In the Black Sea, a Pontic Greek village slowly dies out as its inhabitants abandon their homes
A native son says the exodus from Ocena, near Trebizond, is deserting an ancient civilization
The story of the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Ocena was told in Turkey’s Radikal.

Ocena is a village near Turkey’s Black Sea coast, known to Greeks as the Pontus, in the mountains behind the town of Trebizond. It is in an idyllic setting of pine and fir trees near the mountain peaks, among valleys and crystal-clear springs.

The village’s original inhabitants were probably fugitives from Ottoman oppression who fled to the shelter of the wooded peaks. It is not known when they built the first houses that became a settlement. It seems that as soon as they built them, the Ottomans discovered them and demolished them.

According to Ottoman archives (the tax archive, or tahrir defterleri, of 1583) the community consisted of just five families. That was the last year the mountains were free. From then on they were included in the Ottoman Empire’s tax system.

Over the next few years more people moved to the village and the days of isolation were over. By 1613, the number of families had grown to 54, four of them declaring themselves Muslims.

According to G. Kandilaptis in his book “Ta Fitiana,” all the inhabitants of the Ofi area, to which Ocena belonged, converted to Islam by order of the region’s bishop. No one knows if they were asked to gather in one place or if someone went around announcing the decision to householders.

Everyone who reached Ocena from various other areas brought their own idiom with them, enriching the local dialect and resulting in a great variety of expressions in a village that did not have much contact with the coastal towns. Its inhabitants had links with the entire Pontus region, of which Ocena could be called a microcosm, an example of the East.

People in the village were not conscious of these differences; they did not consider themselves outsiders. Everyone was from somewhere else. Most importantly, they all spoke the same language, “Romeika,” or Pontic Greek.

Today the village is losing its inhabitants. Only a quarter of the population remains. Particularly in Kato Ocena, lights are turned on in only 200 of the 630 homes. Even these last few inhabitants are ready to leave the small village that is the last remnant of a civilization that is thousands of years old, taking with it everything that is different, every trace of its ancient cultural relics.

Every angry fugitive, every desperate emigrant who leaves his homeland means one more nail in the coffin of that civilization, leaving behind ignorance and inhumanity. Even the death of a single person weakens an ancient language, as that person takes with them all the words in his or her memory that are now rarely spoken because of the relentless onslaught of capitalism, the media, indifference, the worship of all things foreign, and of betrayal.

Ocena is dying a slow death, and with it an age-old idiom of the Greek language, in full sight of a world that believes itself to be civilized. In the large towns, no one can speak their native tongue, much as they love hearing it.

Greek-speaking Muslims in Turkey

One of the most interesting phenomena in modern Turkey is the existence of Greek-speaking Muslims.

The traditional Greek-Turkish conflict, Turkey’s authoritarian administration, the Kurdish uprising and the survival of stereotypes surrounding the formation of newer nations in the region have made studying this particular ethnic group difficult.

The way Greek-speaking groups passed from Christianity to Islam during Ottoman rule is unknown to modern Greek scholars.

Today there are four main grecophone groups in Turkey: the Cretans, Pontics, Macedonians and Cypriots. Each of them is of extreme historic interest. The way these groups express themselves is of great importance as it reveals an unknown aspect of modern Turkish society that is becoming more and more important.

The public appearance of these groups is not only of interest to Turkish society, which is slowly becoming aware of its multicultural nature, but also to Greek society. These groups illuminate how modern nation-states in the region were formed and the way groups caught in the middle – created by history – were forced to be incorporated into the ideological foundation and the religious doctrine of the particular state they were living in.

Tuesday March 6, 2007

Vahit Tursun is a grecophone from Ofi, Trebizond. He wrote this article for the major center-left Turkish newspaper Radikal on February 25.