Monday, February 26, 2007


“Shushi, you have returned to the land of my forefathers. I bow down before the tombstones of those who cast off your chains and gave you life.” Armenian Song

The word ‘Anatolia’ is derived from the Greek word «Ανατολή», meaning both ‘sunrise’ and ‘east.’ This is not without coincidence, as it could be said that the sun or light of Greek civilization was conceived in the East and brought to the West, modified, adapted and mass-produced in a cheap plastic chassis. Anatolia, or Asia Minor, as most Greeks like to refer to the region, has never ceased to hold a fascination for our people since times ancient and it is for this reason that it hosted the early and thriving Greek colonies and through the mute, crumbling ruins of the past and its miniscule surviving Greek population today, is considered an integral part of the historical Greek cosmos.
The term ‘Anatolia’ may mean different things to different people. It is the birthplace of philosophy, if one considers that most of the seven great Greek sages of antiquity came from the Ionian colonies, the setting for the legend of Troy, the home of the legendary Amazons, the terminal for Xenophon’s heroic march of the 10,000 and the scene of Alexander the Great’s most inspiring victories. Asia Minor could also arguably mark the geographical region where the idea of the Hellene was born, for it was the Ionian colonies which first united to form the Panionion, a federation of cities sharing the same ethnic identity and indeed it was there that the first united Panhellenic resistance against the Persians took place. For others, Anatolia is the home of all the cities to which St John addressed his Revelation. It marks the birthplace of Orthodox Christianity, the homeland of St Basil of Caesaria, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory Nazianzus, as well as that of the Ecumenical Councils. In this respect, it is the mother culture of Russia and the Balkan peninsula, as well as forming the heartland of the Byzantine Empire and of Greek culture for approximately one thousand years. Anatolia also represents tenacity and steely resolve. It was there that the native Christian population bore the harshest yoke of the Ottoman conquest and it was there that its 3,000 year sojourn finally came to a tragic end, a victim of nationalism, racism and religious intolerance.
Further to that, Anatolia represents a crucible in which civilizations and religions co-existed, shared their knowledge and celebrated diversity. If we consider that Noah’s Ark landed on Mt Ararat, which marks the eastern-most extent of Anatolia, then Anatolia constitutes the symbolic cradle of all of mankind. The Greeks in particular, shared Anatolia with a number of other races and enjoyed the benefits of mutual cultural exchange. The Assyrians, who up until 1923 occupied the south east of Anatolia around the regions of Hakkari and Mardin, still exist precariously in slight numbers around the Syriac monasteries of Tur Abdin. Their empire, which at one stage extended throughout the Fertile Crescent, southern Turkey and Egypt, also included Cyprus and it was not for nothing that Herodotus and other Greek sages are held to have journeyed to their lands, in order to learn from their compendious mathematical and astronomical knowledge. A corpus of modern scholarship inclines to the view that some of our ancient Greek deities, such as Aphrodite and Adonis, have their direct derivatives in the Assyrian deities Ishtar and Tammuz and it could be said that in the Assyrian, we have not a derivative, but a sister culture. The ties that bind us to this people in Anatolia are further augmented by Syriac Christianity, developed in the Aramaic language. The vast majority of the early martyrs of the Orthodox Church were Assyrian, while the legacy of Syriac-speaking saints such as St Ephraim the Syrian, St John of Damascus, St Isaac of Nineveh and the poet and hymnographer Romanos Melodos, greatly influenced Orthodox theology, doctrine, asceticism and liturgics.
This cultural exchange saw the Syriac-speaking monks of Anatolia and the Middle East collecting and preserving the ancient writings of the Greeks, translating them into Syriac and then passing them on in turn to the Arab conquerors. if it was not for there efforts, much of what we know today to be our literary paradosis, would in fact not exist and for these, the obscure Syriac monks of Anatolia deserve our heartfelt thanks. Our texts became an integral part of their own identity, and today, culturally at least, we are indistinguishable from them. A considerable number of scholars consider Empress Theodora to have been of Assyrian descent and of course Antioch, in modern day Turkey, marks the place where Greek language and philosophy melded together with Syriac poetry and tradition, to produce a grand theological tradition. It is also the lace where Christ’s disciples were first called Christians. Of course, the most profound bond to be shared with the Assyrian people is our mutual suffering during what they call “Seyfo” or ‘Saypa’, meaning “The Sword,” when like the Pontic Greeks and the rest of the Greeks of Anatolia, they were considered persona non grata by their rulers and extirpated.
Another ancient persons with whom we share extremely close fraternal bonds are the Armenians. Herodotus claimed that the Armenians were Phrygian colonists, who in turn colonised central Anatolia from Thrace and at least mythologically and linguistically speaking, we are therefore close cousins. To prove just how inextricably linked the Armenians are to our own history and identity as well as to that of the Assyrians, one has to look no further than Mithridates, the great ruler of Pontus, who was at least, half-Armenian. St Mesrob of Armenia is said to have modeled the Armenian alphabet on the Greek and the Syriac alphabets and Armenian Orthodoxy is heavily influenced by Greek and Assyrian traditions and literature. During Byzantium, Armenia was a close ally in keeping the invading Arab and Turkic armies at bay and some of the better known and more successful Byzantine Emperors, such as Basil the Bulgar-Slayer and Ioannis Tsimiskis, along with innumerable nobles, such as the Mamikonians, the eunuch Narses who re-conquered Italy for Justinian and others were actually Armenian. Consider this charming quote from John Ash: “The Basileus Romanus Lecapenus, during whose reign the Bulgars were humbled and the rich city of Melitene was returned to the bosom of the empire, was nevertheless the son of an unlettered Armenian peasant who rejoiced in the name of Theophylact the Unbearable.” Again, our fate in Anatolia was the same as that of the Armenians: extirpation and ethnic cleansing.
That three nations lived side by side for millennia, worked, quarreled, worshipped and struggled together has not gone unnoticed by sections of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities of Melbourne. It strikes them as odd and unnatural that three communities that existed side by side with each other for so many millennia in Anatolia and which historically and culturally have so much in common have little formal communication with each other. If anything, in exploring the commonalities of history and tradition in a joint effort, we are called upon to view our existence in a wider context, not a nationalistic, sterile vacuum. This in turn reinforces and develops our own conception of our identity, ensuring that because at least three nations who know and can remember, are its guarantors, that it will be perpetuated throughout the ages.
The Return to Anatolia Conference is an attempt to achieve all that and much more. Conceived originally as a joint effort of federated Armenian and Assyrian organizations with the Pontian Federation of Australia, Pontian Federation of Australia president, Mr Panayiotis Jasonides explains that: “‘Return to Anatolia’ seeks to explore, celebrate and assess the common cultural and historical heritage of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek-Australians whose origins lie in Anatolia. In celebrating diversity and the historical memories that unite us as Australians, the conference decries all forms of totalitarianism, intolerance and racism. In doing so, it affirms and re-commits to those values that have made Australia such a unique, multi-faceted and harmonious society.”
That renewal and perpetuation is the key focus of the ‘Return to Anatolia’ Conference can be evidenced by its logo. It comprises of a flaming torch, symbolizing the conviction that light, whether in the form of philosophy, religion or the sun itself, arose in the east. Over this spans a rainbow, referring to God’s promise to Noah in the Old Testament, never to destroy humanity ever again and symbolizing the three communities’ firm resolve never to allow any wanton destruction of human life in Anatolia to be covered up, or excused, by anyone. The rainbow motif is particularly fitting, as it is Noah’s rainbow that forms the inspiration of the Armenian flag and it is an eternal symbol of hope.
It is envisaged that the conference, will be held annually so as to be the keystone of each community’s individual commemorations of their extirpation from their ancestral homeland. Each conference will focus on a particular aspect of the three communities’ existence in Anatolia. This year, the inaugural Return to Anatolia conference will serve more as an introduction to the three communities and place them into context. Historians will provide a brief analysis of the history of each people, before examining the manner in which all three communities met the same fate. Says Panayiotis Jasonides: “If one nation stands up and claims that they were subject to genocide, maybe they will be believed, maybe they won’t. But if three peoples stand together and jointly claim that they met with the same fate and for exactly the same reason, then everyone else will be compelled to sit up and take notice.”
Between the lectures, there shall be cultural and folkloric displays and exhibitions, so that the attendee can explore and experience each culture first hand.
The inaugural Return to Anatolia Conference will be held between 9:30am to 3:30pm on Saturday 3 March 2007 at the Cyprus Community of Melbourne and Victoria Building, 495 Lygon Street, East Brunswick. Entry is free and refreshments will be served. All attendees will be provided with a booklet, providing basic facts about each community and its history. Certainly this is an event that deserves the support of the Greek community. It is not often that other nations combine to pay homage to our past and re-affirm eternal familial ties. We are obliged, not only to return the compliment but to return spiritually to the birthplace of our civilization, embrace the genius and sacrifices of our ancestors and resolve that their existence and tragic passage, was not in vain.


First published in NKEE on 26 February 2007