New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
The ancient people of the Black Sea region historically known as Pontos who are little known in the West, but Pontic culture, a bridge between East and West, is a piece of the global puzzle of man and history.
Pontos Culture, A contemporary view of Black Sea Culture, an exhibition of 25 photographs by Eleftherios Kostans (Konstantinidis) on view at the Greek Consulate in New York through January 15, 2011, received high praise for its artistry and for its historical importance from His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios as well as Ambassador Aghi Balta, Consul General of Greece in New York, Elias Tsekerides, president of the Hellenic Federation, Dimitris Molohides, president of the Pan Pontian Federation of the USA and Canada, and other guests, including The Honorable Koula Sophianou, Consul General of Greece in New York, at the December 15 opening of the exhibition.
The first public showing of Mr. Kostans’ work in New York, this collection of 25 affecting photographs (and one photographic collage) taken over a period of more than 15 years documents the historical and religious sites of Pontos and the daily life of Pontians all over the world, offering a rare view of an ancient people in transition in today’s rapidly changing global environment.
This does not apply only to the non-Pontian viewer; the photographs, Kostans points out, are a way for Pontians themselves to examine their lives, to ask questions about their own identity, history, and culture, “inside and outside of their boundaries, speeding the process of reunion with their own and reconciliation with the rest of the world.”
And as a Greek American immigrant of Pontian descent, exploring his culture has led Kostans, to question his own identity and place in the world; as well. “Am I Eastern or Western?” he says, “Whenever I return home to America from these journey’s I find myself immediately longing for these places, peoples and the exotic traditions of our Pontian spiritual culture.”
To promote understanding of these questions, and simply for the sake of beauty, a high quality book of Kostan’s extensive collection of photographs of and about Pontos and Pontians is necessary… and overdue.
Meanwhile, Kostans archive is growing as he continues to document Pontian culture in North America, Greece, and Turkey and plans to explore it further in Germany, Russia, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
In 1994, when Kostan was 29 years old (he was brought to the US when he was 6 months old) he found the small shack where he was born, near a tobacco field at the edge of his family’s hometown, Katerini, and he felt a great desire to know more about his Pontian heritage. His interest intensified at the celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Panagia Soumela where he observed people from all over the world with a common cultural bond praying at the holy site. Going further east into Turkey, to the Eastern Black Sea region of Pontos, he found his grandparents’ village and began to photograph the Pontian Muslim community.
On the topic of identity, Kostans explains that those who have remained in Turkey — Muslim Pontians/or Turk nationals — for the most part do not know their history. “Some are inquisitive and searching to understand who they are, their identity. This culture, like Kurdish, has been denied to those that are Pontian and the region in general. What’s worse than that done to the Kurds is, the Turkish government denied Greek as part of the historic identity for most of the 88 years that the modern Turkish state has existed. And because this history is tied to a more ancient, archaic, Ionian Greek Identity, which has also adapted from its surroundings these past 3000 years — people that are Greek Orthodox Pontians feel the other end of the spectrum…. they feel the loss of their homeland.”
This is a complex and fascinating reality that brings personal identity into question, said Kostans, citing his experience several years ago when he placed some Pontian images in the lobby of an AHEPA national conference in San Francisco. “The lobby filled with Greeks examining them. A woman looking at an image that showed a Turkish flag asked me why I was showing photos of ‘these people’, saying that as far as she was concerned they were Turks. I said, ‘I believe these people are Pontian, a culture that I feel is rooted in Hellenism’. I generally leave the conclusion up to the listener, but I could see that she was angry and offended that the images were being shown. I didn’t want to argue but to help her understand that identity is to some extent a personal perspective, so I said, ‘Are you Greek’ and she proudly said ‘Yes’. I asked, ‘Do you speak Greek?’ She said she knew a few words, but doesn’t really practice the language. I said, ‘‘the people in the photograph in front of us may be more Greek than you…. they speak ancient, Ionion Greek in daily life…. It’s just a thought to consider.’ She paused for a moment then walked away. My point was that personal identity isn’t always obvious, but in the end, for these people, the politics of nations and historical denial are their differences, and cultural identity is at best viewed from a personal understanding and a consciousness of what one feels constitutes identity.”
Mr. Kostans recommends that readers of this article listen to the 2008 BBC Radio 3 report “Return to Trebizond”, a 2 part, 45 minute program on Culture and Identity that he worked on with the team in Turkey and produced the still for the web portion of the show.
Without a Homeland or a History: The Pontic People of the Black Sea
Ancient Greeks had colonized and settled this region of the Black Sea nearly 3000 years ago. Because this region was isolated by mountains on one side and an inhospitable seacoast, a remarkable, well-preserved archaic Greek culture evolved, but forced religious conversions, population exchanges, and genocide at the beginning of the 20th century left these Pontians, many of whom speak ancient Greek today (recognized as Pontian) virtually unknown.
With the formation of the new nation-state of Turkey out of the former Ottoman Empire-and after war with Greece, Christian Pontians were forcibly and often violently expelled, while the Muslim Pontians were allowed to remain. The exodus and genocide of the Christian, Hellenic-speaking peoples began and Turkish nationalism took hold. For some 80 years until now it has been taboo in Turkey to discuss this aspect of the past and who the Pontian people really are.
Pontic culture lives on in Turkey, Greece, around other parts of the Black Sea, and the world. It has even been embraced as part of the national folklore identity as being Turkish. Dance, music, food, and other cultural habits have been absorbed and shared in the region by many, including ethnic Turks. But the Greek language, Christianity, and the shrouded history of the region have been left behind, another piece of the puzzle that is Turkish identity.