August 16, 2011

Panagia Soumela - Pontus and the Pontians

By Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas, DD PhD


The original icon of Panagia Soumela is kept in a monastery in Macedonia that bears its name, but it came from the famous Monastery of Soumela in Pontos of Asia Minor. The fact that there is an exact copy of it at the Church St. John the Baptist in Boston, where there is also a sizeable Greek Pontian community, provides the opportunity to remind all of certain basic facts regarding the icon of Panagia Soumela and of Pontos and the Greek Pontians. The Greek Pontians as a heroic group of Hellenism have achieved great things in history and continue with the rest of the Hellenes to preserve their heritage not only in Greece but also here in America and in every other corner of the earth where they have been dispersed and survive by divine providence.

Panagia Soumela

According to church tradition the icon of Panagia Soumela took its name from the Monastery of Soumela in Pontos of Asia Minor. The name “Soumela” comes from “Stou Mela”, i.e. “at the mount Melas” and consequently signifies a particular locality in Pontos. The icon of Panagia that bears the name of this historic Monastery had been kept there for centuries. Yet, according to ancient tradition, it was more ancient than the Monastery. It was painted by St Luke the Evangelist and was originally kept in Athens being called “Atheniotissa.” It was brought to Pontos for the sake of safe keeping by two monks who are also said to be the founders of the Monastery of Soumela, St. Barnabas and St. Sophronios and hence its new name.

There are two views concerning the time of this event. In the first view it occurred in the 4th century. In the second view it happened in the 10th or 9th century. Recently a compromise has been propounded. This icon of St. Luke was kept in the Monastery of Osios Lukas in Biotia. It was carried to Athens by Ananias, the student of Osios Lukas, after the death of his teacher. Then later, when the Saracenes destroyed the city of Athens in the 10th (or 9th) century the holy monks Barnabas and Sophronios brought the icon to the Monastery of Soumela in Pontos for safe keeping.

The Monastery of Soumela, which had been founded in the 4th century by a Pontian Monk Christopher of Trepizond, suffered destructions and renovations through the long and turbulent history of Pontos, but the icon of Panagia remained intact. The heyday of the Monastery was in the era of the Byzantine empire of Trepizond, when it became the spiritual center of Orthodox Hellenism (see the historical section below) acquiring special privileges from the Komnenoi emperors. These privileges were preserved during the Turkish occupation by means of firmans granted by the Sultans and thus at that time also it stood as a notable center of Hellenic paideia for the enslaved Christian nation.

During the First World War the Monastery was destroyed, but the holy icon of Panagia remained intact.When in 1922 the Greek Pontians were violently expelled from Pontos the monks hifd the icon with other valuable vessels in the rocks of mount Mela. Later on the Turks allowed, following conversations of the governments of Greece and Turkey (Benizelos and Inonou), the monk Ambrosios to visit the ruined monastery of Soumela and retrieve the holy icon and the rest of church valuables and bring them to Athens. In 1951, the holy icon of Panagia Soumela, that had been kept in the Byzantine Museum of Athens, was transferred to the new Monastery of Soumela that was constructed on one of the slops of Mount Vermio of Macedonia where it is kept today.

As we noted above, one of the three equally historical exact copies of the original icon of Panagia Soumela is kept in our parish which bears the name of St. John the Baptist. This alone is an amazing fact, if one bears in mind that the original Monastery of Soumela in Pontos had been constructed in the 4th century with the assistance of an older neighboring Monastery that bore the name of John the Forerunner and Baptist.

Pontus and Pontians

The history of Pontos and the Pontians can be subdivided into five main periods as follows: a) the Greek-Persian, b) the Roman-Greek, c) the Greco-Roman or Byzantine, d) the Turkish occupation and e) the Pontian Diaspora.

A) The First Greek-Persian Period (6th-1st c. B.C.) begins around 600 B.C. when Greek immigrants settled in the coastal region of Cappadocia and founded important Greek cities, which became the starting point for the Hellenization of the Barbarian indigenous tribes of that region and their entry into civilization –such were the Chalyves, Mossynoikoi, Makrones, Tzanoi or Skythians, Kerkites, Taouchoi, Kurds, Kolchians, Abasgians, Tibarians, Paphlagonians, etc. These Hellenic Pontian cities included Sinope, Amisos, Kotyora, Kerasous, Trapezous (Trepizond), etc. All of them became strong centers that ruled the surrounding regions, liberating them from the feudal suzerainty of the Persians.

There was, of course, a prehistory of Hellenic presence in the Pontian region, which is connected with the known mythology about Frixos and Helle and the legend of Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. There was also the epic history of the Myriad of Greek soldiers with Xenophon who passed through the Greek cities of Pontos in 400 B.C. (the Gymnias, Trapezous, Kerasous, Kotyora, Sinope, Herakleia etc.) and is described in Xenophon’s Anabasis.

The first independent Pontian king- dom was founded by Mithridates I (337-302) who delivered the land from Persia and wedded the Persian with the Hellenic civilization that had been introduced into the region by the Greeks. The successors of this king extended his program of Hellenization and the borders of this kingdom by annexing other neighboring lands. Mithridates II (302-266 B.C.) annexed Cappadocia and Paphlagonia and transferred the capital of the Pontian kingdom from Amaseia to Sinope. Mithridates III (255-222 B.C.) married the daughter of Seleucid, Alexander’s General and ruler of Syria. The daughter of Mithridates IV (222-184 B.C.) became queen of Syria through marrying Antiochos, another General of Alexander and ruler of Syria. The Pontian kingdom enjoyed its greatest expansion and glory under Mithridates VI Eupator (160-63 B.C.), following two victorious wars against the Romans. Finally, however, the Romans subdued Mithridates and his kingdom in a third war.

B) The Second Roman-Greek Period (1st c. B.C. – 4th c. A.D.) begins in 64 B.C. when Pompey conquered the kingdom of Pontos. Pompey reorganized the kingdom by dividing it into two parts, the Western which included Galatia and was named Galatian Pontos, and the Eastern which included Bithynia and was named Polemoniakos Pontos (from king Polemon). Another successful action of Pompey was the creation of new cities in the interior, such as Nikopolis, Pompeioupolis, Diospolis, Magnopolis, etc. Further administrative arrangements were made by Pompey’s successors.

In 48 B.C. Pharnakes, the son of Mithridates VI tried to revive the Greco-Persian domination in the region but without results and was defeated by Caesar. In 39 B.C., however, the Roman Anthony entrusted the administration of the old Pontian kingdom to Darius, the grand-son of Mithridates VI. Since then a number of Pontian kings continued to administer the kingdom for the Romans, among whom we find Polemon I and Polemon II. This lasted until 64 A.D., when Eastern Pontos was united with the Western to form one Roman province that was named Mesogeiakos Pontos in 166 A.D. Later on the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) granted Pontos independent status and subdivid- ed it into three eparchies, Diospontos, Polemoniakos and Lesser Armenia.

This period of the Roman domination enhanced even more the Pontian Hellenism, and it can rightly be called Roman-Greek. At the same time this is a period of Christianization of the Greek Pontiac population and the rise of great church Fathers, such as Gregory of Neocaesarea, who wedded the Christian faith with Hellenism and unified the peoples of Pontos on this basis, contributing to the creation of a new political and religious establishment, which is called Greco-Roman or Byzantine.

C) The Third Graeco-Roman or Byzantine Period (4th-15th c. A.D.) is the greatest and brightest in Pontian history. In the proto-Byzantine era, which begins with Constantine the Great, Pontos became a Perfecture with Caesarea of Cappadocia as its capital and took the name Helenopontos (from St. Helen). The city of Caesarea had become the center of a new Christian-ized Hellenism, which transmitted Christianity to Armenia and the wider region in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

In 325 several Pontian Bishops participated at the first Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea, such as Domnos of Trapezous and the Bishops of Amaseia, Komana, Zelon, Neocaesarea and Pityous. In 381 at the second Ecumenical Synod of Constantinople, it was St. Basil of Caesarea’s theology that triumphed, while St. Gregory the Theologian was the president and other Pontian Bishops participated such as St. Gregory of Nyssa. At the end of the 4th century (380-386) the great Monastery of Panagia Soumela was established on the mountain of Melas in the region of Trapezous. This great monastery was destroyed in the 6th century and was restored in 644. It became famous since the 9th century, when the two Athenian monks Sophronios and Barnabas brought to it the miraculous icon of the Panagia Atheniotissa – a work of St. Luke. This holy icon survived the destruction of the Monastery in the 20th c., and rests today in the new Panagia Soumela Monastery on a slope of mount Vermion near Kastania of Beroia in Northern Greece.

The 4th c. was one of the most glorious periods of Pontian history thanks to the great Fathers of the Church who appeared in the Church there, such as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa and a multitude of fathers and saints. These Fathers enlightened the entire Christian world and left a lasting legacy of orthodox faith. In the 5th c. the Pontian bishop Atarvios presided at the fourth Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon (451), and was escorted by many other Pontian bishops. The celebrated Canon 28 of this Synod placed the Pontian Perfecture under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, where it remained until recent times.

From the 5th to the 7th century the region of Pontos suffered from Persian invasions which were intercepted by the Byzantine armies of Justinian and Herakleios. Then in the 8th c. the Arab invaders appeared on the scene and that was the time when Pontos, like the other regions of Asia Minor, was organized on the basis of autonomous Roman Themes, e.g. Koloneia, Armeniacum, Chaldia, etc., which sustained their own armies and restrained the Arabs and later on (11th c. onwards) the Turks. In the later Byzantine era the Pontian region brought forth great leaders such as the Komnenian dynasty of emperors, the Gavras leaders and many others. When Constantinople was sacked by the papal Western Crusaders in 1204 Alexios III Komnenos established an autonomous Byzantine empire in Pontos with Trapezous (Trebizond) as its capital, in which 20 kings reigned during its life time (1204-1461). At that time the Archbishop of Trapezous received the title All-Holiness as the Patriarch of Constantinople. This empire was the last to fall to the Turks (1461) having outlived the fall of Constantinople (1453).

The glorious Byzantine period of the Pontian history raised great figures in the church and in the empire of Constantinople. In the middle Byzantine era, several Metropolitans from Pontos became prominent, especially those of Trapezous, who even presided over Ecumenical Synods. In the 9th/10th c. we see St. Nikon Metanoeitai and St. Athanasios the Athonite, founder of the Great Lavra; in the 11th c. the great Patriarch Ioannis Xiphilinos. In the later Byzantine era there are new eminent figures; in the 14th c. George Trapezountios and in the 15th c., the erudite Bessarion of Nicaea. The Monasteries, the churches, the icons, the saints of Byzantine Pontos constitute one of the greatest treasures of the Byzantium and the Orthodox Church.

D) The Fourth Period of the Turkish occupation (15th-20th c. AD) is a period of persecutions and gradual decline through different stages, but also witnessed times of glory. The first stage (15th-16th century) was marked by oppression. As the last one to submit to the Turkish invaders, the region of Pontos paid dearly by suffering great decimation. The land was mercilessly ruined. Violent persecutions forced many to become Islamized or to leave the country. In spite of this, the heroic people of Pontos survived the ordeal. Their vigor and hard work enabled them to regroup and enter into a reconstructive second stage (end of the 16th and 17th c.) which put them above their local Turkish land-lords to the point that they could no longer be easily controlled. This, unfortunately, gave rise to a third stage of new persecutions. It was the time when many of the Pontians withdrew to the mountains, having left the lowlands and costal lands, or immigrated beyond Pontos to Northern territories as many had done during the past stages. On the mountains of Pontos a new fourth stage of reconstruction began. Here the Pontians took over the old steel mines and became masters of steelworks that enabled them to rise once again above the Turks. Thus in the 18th century the Greek Pontian populace of the mountainous regions tripled! The crisis came when the steelworks came to an end, whereupon a fifth stage of new trials dawned. Many took the road to exile and departed northwards to Russia. The population diminished considerably, but the ethnic Pontian consciousness was retained. Even those who were forced to accept Islam remained secretly Christians (crypto-Christians), faithful to the religious convictions of their ancestors.

What should be stressed here is the attachment of the Pontians of this period to the Greek language and Christian education. The “Tutorial School” of Trapezous, which in 1683 the great Pontian teacher Sevastos Kyminites (from Kymina) founded, became most renowned. The same happened with the Hellenic Academy in Bucharest that he also founded by the above to support the same cause. This period saw many Pontian Greek teachers traveling all over the Turkish occupied territories and spreading Greek education and Christian paideia. In 1722 there were important Greek schools in Argyroupolis (Chaldia), Sinope, Theodosioupolis, Soumela and Kerasous. Among the most renowned leaders of the Greeks were the Pontian families of Hypselantes and Mourouzes who played important leadership roles in the survival and revival of the Greek Orthodox nation.

In the 19th century the Greek Pontians had ameliorated their situation. The Russo-Turkish war of 1828 was beneficial to them. Some 90.000 Pontians had relocated to Argyroupolis (Chaldia) which was under Russian control. Thus when the “Hatti Humayun” was signed (1856) the Pontians regained their religious freedom. Some 20.000 crypto-Christians returned at that time to the Orthodox Church with the help of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Countless schools churches and villages were rebuilt and there was generally an amazing revival of the Greek Christian population of Pontos. Trade to and from Russia increased and the new prospects that had been created led to a considerable prosperity among the Pontian communities. As a result of these changes the population increased. In 1865 the Greek speaking Pontians were estimated to be 330.000 (there were as many Turkish speaking), while in 1913 they reached 697.000. This sixth stage of renaissance was decisively and tragically interrupted at the dawn of the 20th c. through the 1st World War and the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922. The drafting of Pontians by the Turkish Army for the 1st WW between 1914 and 1918 displaced 235.000 Pontians, while some 80.000 escaped to Russia. The final blow came in 1922 when, without any warning, the Pontians were persecuted and expelled from their ancestral lands and escaped to Greece and the West as refugees.

E) The Fifth Period of Pontian Diaspora (1922-the Present) is the current period, when the Pontians have been seeking to establish new homelands. In Greece and in the West, they have revealed once again their ability to survive and their indomitable character which is rooted in the Greek Orthodox faith and heritage. Here in America, where people of all backgrounds enjoy many freedoms and opportunities all Pontians are obliged, along with the entire Greek homogeneia, to continue the work that their heroic and indefatigable ancestors have assigned to them. They have a special obligation, again with all their fellow Greek and other ethic Orthodox Americans, to continue the work that Christ has entrusted to them when he included them among the first heralds of the Gospel of reconciliation and salvation of the world.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, with its Metropolises, under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople guarantees the continuous progress of all the Pontians of America along with the rest of the Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox brothers.