Having had the pleasure of visiting Greek communities in the Ukraine twice, learning and visiting their towns, I am always fascinated by what a Hellene can discover in that part of the world….
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 a Hellenic influenced region for most of the last 2,600 years. Along with other cultures, 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 also 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.
Pontus rulers captured the coast of the Crimea by 114 BC lasting until Roman rule arrived in 63. The Greeks of Byzantium held chunks of the Crimea intermittently from the Fourth Century AD until gaining real control early in the eleventh century. In 1204, control of the Crimean tip passed to the Greeks of Trebizond until 1461, when Sultan Mehmet took Trebizond after a long siege. It should be noted that Greek speaking control generally meant the coastal areas and some of the interior, not usually the entire Crimea.
Greek was spoken as a major language in the Crimea for two thousand years irrespective of direct Greek control. There remains a small number of Greek speakers and descendants in some of the towns in the region, a truly amazing accomplishment. Over a hundred years ago there were thousands of Hellenes in the Crimea, now merely hundreds. I have actually met some of their descendants. Just across the Crimean, is the Sea of Azov, where there are approximately 100,000 Greek speakers in Ukrainian towns, as well as residing in the city of Marioupolis. Places that I will never forget.
There are a number of Greek sites in the region. For a more comprehensive analysis, I recommend Ancient Greek Sites in the Crimean Peninsula, 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, established by Greek colonists from Miletus in the sixth century BC. Unfortunately, the Huns destroyed it in the Fourth Century AD, becoming instead a small village that functioned with the Greek language and religion at its core over the next nine hundred years.
Crimea of course was not the exclusive domain of Greek speakers; it was one of many competing cultures to control or reside within its borders. Like many Greek outposts, the further into the interior and away from the coastal areas one could experience other unique cultures, and looser control by either Greek colonists or Byzantine rulers. 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, the Golden Horde and Turks.
Byzantium took over from the Romans in the fourth century AD. In the ninth century, they established the Cherson theme to prevent incursions by the emerging Rus’ Khaganate. As mentioned earlier, the Greek speaking Empire pf Trebizond had control of the coastal areas from 1204 until they were defeated by Mehmet. By the late 1200s Venice and Genoa controlled significant areas until the defeats to the Ottomans around the Fifteenth Century.
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 over 60%, followed by Ukrainians, a large Tartar minority and a small grouping of other speakers.
Under the reign of Catherine the Great, Greek speakers from the Crimea asked for her protection from the Muslim controlled Crimea. 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 World War Two conference between the Allies and Stalin. I remember my Ukraine Greek friends took to Yalta and met the Mayor over a long lunch. Beautiful town.
Here is another amazing fact, there was a Greek Principality that survived until 1475. Most historians believe that 1461 was the last Greek independent kingdom or city to fall to the Ottomans when Trebizond was defeated. Few scholars or historians refer to the Principality of Theodoro on the far coast of Crimea which somewhat faced modern Romania and Moldova. The population was a mixture of Greeks, Goths, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks and other Orthodox Christian groups. The official language was Greek. The territory was initially under Trebizond.
The Principality first gets a mention in medieval sources around the 1300s. The Prince of the city was known as Lord of the city of Theodoro and the Maritime Region. Try saying that whilst eating feta. The area fell in late 1475 after a six-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 its cultural importance to emerging Slavic countries.
The Principality held a small territory of approximately 100 square kilometres; though it is hard to put an exact figure on it. Either side of the territory, was the Khanate of the Crimea and Genoese possessions that faced the Black Sea. The princes bore Greek names including Demetrios, Giannis and Alexander, and their insignia was similar to that of the double headed eagle of the late Byzantium period. Most of their time would be spent playing a diplomatic game with their stronger neighbours.
The recent issues around the Crimea from 2014 are nothing new; another sad chapter in the consistent strife of the region, that dates back thousands of years. Crimea has a long history and really no one has had complete cultural hegemony over it, therefore leaving the region open to power after power seeking control. Crimea is also in a strategic location in the Black Sea which makes it tempting for stronger rulers or thugs. One thing is for certain, the living Greek history in the Crimea is almost at an end, as the numbers dwindle or move to the Ukraine. Conversely, it is hoped that the Principality receives long overdue attention as the final Byzantine/Trebizond province.