Of the Empire of Trebizond or Trapezous, much has been written. As a multi-ethnic state situated in the Pontic region of the southern Black Sea, it was the terminus of the famed Silk Road and it was also the last Greek-speaking state to succumb to the Ottoman Empire. As a bridge between Europe and Asia, it formed an orientalist’s paradise, inspiring writers as early as Cervantes to describe his hero Don Quixote as “imagining himself for the valour of his arm already crowned at least Emperor of Trebizond.” French writer Rabelais, on the other hand, had his character Picrochole, the ruler of Piedmont, declare: “I want also to be Emperor of Trebizond,” while Rose Macaulay begins her classic the Towers of Trebizond with the immortal line: “Take my camel, dear.”
What is lesser known however, is that the Empire of Trebizond extended far beyond the borders of modern day northern Turkey all the way to Crimea, where the “Lordship of the city of Theodoro and the Maritime Region” (Αὐθεντία πόλεως Θεοδωροῦς καὶ παραθαλασσίας) formed an integral part of the Empire of Trebizond.
This should not surprise us. Since times ancient, Greeks founded colonies in the Crimean region. In Roman times, a hybrid Greco-Scythian culture emerged under the Bosporan Kingdom, an ally of Rome. During Byzantium, Crimea played an important role in the dissemination of Greek culture and Orthodoxy to the Slavs, as well as providing a place of exile and escape for sundry Greek emperors, such as the vicious Justinian II who, having his nose cut off after he was deposed, used Crimea to regroup and re-take the throne, under the sobriquet of “Rhinotmetus” (the slit-nosed).
By 1204, when the crusaders took over Constantinople in a most brutal fashion, causing the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire into rival kingdoms, the principality of Theodoro, also known in Greek as Gothia (Γοτθία), owing to the sojourn of Germanic tribes in the region centuries earlier, came under the control of the Komnenus dynasty in Trebizond. It had its capital at Doros, also called Theodoro and now known by its Turkic name of Mangup, a city that formed a separate ecclesiastical Metropolis as early as the seventh century.
In keeping with Crimea’s multi-ethnic past, the population of the principality was comprised of a mixture of Greeks, Crimean Goths, Alans, Bulgars, Cumans and Kipchaks, all of whom confessed Orthodox Christianity. Despite the plethora of languages spoken in the region by its inhabitants, the principality’s official language was Greek.
The earliest mention of the Crimean section of the Empire of Trebizond is made after the fall of Constantinople, by the historian Theodore Spanoudes who makes mention of the existence of a “Prince of Gothia” in the reign of Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328 – 1341).
Other references make mention of events taking place in the fourteenth century. For example, some chroniclers identifying “Dmitry”, one of the three Tartar princes who resisted the incursion of the Lithuanians into Ukraine at the epic Battle of Blue Waters, with a Prince of Gothia, who was tributary to the Emperor in Trebizond. On the other hand, the name “Theodoro” (in the corrupted form Θεοδωραω) appears for the first time in a Greek inscription also dated to 1361 and then again as “Theodoro Mangop” in a Genoese document of 1374. Scholars have suggested that the name of the city was actually “Theodoroi”, referring to the saints Theodore Stratelates and Theodore Tiro, but others posit that this is a mere corruption of “To Dory”, the city’s ancient name. By the 1420s though, the city was colloquially known as “Theodoritsi” (Θεοδωρίτσι) by its inhabitants.
The principality of Theodoro basically aligned its foreign policy to that of its suzerain, Trebizond. By necessity, it cultivated peaceful relations with the Mongolian Golden Horde to its north, paying them an annual tribute, but was in constant conflict with Genoese colonies to the south over access to the coasts and the trade that went through the Crimean harbours, culminating in a strip of the coastal land from Balaklava to Alushta, known to the Greeks as Parathalassia, falling under Genoese control, whereupon it was renamed as Captainship of Gothia.
After the principality of Theodoro had lost harbours on the southern coast, it constructed a new port called Avlita at the mouth of the Chernaya River and fortified it with the fortress of Kalamita which is now known as Inkerman.
Apart from the aforementioned Prince Demetrios, we know of the rulers of Theodoro, mainly through Russian chroniclers. The prince Stephen, known as “Stepan Vasilyevich Khovra”, emigrated to Moscow in 1391 along with his son, Gregory. They became monks, with Gregory going on to found the Simonov Monastery in Moscow. In modern times, the Russian noble families of Khovrin and Golovin claimed descent from them.
In Theodoro, Stephen was succeeded by another son, Alexios I, who ruled until his death in 1447. Alexios’ heir was his eldest son Ioannis, who was married to Maria Asanina, a lady connected to the Byzantine imperial dynasty of the Palaiologoi and the royal family of Bulgaria, showing just how international in scope the principality was. The couple had a son, also named Alexios, who died young in Trebizond, indicating that as was the Byzantine practice, the princes of Theodoro would send their children to Trebizond to be educated. His epitaph, titled “To the Prince’s son” (τῷ Αὐθεντοπούλῳ) was composed by John Eugenikos, the brother of Saint Mark Eugenikos who was resident for a time in the Empire of Trebizond. Such was the prestige of Theodoro, that Alexios was also able to marry off his daughter, Maria, to the last Trebizondian emperor, David. Alexios was then succeeded, by his son, who was given the Mongolian/Turkish name of Olubei.
No mention of Olubei exists in any records after 1458, with Genoese documents only mentioning “the lord of Theodoro and his brothers” (dominus Tedori et fratres ejus). Yet the Principality outlasted its suzerain, the Empire of Trebizond falling to the Ottomans in 1461. In 1465, a prince Isaac is mentioned, who in the face of the mounting Ottoman danger, engaged in a rapprochement with the Genoese at the nearby colony of Caffa and wed his sister Maria to Stephen the Great, ruler of Moldavia. However, his increasingly pro-Ottoman stance in the later years of his reign caused his brother Alexander to overthrow him. Despite this, Theodoro was powerless to arrest the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In December 1475, after conquering the other Christian strongholds along the Crimean coast, the Ottomans captured the city after a three-month siege. Alexander and his family were taken captive to Constantinople, where the prince was beheaded, his son was forcibly converted to Islam, and his wife and daughters became part of the Sultan’s harem.
The rulers of Theodoro appear to have been members of the Gabras family, an important Byzantine family with Aramaic roots, which became especially prominent in the late 11th and early 12th centuries as the semi-independent and quasi-hereditary rulers of Chaldia, a region in the Pontian hinterland. The last notable members of the family are mentioned in Constantinople during the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire, where Cyril Gabras acted as the megas skeuophylax of the Patriarchate in 1604. Other family members are attested in Crete and the Aegean islands. An unnamed Gabras held lands in Santorini in the early 17th century and numerous Gabrades are to be found at Chios and in Crete, especially around Siteia, until the early 19th century.
Any assessment of Pontian history would be lacking if it did not take into account the internationalist in outlook and broadly inclusive social fabric of the Empire of Trebizond, as is evidenced by the Principality of Theodoro. Its brief yet fascinating existence attests to a continuous presence of the Greek language in the region for millennia, a presence that was sorely tried and diminished during the twentieth and twenty-first century.
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist