The sound of waves crashing on the shore and lush nature that traverses the interior, this could be yet another location in Greece. Instead it is something else. The peninsular at the tip of the Ukraine is known as the Crimea. Whilst it may be in dispute between Ukraine and Russia, 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, Kimmerikon, Panticapaeum. Within decades a Greek ‘kingdom’ existed in the Black Sea that maintained close ties to the Aegean.
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 coast of 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. It should be noted that Greek speaking control generally meant the coastal areas and some of the interior, not always the entire Crimea.
Greek was spoken as a major language in the Crimea for 2000 years irrespective of direct Greek control. There remain a number of Greek speakers and descendants in some of the towns in the region, a truly amazing accomplishment. Over a hundred years ago there may have been thousands, now they are merely hundreds. I have actually met some of their descendents in the Greek towns of Ukraine.
There are a number of Greek sites in the region. For a more comprehensive analysis, I recommend ‘Ancient Greek Sites in the Crimean Peninsular,’ published by the Odessa branch of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.
A testament to the Hellenic history in the area is the city of Theodosia (Θεοδοσία) established by Greek colonists from Miletos in the 6th century BC. Unfortunately, the Huns destroyed it in the 4th century AD, becoming a small village that functioned with the Greek language and religion at its core over the next 900 years.
Crimea of course was not the exclusive domain of Greek speakers, it was one of many competing cultures to control or reside in its borders. Like many Greek outposts, the further in to the interior and away from the coastal areas one could experience other cultures and looser control by either Greek colonists or Byzantine Hellenes. In ancient times the Cimmerians and Scythians were evident in large numbers, followed later by Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, the state of Kievan Rus’, the Kipchaks, and the Golden Horde.
The Greek speaking Byzantine Empire took over from the Romans in the 4th Century AD. In the 9th century they established the Cherson theme to prevent incursions by the emerging Rus’ Khaganate. The Greek speaking Trebizond Empire (Trebizond is in modern Turkey) had control of the coastal areas from 1204 until they were defeated by Mehmet in 1461. By the late1200’s Venice and Genoa controlled significant areas until the arrival of the Ottomans around the15th Century.
Russian Intervention through Catherine
In 1783 Catherine brought the region under her control as Russian Queen. In 1954, it was transferred to the Ukraine. The region now has a significant majority of Russian speakers with about 60%, followed by Ukrainians, a large Tartar minority and a small grouping of Greek speakers. The vast majority of Greek speakers in the ‘united’ Ukraine are actually on the mainland around the Sea of Azov and Marioupolis, which I visited many years ago. Marioupolis was established by Greek people from Crimea in 1779.
Under the reign of Catherine the Great, Greek speakers from the Crimea asked for her protection from the Muslim controlled Crimea, for the area was constantly being played off between rival powers. She facilitated their ‘migration’ to the Ukraine proper, where new Greek towns were established. Many of these towns such as Yalta (which means shore in Greek) transferred their names from Crimea. Yalta is the site of the WWII conference between the Allies and Stalin.
Theodoro the last Greek Principality
I recently discovered the amazing fact that there was a Principality that survived until 1475. I had always believed that 1461 was the last Greek independent kingdom or city to fall to the Ottomans when Trebizond was defeated. Very few scholars or historians refer to the Principality of Theodoro on the far coast of Crimea and facing Romania and Moldova. Its population was a mixture of Greeks, Goths, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks and other Orthodox Christian groups. The official language was Greek and the territory was initially under Trebizond.
The Principality first gets a mention in medieval sources around the 1300’s. The Prince of the city was known as Lord of the city of Theodoro and the Maritime Region. The city fell in late 1475 after a 6 month siege. However, unlike most of Crimea which came under the Ottoman vassal of the Khanate, it was directly ruled by the Turkish Empire. In 2006 a book entitled The Mystery of Theodoro principality was published by Andrey Vasilyev and Mikhail Avtushenko. The book highlights how the Principality outlived the end of Byzantium for twenty two years and it cultural importance to emerging Slavic countries.
The recent issues around the Crimea is nothing new. Unfortunately, it is yet another sad chapter in the consistent strife of the region that dates back to Antiquity. Crimea has a long history and really no one has complete cultural hegemony over it, therefore leaving the region open to empire after empire seeking control. Crimea is also in a strategic location in the Black Sea which makes it tempting for stronger powers. One thing is for certain, the living Greek history in the Crimea is almost at end as the numbers dwindle or move to the Ukraine.