The hidden Greek history of Montenegro – it’s in the Balkans

Sitting on the plane ready to fly up from Athens to Dubrovnik, which is a small ride from the Montenegro border, I couldn’t help but laugh at an American girl who was face timing her boyfriend. “Baby I am off to Croatia.” “Where?” “It’s a country in Europe” “Where?” and it went on. I asked if she could tell her boyfriend that I am going to Montenegro. “Where?” came her reply. 

Clearly, the Balkans needs to sell themselves better. I can only imagine trying to explain to non Balkanites that this entire region has had a long connection to Greek speakers, which many people are unaware of. In fact, if the Balkans can sometimes struggle to sell the region international, imagine how hard it is to “sell” the Greek history of Montenegro 

It wasn’t my intention to write a story, real or imagined, about Greeks of Montenegro. For there are very few that live here. Notwithstanding the Consulate and a few strays that seem to venture into these parts, there is no continuous presence of Greeks since antiquity. Usually the key ingredient I need to write a story about Hellenes. However, as the Greek salad ingredient of feta kept appearing in my local salad, (foolishly thinking I can lose weight), and the visitors from Athens whotold me in Greek how they love Kotor, it made me think.

And thinking is not something I do often, nor did I wish to undertake any while relaxing in paradise, writing my next book, Crystal Palace. If you have read this far, I am sure you will enjoy my new book when it comes in January.

Montenegro is one incredible visitation haven. Stunning landscape, green backdrop and dramatic mountains mixed with the Adriatic Sea. Narrow roads, beaten up classic Fiats and a medieval charm make this a worthwhile destination, especially if you have Euros, which is the currency here.

Montenegro has been independent since a narrow successful referendum in 2006, breaking away from Serbia in a peaceful process. Finally, after centuries of various masters, Montenegro is seemingly in control of her own destiny. 

Before I fly out form Athens, I had a search of Greek eateries in Montenegro. It came up empty. Perhaps I should have used Google, not Bing, which is a search engine that defaults every few months on my lap top. What the heck is Bing anyway?

Well, my Montenegrin, Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian is probably not good enough to work out if there was, though I did drive past Olympia Restaurant near Herceg Novi on the way to Kotor, just over the Croatian border. A local told me, from what I could understand, that it is indeed a Greek restaurant.

Arriving to the stunning Kotor, it is here that you can truly feel the beauty of the region, with dramatic mountains that almost touch the sea, roads that twist and turn and crazy drivers that made me feel as though I was part of the Acropolis Rally.

Not much is known about Montenegro in the hinterland prior to the arrival of Slavs around the sixth and seventh century. We know more about the coast, which had a number of Greek colonies and settlements. Along the coast, from Vorio Iperos through to Croatia, the Greeks had created a number of colonies in the centuries before Roman conquerors appeared. This includes the following cities, Apollonia in Albania, Aspalathoswhich eventually Split became a derivative of, Salona not that far from there, Budva/Vouthoe and known as the place to be seen in Montenegro, Byllis, which is an obvious favourite due the name itself, Epidamnus which became Dyrrachium, to name just a few. There many, many more Greek colonies and Byzantine towns. 

Kotor is one such colony. It may have been known founded in antiquity in the classic fifth century BC, though it doesn’t attain mentions in sources until the all conquering Romans in their togas arrived in the region. The town was called Askrivion in Greek, while its modern name was actually gained during the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire era, when it was known as Deketera, which is a play on the number ten and gate, in reference to the way the fortifications were set out.

The current fortifications were built by the Venetians, however, the original walls came during the Justinian era in the sixth century AD, and strengthened by emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos in the 900s. These are incorporated into the fortifications which surround the old town. Kotor and the coast belonged to the Byzantine theme (province) between 870 – almost 1070, one of eight Byzantine theme areas in Dalmatia.

Until I entered the quaint but very charming museum and church of Saint Mihailo in the old town of Kotor, I would not have guessed about the Greek history of Kotor and Montenegro. By chance, I met the archaeologist, Anja Micunovic, who gave me a real, detailed overview of the history of Kotor. She made me realise what the history of the region was all about.

The museum is actually a former church/Basilica, with its dome features from a mid Byzantine epoch, as many other structures in Kotor appeared to feature.

Anja explained that the church and structure had been rebuilt three times. “First was the Christian Basilica from the sixth century, the period of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Then second is a pre Romanesque church which was built from ninth until the eleventh century.” This is a period which had Byzantine and other foreign rulers, with the last version or rebuild being “Romano-Gothic from the early 15th century.

Anja told about the Greek finds from antiquity that has been uncovered, which were on display inside the building.

“We do not have many Greek finds in Lapidarium, two grave plates (stellas) one from family tomb with three figurines, originally from Risan (nearby), found in the 1950s in Perast in the basement of a palace which belongs to the family Viskovic.

Another significant finding on display is “dedicated to traveling doctor Lusius Eukrap Clinicos. It was found in 1945 in Kotor near a swimming pool during reconstructions. We also have an Ionian column, from the first century BC.” 

I had been intrigued by the Ionian column and a number of other items from different eras that sit beside the building. 

Anja also explained to me that an excavation in 2011 “uncovered a Hellenistic home for men, we call it Aglaos.” Coins and a ring from the third century BC was also found. The ring is dedicated to Artemis, crafted in a multi layered design and is traced “to Sicily, and found here.”

As for the history after the post Alexander Hellenistic period, our good mates the mighty Romans made an appearance on the Dalmatian coast and the Balkans earlier than in Greece proper, from the period of the second century BC, and unlike Trump who believes his troops had access to airports centuries before they were built, the Romans simply used their vast and well trained military to subjugate the region, starting with a fleet and securing coastal ports.

As Rome eventually transitioned to the East Roman Empire or rather the Byzantine based out of Constantinople, Byzantium secured the entire coastline to the Danube and the entire Balkans. When the Slavs came followed by the Bulgars, beforethe rise of the Serbs who gained strength by the tenth and eleventh centuries. Control of the region would go back and forth between Constantinople and he newer faces of the Balkans.It was almost like a Federer/Sampras tennis match.

The last time that the Greek speaking Byzantium had complete and total control of the coast and some of the inland areas would have been 1042, thereafter, the Serbs, Normans, Bulgars, and Greeks vied via a series of wars and battles. There were no fixed boundaries or a UN, not that the UN is able to deal with borders and bigger powers effectively. You only need to look at Cyprus or the history of the Balkans to understand that sentiment.

The Greeks under Byzantium and also the Despotate of Epiros which emerged from 1205, continued to have influence and held some territories around Vorio Epiros and the Montenegrin coast in the south, and also in Dalmatia proper.

Certainly, the number of churches and monasteries I came across in Montenegro, based on design and era of initial build demonstrate that. One example is the Monastery of Saint Archangel Michael, near Tivat and the airport. I attended a church service there and also bought some Greek scenting oil. Yes Greek! The church has itself has had a rebuild a number of times due to senseless destruction and the poisoning of seventy monks in the 1400s. The site has had a settlement since the ancient Greeks were there, and is technically an island in Boka Kotorska Bay.

From all of this, it may be possible to deduce, and this is the ultra ethnic Greek in me who bleeds feta telling this, that the Greek language was probably spoken from the period of the Greek colonies until a century or two after the last vestige of Byzantine control, possibly the end of the 1200s, or longer.

How did I come up with this formula? Rome introduced Latin wherever it went, though Greek was the second language in many parts of the empire. During Roman expansion, the Hellenistic Era and empires remained across the Balkans, Mediterranean, Asia and part of Africa. The emergence of Constantinople as the ruler, ensured that Greek remained a key language and in many parts, the lingua franca. 

Montenegro, certainly a brilliant holiday destination, and a gem in the Balkans. It is a reminder of how far the Greeks of antiquity and Byzantium have come, if only we could tell the world what exists here.

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