By Isaure Vorstman
Between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., a colony of Greek merchants and sailors left mainland Greece to settle on the northeastern coast of Asia Minor, on the shores of the Black Sea, in a territory they baptised “Πόντος,” (“Pontos”) literally meaning “sea.” There they developed a distinct identity, culture, and language, which was intimately tied to and shaped by the Pontos itself. The genocidal campaign against Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, followed immediately by the dramatic population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922, brought a permanent end to the presence of Pontian Greeks in the Pontos. Stripped from their ancestral homeland, Pontian Greeks have since lived in diaspora, where they continue to identify as a Greek people distinct from mainland Greeks, with unique ties to the territory they lost. The fate of Pontian Greeks today has been irrevocably shaped by the dramatic events of the early twentieth century. While there is a tendency in modern-day academia, civil society, and mainland Greek politics to define Pontian Greeks by the events of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, their story as a people does not begin there. The aim of this essay is threefold: to uncover the origins of Pontian Greek identity from their very arrival in the Pontos, to understand how Pontian Greek identity was perceived by “mainland” Greeks’ identity-building projects in antiquity and nation-building projects in the nineteenth century, and, finally, to see how Pontian Greeks fell victim to competing Greek and Ottoman perception of nation, identity, and territory. Ultimately, this essay offers an alternative narrative of Pontian Greeks by emphasising their identity as a people distinct from mainland Greeks, whose story should not be characterized by their victimhood, but rather by their resilience.
Located three kilometres south of the Athenian city centre, the city of Kallithea (Καλλιθέα) is the second largest municipality in Greece. Kallithea, which in Greek means “beautiful view,” was founded in 1884. While the town grew steadily in the years after its founding, no population increase was quite as dramatic as that of 1920-1923, when, as a result of the Greco-Turkish War – otherwise known as the Asia Minor Catastrophe – Kallithea was overwhelmed by thousands upon thousands of Greek refugees, all hailing from Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor. Among these refugees were the Pontian Greeks, a population native to the northeastern coast of Anatolia, on the southern shores of the Black Sea.
The area known as “Pontos,” marked in green, and its location relative to present-day state borders. Note: there is no one way to define the borders of the “Pontos,” as understandings of what constitutes this territory have evolved over the course of history. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. Find details here
On May 8, 2022, I visited the Pontian Association “Argonautai-Komini” (Συλλογος Ποντιων “Αργοναυται-Κομηνοι”) in Kallithea. There I met with Galateia Sitaridi, a member of the Pontic Society and a direct descendant of Pontian Greek refugees who had arrived in Kallithea a century ago. Ms. Sitaridi took the time to show me around the centre. She explained to me how its aim was to preserve Pontian Greek identity through investments in language and culture. The centre offers courses for those interested to learn – or re-learn – the Pontian Greek language. Many Pontian Greeks today do not speak Pontian Greek fluently, if not at all, for Greece has neither an administration nor an education system in the Pontian Greek language. Upon their arrival in Greece, Pontian Greek refugees were expected to learn the Greek language as it was spoken in Greece, which they did. Today, only a fraction of Pontian Greeks in Greece fluently speak the language that their ancestors spoke and developed in Pontos over the course of two and a half millennia.1
Like language, dance, Ms. Sitaridi explained, is a central element of Pontian Greek heritage. It is a means through which Pontians connect not only with their traditions and their culture but also with the territory where their ancestors lived.2 When Ms. Sitaridi showed me the Society’s private dance studio and theatre, whose walls were mostly covered in photos of past recitals and groups of dancers wearing Pontian costumes, I was struck by an enormous map of Pontos adorning one of them. Held together by a large wooden frame, the map was divided into the “Εύξεινο Πόντος” (Eúxeino Póntos) – the “hospitable sea” from which Greek colonists arrived on the shores of northern Anatolia in Antiquity – and by the territory of “Πόντος” – named after the Sea itself. It showed the names of cities, roads and rivers. The map was a labour of love: using the tiniest scraps of white paper, several names of cities and coordinates had been glued over the laminated paper.
Map of the Pontos. Photo taken in the dance studio belonging to the Pontian Association “Argonautai-Komninoi,” Kallithea, Greece. Photograph by the author. No changes have been made.
Extensive research has been conducted on the Asia Minor Catastrophe, and the resulting population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. Studies explain how the arrival of Greek refugees from the Ottoman Empire not only fundamentally transformed Greece’s character as a nation, but also the Pontian Greeks and their identity as a people now scattered in diaspora.
Many studies also argue that the Ottoman campaign against the Pontian Greeks fits within the context of a genocide committed against all Christian minorities living in Anatolia.3 These studies, which seek to bring the genocide of the Pontian Greeks into the mainstream of genocide studies, carry, whether intentionally or not, a distinctly political dimension. Since the 1980s, Pontian Greek activists in Greek society have campaigned for the recognition of the Pontian Genocide in Greece, whose parliament instituted Pontian Genocide Memorial Day in 1994, as well as internationally. This political campaign continues today as activists call for the Pontian Genocide to be recognized globally by countries and international institutions alike.
Thus, the fate of the Pontian Greeks in the past century continues to attract the attention of politicians, activists, and scholars alike. But what about the blue map of the Pontos in the dance studio in Kallithea? What about those handwritten place names bordering an allegedly friendly sea? How did this territory give birth to a people who carry the Pontos in their very name? The Pontian Greeks did not appear out of nowhere. While their current state is dictated by the events of 1922, it is not where their story begins.
This essay is a combination of three stories. First, it tells the story of the Pontian Greeks, and how, over 2,500 years of history, their identity as a people was inextricably linked to the political and territorial developments on the Pontos. In tandem, this essay also tells the story of the perceptions of “Greek” identity in the territory that in the nineteenth century became modern Greece, and to what extent the Pontian Greeks “fit” in these perceptions of Greekness. Lastly, this essay explains how the nationalist and expansionist ambitions of both Greece and the declining Ottoman Empire caused the rapid deterioration of Greco-Ottoman relations, eventually leading to the Pontian Greeks’ expulsion from the territory they had inhabited for two and a half millennia.
The fate of the Pontian Greeks has been irrevocably affected by the latter two stories. In the early twentieth century, the Pontian Greeks became the victims of policies shaped by politicized nationalisms, aggressively expansionist foreign policies, and subsequent interstate conflicts that Pontian Greeks themselves played no role in fomenting. Yet their identity should not solely be defined by these developments. As their 2,500 years of history on the Pontos illustrates, there is so much more to say about their identity as a people. It is on these latter arguments that I will reflect in the concluding statements of this essay.
Pontian Greeks, Perceptions of Greekness, and the Birth of Modern States
Greeks and the Black Sea: A Story of Colonization
The territory inhabited by Greeks in Antiquity extends far beyond the territory that constitutes Greece today. Modern mainland Greece is mountainous and offers limited area for farming. It is perhaps for this reason that the Greeks, from their very development as a civilization around the first millennium B.C., became a people of seafarers and traders. From approximately the eighth to sixth centuries B.C., many Greeks left the mainland on the Aegean to establish colonies on the shores of the Mediterranean as well as the Black Sea. The results of this colonization around the Black Sea, by the mid-sixth century, is detailed on the map below.
“Greek and Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean Basin, about 550 B.C.” Photo: William R. Shepard, 1911 via The University of Texas, Austin/Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. View usage details here
It is not clear what prompted the settlement of Greek sailors and merchants along the coast of the Black Sea specifically. One theory argues that it was simply a reaction to overpopulation, and the resulting risks of food shortages, that provided the impetus for Greeks to launch expeditions eastward.4 A different theory echoes the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed off to the Black Sea in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. Just like Jason, the Greek colonists’ exploration of the Black Sea, and specifically its southeastern shores, would have been motivated by a search for valuable ores on the southern coast, which led them deep into the Eurasian steppe.5
In Antiquity, the Greeks initially referred to the Black Sea as “Αξεινος Πóντος,” (Axeinos Póntos) or the “inhospitable sea.”6 The Black Sea was known for its storminess, and along its coasts lived tribes of peoples whom Greeks regarded as opponents and impediments to their own colonial expansion.7 Yet, over time, Greeks settled on its coasts and established colonial settlements that became economic hubs.8 The Black Sea became a successful vehicle for Greek trade and entrepreneurship, linking its northern, eastern, southern, and western coastlines, which themselves became starting points for the development of inland trade.9 As Greeks increased their settlements on every end of the coast, the “inhospitable sea” was no longer worthy of its unfriendly title, and the name transitioned to “Εύξεινο Πόντος” (Eúxeino Póntos), the “hospitable sea.”10
Greek Identities in Antiquity
What makes “Greekness” a shared identity, if Greeks in Antiquity lived in diaspora, settling on the shores of the Black Sea and Mediterranean? How can Greekness be considered a shared identity, when the Greeks – on the shores of the Aegean and on the territory of Macedonia and Epirus – developed a system of city-states, each of which developed their own political systems, customs, foreign policies, and even cultures?
The earliest known occurrence of the term “panhellenism” is found in Homer’s Iliad, written around the eighth century B.C. The term is generally used to indicate a shared sense of community and identity; no matter where they were settled in the world, all Greeks were Hellenes and shared a common religion, ethnic background, language, and way of life. This common identity was expressed in literature, storytelling, and religion, and was believed to have originally spread through religious sanctuaries and festivals.11
The term gained a firm political dimension through the decades of conflicts between the Greek city-states and the Achaemenid Empire in the fifth century B.C. Written sources from this period indicate the birth of an idea: Greeks shared a common culture, but also a common future. Greeks were destined to achieve full unity by going to war against a common enemy – the “barbarians” – and taking over every territory inhabited by Greeks. Thus, through the narratives of the battles known as the Persian Wars in the 5th century B.C., the idea of panhellenism gained an expansionist, imperialist dimension.12
In the Athenian city-state, poets, playwrights, historians, and philosophers were deeply preoccupied with defining a vision of Greekness that was distinctly homogeneous and applied to every Greek in the same way, no matter where they were in the world. These thinkers and writers also provided a distinct definition of those who did not share this identity, and in doing so created a strict binary that contrasted every “Greek” against every “barbarian.”13 But to what extent did reality match this perception?
The Greeks on the Black Sea did not exist in a vacuum. Many worked as merchants and traders, and the success of their colonies was in part dependent on what historian Charles King describes as
the symbiotic relationship between Greek settlers and non-Greek natives … The Pontic Greeks found their own way of adapting to and even adopting the cultures of the peoples they encountered – in part because of the fluidity of the very concept of “Greekness,” … over time, something of a hybrid civilization developed … that blended artistic forms, styles of life, and even languages of the coast and the hinterland.14
Thus, on the coasts of the Black Sea, the distinction between “Greek” and “barbarian” was not as clear as the poets and playwrights in Athens claimed that it was. In contrast to what the Greek writers in the city-states on the Aegean claimed to perceive, King argues that
the Black Sea was not so much a place where the “civilized” and “barbarian” worlds met, but rather one where outsiders – Greeks … – became yet another part of the melange of lifestyles and customs that had long swirled around the shores. From the earliest Greek expeditions …, the blurring of lines between languages, peoples, and cultures was the hallmark of life along the water.15
In fact, Persian influences are found in the original Greek name for the Black Sea: “Αξεινος,” the Greek word for “inhospitable,” is a loanword from the Persian word “axšaēna,” which means “dark.”16
Pontos: A Legacy of Exchanges and Self-governance
The success of the Black Sea colonies and their trade networks waned after the fourth century B.C.17 New, more lucrative trade routes developed in the eastern Mediterranean, which eventually came under full control of the expanding Roman Empire.18 By the first century B.C., the Roman Empire had conquered almost the entirety of the Black Sea coast. There was but one notable exception: the Kingdom of Pontos.
It is not clear when exactly the term “Pontos” first became used to describe the territory south of the Black Sea, on the northeastern coast of Asia Minor. Earliest available written sources date from the fifth century B.C., when the Greek adventurer Xenophon travelled through this territory.19 At this point, Greek settlements in the region were limited to cities – trade outposts – in coastal areas.20 This is partly because of the nature of the territory: Pontos consists of a long, narrow coast and a coastal mountain range.21 Eastern Pontos – nearing the Caucasus – is more mountainous than the west, where the mountain peaks are significantly lower. Many rivers run through these mountains, offering potential routes for inland trade.22
Beginning in the sixth century B.C., this territory was part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Two centuries later, it was replaced by an independent ruling entity. The Kingdom of Pontos was founded in the fourth century B.C. by a Persian dynasty, who, reflecting the prevalent Greek influence in the Black Sea and its surrounding areas, gradually developed strong Hellenic characteristics. By the second century B.C., the Kingdom of Pontos’s official language was Greek.23 Hellenic influence varied throughout the ethnically and culturally diverse kingdom, yet under its rulers, who claimed to descend from Persian royalty as well as from Alexander the Great, it was a unified, cohesive state.24
It was also an independent entity, relying neither on mainland Greeks, whose influence in the Black Sea was waning, nor on the then-collapsing Persian Empire.25 Its territory consistently expanded through the decades as Pontian rulers sought territorial expansion.26 It is only when King Mithridates VI, whose territorial ambitions included all of Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast, collided with the Roman Empire, that the kingdom stopped expanding.27 Pontos was eventually defeated by the Romans during the Mithridatic Wars (88 B.C. – 63 B.C.). Its western end became part of the Roman Empire, while the east became a client kingdom until its full absorption by the Romans in 62 A.D.28
Asia Minor before the outbreak of the Mithridatic Wars (Roman Empire v. Kingdom of Pontus), 90 B.C. Photo: William Robert Shepard via University of Texas Austin/Wikiwand. No changes were made. View usage details here
Under Roman rule, the administrative divisions of Pontos were reorganized multiple times. Reorganization of the area, with the degrees of self-rule fluctuating over time, continued under Byzantine control. In the port city of Trebizond a rich network of merchants and commodities, which had emerged in the late Antique period, continued to flourish. Trebizond had trade connections with peoples and kingdoms on every horizon: with every coast of the Black Sea, including Constantinople, with the Armenian, Georgian, and Islamic kingdoms in the Caucasus region to the east, and with merchants in southern regions, including Syria and Iraq.29 In the ninth century, Trebizond – now a metropolis by the standards of its time – and its surrounding area became its own theme, or administrative division, under Byzantine rule.30 It became an important military base but maintained its significance as an economic outpost and commercial network.31
The Empire of Trebizond was a monarchy created in the early thirteenth century with the help of the Georgian queen Tamar. It was an independent successor state to the Byzantine Empire, which had fragmented into independent splinter states after the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The territorial borders of this Byzantine successor state varied throughout its existence, though the city of Trebizond always remained its centre. As under Byzantine rule, the official language of the Empire of Trebizond was Greek. It was also home to a diversity of other languages, including historical dialects of modern-day Turkish and Armenian. Trebizond monarchs claimed to be heirs to the Byzantine Empire, and thus remained rooted in Byzantine state traditions. When the Empire of Nicaea reclaimed Constantinople in 1261, effectively restoring part of the Byzantine Empire’s original territory, Trebizond maintained its independence, thus becoming the longest surviving Byzantine successor state. The Empire collapsed in 1461 with the conquest of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. The territory once known as Pontus, now as Trebizond, now fell under Ottoman administration.
Greeks under Ottoman Rule
The fate of the Greeks in Pontos under Ottoman rule, prior to the Greek national awakening that emerged in the late eighteenth century, can be understood in context of the Ottoman Empire’s administration and rule over its non-Muslim population. Through its conquest of Greece in 1460, and its full conquest of Anatolia a year later, the Ottoman Empire inherited a significant Orthodox Christian population. Out of practicality, the Ottomans turned to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople to help control these newly acquired peoples.32
The Ottoman Sultan recognized the patriarchate in Constantinople as the religious and civil authority over the Empire’s entire Orthodox population, thus granting it more power than it had had under Byzantine rule.33 Though the Orthodox Christian population included Albanians, Arabs, Romanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Vlachs as well as Greeks, only the latter were represented in the upper echelons of Orthodox leadership.34 In return for these extensive powers, the patriarchate had to guarantee the loyalty of all Orthodox Christians to the Ottoman Empire.35
This ruling framework, through which the Ottomans organized their rule over non-Muslim populations, was known as the “millet” system. The term originally meant “religious community,” but, in the nineteenth century, was transformed to mean “nation.”36 This framework was a result of practical arrangements that gradually formalized, and the degree of communal autonomy that the millet system granted to non-Muslim populations was subject to variation over the centuries.
The millet system allowed for the Greeks of Pontos to maintain the Orthodox identity that they had acquired under the Byzantine Empire. Yet, just as the Greeks of the Black Sea colonies during Antiquity were subject to cultural influences from their non-Greek trading partners, so were Greeks in the Ottoman Empire subject to influences from non-Greek Ottoman subjects. Their cultural and linguistic identity was thus subject to significant development.
As in Antiquity, Greek communities were dispersed, separated by geography. Different Greek communities, therefore, were subject to different influences. Thus, though all ruled by the Millet-i-Rum, or the Patriarchate in Constantinople – which, in turn, fell under authority of the Ottoman administration – the Greeks in Anatolia were by no means a homogenous population.37 All shared in the same Orthodox faith – and were subject to the same administrative authorities – but their experience of language and culture differed vastly. Thus, according to the historian Richard Clogg, by the late eighteenth century,
a Greek of Epirus, for instance, would have had much difficulty in comprehending one of the Greek dialects of Cappadocia, while a Greek of Cappadocia would have experienced equal difficulty in understanding the Greek of Pontos, which in the view of one authority was by 1922 well on the way to forming a distinct “daughter language.” Moreover, the Greek spoken in many areas of the empire … was so heavily penetrated by Turkish as to be intelligible only to those with a knowledge of both languages … Many “Greeks” spoke only Turkish which they wrote with Greek characters.38
This diversity within the Greek population came to be challenged by the “national awakening” of the modern Greek state in the late eighteenth century. Its proponents imposed a perception of Hellenism that was so static one might draw connections to the Athenian playwrights and poets’ homogenous vision of Hellenic culture, language and literature had been in Antiquity.
Greek Independence and the “Ottoman Yoke”
Until the eighteenth century, notions of “independence” of Orthodox peoples were primarily connected to religious beliefs that prophesied the restoration of the Byzantine Empire – with Constantinople as its capital – by means of divine intervention. It did not involve a Greek-wide movement that fought for independent statehood and liberation from Ottoman power.39
The rise of the Greek national awakening, and the subsequent calls for Greek independence, were a product of developments in the eighteenth century. The Ottoman Empire was experiencing military, territorial, and economic decline, while simultaneously experiencing the rise of a mercantile class wherein Greek merchants played a dominant role.40 These merchants used their wealth to invest in what became an intellectual revival of the Greek language and, specifically, of the Greek cultural and literary tradition from Antiquity.41 Among the budding Greek intelligentsia, the idea developed that all Greeks were the direct heirs to Ancient Greece and its immensely rich legacy – which, at that time, was particularly revered by the western European intelligentsia.42 This notion became a source of collective identity amongst the Greek intelligentsia, who concurrently developed the belief that Greeks needed to be “liberated” from both Ottoman and Orthodox control.43
Greek nationalism, and the notion of Greek independence from Ottoman rule, spread in the first decades of the nineteenth century. A successfully organized insurrection, led by Greek nationalists against the Ottomans, led to the drafting of the first constitution for an independent Greek state in 1822.44 In 1832, the Treaty of Constantinople formalized the borders of the new country and declared it a constitutional monarchy to be ruled by the freshly chosen Bavarian King Otto.
The Megáli Idéa
These new borders caused dissatisfaction amongst many Greek nationalists. More than two-thirds of all Greeks lived outside of Greece’s newly established borders, and particularly in Anatolia. Greek nationalists in the new Greek monarchy thus developed the “Μεγάλη Ιδέα” (Megáli Idéa) “Great Idea,” the notion that every notable Greek settlement must be encompassed into a significantly expanded Greek state.45 The imagined borders of “Greater Greece” varied over time, but they generally included the western coast of Anatolia, the territory known as Macedonia, Eastern Thrace, and parts of modern-day Albania. At its most ambitious, it also included Pontos.
Through this expansionist vision, the Greeks living inside Greece’s new borders, whom nationalists referred to as “autochtons,” were destined to rescue the Greeks living outside of these borders – the “heterochtons” – through Greece’s own territorial expansion into the many remaining territories inhabited by Greeks.46 The Megáli Idéa became a prominent obsession among Greek nationalists, and it initially formed a rift with the Bavarian king of Greece and his supporters, who were content with a “small but honourable Greece.”47 However, with the election of the Liberal Party, led by Eleftherios Venizelos, to the Greek parliament in 1910, it officially became the Greek government’s foreign policy objective.48
Tied to this expansionist vision of Greek territory was a particular vision of what exactly constituted Greek identity. Over the past millennia, the Greeks had experienced city-states, followed by Roman, then Byzantine, then Ottoman rule. The territory on the Aegean consisted of many islands, but its mainland also linked it to the Balkans. The Greek intellectual revival at the turn of the nineteenth century dismissed Byzantine and Ottoman legacies in the history of the Greeks, opting instead to focus on the cultural and historical heritage of Antiquity.49 Only in the mid-nineteenth century was the Byzantine legacy integrated into Greek state- and identity-building projects, as Greek nationalists developed a vision of Greek history that linked Antiquity, the Byzantine Empire, and the modern era into one, unbroken, continuous narrative.50 The “Ottoman yoke,” so deeply reminiscent of the Ancient Greeks’ definition of panhellenism as a struggle against the “barbaric” Persians, remained.
The creation of a unified Greek identity that held no space for any Ottoman influences also had very practical purposes. Greek nationalists knew that the survival of their modern state, with Athens as its capital, depended on the creation of a shared identity that would eliminate the risk of regional or even village loyalties prevailing over loyalties towards the newly independent Greek state.51 As the city-states on the Aegean shores had believed in Antiquity, all Greeks needed to unite not only because they shared a history and a heritage, but also because they shared a future. But this could not be done if Greeks, on the mainland and in diaspora, did not find anything in common.
Greek Identities in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire
Greek nationalists were right to be worried: their vision was not a shared one. Many Greeks in Anatolia had no desire to change the status quo.52 Their communities had lived in Anatolia for generations – or, in the case of the Pontian Greeks, nearly two millennia. Many felt no connection to the modern Greek state that was proclaimed by the Greeks who lived on the shores of the Aegean and the southeastern tip of the Balkan peninsula.
In addition, there was barely such a thing as a shared “Anatolian Greek,” or “Ottoman Greek” identity. Excluding the significant Greek population in Constantinople, there were roughly three main areas in Anatolia with large concentrations of Greeks. These communities had little in common with one another. They were divided linguistically: in some communities, Turkish, not Greek, was the mother tongue. For the Greeks of Pontos, some of whom had recently migrated to the more Orthodox-friendly Russian Empire, geographic isolation from other Anatolian Greek communities led to the development of a completely distinct language. Though Pontian Greek evolved directly from the Greek language that was spoken in Antiquity, it is not easily understood by Greeks outside of Pontos.53
Greeks in Anatolia were also divided by social class. In rural areas, Greek populations mostly consisted of farmers, traders, and shopkeepers. In large urban centres of Western Anatolia, their socioeconomic status was much higher, as many worked higher-end jobs including banking, commerce, and manufacturing.54
In short, amongst the Greeks in Anatolia, regional identities, and their corresponding regional loyalties, were the norm rather than the exception. Their one uniting feature was their shared Orthodox faith. Any discussion of bringing change to Ottoman rule that happened outside of the Greek intellectual circles of Constantinople was linked to the idea of restoring the Byzantine Empire, where Christianity, not Greekness, was the uniting factor. Indeed, among Ottoman Greeks who were not members of the Greek intelligentsia, there was no reason to fight for the creation of a Greek state based on the “pagan” cultural heritage of Antiquity, as they held little to no personal connection to it.55
Proponents of the Megáli Idéa addressed this disunity among Ottoman Greeks by investing in the “re-hellenization” of their communities. Such attempts at ideological conversions happened primarily in the realm of education. For instance, Greek universities created scholarships for Ottoman Greek students to be educated in Athens. Once graduated and returned to their homes in Anatolia, these students were expected not only to act as ideological ambassadors for the Greek state, but also to help their communities at home “maintain” their Greek identities. These efforts included, among others, resisting the trend in many Greek communities to transition from Greek to Turkish as the local lingua franca.56 The success of these efforts were subject to regional variation. Generally, they were more successful in urban and coastal areas than they were in mainland Anatolia.57
War and its Victims: The Escalation of Greco-Ottoman Tensions
The two decades preceding the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the resulting population exchanges are immensely complicated and can be studied from a variety of angles. For these next paragraphs, the Balkan Wars will be analyzed from the Greek and Ottoman angles, specifically, to offer immediate background on the genocide against the Greek populations that began approximately in 1913, the outbreak of the Greco-Turkish War in 1919, and, finally, the population exchanges formalized by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
Greece’s expansionist ambitions, its nationalist narrative, and its active attempts to “redeem” the “unredeemed” Greek population in the Ottoman Empire through ideological conversion and territorial gains, further soured its relationship to the Ottoman Empire. In 1897, a war erupted between both countries concerning ownership of the Ottoman province of Crete, whose Greek population had campaigned for unity with the Kingdom of Greece. The campaign proved disastrous for Greece, whose armed forces proved to be wholly unprepared to wage its first war since the Greek War of Independence.
Greco-Ottoman relations were further complicated by the rise of the Young Turks in Ottoman society. In 1876, in response to a complex set of impulses coming from a variety of ideological groups, Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II instituted a constitutional government in the Ottoman Empire.58 The Empire’s very first constitutional experiment was but brief; in February 1978, Abdülhamid “temporarily prorogued” his parliament.59 Increasing repression on the part of the regime led to growing discontent among Ottoman students who attended modern, European-style higher educational institutions in the Empire. In 1889, a small group of medical students founded the Ottoman Unity Society, with the aim to restore the parliament Abdülhamid had suspended.60
In the years that followed, opposition against the regime grew. An underground resistance network developed gradually, which in 1896 adopted the name “Ottoman Committee for Union and Progress,” (CUP) though in the years that followed became known as the “Young Turks.”61 In 1908, the Young Turk movement succeeded in re-establishing a parliamentary, constitutional government, leading Abdülhamid to promise to act according to the Ottoman constitution that had been so briefly adopted in 1876.62 They aimed not for revolution, but for restoration: according to the historian M. Șükrü Hanioğlu, the Young Turks “stood for a new fraternal Ottoman identity, united against European intervention in the affairs of the empire. They spoke of a free press, and of virtually unlimited individual liberties.”63
Over the years that followed, however, these promising initial aims barely translated into practice.64 The Young Turks’ new government was met with strong opposition from a wide variety of ideological groups, including “old regime supporters, Islamists, liberals, and non-Turkish nationalists.”65 In April 1909, these groups led a military uprising in the capital. In response, the CUP led a strong crackdown on political opposition by imposing martial law, and liberally implementing restrictions on any civil liberties that threatened their regime.66 Within this process, the Young Turks’ ideological vision became increasingly led by ethnonationalism, as their vision of independent statehood became one designed by and for Turkic peoples, exclusively.
Combined with internal instability, a complex set of geopolitical circumstances led the Ottoman Empire to a place of relative weakness.67 Sensing this unprecedented weakness, the Balkan states – including Greece – rather unexpectedly overcame their mutual hostilities and territorial disputes by uniting in a loose confederation, the Balkan League, against a common enemy who threatened their respective territorial ambitions.68 The First Balkan War (1912-1913) resulted in catastrophic territorial losses for the Ottoman Empire, whose presence in Europe was reduced to a narrow strip of land in eastern Thrace.69 The Second Balkan War (June-August 1913) erupted when Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece, thus breaking apart the Balkan League, resulting in significant territorial losses for Bulgaria, but important territorial gains for the Ottoman Empire.70
For Greece, in terms of its territorial aims, the Balkan Wars were a huge success. “New” Greece – post-Balkan Wars – had an additional 70 percent of land area, and a population that increased from approximately 2,800,000 to 4,800,000.71 It turned Greece into a significant Mediterranean power and imbued the proponents of the Megáli Idéa with a belief that their dream of expanding Greek territory far into the Anatolian continent was well within reach.72
The Balkan Wars also pushed the Young Turks towards an ethnonationalist ideology that was increasingly intolerant of non-Turkic nationalities. To understand this turn, one must acknowledge the effects that the wars had on ordinary Muslim civilians, who had lived in the Balkans, under Ottoman rule, for centuries. The suffering of civilians during the wars was well-documented by the Balkan Commission of Inquiry, a group of European and American scholars who attempted to publish an objective report of the conflict and reported on the death, emigration, and assimilation that the conflict caused.73 They describe how local Orthodox populations turned against their Muslim counterparts, resulting in massacres and the forced expulsions of survivors. The sheer scale of these massacres is evident not only from the numerous eyewitness accounts and the records of pillaged villages per country, but also from the number of Muslims – more than 200,000, according to the report – who left the Balkans as refugees, many of them settling in Anatolia.74
In August 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I by concluding a treaty of alliance with Germany. Its aims, in entering this alliance, were manifold. It hoped to gain protection against European powers and its Balkan neighbours, to re-establish full control over the autonomous regions within the empire, to re-acquire the territories it had lost to Greece and Bulgaria during the Balkan Wars, and finally, to rid itself of the economic and legal constraints that had been set on it by foreign powers, and in doing so, save the empire from full economic collapse.75 The administration also began orchestrating a policy of mass deportation, torture and murder of its non-Turkic populations. Among their targeted populations were the Greeks.
Following the 1908 revolution, the Young Turks developed a “program of Ottomanization,” which, gradually, began to imply the massacre of the Empire’s Christian populations.76 What started in 1909 as a growing pattern of murders and disappearances of Christian notables developed in 1911 into a program of eradication that extended to the broader scope of Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire.77 In 1913, following the end of the Balkan Wars, the CUP began to implement a process of demographic homogenization and Turkification, starting in Eastern Thrace and eventually spreading into Asia Minor, including the Pontos.78 From 1913 to 1916, the Ottoman government implemented a series of anti-Greek measures aimed at the removal of Greek influences in Ottoman society through deportations and forced assimilation. These measures were accompanied by massacres of Greek populations in regions that included the Pontos.79
Greece, meanwhile, was still intent on gaining a territorial foothold in Anatolia. Since 1917, under the leadership of Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece had remained steadfast in its support of the victorious Entente (France, Britain, and Russia). With this support in mind, Greece tried to use the Paris Peace Accords to negotiate its plan to invade the Ottoman-controlled city of Smyrna, which had a Greek population larger than that of Athens, and its surrounding areas.80 In May 1919, in response to the landing of Italian troops in southwest Asia Minor, Britain, France, and America agreed for Greek troops to occupy Smyrna.81 The landing of Greek troops in Smyrna in 1919 spurred a violent reaction from the Ottomans, sparking the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922). The genocide of Greeks in Asia Minor, including the Pontian Greeks, continued during this period.82
The Treaty of Sèvres, which was intended to settle territorial disputes concerning the Ottoman Empire, was signed in August 1920. It allowed for Greece’s continued administration of Smyrna and created an opening for its full annexation to Greece within a five-year timeline.83 The Ottoman Empire, however, never ratified this Treaty. Greek and Ottoman forces continued to fight on Ottoman territory, and the genocide of Greek populations in the Ottoman Empire continued concurrently.84 Greece’s loss of its territorial foothold in Anatolia was formalized with the burning of Smyrna by Ottoman forces in 1922.85 Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Ottoman forces declared the creation of an independent Turkish Republic. The Republic was officially recognized by the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923. The Treaty formalized Turkey’s new borders, thus putting an end to Greece’s ambitions to expand its territory eastward. Moreover, it arranged for a population exchange between Greece and Turkey, with the specific intention to avoid further occurrences of ethnic cleansing in either nation. As a result of the Treaty of Lausanne, an estimated 380,000 Muslims from Greece were forcibly made refugees and resettled in Turkey, while 1.2 million Greeks from the Ottoman Empire – including Pontos – were forcibly made refugees and resettled in their new ‘homeland,’ Greece.86
The genocidal policies of the Ottoman Empire, followed by the forced population exchanges under the Treaty of Lausanne, effectively ended the presence of the Greek population in Pontos. For the first time since their arrival in the sixth century B.C., there were no more Pontian Greeks on the southeastern shores of the Black Sea.
This essay is a combination of three narratives: the history of the Pontian Greeks and the development of their identity until the nineteenth century, the history of Greek identity in Antiquity and how, in the nineteenth century, it was reappropriated and injected into a political movement, and, finally, how this political movement, dictated by nationalistic and expansionist ideologies, led to continuous conflict with the Ottoman Empire, and played a role, however unintentional, in driving the Young Turks’ genocidal policies against the Greek populations in the Ottoman Empire.
The Pontian Greeks do not play a central role in either of the latter two narratives. And yet both narratives are part of their story, as they culminated in the Pontian Genocide and the population exchanges that forced them out of their homeland, Pontos. Both narratives are the reason for their ongoing diasporic existence, which, in turn, has fundamentally reshaped their fate as a people today.
To acknowledge these narratives is to make a statement. Modern Greece is quick to commemorate the Pontian Genocide and recognize the direct role of the Ottoman authorities and the Young Turks in committing these unspeakable crimes against humanity. But without acknowledging their own role in souring relations with the Ottoman Empire through their own brand of ethnonationalism and expansionist ideology, the modern Greek state is not telling the full story. Coming to terms with history requires an acknowledgment of every side of the story: to remain focused on one perspective, however true that perspective may be, is not enough.
At the same time, the Asia Minor Catastrophe should not become the defining feature of modern Pontian Greek identity. How can a people’s identity be solely defined by an event that they themselves played no part in orchestrating?
The history of Pontian Greeks is unique. As a Greek population geographically isolated from the land they had once sailed from and shaped by their exchanges with other populations – the basis of their economic success in Antiquity – Pontian Greeks maintained and built on their Greek linguistic and cultural heritage in their own separate and unique way. Unlike their counterparts on the Aegean shores, they freely adopted the “barbaric” practices and cultures of the world around them, without losing their own sense of Greekness. The hellenized kingdom of Pontos, and later the Byzantine-offshoot Empire of Trebizond, are testaments to the influence that the Pontian Greeks’ identity and cultural practices had on the territory they inhabited.
The persistence of the Pontian Greek identity in the Ottoman era is a remarkable thing. Conquered by a Muslim Turkic empire and administered by a Greek Orthodox administration whose leadership was in Constantinople, the Pontian Greeks maintained their linguistic heritage and continued to develop their cultural practices in tandem with the world around them. In the nineteenth century, the Greeks on the Aegean once again developed a perception of Greekness in which Pontian Greek identity did not fit. In 1922, the survivors of the Pontian Genocide were forced to relocate to a country whose nationalist vision of Greek identity did not consider them as fully ‘Greek.’ And yet, a century later, the Pontian Greek identity still exists, both in Greece as well as in diaspora.
To understand the identity of a people, understanding their history matters. But a thriving identity is not fixated on its past, but rather on its future. It is up to the Pontian Greeks to decide how to define themselves today. While political discussion certainly is important, it can become all-consuming, and, ultimately, if it becomes the central feature of an identity, self-destructive. The continued existence of the Pontian Greek identity over two and a half millennia of history is not a testament to their victimhood, but rather to their remarkable resilience as a people.
Indeed, if the Pontian Greek language and culture still exist to this day, it is because of the innumerable, continuing efforts of the Pontian Greeks themselves to preserve and share their language, culture, and traditions with each other and with the outside world. During my visit to the Pontian Society in Kallithea, Ms. Sitaridi proudly explained how her Society danced at the ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.87 She also told me, with an equal sense of pride, about her Society’s theatre team, who stage plays in both Pontian Greek and Greek.88 Her message to me, a young historian from Canada, was simple: Pontian Greeks, and all that constitutes their identity – history, tradition, language, culture, religion – are well worth knowing about.89
1. Galateia Sitaridi (Pontian Society “Argonautes-Komninou”), interview by Isaure Vorstman, Davaki 10, Kallithea, May 8, 2022.
2. Galateia Sitaridi, interview by Isaure Vorstman.
3. See e.g. Benny Morris and Dror Zeʼevi, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019), and Adam Jones, “The Ottoman Destruction of Christian Minorities,” in Genocide, 3rd ed., 200–257 (Routledge, 2017). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315725390-4.
4. Duane W. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World (Oxford University Press, 2020), 23.
5. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 23.
6. Alexandru Avram et al., “The Black Sea Area,” in An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, eds. Mogens Herman Hansen et al. (Oxford University Press: 2004), 924.
7. Avram et al., “The Black Sea Area,” 926.
8. Avram et al., “The Black Sea Area,” 927.
9. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 29.
10. Avram et al. “The Black Sea Area,” 924.
11. Lynette G. Mitchell, “Panhellenism,” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, eds. Bagnall et al., Wiley Online Library, first published 26 October 2012, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah04230.
12. Mitchell, “Panhellenism.”
13. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 32-33.
14. Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 33-34.
15. King, The Black Sea, 25-26.
16. Avram et al. “The Black Sea Area,” 924.
17. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 43.
18. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea 44.
19. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea 10.
20. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea 10.
21. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea 11.
22. Koray Durak, “The Commercial History of Trebizond and the Region of Pontos from the Seventh to the Eleventh Centuries: An International Emporium,” Mediterranean Historical Review 36, no. 1 (2021): 9, https://doi.org/10.1080/09518967.2021.1900161.
23. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 20-21.
24. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 213 and 21.
25. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 19.
26. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 19.
27. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 19.
28. Roller, Empire of the Black Sea, 213.
29. Durak, “The Commercial History,” 4, 24.
30. Durak, “The Commercial History,” 9.
31. Durak, “The Commercial History,” 7-8.
32. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis, “Introduction,” in Christians & Jews in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Benjamin Braude, 1-36, abridged ed. (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2014), 10-11.
33. Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 11.
34. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 10.
35. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 11.
36. Braude and Lewis, “Introduction,” 12.
37. Richard Clogg, “The Greek Millet in the Ottoman Empire,” in Christians & Jews in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Benjamin Braude, abridged ed. (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2014), 185.
38. Clogg, “The Greek Millet,”185.
39. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 17.
40. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 19, 21.
41. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 25.
42. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 27.
43. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 27.
44. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 33.
45. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 46-47.
46. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 47.
47. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece,, 87.
48. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 75.
49. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 27-28.
50. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 50.
51. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 46.
52. Clogg, “The Greek Millet,” 193.
53. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 92.
54. Clogg, “The Greek Millet,” 193.
55. Braude and Lewis, “Introduction,” 28.
56. Clogg, “The Greek Millet,”197-198.
57. Clogg, “The Greek Millet,”198.
58. M. Șükrü Hanioğlu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire (Princeton University Press, 2018), 114.
59. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 120.
60. Erik Jan Zürcher, The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building: from the Ottoman Empire to Atatürk’s Turkey (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 97.
61. Zürcher, The Young Turk Legacy, 98.
62. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 26.
63. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 150.
64. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 150
65. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 154.
66. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 155.
67. Hanioğlu, A Brief History, 170-171.
68. Richard C. Hall, “Balkan Wars,” in Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, eds. John Merriman and Jay Winter (Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006), 163.
69. Hall, “Balkan Wars,” 164.
70. Hall, “Balkan Wars,” 165.
71. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 81.
72. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 82.
73. Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars (Washington, D.C: The Endowment, 1914), 148.
74. Report of the International Commission, 267.
75. Hanioğlu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, 178-180.
76. Vasileios Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, 1913–1923: A Comprehensive Overview,” Genocide Studies International 9, no. 1 (2015), 117-118.
77. Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks,” 118.
78. Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks,” 119.
79. Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks,” 126.
80. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 91.
81. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 91-93.
82. Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks,” 128-130.
83. Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks,” 93.
84. Meichanetsidis, “The Genocide of the Greeks,” 128-130.
85. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 97.
86. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 99.
87. Galateia Sitaridi, interview by Isaure Vorstman.
88. Galateia Sitaridi, interview by Isaure Vorstman.
89. Galateia Sitaridi, interview by Isaure Vorstman.
Avram, Alexandru, John Hind, and Gocha Tsetskhladze. “The Black Sea Area.” In An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, edited by Hansen, Mogens Herman et al., 924-973. Oxford University Press: 2004.
Braude, Benjamin, and Bernard Lewis. “Introduction.” In Christians & Jews in the Ottoman Empire, edited by Benjamin Braude, 1-36. Abridged edition. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2014.
Clogg, Richard. A Concise History of Greece. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Clogg, Richard. “The Greek Millet in the Ottoman Empire.” In Christians & Jews in the Ottoman Empire, edited by Benjamin Braude, 185-208. Abridged ed. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2014.
Durak, Koray. “The Commercial History of Trebizond and the Region of Pontos from the Seventh to the Eleventh Centuries: An International Emporium.” Mediterranean Historical Review 36, no. 1 (2021): 3–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518967.2021.1900161.
Hall, Robert C. “Balkan Wars.” In Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, vol. 1, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, 163-166. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.
Hanioglu, M. Sukru. A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400829682.
Jones, Adam. “The Ottoman Destruction of Christian Minorities.” In Genocide, 3rd ed., 200–257. Routledge, 2017. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315725390-4.
King, Charles. The Black Sea a History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Meichanetsidis, Vasileios. “The Genocide of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, 1913–1923: A Comprehensive Overview.” Genocide Studies International 9, no. 1 (2015): 104–73. https://doi.org/10.3138/gsi.9.1.06.
Mitchell, Lynette G. “Panhellenism.” In The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, edited by R.S. Bagnall, K. Brodersen, C.B. Champion, A. Erskine and S.R. Huebner. Wiley Online Library. First published 26 October 2012. https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah04230
Morris, Benny, and Dror Zeʼevi. The Thirty-Year Genocide : Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019.
Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars. Washington, DC: The Endowment, 1914.
Roller, Duane W. Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Zürcher, Erik Jan. The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building: From the Ottoman Empire to Atatürk’s Turkey. London: I. B. Tauris, 2010.