out of their way to look after you. The hospitality is similar to what you would find in Greece. It is surreal to think that many decades ago there was a real conflict between Turkish nationalists and Greek forces.

Russia

The figure of Greek speakers in Russia varies, though it may be estimated as about 200,000. Most of them were refugees from the Ottoman Empire in the 1700’s – 1900’s and are scattered across this vast country. It is hard to imagine a continuous unbroken link between the ancient Greek colonies to the modern day Greek speakers as most as are descendants of the Pontic refugees.

The city of Anapa which is not too far from Sochi were the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were held, was originally the Greek town of Gorgippiam built in the 6th century BC. The city was a hub for merchants and seafarers until it was abandoned in the 200’s AD, ensuring that there was no continued Greek presence.

Abkhazia

Is a breakaway republic of Georgia which neighbours staunch ally Russia. Georgia who only gained their own independence in 1991 maintains that Abkhazia is part of their boundaries as the dispute has yet to be resolved.

Abkhazia was once part of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis which mythical Jason visited. A number of ancient Greek colonies were established here including Pitiunt and Dioscurias. The region would come under Pontic Greek king Mithradates in the second century BC until the Roman Empire took control. Around the 400s AD the Byzantine Empire superseded Rome as nominal ruler though it was in essence in control of its own affairs with minimal Byzantine interference. The area maintained Greek as an official language until at least the late 700’s.

Across the entire Black Sea a home was found for many Greek colonies and cities and there remain pockets of Hellenic identity. As many countries flourish around the Black Sea, it is imperative that we pause a moment and reflect on the Hellenic contribution to the region. I have many stories and anecdotes to tell about the Black Sea, though I expect there are millions more from the descendants of Greek colonies, towns, refugees and seafarers who can still be found around this historic sea. Next time you think about Greek history, cast your mind to the Black Sea, a place where Hercules and Jason once received significant hospitality.

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