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Hellenic colonies and towns

The Hellenes established or re-founded hundreds of cities and towns around the world. Here are 10 of the best

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Marseille

16 June 2017

From the shores of the Black Sea to the Indian subcontinent, the Hellenes established or re-founded hundreds of cities and towns around the world. By my estimation, there are over forty countries where cities and towns were founded. These colonies and settlements happened in waves, with a significant period coming in the eighth to sixth centuries BCE as city-states sought to capitalise on trade and deal with population squeezes, expanding predominantly to Asia Minor, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and Thrace. The Athenians, Spartans, Corinthians, and Macedonians were keen on empire building. They were joined by the Hellenes of Marseilles, Syracuse, and Alexandria as they all spread their global reach.

During the Byzantine years from the fourth century CE until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the empire founded or re-founded many settlements in Africa, the near east and the Balkans to strengthen their territorial hold. Venice was one city that benefited too, with this tiny area coming under the control of Constantinople before flourishing and breaking free by the 800s.

It is difficult to compile a list of the most important cities established. However, below is a starting point, demonstrating the incredible impact Hellenes have had on civilisation. The thirst for new settlements never really ended for as recent as 1778, Hellenes of the Russian Empire established Mariupol on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Outside of Marioupol, you will find 20 Hellenic towns that have been established in the last few decades: in Calabria, Roghudi municipality was established in the 1970s, in Hungary it was Belogianni during the 1950s and even Down Under during the 1860s Greek Town was established on the gold fields.

10. Kandahar
Established in 330 BCE by Alexander the Great as Alexandria of Arachosia, it was a thriving Hellenistic Era city that cultivated trade, religious practises, and the policy of multiculturalism that was espoused by the Macedonians. The city was prominent under the Hellenic empires of Seleucid, Greco-Bactrian, and Indo-Greek. The last of these, remained a Hellenic entity until 10 CE. At one stage, probably in 160 BCE, King Menander sent 30,000 Greco-Buddhist monks to Kandahar. The Hellenic-influenced character of the city remained intact until 870 CE, when Islam dominated.
Today, Kandahar is the second largest city in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border.

9. Seleucia on the Tigris
At its peak, this city near Mesopotamia in Iraq, had a population of 600,000 including Hellenes, Syrians, Jews, and Babylonians. Only Alexandria and Rome had larger populations. With vast buildings and wealth this was, for a time, the capital of the large Hellenistic Empire of the Seleucids. Seleucia was established in 305 BCE and lasted only four centuries until it was destroyed by Rome. However, during that period, it was in effect the 'London' of Asia, also fostering Hellenic ideals, artists, philosophers and visitors from all over the Hellenic world.

8. Antioch
One of the best designed cities in history, with a grid plan provided by the architect Xenarius, Antioch was named for Seleucis' son around 301 BCE. Its geopolitical location meant it was a must travel through city, situated within modern Turkey and next to Syria by the Mediterranean. After supplanting Seleucia as the capital of the Seleucid Empire, the city was home to Apollophanes, the Stoic, and poet Phoebus.

After a number of civil wars to see out the end of the Seleucid Empire, Antioch was taken by Rome around 64 BCE. Antioch became a frequent host of Christian missionaries one of the five original patriarchates. Returning to Hellenic control under Constantinople in 387 CE, Antioch would spend most of the next millennia being fought over by Byzantium, Crusaders, Persian Sassanids, Arabs, and Seljuks.

7. Trebizond
Trebizond (modern Trabzon in Turkey) was founded in the eighth century BCE by Greek colonists from Miletus on the Black Sea coast in northern Asia Minor which became known as the Pontus region. Xenephon, in his classic fourth century BCE book Anabasis describes the joy of his troops as they finally encountered a Hellenic city after a long and treacherous march from Persian battefields. Trebizond prospered under the rule of Mithridates and the Pontic kings during the first century BCE and was an important port for trade during the Byzantine years which commenced around 330 CE.

In 1204, the Empire of Trebizond was formed. The empire lasted until 1461 when it was taken by the Ottomans. A visit to the city with a current population of about 180,000 will reveal the high walls of the old Upper Town which are meant to resemble the walls of medieval Constantinople, the churches of Saint Ann, Saint Constantine, Panayia Chrysokephalos, Saint Andrew, Saint Eugene, Agia Sophia, and Aghios Christophoros just to name a few. A number of fortresses and monasteries are also evident.

6. Cyrene
Whilst I've been known to indulge in mythology and drink the odd Mythos beer, there was once a region in the north of Libya dominated by numerous colonies, with Cyrene being the most prominent. In 630 BCE, due to population pressures, Thira (Santorini) sent out colonists under Battus to establish the city of Cyrene. According to Herodotus, Cyrene was the second Hellenic city established in Africa with Naucratis in Egypt being the first.
Cyrene was the birthplace of Eratosthenes the mathematician who calculated the circumference of earth and invented the leap day. A number of philosophers lived here including Socrates' pupil Aristippus who founded the School of Cyrene. St Mark the Evangelist was born here as was the Bishop Zopyros who attended the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The Byzantine-controlled region was overrun by Arab forces in the seventh century CE.

5. Marseille
The Phocaeans of Asia Minor established the colony of Massalia about 600 BCE, growing it into a leading city in the Mediterranean. It was the first city in the west to reach a population of over 1,000. Massalia remained independent until 49 BCE when it was captured by Julius Caesar. The city was one of the last of the colonies in the far west to retain its Hellenic character and language, holding on until the arrival of the Visigoths in fifth century CE. Due to the trade and close proximity to Sicily and Calabria, Hellenes have most likely had an unbroken presence since foundation, and there was a surge of arrivals in the 1600s - 1800s due to merchant shipping.

Massalia founded a number of other colonies in the region including Agathe, Olbia, Antipolis, Monaco, and Nice which was founded in 350 BCE after a victory over a neighbouring kingdom. I have been to both Nice and Marseilles and it is amazing that from such humble origins they are today large and vibrant French cities. The football team Olympique Marseilles of the blue and whites, honours their Hellenic heritage.

4. Syracuse
Mathematician Archimenes is just one of the many brilliant minds who lived in Syracuse. Founded by Corinth in 735 BCE, the city was a wealth of artists, painters, writers, poets, engineers, and adventurers, becoming a kingdom that was powerful enough to hold out Athens. Their defence against the Athenians in 413 BCE was a turning point in the Peloponnesian War, which enabled Sparta to gain a huge advantage.

Syracuse was the most important city of Sicily and indeed one of the most influential of the entire Mediterranean. It remained a Hellenic city on and off until it finally fell around the 1040s to the Arabs, though this was the second time it had been taken by Arabs (878 was the first).

3. Alexandria
There is no place like it. Still influenced by its Hellenic roots and a passionate Greek community, this Mediterranean delight has had a profound effect on history and Hellenism which I experienced on a trip there. When Alexander conquered Egypt in 334 BCE, he established Alexandria. When he died in 323 BCE, one of his favourite generals Ptolemy took control of Egypt and the surrounding lands, establishing the Ptolemaic kingdom.

The kingdom was unique. Royalty only spoke Ellinika and intermarried (we now call that incest) to protect the blood line. Ptolemy adopted many local customs to keep the local population on side but like all his successors, he never learnt the local language. Cleopatra was the first to speak a local language. Actually, if you were a Hellene living in Alexandria, you were subject only to Hellenic law.

Hellenic language remained in civic and bureaucratic circles under the Romans and Constantinople (from 534 CE after the conquest by Belisarius). Between 641 to 646 CE a reinvigorated Arab military took all of Egypt. Within no time, Cairo was made the capital, ending the long and glorious reign of the Hellenic city as the capital of Egypt. Hellenes have remained in the city consistently until that time and it was only in the 1950s and 60s when Nasser forced hundreds and thousands of Hellenes to leave Alexandria that the city declined. The city was, in every respect, a Hellenic city until its sudden and sad decline due to nationalism.

2. Smyrna
Smyrna is where my grandmother originates and one that I visited way back in 1999. Made into a major city by Antigonus in the early 300s BCE, the city flourished as a port and gateway to Asia. The citizens embraced Christianity almost from the outset and it was one of the seven churches of The Bible's Book of Revelations.

In 1330 the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine Hellenes of the city - it was one of the last in Asia Minor to be captured. By the 1500s, Hellenes had re-emerged as the true controllers of the city, with finance, trade and culture flowing toward them. Almost all the factories belonged to Hellenes as did many of the banks by 1919 when the Hellenic military returned to control Smyrna. The city also competed with a football team at the 1906 Olympic Games. The wealth and tolerance of Smyrna, was destroyed forever by the destruction and massacre by the Ottomans in September 1922, following the disastrous end to the Asia Minor campaign. As a descendent, I can only look toward reconciliation with Turkey and hope for lasting friendship. Today there are around 40 Hellenes made up of NATO and Consulate staff.

1. Constantinople
Throughout the 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire the city of Constantinople was the envy of the entire world; a cultural and economic phenomenon. At its peak, there were 500,000 people residing in Constantinople, with the overwhelming percentage being of Hellenic descent. However, there were people of all ethnicities living in the city, including Arabs, Persians, Spaniards, Venetians, and other Italians, English, French, Russians, and the list goes on. In fact when the great siege took place in 1453, all of these nationalities played a role in either the defence or capture.

Established by Byzas of Megara in 657 BCE, Constantinople became an important trading colony and link between the city-states and kingdoms of Greece and the new Black Sea settlements. In 324 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine made the momentous decision of renaming the city after himself and moving the Roman capital to 'Constantinople'. Over the next few decades, the City grew in importance, and as Rome crumbled, Constantinople soon became the capital of what is now called Byzantine Empire, the Hellenic-speaking empire of the medieval times.

The city retained its Hellenic identity for centuries after its fall and it wasn't until last century that tens of thousands of Hellenes felt it necessary to leave their home. Today, there are less than 6,000 in Constantinople, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.

Honourable mentions
Marioupolis (Ukraine, 1789), Chersonesus (Crimea), Apollonia (Albania), Brindisi, Tarentum, Napoli, Venice (note, the first Doge was a Sicilian Hellene city developed under Byzantine rule circa 500s CE), Nicosia (Cyprus), Constanza (Romania), Bucephalus (Pakistan), Edessa (Syria), Philipoupolis (Bulgaria), Ephesus, Pergamum, Ancyra, Phocaea, Miletus (all Turkey).

* Billy Cotsis is the author of 'From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom'.

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