We all know about Jason and the Argonauts – a group of buffed up men who went on an epic voyage in 1200 BC. The Argonauts racked up more frequent flyer miles than today’s corporate executives. They visited magical and mystical places across the ancient world, including the Black Sea kingdom of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. With assistance from Medea, Jason was able to defeat a dragon and other warriors before escaping with the Golden Fleece to Greece.
The region of Colchis is in the modern-day Georgia – not the state in the US, rather the Republic with a long history. The Greeks have certainly had a remarkable influence on Georgia’s history. In fact, the entire Black Sea region was home to hundreds of ancient Greek colonies and Byzantine Greek cities. The name Georgia is also a Greek word, meaning farmer.
Remarkably, the earliest Greek colonies commence between 1000 BC and 550 BC, this doesn’t include the mythical Aeetes’ in Colchis, founding Naessus, Pitiys, Dioscuria, Guenos, Phasis/Poti, Apsaros and Rhizos. These cities formed the territory in and around Colchis, with the Miletians being the main sponsors of these colonies. A parallel kingdom was founded in the interior of Georgia. This was known as Iberia, and it covers most of that country’s modern territory. Unlike Colchis, Iberia mainly consisted of people native to Georgia.
Colchis was eventually conquered by Pompey in 64BC after a long struggle with Mithradates, the powerful king of Pontus. Many of his descendants ironically ended up in Georgia 1900 years later.
“Greek” rule did not re-emerge in parts of Georgia until the inception of the Byzantine Empire in the fourth Century AD. By this stage, the people of Georgia had become the second place in the world to become an entirely Christian state. The Byzantines took control over a number of areas in the Caucasus until they were overrun by Arab warriors in the late seventh century. It was not until the rule of Basil II that the Byzantines regained some control of the region for over a century starting in the late 900s. Between the eleventh century and 1461, Greeks vied for control of the Black Sea region with the Persians, Seljuk/Ottoman Empire and the rise of powerful ethnic Georgian Queens and Kings. The Greek kingdom of Trebizond, allied and supported by Georgia, fell to the Ottomans in 1461, followed by Theodoro in 1475 in the Crimea, it was the last time that Hellenic rulers had significant power in the Black Sea.
In the eastern areas of Georgia, away from the Black Sea, 6,000 Greeks reside in the towns in and around Tsalka and Tbilisi, the capital. Are they the descendants of the mythical King Aeetes and ancient Colchis? The easy answer is no, they are essentially the Greeks who migrated from Asia Minor and Pontus during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) and subsequent decades.
Considering that Greeks have been in Georgia for over 3,000 years via colonies, Byzantine rule, allies of Georgia, safe haven from Turks and Persians and at times married to Georgian royalty and elites, I lean towards a continuous, albeit small, presence of unbroken Hellenic lineage within the borders of Georgia.
In 2023, I was fortunate enough to visit Tbilisi and Tsalka, meeting with inspiring representatives of the Greek community.
I was told by the energetic president of the Greek Community, also known as Union of Greek Communities, Ms Ευγενία Κοτανίδη (Eugenia Kotanidi), that as recent as 1991, when Georgia was still a member of the failed USSR, the Greek population was over 120,000. A decade later, that number declined dramatically as many used the newfound freedom to migrate to Greece, Cyprus and Russia. It’s ironic that Russia’s Putin is still seeking to impose USSR style “freedom” on Georgia and Ukraine – the latter is represented by hundreds of Ukraine flags across Georgia as a symbol of Georgian solidarity which I came across on my travels.
At the impressive Greek Community Centre, located at the aptly named 8 Kyiv Street in Tbilisi, I was given a tour of facilities. The top floor is reserved for the community and everywhere you turn, you will see a Greek flag, a karagiozi, images from Greece and importantly, Pontian imagery. The latter is a reminder of where most of the Greek community has come from.
What is impressive is that the facilities include a large main hall for Greek events, space for Greek elders to meet, a classroom to teach Greek and a meeting space. The president told me that with the exception of the peak summer period, the community centre attracts young people, families and elderly. In addition to running Greek and Pontian dancing, there is also a youth group.
Eugenia, who is a younger person herself, explained that the Greek community of Tbilisi has shrunk from the high numbers prior to independence. Where she can, she will teach a Greek class or represent the Greek community. The members of the community do their best with limited resources to keep the flame of Hellenism alive in Georgia, working together as a unified group to keep Greece in Georgia as strong as they can.
Eugenia explained that most of the current community are immediate descendants of Pontians who came, bringing with them two dialects – Pontic and Urum as well as their religion. I was reminded that under the Soviets, there were no official “nationalities.” The Greeks though always found a way to connect.
Eugenia explained that you can find Greeks in various towns between Tbilisi to the Black Sea. Going the other way towards Azerbaijan, Tsalka was deemed an area that reminded Greeks of Pontus.
Her father had never been to Greece but he, like many Greek patriots of Georgia, made sure their kids understood they were Greek in times when Greek language was banned under the Soviets. Stalin had closed all the Greek schools decades earlier. Eugenia went to study Greek as soon as the borders opened in the 90s.
It was Eugenia who told me there exists one more authentic village of Greeks, deep in the mountains. A much longer trip that could take up to five hours of travel.
Across Georgia there are about 20 Greek committees and associations which are linked to the Greek Community of Georgia, of which Eugenia is the president.
I was told of a Greek built church in Tbilisi and a street called Greek Street. With some luck, animated and friendly chats with Georgians, I found both. The Greek Street had a fountain with Greek writing and a number of doors with Greek blue painted on the garage doors.
As is the case in a small but passionate community, Eugenia introduced me to Ms Elena Chamurlidi, the owner of Ponti Café in Tsalka. Which became my immediate next stop. Eugenia also suggested I visit Avranalor, on the way to Tsalka town, which has 250 people who speak Greek.
The Tsalka region is a two-hour drive to the south of the charming capital, Tbilisi. There were 20 villages where Greeks resided in and around the Tsalka region. Today, it is limited to about three or four villages. What makes these Tsalka Hellenes extraordinary is the fact that most do not speak Greek. When they were forced to migrate from the Ottoman Empire from Mithradates’ Pontus, they were “gently” coerced by the Turkish authorities to stop learning the Greek language if they wanted to maintain their Greek Orthodox beliefs. So over time, the Greeks were prevented from learning their mother tongue and instead developed a dialect of Turkish – Urum.
Urum is a play on the Arabic word for Greek – Rumelia and it is a Turkish language that incorporates various Greek words. Research conducted by the historian Airat Aklaev in the 1980’s highlighted that 36% of Urum speakers considered Greek their native tongue despite not knowing the language and 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.
When I arrived in Tsalka, I went to the bread shop to feed my Billy belly and to see the Greek flags that were proudly on display. The elderly woman offered a HUGE smile when I told her I am Greek. She spoke to me in Urum. I struggled to keep up with her and others in the bakery, though I was able to understand a few words.
After she wrapped the freshly made bread in newspaper, I made my way to the best restaurant in Georgia, Pontia.
Aside from meeting fellow Hellenes from Greece, the restaurant is a gem. It has a nice set up, quaint feel and a lovely view of the countryside. Above all, you really are eating Greek food deep in the heart of Georgia and for a foodie like me, it was heaven. The fact I could speak Greek here was a bonus. Listening to the Greek tunes playing on the PA was an extra bonus and one that made this chubby Hellenic face smile. Pontia was established by Elena’s father in 1992 and has recently renovated the space with an EU grant to become the elegant restaurant it is today.
I was taken on a tour of Tsalka by the wonderful owner of Pontia. Street after street presented itself with Greek homes, it was hard to miss the blue and white, the livestock crossing the roads, or the Greek built church hidden towards the far end of the town and Aristotle Square. Driving around Athens Street is nothing short of spine tingling. Greece this far away from Greece in the middle of nowhere.
Elena went from being a wonderful restaurateur to a fantastic travel guide, explaining the history, the beautiful landscape and the dialects used in the region.
What is currently missing is a regular Greek language class. Elena told me that classes used to be held but as numbers dropped, the class has stopped. She has taught the language to interested people in the past. It leaves the language in a delicate moment. Do we risk losing Hellenism in Tsalka or can we find ways to support these people? A regular Greek language class is a good starting point.
Elena studied at the University of Thessaloniki in Macedonia, living there for seven years. Her sisters speak Greek, one of whom lives in Greece, another Cyprus and another in Russia. Her grandmother had learned some levels of Greek from church and was able to teach the girls as small children basic Greek, poems and prayers. For a few years, after Georgian independence, there was a Greek school in Tsalka. A combination of Greeks leaving and the Georgian government settling large numbers of ethnic Georgians and Armenians, has naturally changed the demographics of the area.
I was told that many Greeks who were born in Georgia return for holidays or to live, with their families speaking standard modern Greek. Some Urum is still spoken, and few people speak Pontian dialect.
For those seeking to visit Tsalka, there is a small hotel here and a beautiful lake to help you unwind for a few days.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Greece would send a lot of support to the Greeks of Georgia, as did SAE. There remains some support from Greece, now as the Greek economy has rebounded, it his hoped Greece can send more support to help places like Georgia. The language needs to be supported, via teachers and language programs.
Whilst you would be hard pressed to find any ancient Greek ruins in Georgia, you will find several Byzantine churches and plenty of old Greek shops. In Aristotle Street in Tsalka you can find Café Ponti or the Dioskuria grocery store. You will also find a sculpture of Aristotle in front of derelict Greek school and if you listen closely, you will hear Greek music in the neighbourhood. Metaxa is the favourite drink, especially at Easter time and of course you can always spot a Greek, regardless of what country you happen to be in.
For those looking for Greek food in Tbilisi, you can find Greek Point, which is run by Alexandros and kept me fed. Khinkali House, and Mr Gyros are other places to look out for.
The Greek Ministry highlights the Institute of Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Tbilisi has 80 students and there were Chairs of Hellenic Studies at Akhaltsikhe and Batumi universities in the previous decade.
The Hellenes of Georgia that have migrated to Greece when they have returned to visit, have occasionally found squatters in their homes. Local authorities have also transferred many ethnic Georgians and Armenians to the Tsalka region in recent years. This resulted in a number of civil disturbances in the 1990s and 2000s.
So should Jason and the Argonauts ever return to Georgia, they would be hard pressed to find the Greeks of Colchis, but a visit to Tsalka and the surroundings villages could unearth another Golden Fleece and a number of passionate Hellenes keeping the spirit of Hellenism flying.
*Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven Take Back the Stolen Marbles. He encourages any interested Hellenes to make contact with the Greek Community of Georgia should you wish to help support the Greek language via www.facebook.com/geogreeks and www.facebook.com/Pontiaa/