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The Greek Roots of the Names of Cities in Ukraine

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The Russov House, one of many historic buildings in Odessa, Ukraine. The name of Odessa, much like many other cities in Ukraine, comes from Ancient Greek. Credit: Romankravchuk/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Greeks reading the names of towns and cities in Ukraine in the news may wonder why places like Sevastopol, Simferopol, Mariupol, and Melitopol seem so familiar.

Just like many Greek place names, all of these Ukrainian cities feature the characteristic “pol” that comes from the Ancient Greek word “polis,” or city.

In fact, the name Sevastopol also comes from the Greek word “sevastos,” or venerable, and Simferopol means “the city of common good.” The name of the city Mariupol, which is home to a large Greek community, comes from the name Maria and the word polis, meaning the city of the Virgin Mary.

Similarly, Melitopol stems from the name of the ancient port city nearby, which was called Meliti, which comes from “meli,” or honey in Greek.

Ancient Greek colonies stretched across Black Sea region

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the ancient Greeks colonized much of the Mediterranean, they didn’t stop there — the land under their control even stretched up through the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. A large area of the southern coast of Ukraine, along with the Crimean Peninsula, was home to Greek cities.

The beautiful southern city of Odessa was named after an ancient Greek city called Odessos, and Kherson was named for another ancient city, called Chersonesus.

Chersonesus, located on the southwestern part of the Crimean peninsula, was an ancient Greek colony founded approximately 2,500 years ago.

Settlers from Heraclea Pontica in Bithynia established the colony, called Χερσόνησος in ancient Greek, in Crimea way back in the 6th century BC.

Yet Greek colonization is only part of the reason why many Ukrainian cities have roots in the Greek language.

Many of these Greek place names only date back to the eighteenth century, when the southern part of Ukraine and Crimea, which were formerly under Ottoman and Tatar rule, were signed over to Russia according to the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardji.

Ukrainian cities given Greek names to connect to ancient history

After Russia took control of these formerly Ottoman-controlled areas, they began to rename many cities in the region.

Many of the cities that now have Greek names once had very different ones under the Ottomans. Sevastopol was controlled by the Tatars and was called Aqyar, Simferopol was called Aqmescit, or “white mosque,” and Odessa was called Khadjibey.

The new leaders set out to change the image and perception of these urban areas, starting out with their names.

Both Russians and Greeks are linked by their religion, Orthodox Christianity, and this bond has brought the countries close throughout the centuries. This likely contributed to the choice to rename cities in Ukraine to sound more Greek.

Additionally, much like in many parts of Europe, Russians viewed ancient Greece as the pinnacle of the arts and civilization, and looked to emulate the ancient society.

Thus, they could highlight the region’s ancient Greek history and connect its modern present to the ideals of ancient Greece by naming their cities accordingly.

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