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“Santa Ruins” in Turkey: The Destruction of Greek Cultural Heritage 

By Uzay Bulut

Remnants of Greek cultural heritage throughout Turkey are in ruins or on the verge of collapse. Turkish authorities do not take care of these treasures, partly because the Turkish government annihilated most descendants of the actual builders, who were the indigenous Greek population in the region, until about a hundred years ago.

One such structure is the Santa Ruins archaeological site located in the province of Gümüşhane in northern Turkey.  The Turkish newspaper Hürriyet reported on October 19 that the Santa Ruins, dubbed a “hidden city close to the sky”, have been registered as a “fragile area to be protected.”

Turkey’s Official Gazette announced in October that the historical structures will “bring tourists to the region” in spite of their having lost much of their beauty to illegal treasure hunters and to official neglect, according to Hürriyet.

“There are seven settlements in the Santa Ruins, covering three different slopes, which are all visible to each other.

“Noting that the surrounding areas in the ruins are used only during the summer months, the region remains unprotected and is the target of treasure hunters, Coşkun Erüz, an academic from Black Sea Technical University, said that the plan for protection and development, as well as the area management plan will be carried out in several years.

“’The region is only inhabited for three or four months in the summer. Unfortunately, the bridges, fountains, churches and even the houses where people live are left unprotected and have suffered great damage in other seasons,’ Erüz said.”

Hürriyet added:

“It is believed that Santa, the cultural heritage of the Greek-Pontus state in eastern Black Sea, was built in the 17th century… Some 5,000 people lived there between 1700 and 1900.  Only a few tourists visit there now because of the lack of transportation.

The structures that were abandoned after the Greeks left the region in 1923 are in the Dumanlı village, 72 kilometers from Gümüşhane and 42 kilometers from Trabzon.”

Santa RuinsOne major correction for Hürriyet: Greeks of Gümüşhane and the wider region did not leave their ancient homeland of their own free will. From 1914 to 1923, they were deliberately murdered in a genocide at the hands of two subsequent Turkish regimes. The survivors were deported as a result of the 1923 population exchange treaty between Turkey and Greece.

This turn of events is doubly tragic and unjust given the fact that most cities in today’s Turkey were built by Greeks. According to the Hellenic Research Center,

“Greek settlements in Asia Minor date as far back as the 11th century BC when Greeks emigrated from mainland Greece. They founded cities such as Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna, Sinope, Trapezus, and Byzantium (later known as Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire). These cities flourished culturally and economically.

“Asia Minor gave birth to the first great thinkers of antiquity, such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Strabo and Heraclitus. These philosophers rejected the mythological explanation of the universe and were the first to seek a rational explanation of all things. Thus Asia Minor was the birthplace of western philosophy and science.”

The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital, was a Greek-speaking empire.  It was the leading civilization of Medieval Christendom.

The Byzantine Empire lasted 11 centuries (from the 4th to the 15th century A.D.), and fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Empire of Trebizond (Trabzon) was the last Greek-ruled area in Asia Minor to fall to Turkish hands in 1461.

As the Hellenic Research Center notes:

“During the following two centuries of Ottoman rule, the 16th and 17th centuries, Greek communities in Asia Minor resisted constant pressure to convert to Islam. Most managed to preserve their religion, ethnic traditions, and culture. During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, thousands of Greeks were forced to convert to Islam, among them 250,000 Pontian Greeks. Thousands of Greeks fled to Christian Russia to escape Turkish persecution, particularly following the numerous Russian-Turkish wars in the 19th century.”

Argyropolis (Gümüşhane in Turkish), where the Santa Ruins is located, is a town in the Black Sea region or Pontos and was a town of the historic province of Chaldia. According to the website Pontos World,

“The city was established around 700 BC as the settlement of Thyra (Grk: Θύρα) by Ionian Greeks who first discovered silver in the region. Its name stems from two Greek words (Argyro = silver, and Polis = city)… Around 840 AD, Argyropolis was included in the new Roman (Byzantine) province of Chaldia (Χαλδία).”

Argyropolis was part of the Empire of Trebizond (1204–1461). Greeks remained culturally well-established in the city even after the Ottoman invasion of the region in 1461. According to Pontos World,

“From the beginning of the 18th century new schools were opening, and from 1723 the Frontistirion (Greek Tuition Center) of Argyropolis was in full operation. The Tuition Center became an educational institution and spiritual center of the region. In 1650 the diocese was elevated to archdiocese status, and hundreds of churches and temples were built.

“Another public building was the library, the Educational Society Kyriakidis, as well as the Metropolis of Chaldia. The Argyroupolitans therefore are very much regarded as having some of the best resources in education, due mainly to their economic prosperity from mining.”

This thriving Greek community mostly perished during the 1914-23 genocide. Professor Speros Vryonis Jr. wrote a comprehensive article entitled “Greek labor Battalions Asia Minor” published in the 2006 book  “The Armenian Genocide: Cultural and Ethical Legacies” edited by Professor Richard G. Hovannisian. The article details how the Turkish regime “removed all Greeks from the region” during and after the WW1 in Turkey including those in Argyropolis.

Vryonis wrote:

“This was accomplished through a series of local and state actions that included massacres, the uprooting of most Greeks from their urban and rural habitats, the destruction of hundreds of villages, widespread looting and arson, the confiscation and destruction of property, the institution of massive slave labor battalions and death marches, and the reduction of women to what was often unremunerated prostitution.

“The contemporary memoirs of Antonis Gavrielides (1924) give a frightful description of the conditions under which the Pontian conscripts lived, worked and died. Those who could afford to pay the 5 Turkish gold liras for the bedel (military exemption tax) had to pay annually and eventually had to sell their property to get the cash. At the same time, the wives, elders, and children of the conscripted laborers who were left behind endured the oppression of those who ruled them: sexual demands, the burning of houses, extortion, and so forth. The laborers, continues Gavrielides, were subjected to frequent and brutal beatings, starvation, illness, and frequent death.

“On March 10, 1916, the lower cleric of Argyropolis (Gümüşhane) reported to his metropolitan in Trebizond the conscription of all males between the ages of fifteen and fifty-one from Argyropolis and its environs into the labor battalions. On March 17, others were marched from Erzerum to Kelkit and Herriana to clean the roads.

“On December 13, 1919, the total effect of the labor battalions on the local population was summarized by a document of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs as based on the individual reports of the metropolitans of Trebizond, Chaldia, Colonia, Amisos, and Neocaesarea. The Metropolitan of Trebizond reported, in addition, that the total number of his flock had been reduced from 52,000 in 1914 to 23,000 by 1919. He also made specific reference to the devastation wrought by the labor battalions:

“‘The relatively more prosperous were first robbed of their wealth and then sent off to the interior where they died from evil treatment and deprivations, the remainder were first conscripted and were put in the accursed labor battalions where a wretched death awaited them.'”

Following the genocide, “few Argyroupolitans managed to flee to Greece,” according to Pontos World. And after the forcible exchange of populations in 1923, “No Greek Orthodox remained in the region.”

The Turkish government has targeted not only Christian lives but their properties as well. What author Raffi Bedrosyan describes in his article “Searching for Lost Armenian Churches and Schools in Turkey” has also been the “fate” of Greek and Assyrian cultural heritage in the country. Bedrosyan writes:

“As the Armenian population got wiped out of Anatolia in 1915, so did these churches and schools. Along with the hundreds of thousands of homes, shops, farms, orchards, factories, warehouses, and mines belonging to the Armenians, the church and school buildings also disappeared or were converted to other uses. If not burnt and destroyed outright in 1915 or left to deteriorate by neglect, they became converted buildings for banks, radio stations, mosques, state schools, or state monopoly warehouses for tobacco, tea, sugar, etc., or simply private houses and stables for the Turks and Kurds.”

Meanwhile, Turkey remains an ostensible NATO ally and a perpetually unsuccessful candidate for EU membership. Turkey signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was officially recognized as a candidate for full membership in 1999. Negotiations for Turkey’s full membership in the Union were started in 2005. According to European Commission’s official website, “the EU is committed to safeguarding and enhancing Europe’s cultural heritage.”

The Turkish government, however, seems to have “perfected” the “art” of violating or destroying the region’s exceedingly rich cultural heritage built by the indigenous peoples of the land that Turkey largely exterminated about a hundred years ago.

About the author: Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in various outlets such as the Gatestone Institute, Washington Times, Christian Post and Jerusalem Post. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics, and history, religious minorities in the Middle East and anti-Semitism. Bulut is also a regular contributor for the Greek City Times.

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