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Sochi Olympics: Remembering Greek and Byzantine Heritage

The Olympics follow the Ancient Greek philosophy that the success of democracy depends on the moral character of its citizens. The 2014 Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony was a visit back to Russian pride, which has ancient Greek cultural roots and Byzantine Orthodox tradition. These elements were present in Greece’s entry in the Parade of Athletes; in the Cyrillic alphabet; the Russian history timeline, opening with dark monastic images of Saints Cyril and Methodius; the images of Greek exploration into the Euxinos Pontus (Black Sea); Moscow’s Orthodox Sretensky Monastery choir and other features of Greek mythology.

Throughout the years, commentators on the Olympic opening ceremony have remarked about Greece leading the Parade of Athletes “because of past glory, when it earns few Olympic medals”. The 2014 Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony was an exception. Not one negative comment was made about Greece leading the Parade of athletes. In fact, for the first time in my memory, Bob Costas said “hooray.”

We are all sensitive about Greece’s economic catastrophe and the recent Cephalonian earthquake affecting many of our friends’ families. Seeing the Greek contingent enter the stadium surrounded by a satellite image of Greece from space, caught my attention. I realized this evening was going to make everyone with Greek and Byzantine roots proud.

Ancient Greek colonists.
Ancient Greek colonists.

The countries paraded in Cyrillic alphabetical order – not the usual Roman alphabet. “The Cyrillic alphabet writing system, developed in the 9th–10th century AD for the Slavic-speaking peoples of the Eastern Orthodox faith, is the alphabet currently used for Russian and other languages of the republics that once formed the Soviet Union, and for Bulgarian and Serbian,” according to Britannica. “Based on the Medieval Greek uncial script, the Cyrillic alphabet was probably invented by later followers of the 9th century ‘apostles to the Slavs’ St. Cyril (or Constantine), for whom it was named, and St. Methodius. As the Slavic languages were richer in sounds than Greek, 43 letters were originally provided to represent them; the added letters were modifications or combinations of Greek letters.”

The Sochi opening ceremony began with the Russian alphabet projected onto the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country’s heroes. Seeing the Greek letters in their alphabet displayed their Hellenic legacy. The first heroes who shaped Russian history were not politicians, military heroes or the rich. Two images of missionaries in simple Greek Orthodox robes were shown. Saints Cyril and Methodius were Byzantine Greek brothers born in Thessalonica in the 9th century who became Christian missionaries among the Slavic peoples of Great Moravia (on the present-day border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Pannonia (western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia and Slovenia). Their work influenced the cultural development of all Slavs. They received the title “Apostles to the Slavs”, devising the first alphabet used to transcribe Old Church Slavonic . The Cyrillic alphabet is used for Russian and other languages of the republics that once formed the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Serbia. It is based on the Medieval Greek uncial script.

The Russian national anthem was performed by the 600 year old Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir. This is a sign of an increasing rapprochement between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is led by Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known to be Putin’s confessor and one of the nation’s most influential clergymen.

“The general cultural liberalization that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, brought a natural curiosity about the Russian past that especially caught the interest of younger generations,” according to Glenn E. Curtis, in the book Russia: A Country Study. “The ceremonies and art forms of the Russian Orthodox Church, an inseparable part of that past, attracted particular attention, to the dismay of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes. Historian James Billington has pointed out that in that period religious belief, was a form of generational rebellion by children against doctrinaire communist parents.”

A video showing the political development of Sochi and the Black Sea coast was shown to millions. The movie production of Greek warriors and explorers landing in Sochi (ancient Colchis), bringing trade and civilization to the Black Sea coast, hit me like a thunderbolt. I have heard this from Pontian Greeks in Thessaloniki and it features in their Greek literature and television productions. I was thrown off-balance seeing this in a Russian production shown to millions on prime time television. The opening video showed that the Greeks did not come to plunder wealth, rape the countryside and destroy tribes. They came to settle. They gave their civilization and established communities that still exist in 2014 Russia. This theme was repeated in the 2013 brochure of Musee d’Histoire de Marseille (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations) in France and Sicily’s historical sites.

“The Ancient Greeks sailed to the Sochi area in the fifth–sixth centuries BC and kept visiting it until about the first century BC,” according to a wikipedia thread.

“They encountered the Aehi, Zygii and other people who were apparently keen for the luxury goods brought by Greeks and exchanged them for slaves. Slaves were a major commodity of the time, and thus the Caucasian coast became a slave trade center. An ethnic group of a few thousand Greeks still lives around Krasnaya Polyana. ….In the Middle Ages, the region was mostly influenced by the Byzantine Empire and Christianity, as evidenced by the style of nine churches and eighteen fortresses dating from those times. The northern wall of an eleventh-century Byzantine style basilica still stands in the district. Christianity reached and spread throughout the Caucasus between the 4th century and the 6th century under Greek Byzantine influence and later through the Georgians between the 10th century and the 13th century.”

I watched the Olympics avidly every day, but I saw no NBC reference to Sochi‘s unique history. All I saw was Vodka drinking, swimming in the 50 degree Black Sea and women athletes in revealing photo shoots. What about the culture that the Russian broadcasting showed in one of the best opening ceremonies in Olympic history? Possibly, I missed a program about its history that goes back thousands of years? At the Vancouver Olympics, there was a constant reference to the Straits of Juan de Fuga and historical sites.

Mark Whittington, Yahoo Contributor Network, in the Jan 13, 2014 article “Sochi Has a Relationship with Ancient Greece”, said “Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics is to take place, has some associations with Ancient Greece that go beyond the fact that the Olympic games originated in that part of the world. Sochi was the venue of Ancient Greek myths.” On Dr. Gaetano Cipolla’s Arba Sicula tours, the Greek heritage of Sicily is described with the same viewpoint.

The Moscow Times ruminates that Prometheus, the Titan who gave humankind the gift of fire according to the myths, was chained to a rock on a mountain quite near to modern Sochi where his liver was ravaged by an eagle each day,” explains Mr. Whittington. “The story also goes on to state that the spirit of the Agura River would alleviate Prometheus’ torment, giving him food and salving his wounds.

Sochi was also, it is alleged, in the area where Jason and the Argonauts sailed to seek the Golden Fleece. The Golden Fleece was the pelt of a ram that was sacrificed to the god Zeus by Phrixus, the son of Athamus and the goddess Nephele, for having been delivered from being sacrificed by his jealous stepmother.  The Golden Fleece, which was considered a symbol of kingship, was nailed to a tree and remained there until Jason and his friends arrived to retrieve it. A Golden Fleece Monument resides in Sochi, consisting of two pillars and a gold-plated sheep guarded by a dragon, meant to symbolize the association of Sochi with Greece.

In fact, while the area around Sochi was inhabited off and on since Neolithic times, it was colonized by Greeks around the first millennium B.C. Colchis, as the area was called in classical antiquity, was an important Greek trading community which dealt in gold, slaves, hides, linen cloth, and agricultural produce, as well as shipbuilding materials as timber, flax, pitch, and wax…..The Russians are relative latecomers, arriving in force in the 19th Century. However a considerable number of ethnic Greeks remain in modern times.

Sochi: Connected to Greece by More Than the Games,” an article by Michael Shepherd, 07/02/2014, says “Olympics host Sochi, is connected to ancient Greece in far more ways than the Winter Games themselves.  Especially since the ancient version was held in the summer only.  Attention parents, teachers and students: you can watch the Olympics sports coverage and study ancient history at same time. This region once known as Colchis was an important trade center, much like its better-known neighbor Troy.  Over the last 100,000 years or so it has been a crossroads for cave men, stone-age hunters, Greeks, Romans, and Turks.  The Russians have only been there since the 1800’s, when they won a couple of wars to conquer the area.  Historically the Greeks sailed in and made themselves at home in the 500-600 B.C. period.  Ethnic Greek communities remain in the area to this day.  However, Greek mythology traces the location back to the creation of mankind by Prometheus.  This myth and its ramifications are quite intricate and a basic reference for anyone who studies the classics.”

The city and neighboring towns where events were held also have many archaeological sites that showed up in the background of the sports coverage.

Greek mythology that will be more familiar to modern youth is the story of Jason and the Argonauts.  It has been told in many variations in literature and countless films.  Colchis, now known as Sochi, is where Jason found the Golden Fleece, a symbol of kingship.  Viewers of the competition perhaps caught sight of two pillars with gold-plated sheep guarded by a dragon; that is the official monument to the ancient Greece connection.

My viewpoint on the Olympics is summarized with Michael Shepherd’s closing paragraph. “So, parents, teachers and students watch and learn.  Visit ancient Greece in modern Sochi.  Everything you see can be traced back to cultural roots in ancient Greece.  Even the electronic technology used to measure and report results rely on the use of prime numbers which were discovered and studied in ancient Greece.”


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