Who Are the Greeks From Pontos?

Pontic Greek family in Kerasus (today Giresun), 1910.  Source

Sam Topalidis, Pontic Historian
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Part of a talk given during the 2018 Synapandema/annual gathering of Pontic Greeks in Sydney, Australia.

1. Miletos Colonising Pontos

The Greeks were probably familiar with the Black Sea by at least the 8th century BC.  Greek mythology links Greek contacts and the people of Pontos in the story of Jason and the Argonauts’ voyage to Colchis (Georgia) in search of the Golden Fleece.  Some believe this myth reflects history and that the voyage took place before the Trojan War [12th–13th century BC] (Tsetskhladze 1994).  

In the late 11th–10th century BC the Ionians, then the Dorians and Aeolians migrated from Greece and settled in the Aegean Islands and the western coast of Anatolia (Ionia).  In wealthy Ionia, Miletos (Figure 1) became the main centre.  From the second half of the 7th century BC, Lydia, its eastern neighbour, expanded taking Ionian territory.  Then Ionia began sending out its first colonies.  In addition, from the middle of the 6th century BC, the Persians began to conquer Ionian territory.  There was thus a loss of land to a conquering foe and external difficulties provoked internal tension, especially in Miletos.  However, Miletos was the principal coloniser of the Black Sea, founding its first colonies there towards the end of the 7th century BC.  Northern Anatolia, however, was already settled by indigenous Anatolians who were often hostile to these Greeks.  To establish a colony was a major undertaking (Tsetskhladze 2006; 2007a).  

While the territory of Miletos lacked mineral ores, it is known that the northern Anatolian coast was well endowed in valuable mineral resources.  In regards to grain, copper, gold and iron, there were alternative sources in the Mediterranean, yet it was the Black Sea that Miletos appeared to colonise.  Perhaps, like grain, metals were too important to rely on a single supply source (Greaves 2007).  

Figure 1: Miletos and some of its colonies in Pontos. (Scale: 290 kilometres from Amisos to Trabzon.)  

Sinope to Amisos (Samsun)

Greek pottery from the Halys (Kizilirmak) valley between Sinope and Amisos (Figure 2) proves the Greeks had contacts there before the foundation of the coastal colonies (Summerer 2007).  

The Milesians drove out the weakened native Anatolians from Sinope.  Later, Sinope then conquered land from the Anatolian natives to the east for her colonists (Avram et al. 2004).  The Greek settlers in Sinope (and Amisos) had to deal with the native people since they depended on access to land to obtain agricultural products, minerals and metals.  It appears in Sinope and Amisos [and Trabzon on the reading of Xenophon] that the native Anatolians formed part of the population there.  These colonies may have been founded over the existing settlements or they could have received people from the surrounding area (Summerer 2007).  

Xenophon who with his 10,000 Greek mercenaries travelled through Pontos in 400 BC tells us that Miletos founded Sinope and then Sinope founded Trabzon, Kotyora (Ordu) and Kerasous (Giresun) (Figure 1).  

The Pontic coastline provides very few natural harbours, with the exception of Sinope.  The harbour of Sinope and its peninsula provided a naturally strong defensive site with arable and pastoral land to the south (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  

Sinope had little access to trade links with central Anatolia, its main orientation was towards the rest of the Black Sea (Tsetskhladze 2006; 2007b).  Sinope’s Greek colony was founded around 630 BC.  Little is known of Sinope after this colonisation until its tyrant was driven out c.436 BC by Athenian intervention under Pericles.  Even in Sinope’s period of autonomy it had occasionally to submit to the demands of Persia.  Some of the 80 ships from Hellespont and Pontos would have been provided for Xerxes fleet by Sinope (Avram et al. 2004).  Persian influence in the eastern Pontos expanded during the early 4th century BC.  At this time Sinope’s relationship with its colonies was likely severed and it fell under Persian sway (Doonan 2009).  

Although the army of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) defeated the Persian king Darius III in Anatolia, Alexander didn’t march north to conquer the Black Sea coast.  However, the Persian satraps there eventually accepted Alexander’s authority.  The Black Sea coast and its colonial settlements, as well as the maritime trade network, were in Greek hands and Greek was the main language of the coastal region (Şerifoğlu and Bakan 2015).  

Figure 2: Settlements in Pontos, north-eastern Anatolia (Turkey).  (Scale: 290 kilometres from Samsun to Trabzon).  

Amisos (Samsun)

Amisos was founded ‘around’ 564 BC on the site of modern Samsun.  Ancient authors permit either a Milesian foundation, or a joint foundation by the Ionian settlements of Phocaea and Miletos.  Amisos had intensive links with central Anatolia and looked more inland than across the Black Sea (Tsetskhladze 2007b).  

Amisos constituted an emporium for the produce of the plateau.  The low barrier of hills to its south rise only to 1,000 metres.  Amisos lies over 140 kilometres (by sea) east of Sinope with no fine harbour.  Its main assets were iron, its lands produced olives, some local silver and the overland route which led to Tarsos in southern Anatolia (Avram et al. 2004).  

Kotyora (Ordu)

Kotyora, [around 260 kilometres] east of Sinope, stands at the head of an inland route with two wide deltas to the east, which provides ample food supplies and its sheltered beaches are overlooked by an acropolis (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  Xenophon in 400 BC stated the Greek colony of Kotyora paid tribute to Sinope.  Sinope founded the Greek colony at Kotyora in the 6th century BC.  

Kerasous (Giresun)

Kerasous’ rocky peninsula provides a good defensive site along the coast (probably its main reason for its location).  It had a poor harbour and its hinterland does not offerextensive arable or pastoral lands.  Possibly its historical importance was due to it being the outlet for the alum exports from Şebinkarahisar located to the south (Figure 2) (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  

Xenophon visited Kerasous in 400 BC and reported Sinope had taken away the land from its native inhabitants and given it to their colonists for which Kerasous paid Sinope regular tribute.  The Greek colony at Kerasous was probably founded in the 6th century BC.  


Trabzon was colonised by Greeks from Sinope in the 6th century BC.  There is no precise date for its founding.  Trabzon is [400 kilometres] east of Sinope and profited from the coastal route to Colchis (modern Georgia) and from the route inland to the south.  It had supplies of timber and silver in the hills (Avram et al. 2004).  
Xenophon and his mercenaries visited Trabzon and identified several indigenous peoples who lived near there.  Some of these people included the Chalybes (probably around Gümüşane), the Macrones (south of Trabzon) and assorted Colchian tribes at the coast.  


The few Greek colonies established during the Archaic period (c.750–550 BC) along the southern Black Sea coast were small and often situated on peninsulas.  If these initial sites have not survived they could have been hidden due to the rises in the level of the Black Sea in antiquity.  These colonies were few, due to the local geography and the hostile local people.  Also, archeologically, we know little about these colonies because they have been built over by modern towns, roads and reclamation works, which have destroyed what had survived until now (Tsetskhladze 2007b).  

2. Are Pontic Greeks Descendants of the 7th century Greek Colonists?

My ‘personal view’ is that today, Pontic Greeks are not necessarily descendants of these Greek colonists.  It is ‘possible’ that some Pontic Greeks may have some ancestors who were:

- indigenous Anatolians
- non-Greeks who migrated to Pontos and converted to Orthodox Christianity and adopted Greek culture  
- Greeks who moved to Pontos more recently in the 19th and early 20th century due to the advantages of trade
- Muslim women who married Pontic Greek males and were converted to Christianity
And many others.  

Greeks survived in Pontos up to 1461 (when the Ottoman Turks captured Trabzon) and survived the period of Ottoman Turk domination.  Before World War I there were believed to be at least 416,000 Pontic Greeks in Pontos (see Note 1).  By the end of 1924 effectively all the remaining ‘Orthodox’ Greeks left their homeland under the compulsory exchange of people of Greek Orthodox religion in Turkey to Greece and the much smaller number of people of the Muslim religion in Greece to Turkey (Note 2).  (There were also many Pontic Greeks still living in nearby Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus.)  As a result of their journey to the Pontic ports and their sea voyage to Greece, as part of the Population Exchange, many of them died under very harsh conditions.  On arrival in their supposed ‘homeland’ Greece, they were called ‘Pontic’ Greeks and received ‘a form of acceptance’ by other Hellenes (Greeks).  Their new life in Greece was another struggle where many more died in the harsh conditions.  

Pontic Greeks have retained a separate cultural identity in successive generations from other Greeks.  Their physical separation in Pontos (Note 3) from other Greek communities led over the many years to the development of a distinctive culture, resulting in their very distinctive music, dance and Pontic Greek dialect (Pratsinakis 2013).  Pontic Muslims have started to ask about their own heritage.  Such Pontic Turks ‘may’ have a direct line of Christian ancestors who subsequently converted to Islam.  

Pontic Greek culture is usually expressed through its music, especially by the kemenche, singing in Pontic Greek and dance.  A significant development has been the recent revival in learning to speak the Pontic Greek dialect—a dialect still spoken by some Muslim Turks in the area around Trabzon.  

Concluding Remark

How do we learn more about who we are?  We need to research our family trees (meshes) starting with our elderly relatives.  Study the death certificates of our elderly relatives and see if genealogical data is present like, date of birth, place of birth, name of parents (and hope the data was recorded correctly).  For those who are courageous and have the money (and willing to accept some disappointment) have your DNA tested for genealogical purposes.  For males this includes the three DNA genealogical tests (‘Y’, ‘MtDNA’ and ‘Family Finder’) and don’t accept the cheaper ‘versions’ of these tests (Note 4).  But this needs to be covered in a future talk.  


Note 1  
A figure of ‘at least’ 416,000 can be used as a minimum ‘working figure’ for the number of Pontic Greeks in northern Anatolia before World War I (based on data in Alexandris (1999) from the Greek Patriarchate’s 1910–12 Greek ‘census’.  
This figure of at least 416,000 Pontic Greeks does not include the probable hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks who were living in the Caucasus, Russia or Ukraine before World War I.  

Note 2
The Treaty of Lausanne was signed in July 1923 and formalised the terms of peace between Turkey and the Allied Powers that fought in World War I and in the Turkish War of Independence.  It formalised the end of the Ottoman empire (Encyclopedia of the Ottoman empire 2009).  
Earlier, in January 1923, Greece and Turkey had signed the ‘Lausanne Convention’ concerning the Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey.  This convention stipulated the compulsory exchange of Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox religion in Turkish territory and the Greek nationals of the Moslem religion in Greek territory.  The Greeks in Constantinople and the Muslims in Western Thrace were exempt from this exchange.  The exclusion of the Orthodox inhabitants of the islands of Imbros and Tenedos was specified later in the wider Treaty of Lausanne signed in July 1923 (Hirschon 2008).  

Note 3
The Pontic Alps which stretch over 700 kilometres, and less than 100 kilometres inland from the Black Sea is the determining factor in the character of Pontos (north-east corner of Anatolia adjacent to the Black Sea, Figure 2).  These Alps create isolated pockets of settlements in often densely forested areas (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  This rugged and isolated geography greatly impacted on the people of Pontos.  
In some maps Pontos has also been described as consisting of the six Greek Orthodox dioceses of Amasya, Chaldia, Kolonia, Neocaesarea, Rodopolis and Trabzon (Alexandris 1999).  

Note 4
… there is a significant difference between the expectation and reality of direct-to-consumer personal genome testing — creating a gap where interesting tensions and ethical dilemmas sit.  
This gap is an interesting space because it is not immediately talked about when consumers talk about their experience of testing.  Instead, this space can be defined by the sense of disappointment some consumers of this test talk about and feel when they reflect on their testing experience.  
Part of this disappointment is a reflection of hype and overpromise that exists around these tests.  Within this hype and over-promise, however, lies a kernel of truth: that there is quite a lot about human genomics that we don’t know (Savard 2016, pp. 22–3).

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Pratsinakis, E 2013, Contesting national belonging: an established-outsider figuration on the margins of Thessaloniki, Greece, PhD thesis, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam.  
Savard, J 2016, ‘The ethics of online genomics tests’, Australian Science, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 21–3.  
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Tsetskhladze, GR 2007a, ‘Pots and pandemonium: the earliest east Greek pottery from north Pontic native settlements’, Pontica, XL, pp. 37–70.  
Tsetskhladze, GR 2007b, ‘Greeks and locals in the southern Black Sea littoral: a re-examination’, in G Herman & I Shatzman (eds) 2007, Greeks between east and west: essays in Greek literature and history in memory of David Asheri, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem, pp. 160–95.  
Xenophon, The Persian expedition, (translated from Greek into English by Rex Warner, Introduction and Notes by George Cawkwell), reprinted 1972, Penguin Classics, London.  


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