Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Take Only What You Can Carry

16th February 2015

2014 was a terrible year for refugees.  People across the world are being displaced in unprecedented numbers.  At a lesser level it was another dire year for Greece too:  its economy in freefall and all those with the education or the means departing to seek lives elsewhere.  It’s always been like this – ‘diaspora’ is a Greek word – but I’m reminded that 2015 is roughly the centenary of one of the most momentous emigrations in Greek history.

Around 800 BC Greeks entered the Black Sea.  They came first to trade and then settled in colonies around the sea’s rim, ‘like frogs around a pond’ in the words of Socrates.  For nearly 3000 years they maintained a flexible presence here as merchants, sailors, farmers, middlemen, craftsmen, manufacturers and bankers.  In what are now Georgia, Bulgaria, Rumania, the Ukraine, Russia and Turkey they served the Byzantime emperors, Ottoman sultans and Russian czars.  Most numerous were the Pontian Greeks, the inhabitants of the mountains and Black Sea coast of Turkey.

All this unravelled in the early decades of the twentieth century with the growth of nationalism, the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Muslims and Christians eyed each other with increasing suspicion;  the bonds that had bound neighbours of different faiths together for centuries were being picked apart.  Between 1915 and 1923 the world of the Pontian Greeks collapsed.  They were forcibly expelled from their homeland – the start of a process of ethnic cleansing and death marches.  The order was given: ‘take only what you can carry’.  It ended in 1923 with a massive population exchange, a sorting out of peoples based on religion.  Nearly two million people, 1.3 Greek Christians from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean coasts, and some 400,000 Turkish Muslims from mainland Greece and Crete, were compulsorily deracinated and returned to a national home.  Both sides have left classic oral accounts of departure and loss similar to all that’s happening now;  the last look back, the last turn in the road, the suffering and death in flight, the ache for a vanished place.

In the mountain villages of the Black Sea coast, the Pontian Greeks buried the icons, manuscripts and the valuables that they could not carry and pocketed their door keys.  ‘The Black Day arrived,’ remembered Miltiades Tsalouchidis who left his village as a six year old.  ‘It was winter.  Snow.  And with the women and children we set out on the road towards our uprooting.  We left our assets . . .  thinking that we might return some day . . . our children were dying in our arms . . . my heart fills with tears.’  In Northern Greece a similar expulsion of Muslims was underway.  The stories on both sides are of hardship, robber and murder as they left, interspersed with regretful reminiscences from many who watched them go.  ‘I remember the day they went away,’ recorded a Greek woman of her Muslim neighbours.  ‘Some kissed the earth, some took bowls of soil with them. They were decent types; their menfolk used to attend our funerals, and we would exchange presents of food on each other’s feast day.  They cried as they left us.’

Arrival was often nearly as bitter as departure.  Turkish speaking Greeks and Greek speaking Turks were strangers in their new homelands;  their customs, their religious practices, their dances and the dialect of their mother tongue were alien to the local people.  ‘In Trebizond we lived like kings,’ remembered one woman.  ‘Here in Greece?  They treated us like Turks, Muslims.’

Nostalgia and pain are intermixed in their accounts. ‘Through every trial,’ one man recalled, ‘I have been sustained by the memory of the place where I grew up; its trees, its solid stone houses and its perfumed air.’  Across the world, the Pontians keep their culture alive and their grief.  They mark 19 May as a Pontian Greek genocide memorial day.  And there are Greek families who still remember their Turkish, old Turkish women who welcome the chance to speak the Cretan dialect.

Recently small individual bridges are being built to a shared past.  Kokkos Nikolaidis promised his mother, before she died, that he would go back to Turkey and find their house, which had been vividly described to him.  When he arrived, he saw nothing had changed.  He still had a door key that would fit the lock. The present owners were suspicious, but when he spoke Turkish the atmosphere thawed.  ‘They’re like us!’ said the lady of the house in surprise.  ‘We stayed four hours. It was extremely intense,’ recalled Nicolaidis. As he was leaving his host suddenly rushed outside.  ‘She cut a small flower and said, “Give this to your mother when you get home.”  I told her that my mother died four years ago. And then she said, “Put it on her grave for me.”‘

Roger Crowley’s new book, ‘Conquerors:  How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the first Global Empire,’ is published by Faber and Faber on 17 September 2015. You can buy it here.