Tuesday, 19 May 2009


“Refugees have done more for my heart and my spirit than I can ever express in words.”
- Angelina Jolie

Today marks a commemorative day that is observed in Greece to remember the genocide of the Pontian-Greeks. The Pontus (Εύξεινος Πόντος - Euxeinos Pontos), is the Black Sea and Greeks settled the area from around 1000 BCE when they first visited the area for trade mainly in gold and minerals. The trip of Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis commemorates Greek visits to the Pontus. Mythology is full of more adventures in the region, including the travels of Ulysses to the country of the Cimmerians, the punishment of Prometheus by Zeus chaining his body on the mountains of Caucasus, the travels of Hercules to the Black Sea, which all testify to the existence of ancient Greek trading routes in the Black Sea.

The trading posts started to develop in to permanent Greek settlements by about 800 BC. The city of Miletus on the Western shore of Asia Minor was the first to start the colonisation of the Black Sea by founding a daughter-city, Sinope. This became a rapidly growing city gifted with a good harbour and easy accessibility to the hinterland. More colonial cities developed along the length of the Northern shore of Asia Minor, along the coast of the Black Sea. Large populations of Greeks settled there and their cities became powerful cultural and trading centres.

During the first centuries of their existence the colonies retained the same patterns of social and political organisation as their colonial mother-towns. With the passage of time, the Greek cities dominated the political life of the region and the local indigenous people became hellenised. In the Alexandrian period, the economic power of the Pontian-Greek cities peaked, with Greek culture leaving an indelible mark on the surrounding regions. Under the reign of the Pontian king Mithridates VI Eupator (134-63 BCE), Greek became the official language of the many different (and until then polyglot) people of Asia Minor. During Roman times, Greek culture in the eastern part of the Black Sea flourished and the Pontian-Greek cities retained their freedom, independence and self-determination as well as continuing to play a leading role in the economic and cultural life of the region.

The apostles St Andrew and St Peter brought Christianity to Pontus, profitting from the fact that the language of the populace was Greek, which had become the lingua franca of the time. As Christianity spread, Greek culture and national identity became fused with it. The result was that a homogenous culture emerged, based on the uniting element of Greek Christian Orthodoxy.

The capture of Constantinople by the Franks in 1204 CE, resulted in the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire into small Frankish states. Smaller Greek states survived and Alexius, a member of the Byzantine dynasty of the Komnenoi, with his brother David, founded the Empire of the Great Komnenoi of Trebizond on the Pontus. The Georgian queen Thamar (aunt of Alexius and David) aided in the establishment of this state. Up until that point, Trebizond was relatively insignificant but because of the Komnenoi’s choice, it became a powerful dysnastic centre.

The fall of Constantinople (1453 CE) the fall of Trebizond (1461 CE) mark one of the great turning points in Greek history. Immediately after the capture of Trebizond by the Ottomans, many inhabitants of the rich coastal towns and the villages fled. Most of them escaped into the remote mountain regions of Pontus where in protective isolation they were free to continue their cultural, religious and linguistic tradition. Some of the refugees settled in central Russia, others on the coasts of southern Russia, in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan, where they founded new Greek cities. These thriving cultural centres were able to welcome persecuted Greeks in later years. This resulted in the simultaneous existence of a second, ever-growing Pontian-Greek civilisation (particularly in Russia), which throughout the whole period of the Ottoman Empire received refugees. These refugees were fleeing the 1914-18 persecution of Pontians by the reigning Ottoman regime.

By 1918 the total Pontian-Greek population in Russia had grown to 650,000 people. On the opposite shore of the Black Sea, on Turkish territory, the history and culture of the Pontian-Greeks and also of the other Greek inhabitants came to a tragic end through the treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This treaty brought about the forceful expulsion of Greek people living on Turkish territory (the “Asia Minor Catastrophe”). Similarly, Turks living on Greek soil were expelled to Turkey.

The criterion for the population exchanges outlined in the treaty of Lausanne was religion. Greeks who become Muslim in the 17th century could stay in Turkey. This explains why inhabitants in regions around the Pontian towns of Tonya, Ophis, Sourmena and Matsouka still live in Turkey and speak their Pontian-Greek dialect. They remember their Greek heritage and preserve their Greek (and some Christian traditions, although nominally they are Muslim).

Pontians living in the territory of the former Soviet Union are still estimated to be half a million people who stick to their Pontian-Greek traditions. The Pontians managed, like all persecuted peoples, to stick together and through hard work they established themselves in their new adopted homes. They preserved their language, tradition, songs and dances, their culture.

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