Odessa, Ukraine, and the World | Then ’til Now | Part I

Today Ukraine’s population is primarily Slavic, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or Polish.  The Slavs have been here since day one, whenever that was, inhabiting this forrested plain region above the Black Sea, with Mountain ranges jutting up along the east and west side.  In times B.C. the Slavs which occupied the area today known as Ukraine, did not have a centralized state, a ruler, or a king, with a couple temporary minor exceptions in a limited area.  They were agriculturalists, people who lived from place to place in huts, and in the forrests along the rivers.  They had the ability to cultivate what would later be called the Bread Basket of Europe.

Ancient Slavic Women

Ukrainian land, which was largely covered in trees, was cultivated by burning them down and using advanced ploughing methods.  They were not only farmers but they were warriors and reported for their extraordinary height and strength.  It was said they did not wear armor, but kept a variety of weapons on hand at all times, were fast in attack and used the surprise element frequently, heading into battle straight way on foot.  Often they attacked in small numbers which increased their effectiveness in stealth approach and guerilla like tactics including speedy retreat.  At times they calculated when to attack a territory when it was at a weak point engaged in other conflicts away from home.  Though the paganistic Slavs had no king and could not read or write, henced bunched in with the generic term “Barbarians”, they were respected as warriors by the Romans and Greeks.  Their huts were spread out and dispersed across the land.  It is speculated the very fact they had no king enabled them to survive for a long period of time because there was no central location one had to conquer, or one king to kill in order to defeat them.  The Slavic culture and mother language originated along the Dnieper river.  Because of their agriculture methods, where they burned down an area, cultivated the land and moved on in a few years, they spread rapidly and broadly across Eastern Europe, south into the Balkans, and west into Central Europe.

Since ancient times the area, known as the Pontic Steppe, the Pontic being the name of the Black Sea back then, and the Steppe being the area of land north of the sea stretching north and a good deal east, was ruled by foreign forces, primarliy nomadic horse riding, arrow shooting,  groups from the East.  The Huns, Sarmatians, Bulgars, Khazars, and Mongolians being primary among these groups, and the Khazars the most civilized among these.  A couple other groups from the west had a bite of Ukrainian territory such as the Celts, in ancient Ukraine.  Thracians inhabited a small piece of today’s Ukraine on the southwest corner.  Later around the 3rd century the Ostrogoths, Goths from Sweden who moved further west, as opposed to the Visigoths who stayed east, reigned strong in the area for a time in the first few centuries “anno domini”, in the year of our Lord.  Finally at the turn of the first millenium the Vikings appeared on the scene.

Slavic Cultures 3rd-5th century

Romans and Greeks also had spheres of influence for long periods of time along the Black Sea Coast and the Crimean Peninsula, surving as economic trade posts from which they benefitted from the nearby fish, and natural resources of the Steppe, including slaves.  The Greeks had dispersed from modern day Turkey and surrounded the rim of the Black Sea with colonies, one of these being a fortress called Billhorod-Dnistrovski or, “White-Castle”, 80 kilometers from modern day Odessa.  They did not extend their borders outward from the sea in the north, but were there to serve as trade posts between Greece and the Steppe lands.

Map showing Illyria, Dacia, Celts, and Thrace

Although at times outside forces controlled the land and forced slavic tribes to pay them tribute, the Slavs were incredibly tough and hard to conquer.  Eventually, invading and surrounding cultures were either slavicized or defeated.  The resilient Slavs absorbed such groups as the Thracians, Illyrians, Celts, Sarmatians, and later the Varangian elite into their culture, and through the centuries never lost there own distinct identity or language.  They were here, in Ukraine, ever since anything was ever said or thought about the area, and they are here today.

Light Green, Scythia 7th-3rd Centuries BC | Dark Green, Scythians after invasion of the Sarmatians

If we really wanna go back as far as possible to where the settlers of Ukraine came from, we have to start at a big boat full of animals crash landing on a mountian top in Turkey, or Anatolia, around 4000 BC.  Noah’s three son’s dispersed and became the fathers of the world’s tribes.  Japeth went to the North, so if you are of Caucasian descent, chances are more than likely Japeth was your great great grandpa.  We know that Slavs were in the area very early because of reports from ancient Greeks who had colonized areas along the Black Sea shore, and Greeks wrote stuff down.  Greeks were always sure to consult their Oracles before heading out on a colonizing expedition, so we can be sure they knew what they were doing.  The Greeks liked their Greek mythology of course along with it’s various gods, including Orpheus, a lyre player who could enchant animals and rocks, plummit the depths of hell, write poems about it, and be a semi-Shamanistic  channel to the spirit world.  To the north the Slavs had a vague undefined pagan worship.  They believed in the spirit world and the after life, but not necessarily a heaven or hell.  They understandably revered nature, as all pagan worshipers, and though they were pantheistic, they came at some point to believe in one supreme god in heaven, Perun creator of lightning, perhaps from Judaistic influence or Eastern Christian influence stemming out from Crimea.  The Jews had been in Crimea as early as the Babylonian exile (587-538BC), so it turns out not all of them headed back to Jerusalem with Ezra or Nehemiah.  Many left Babylon and headed north.  While many became merchants others took to living in the mountains between the Black and Caspian Sea.  So, the Jews had a presence in southern Ukraine very early on.  Some of these would later become the traveling merchants called the Rhadanites.  Ever wonder how all those Jews wound up in Poland, Germany, and as far as Spain and Brittain?

Just north of Greece were the fierce warriors, the Thracians, who had their own form of

mythology and favored the god of the underworld, who rode a horse and ran beasts through with a spear.  Thracians and Dacians were henotheists, which meant they believe in one supreme god which they worshiped but were very open to the possible existence of other equal gods.  Their center of pagan worship was a city on the central west coast of the Black Sea, today’s Bulgaria, called Odessus.  The Thracians were inhabiting the Balkans for a very long time before the time of Christ, many centuries actually, but in time gave way to Roman power, under Alexander the Great, from the south, and Gothic and Celtic powers from the north.  What was left of their culture disintegrated into the Slavs who were also moving in from the north.  In the 6th or 7th century the Slavs decided to rename Odessus, Varna, which it is still called today as Bulgaria’s largest city.

Odessus, Now called Varna

Edessa, Mesopotamia

Edessa, Macedonia

Alexander the Great, when the Greeks had their goldenest years, ravaged the Balkan lands.  In 303 BC one of Alexander the Greats’ favorite generals and successor king, Seleucus I formed a military colony in the southern Balkans called Edessa.   It had a famous water fall and was known for being surrounded by abundant water resources.  Perhaps, this is why the Slavs renamed it Vodena (water), when they took it over in the 6th century and built a thriving community.  Many centuries later, this city would be burnt down by Hitler’s Nazi’s to never fully recover.  The city was named by Seleucus after an another ancient city by the same name in Mesopotamia.

This city has a curious legend about it.  A very sick Syrian King named Agbar ruled there and allegedly, according to Eusebius, wrote Jesus a letter asking him to come to Edessa and heal him.  Jesus wrote him back saying that he couldn’t make it, but would send someone after his ascension, who would heal him of his incurable disease.  The legend says Thomas went and healed him.  There are actually many different versions of the story and Eusebius himself wrote many questionable things in his time, although his account of this seems more credible than later stories which arose.  Later a legend came about that on a cloth in Edessa the face of Jesus magically appeared and that it had healing powers.  It was known as the “image not made by hands”.  This became, centuries after Christ, a foundational argument of John of Damascus, a favorite church father of Eastern Orthodoxy, for the validity of icons.

In the 2nd centruy BC the polytheistic pagan Celts had traveled from as far away as Gaul, modern day France, and also filled the Balkans plowing there way through the Thracians.  Some lived part way into Ukraine for a time.  They spread all the way down into Anatolia (Turkey), and formed the city Galatia.  Ring a bell? “Gaul”.  The city of Galatians in the Bible was largely populated by Celts, although they would be crushed by Antiochus creating an illiterate Hellenist society.  Later (64BC) when the Romans began conquering everyone and their dog, the Galatians were no exception.  They became another faithful subservient to Rome forming a unique blend of Roman-Celtic paganism.

Bosporus Kingdom at height 291BC

Ancient Greek Colonies

Long before the slow and painful Thracian demise, around 430BC some Thracians found a place to rule over some of the Greek colonies which united into a state along the northeastern Black Sea.     This became known as the Bosporan Kingdom which was the earliest Hellenistic culture. Hellenistic cultures being other cultures dominated by Greek influence.  Most of these Greek colonies had been experiencing a sort of Independance, however they were greatly dependant on each other economically and on their relations with the Scythians.

The Scythinas dominated the crop and cattle filled Steppe, and worked out trade agreements with the wealthy port colonies.   The Sythians were renown for their fierce brutality and liked to carry around collections of scalps from defeated men or use their skulls laced with gold as drinking bowls.  Despite this, the Apostle mentions that Christ is for them too!

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.”  Colossians 3:11.

Around 250BC Sarmatians, Iranian-Turkic horse riders related to the Scythians, moved into Ukraine from the east pushing the Scythians down to be bunched up with the Greeks in Crimea.  A surprise due to the fact that the Scythians had formerly been impenitrable by the powerful armies of Persian King Darius (513BC).  Perhaps, after many years of relative piece and trade the Scythian forces were weakend.  The Sarmatians forced them to move in among the Greeks.   This eliminated their access to the riches of the Steppes and created serious problems among them.  The prosperous Greek cities began a decline as the Scythians gained clout in the now confined area.  The Sarmatians would rule the Steppe for about 500 years a little north of Roman intrusions cushioned by the Dacians (Thracian cousins) and Goths west of the Black Sea.  The Dacians had a high reputation of nobility, justice, honesty, and bravery.

Linguistic and Cultural Influence Prior to the Decline of Rome (4th-5th Centuries)

In 63 BC  Rome brought a swift halt to the economic pomp of the Greek colonies and the Bosporan Kingdom became their faithful subservient ally after a few bitter wars.  In this era Rome also defeated and ruled Dacia, roughly modern day Romania, where the mountains were plentiful with silver and gold they began bringing back to Rome.  It was during this time that the early Romanian language began to develop with the strong latin influence there.  It is debated who the true ancestors of the Romanians are.  Of course, this begins to introduce us to the New Testament era.  It wasn’t long before Titus destroyed Jerusalem.  Paul went through these Roman territories and visited the Balkans when he went to Illyria, or modern day Croatia, Croats being southern Slavs.  Paul appointed Andronicus as bishop to Illyria who served there with his wife Junia (see Romans 15:19 and 16:7).

A very old tradition later confirmed by Rome says, Philip the Apostle, who some early historians, confused with Philip the Evangelist, and he may be, preached in Scythia, along the northern coast of the Black Sea for 20 years, performing miracles and denouncing the worship of Mars.  It is unkown as to the fruits of his labor, but he must have won some

Map showing the Dnieper river

people to the Lord because he was later crucified upside down in Hierapolis, or Turkey, which isn’t Scythia.  We can assume he had encounters with Slavs, Sarmatians, Goths, Greeks, Jews, and Scythians.  At least we can know the Mars worshipers didn’t kill him, which can’t be said for many Christian missionaries encounters with pagans.  Philip had correspondence with the Apostle Andrew.

Andrew had made his way up through the Caucasius, modern day area of Georgia and Armenia, then around the Black Sea the long way, up through Thracia where he eventually made it to the Dnieper river.  Tradition says Andrew travelled as far north as the Volga river and the old Russian city of Novgorod preaching to the numerous and unorganized Slavic people, who lived a rugged and primitive life, described as having a tan complexion and reddish blonde hair.  According to legend, when he passed by the hill which would later be Kiev, he erected a cross and prophesied it would be a great Christian city, the Jerusalem of Russia.  Andrew is said to have placed the first bishop over Byzantium, and he became the Patron saint of Romania, Ukraine, and Russia.  He was later crucified as well, in Greece.

Map showing the Danube river

Next, the Goths who had stormed down from Sweden through the Germanic kingdoms following the Danube river, would rule the area of modern southern Ukraine, from their capital along the Dnieper river.  They took control of Dacia, the Greek colonies, the Scythians, and the friend of Rome, the Bosporus Kingdom.  In order to form good relations with Byzantium, the Ostrogoths in Crimea were converted to Trinitarian Orthodoxy.  This may be the very reason they stayed in Crimea instead of joining later Gothic conquests out west with Arian, non-Trinitarian, Ostrogoths.  Arians believed Jesus was created and did not exist before his birth and was inferior to and distinct from the Father.  These Trinitarian Ostrogoths could be found in Crimea all the way up to the 16th century.

Gothic reign in orange

From about 100-400AD the Goths along the northwest corner of the Black Sea had a Gothic Kingdom mixed with Thracians, Slavs, and Sarmatians.  The Sarmatians mixed with the Slavs in other areas as well, namely just north of there in Sarmatia, or modern Western Ukraine and Poland.  Other Slavs filled the land north of the Sarmatians towards the Baltics.  These Slavs would play a crucial role in the forming of the first Russian state.  In the middle 3rd century the Goths would push south into Roman territory.  Rome was forced to pay tribute to the Goths to stop their advance, which was humiliating to the glory of Rome who was beginning to have a number of problems.  This would not be the last time the Ostrogoths had their way with the Romans.  The Goths were having their day.  Further north however, on the Pontic Steppe, the Goths would have many bloody conflicts with other Turkic and Iranian nomads attempting to move in from the east or dropping through raiding villages.  The years 250-650 were a time of intense conflict on Ukrainian soil.

Europe in Paul's day

In the late 3rd century the Romans would push back north into the Balkans through modern Romania, against the Goths and Dacians, but were eventually outmaneuvered by the Goths through strategic political marriages among the Dacians.  The Roman Emporer Constantine finally defeated them all the way back to the Danube, killing 100,000 Goths and driving out 300,000 Sarmatians.  After his death the land was finally lost to Roman control forever and always.  This would be the first of a succession of withdrawals for the once mighty Roman Empire.

Constantine was there in 303 when Diocletian ordered the most massive persecution of Christians in Roman history covering the span of the immense Roman territory of the day.  In 305 Diocletian became deathly ill and abdicated the throne.  In 306 Constantine became Caesar of Britain, Gaul, and Spain and Rome was divided by competing rulers of the day.  In 312, after defeating the Franks his army marched victorious through Italy bearing crosses on their shields swiftly crushing an army twice their size.   He was named Augustus of Rome.  In 313 Constantine reversed the Christian persecutions allowing them to worship the God of their choice, restoring their property and freeing exiles and prisoners.  In 325 he instigated the plans for the 1st council of Nicea where the main accomplishment was the settling of the biblical view of Jesus trinitarion relationship to the Father.  However, when he built the famous triumphal arch in Rome it was covered in pagan images with nothing Christian to speak of.  He also encouraged worship of the sun, which is quite confusing, as the Eastern Orthodox church has venerated him as being “equal to the Apostles”.

Constantinople and Nicea

Constantine did do a lot for the Christians and he managed to reunite the Roman Empire, which was on the brink of crumbling under jealous rivalries.  In 324 Constantine, unsatisfied with the location of Rome as a strategic military and trade location, began to build Constantinople on the Greek city Byzantium.  Ruling in this region would be an easy transition for him especially as he was fluent in both Greek and Latin, as were many of the elite of the day, and some clergy as well.  It would be completed in six years and become one of the most prosperous and important cities for centuries to come.  Christianity did not become an official state religion until Theodosius declared it so in 380.  From 408-450 Constantinople was fortified with mighty, almost impenetrable walls.  They would be needed.  The Goths, Slavs, Vikings, and the Ottomans were coming.


Mountian Jews


Pagan Polish Slavs

Scythians 4th Century BC




Sarmatians vs. Slavs





Mountain Jew




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