May 2, 2020

Deadly Epidemics That Struck Pontus

By Theodosios Kyriakidis

Millions of people have lost their lives to viruses and deadly diseases since antiquity. And the unforgettable Pontus was tested by various epidemics, which strongly influenced the social and economic life of the inhabitants, mainly in the urban centers.

Ronald C. Jennings, who studied Ottoman court records, wrote about the plague epidemic in Trebizond during the Middle Ages. Through this archival research, it was first found that in cases where there was a plague in the city, the economy collapsed, while when the situation was mitigated, it returned to normal. A typical example, according to the scholar, was the fall in rents and the price of public baths (hammam) in Kule.

The inhabitants of Pontus found shelter in monasteries during the epidemics. In most cases where cities were affected by these epidemic diseases, the inhabitants visited the monasteries of the area and mainly the three large cruciform monasteries of Matsouka, namely Saint John Vazelon, Panagia Soumela and Saint George Peristereotas.

In a codex of the Monastery of Saint George Peristereotas that was saved, many cases of epidemic diseases are recorded. In 1796, when the plague struck Trebizond, many Trabzonites sought refuge in the monastery. The monastic brotherhood was also infected by them, with the result that the abbot Gervasios and the monk Sophronios died.

Another case is reported in August 1847, when Trebizond suffered an epidemic outbreak, according to a first estimate it was of cholera, while according to a second it was gastroenteritis or histopathic cholera. It lasted about a month and struck mainly the Ottomans, according to the codex report. As noted in another case of epidemic disease, which recurred in Trebizond, this is mainly due to the lack of proper hygiene and cleanliness of Muslims. The report is typical:

"On October 25, 1892, a cholera epidemic broke out in Trebizond, with little damage, mostly among the Ottomans, for their continual uncleanness and as the destiny for their lives was determined, many Ottoman families were sent to the other world."

In the archive of the Monastery of Saint George Peristereotas it has been recorded that in October 1893 Trebizond was tested again by cholera. Of interest is the poem by Ioannis Oikonomos of Katharon, written on August 22, 1749 at the Monastery of Panagia Theoskepaston, where he had taken refuge with his family. The poem was published by Epamineondas Kyriakidis and is as follows:

Φόβω πανώλους, πρόσφυγες σοι Παρθένε
ως Χριστιανών τε προστάτη τε και ρύστη
ο Οικονόμος συν τω του Καραπάνα
Γεωργίω, άμα τε αις πανοικίαις
φεύγομεν, συ δε τηρήσαις αλωβήτους
ταύτης τ΄ εκ τ΄ άλλης της αλλοτρίου βλάβης.

For fear of the plague, we take refuge in you Virgin,
as the protectress and savior of Christians,
Oikonomos with Karapanas
George, together with our households,
we flee to you, keep therefore unscathed
these and the others from this foreign harm.

Also interesting is the testimony of Epamineondas Kyriakidis, who states that the reason for the sudden cessation of the plague was the very large fire that broke out in Trebizond in August 1749.

These epidemics should not be considered a rare phenomenon in the society of Trebizond, judging by the frequency of cases referred to in the codex of the Monastery of Saint George Peristereotas, but also in the literature. It is also known that from the 13th to the 19th century, the whole of Europe was plagued by the Black Death.

Many writers report that in the summer the city's residents went to the countryside, as the city's climate and humidity combined with the heat often favored such outbreaks. Finally, if we note the fact mentioned above that Muslims did not in many cases follow the rules of personal hygiene, then we can justify the frequency of the phenomenon.

Source: Encyclopedia of Pontic Hellenism, published by Malliaris-Paideia, Thessaloniki. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.