I came across this poem by Cavafy recently about the fall of Byzantium. It’s one of his hidden poems and is rather difficult to translate because it quotes folk songs written in Pontic Greek. So, apologies for any mistakes.
Recently I have been reading folk songs,
about the exploits of the klephts and wars,
our own, charming, Greek things.
I have also been reading laments for the loss of the City
“They have captured the City, they have captured it: they have captured Salonica.”
And the Voice that both of them praised there.
“the Emperor on the left, the Patriarch on the right”,
was heard telling them to stop
“Priests, put down your papers, close up the Gospels”
they have captured the City, they have captured it: they have captured Salonica.
But of the other chants, the one that touches me most
is the one from Trebizond, with its strange language,
and the sorrow of those distant Greeks
who perhaps still believed that we would yet be saved.
But alas, a fateful bird “comes from the city”
with a document under its wing
alighting neither in the vineyard nor the orchard
it went and settled in the roots of a cypress tree.
The high priests can’t (or won’t) read it out
“The son of the widow Gianika takes the paper
and reads it out and laments
“Let it be read, let it be mourned, let your heart be broken.
Woe to us, alas for us Romania has been captured.”
There are some interesting features of the poem, apart from the difficult language. Cavafy chooses to reflect on the fall of Byzantium (‘Romania’ is what the Byzantines called their empire) through a Pontic folk song. Pontos is the name given to the area on the southern edge of the Black Sea in north east Anatolia. In Byzantine times this was known as Trebizond or the Trapezuntine empire which lasted until 1461, until captured by the Ottomans under Mehmet II.
The date of the poem is also significant. Trebizond had been occupied by the Russians in 1916, but as the Russian Revolution took hold, the Russian troops withdrew. The area came under increasing pressure and control by the Young Turks who initiated a process of ethnic cleansing of the Greek and Armenian populations that continued until the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. So in the poem, Cavafy is obliquely referring to what was happening to the Pontic Greeks in his own time.
Finally, the original Pontic Greek song ends on a more positive note:
“Though Romania has passed, another will come and flourish.”
But Cavafy’s poem is more negative: there is no hope offered that another Byzantine Empire will come along; just the aching sadness for its loss and a lament for its passing, and by extension for what was happening to the Pontic Greeks in his own day for whom there was also no hope of salvation.