CURRENT STORY 13-02-2021

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.

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.