On a warm June evening, I was making my way to Alsos Papagou park in the northern Athens suburb of Cholargos. The humid air hung heavy with the scent of pine trees, and families and groups of laughing teenagers were wandering across the grass or fetching coffee from the lakeside cafe. Walking in front of me was a group of women in elaborately patterned, floor-length skirts with gold and purple sashes around their waists. On their heads sat small hats covered in gold coins.
I followed them into the Papagou Garden theatre, a secluded amphitheatre nestled on the park’s northern edge. Other women in similar outfits greeted them, along with men wearing black headscarves and swords around their waists. I was here to watch dance, music and poetry performed by Pontic Greeks – ethnic Greeks who settled on the coast of the Turkish Black Sea.
One of the women, Galatia Sitaridi, who grew up in Athens in a Pontic family, told me she has been performing the dances since she was eight. She also performs plays in the Pontics’ distinct dialect. “I grew up with my grandmother in the house, so it is my native tongue,” she explained. “When I’m performing, it’s like she’s right there with me.”
Sitaridi’s ancestors began leaving Greece around the 7th Century BC, travelling to Turkey’s Black Sea region in search of silver and gold. They called the area ‘Pontus’, from the Ancient Greek word for ‘sea’. Many settled there, building Greek colonies, such as Trapezus (now Trabzon) and Smyrna (now Izmir). They were early adopters of Orthodox Christianity during the Byzantine period from 330 to 1453, and remain to this day a deeply religious community.
We consider ourselves descendants of the Argonauts”
Over the centuries, the Ancient Greek they spoke evolved completely differently to the language in their homeland – so much so, even though it’s technically a dialect, it sounds like an entirely different language. They also developed their own customs, which fused Ancient Greek culture with that of the indigenous communities around them. The dances I was about to watch were performed on the lyra – a type of harp with its roots in Ancient Greece – and the men’s all-black outfits, known as zipkas, were adopted from the traditional dress of the Caucasus.
But the reason Sitaridi and so many other Pontics like her are living in mainland Greece today has a tragic story behind it. As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble during World War One, the Turks began systematically killing and deporting the Orthodox Christian community. Between 1914 and 1922, around 350,000 Pontic Greeks out of a population of around 700,000 were killed. Almost 250,000 fled to Greece, while others sought refuge in the USSR. Although their dialect has the same roots as the language spoken in modern-day Greece, the Greeks could not understand the refugees who arrived. Small numbers of Pontic speakers who converted to Islam still remain in Turkey, but the language is classified by Unesco as endangered.
For Pontics like Sitaridi, preserving the language and culture of their ancestors holds particular importance. “Our grandparents suffered a lot, so I need to keep these traditions going to keep their memory alive,” she said. “People die because we forget them. If we don’t forget, they live on with us.”
Sitaridi and her fellow performers are members of the Argonauti-Komninoi Pontic Greek Association, which organises many of the public events. Earlier that week I visited them at their headquarters in the southern Athens suburb of Kallithea. The building is distinguished by a yellow-and-black flag hanging outside, which bears the symbol of the Argonaut ship and the Byzantine empire eagle.
“We consider ourselves descendants of the Argonauts, who set sail from Greece looking for gold and silver,” said the organisation’s president, Theofilos Kastanidis. When I met him, some members of the group were rehearsing a play in Pontic dialect in the main hall. Kastanidis explained that the syntax of Pontic is the same as Ancient Greek, but many of the words are completely different. It also contains sounds that do not exist in modern Greek, such as ‘sh’ and ‘ch’.
“With a language like this, it is very important to preserve it,” said Kastanidis, who told me that 11 members of his family fled from northern Turkey. Only his grandfather and great aunt survived the journey. “We still feel like we are refugees in this country,” he said. “Our home is somewhere else.”
The cultural organisation was founded in 1930 to house and feed the thousands of Pontics seeking refuge. Today, around 500,000 Pontics live in Greece – around 5% of the total population – and there are 600 similar organisations around the country. Kastanidis tells me their goal now is “to teach and to – one word – remember. If you forget, you are finished.”
With a language like this, it is very important to preserve it”
Pockets of Pontic Greek culture can be found all over Greece today. In the nearby Nea Smyrni neighbourhood – named after Smyrna, where many Pontic refugees arrived from – sits the Museum of Pontian Hellenism. It is filled with artefacts that families managed to bring with them as they fled, such as embroidered homewares and wooden musical instruments. In the city of Veria in northern Greece, the Pontics rebuilt a copy of the Panagia Soumela Monastery in Trabzon, which was founded by the community in 386AD and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Every year on 15 August – the Virgin Mary’s day in Orthodox Christianity – Pontics from across the country travel to join in with festivities here.
As well as the plays, The Argonauti- Komninoi Pontic Greek Association hosts lessons in Pontic dialect that are open to anyone. They also teach 50 different traditional dances. “Different areas of Pontus had different dances,” Kastanidis said. “It was their main form of entertainment.” He added that most involve the dancers holding hands “to join our power and our strength together,” and that traditionally, they would have been performed at weddings, funerals, baptisms, “or any day people wanted to just gather together.”
At the theatre, I asked which dance is everyone’s favourite. Many mentioned the Pyrihios, also known as the Serra, which is performed just by men. “You can feel the goosebumps when you perform it,” said dancer Panagiotis Kikidis. The name comes from the Ancient Greek words ‘pyr’ for fire and ‘hios’ for fighting, and it was traditionally performed in preparation for battles. “It’s one of the oldest, it has its roots thousands of years ago,” Kikidis said. “The goddess Athena was said to have performed it.”
Kikidis tells me he is Pontic from his father’s side and grew up in Athens speaking the dialect at home. “Everyone should keep their roots alive – it’s in our blood,” he said. He explains that his four-year-old son hasn’t learnt the dialect yet, “but he likes the dances, the music – he sees what I do and he even does some moves himself”.
Everyone should keep their roots alive – it’s in our blood”
As the sun began to slip away, we took our seats around the amphitheatre circle. Two musicians sat in the corner, one playing the lyra and the other a large drum. The music was deep, atmospheric and slightly mystical. From one side of the stage the women entered, holding hands and moving in small, tightly coordinated steps. The men entered from the other, creating a line behind them. The groups then formed two linked circles, one surrounding the other. They moved their linked arms up and down in time to the heavy beat of the drum, creating a hypnotic, rhythmic effect.
Eventually it was time for the famous Pyrihios dance, and the women moved back as the men stepped forward. The dance was dark and intense, and the men did not smile as they performed a sequence of dramatic moves, repeated several times at increased speed. The drumbeat reached a crescendo, and when it finally finished, the audience, who were largely Pontic diaspora, erupted in applause, many standing in their seats.
Although everyone I met was passionate about keeping Pontic customs alive, they admitted that it becomes harder to pass them down the generations the longer time goes on. “My children understand Pontic but they do not speak it at home,” Kastanidis said. “Young people are more likely to put their time into learning English or other second languages.”
And although she doesn’t have children yet, Sitaridi says that if she did, she would want them to learn the language “but it won’t be the same, because I didn’t live it.” However, she said that she “will try as much as I can to keep it alive.”
Even though those performing may not have lived through the violence and exile their grandparents experienced, it’s clear the stories of it still have a profound emotional effect. After the dance, Kastanidis stepped forwards to read a poem about the history of the Pontics, and I noticed Sitaridi had tears streaming down her cheeks as he spoke.
“He was telling the story of our grandparents, and how they begged to be allowed to die in their country rather than leave,” she told me afterwards. “I really feel it when I hear these stories… it’s part of me.”