The city reached the peak of its glory in 1294 when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. Alexis Comnenus, a member of the former dynastic family whose intrigues contributed much to the Byzantine decline, escaped from the fallen city; in his flight he raised an army of mercenaries in Asia, occupied Trebizond and proclaimed it capital of a new empire, headed by himself under the title of Grand Comnenus.
The Comnenes, like all great, dynasties, were always careful to marry well. Contemporary accounts suggest, that the dynasty’s greatest, resource was preLLY princesses, much desired by the neighbouring monarchs and rulers. ‘this allowed the Grand Comneni to keep their web of alliance intact at all times. By the middle of the 15th century, unfortunately, the only neighbour Trebizond had left was the voracious Ottoman sultan, who already had enough wives and was not tempted by the young princesses. After Melunet the Conqueror captured Constantinople, Trebizond, the last free Greek stale,was obviously the next on his list. He duly appeared in 1461, with the greatest army and fleet ever seen in the Black Sea, before or since. In made the desired impression on David Comnenus, The last emperor, who surrendered the city without, a shot. One of his daughters was then married to Mehmet the Conqueror’s son Beyazıt. The Turks renamed the city Trabzon. As Genoa, and later Venice, drew off all the Eastern trade for themselves, the world importance of the city gradually declined. The Russians captured the city in 1916, during World War 1, and did considerable damage. Luckily many of the important ruins survived.
Trabzon today is an exciting and thriving city. It is a centre of international tourism and business, and, due to its location, thrives from trade with the CIS. Its port is busy, its suburbs expanding, and its football team is consistently one of the most successful in Turkey.
Modern Trabzon retains much of its genteel charm, and many traces of a fabulous past. The oldest living monument is the Meydan, the city square. This is the site of the ancient agora and later the assembly point for caravans to other parts of Asia. Off the Meydan to the northeast is the fortified Genoese quarter of Leontokastron, now a military club under which the road tunnels. Between the Meydan and the sea lies the church of Santa Maria, which was consecrated as a Capuchin sanctuary in 1874 and is now looked after by nuns. To the northwest huddles the cacophonous bazaar, selling copper, silver, hardwood and cloth, the 16th century Bedesten, and the Site of the Venetians’ castle. Close by is the shell of Trabzon’s oldest church, St. Anne, built in [tie 7th century and rebuilt in 884.
The classic 13th century St. Sophia is one of the most significant cultural sights in Trabzon, housing some of the finest examples of Byzantine painting to be found in the world. ‘this church was founded by Manuel I (1238-1263), and stands on a platform of vaulted tombs. Manuel commissioned everything 13th century money could buy, having made tits fortune in silver mines to the south: an Armenian-style creation relief on the south porch; Seljuk-style stalactite niches; a 6th century eagle capital from Constantinople in the west porch (its brother is in the porch of San Mark in Venice); and inside, reused columns and grape capitals supporting a great host of painted angels flapping in the dome. The result is glorious.
Climb up the hill to the walled city, past the tomb of Gülbahar, Pontic mother of Selim, who was Ottoman governor of Trabzon from 1489 to 1512, and sultan from 1512 to 1520. Selim’s son, the magnificent Süleyman, was born here.
Rebuilt many times, the city walls rise from a classical harbour, through a lower city (1324), an attenuated middle city, up to the ancient acropolis and medieval palace complex that rises dramatically above the meeting of two ravines at the southern tip. The towers of Trebizond, immortalised by Rose Macaulay “shimmering on a far horizon in luminous enchantment”, still stand.
Straddling the middle city is the cathedral of the Chrysokephalos (Golden-headed Virgin), which after 1461 became the Fatih Mosque, the city’s chief mosque. This was rebuilt by the Grand Comneni after 1222 to house their own coronation. The wealth of the empire extended to goldplating the domes of this imperial cathedral.
From here you can cross the bridge over the western ravine back to the Meydan, past the abandoned nunnery of the Theoskepastos (God protected Virgin). Inside the cave-church are a number of Medieval paintings and the tomb of Metropolitan Konstantios. During his formidable reign (1830 to 1879) this bishop was responsible for rebuilding, and therefore destroying, almost every Byzantine church still in Christian hands. The monastery church of St. Eugenios, patron of’ Trebizond, overlooks the walled city. It was rebuilt, in the 11th century, and decorated under Alexium 111, who was crowned here on January 21, 1350. By 1523 the parish had converted to Islam, and the church became the Yeni Cuma Camii, the New Friday Mosque.
South of Trabzon the landscape is dominated by three former great landowning and pilgrim monasteries. Each is poised in a spectacular position and hides a sacred cave church; each claims ancient, foundation; each was refounded and endowed by the Grand Comneni; each was transformed and rebuilt in the 19th century and abandoned in 1923; each is well worth visiting.
St. George Peristereota is 19 km south of Trabzon. A steep scramble up the hill leads to the massive buildings through orchards unpruned for 70 years. Mostly rebuilt after a fire in 1904, Peristereota once had the most important library of the three monasteries.
The monastery of St. John the Forerunner, Vazelon, is in the midst of a flower-strewn meadow. The 20th century facade conceals a 19th century church, older buildings, and a cave The Monastery of the Black Virgin at Sümela was once among the most revered of all pilgrim monasteries in the; Orthodox world. Sumela 43 km south of Trabzon is a remarkable sight, perched on a ledge 300 metres above a deep valley kept verdant, by a bubbling river, the white walls of its facade standing out sharply° from I he sheer. grey cliff in which it is embedded.
Sumela was founded in the 4th century when a monk, having received divine instruction in a dream, brought to the cliff’s caves an icon of the Virgin, painted by the apostle Luke. The original structure was modest, but as increasing numbers of monks journeyed here to pray before; the icon, and to invoke miracles from it, the complex was extended. By the 14th century its power and influence ranked second only to that of Mount Athos. However, after the population exchange in 1923, all the monks were expelled and the holy icon was taken away to Athens. Pilgrims once faced a sixhour trek through the forests to reach the monastery, today it is a forty-minute haul to the top, one of the most beautiful vistas in all Turkey.
Empire of Trebizond
“Still the toers of Trebizond, the fabled city. shimmer on a far horizon, gated and walled and held in a luminous enchantment.”
From the 14th Century traveler Marco Polo to the novelist Rose Macaulay, old Trebizond has evoked an image of sumptuous and slightly surreal exoticism in the Western mind. Polo visited the city during the brief Medieval interlude when Constantinople lay in doldrums and the half-imaginary Empire of Trebizond stood out as the last stronghold of Byzantine wealth and splendor. Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, visiting in 1401, described a city of golden towers and glittering mosaics, a Christian relic at the gates of far Asia. Don Quijote styled himself Emperor of Trebizond when he first stumbled over the boundaries of reality. In an equally fantastic mood, the court historians of Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to prove that the Corsican adventurer was a descendant of the Grand Comneni of Trebizond.
There are also traces of a more recent period of glory-the belle epoque of the turn of 20th century, when Trabzon prospered briefly amid the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire as it had once prospered on the ashes of the Byzantine. They include the misleadingly named Atatürk House and other memorials of an opulent Greek bourgeoisie that dreamt of restoring Trabzon to its old grandeur.
The visitor who expects a city of gold-plated domes and decadent wealth may be at first disappointed to find a homey provincial city instead. Today’s Trabzon lives mainly as the central market town of eastern Black Sea’s colorful, quirky and eccentric people, who have little memory of and less interest in any Byzantine past. Having lost to Samsun the title of being the region’s main seaport the city now faces inland, seemingly oblivious to the sea and the commercial traditions to which it once owed its fame and wealth.
It takes a couple hours of strolling in the cobblestoned streets of downtown Trabzon to fall in love with this “new” city. The pomp and glitter of old times is gone, replaced by the cozy charm of narrow alleys, pastel colored houses and a bustling bazaar. It is easy to feel at home here. Within a day, all the sights around Belediye Square, Uzun Sokak, and Ortahisar take on the quality of familiar landmarks; within a week, one acquires a surprising number of acquaintances to greet during a walk around the Square.
Taking long walks is the key to getting to know Trabzon. The idea of strolling the town goes a long way back, with an English delegation sent by Edward I in 1292 reporting that due to the existence of “so many stony streets in the city and mule paths in the interior, there has been a notable expenditure on shoe leather.” Today, the “stony streets” are of a smooth cobblestoned variety that extend into the city’s back alleys and cul-de-sacs, as well as serving the main thoroughfare of Uzun Sokak. The plethora of shoe repair shops in the city center suggests that the natives continue to wear out a good amount of leather.
The Main Square of Trabzon
profusion of bearded men with surprisingly bright faces, chuckling at the sins of this world; grizzly villagers on market visit, looking suspicious and profound; harried bureaucrats catching up on gossip at lunchbreak; provincial dandies ogling tourist girls, white shoes glimmering and cigarettes dangling from the lips.
This is the center of city’s communications: buses and dolmus (shared taxis) leave toward all destinations from here. The Information Bureau tries to cope with a bevy of confused tourists: at the row of public phones (the only in Trabzon), one can overhear declarations of secret amours mix with harsh negotiations on hazelnut credit.
At night, the melancholy of “arabesk” music from the nightclubs fill the air. The bank manager who cashed your travelers’ checks during the day can be seen leaving the beer hall with unsteady gait. At the restaurant next door, the policeman whom you had asked for directions greets you with a slap on the back and insists that you join his friends to knock back that bottle of “lion’s milk”. Each restaurant has its own regional jealousies, if not regional specialties: The Karadeniz is run by folks from the Maçka district, and by your third visit you will have acquired a substantial list of pals to visit in the Maçka highlands. Güven Pastanesi, across from the quaint Erzurum Hotel off the northeast end of the Square, is the place to go for a hearty breakfast and (Çamlıhemsin connections. Ebullient Gündüz Akay, the boss, whips up the best pastry in town and is related to everyone in Hemşin.
A Long Walk, Trabzon
Most of Trabzon can easily be explored on foot. Here is a suggested itinerary which covers most of the city, with the exception of the Hagia Sophia and Boztepe, within the span of one exhausting day.
The two main arteries of Trabzon, Maraş Caddesi and Uzun Sokak (Long Street), lead west from the Square. The former is themore “modern” avenue and the latter the old mainstreet: A long trail of honking taxis rattle single-file down its cobblestoned length, barely wide enough to accommodate a small car’s girth
Start at Uzun Sokak.
Shortly before crossing into the walled city lies the Church of St. Anna (Küçük Ayvasil Kilisesi) on tiny Misirlioglu Street to the right Looking a bit forlorn in its rundown and padlocked state, St. Anna’s is the oldest Byzantine church in the city, rebuilt in its present form during the reign of Basil I in 884-885.
The worn-out relief of reclining figures over the main portal probably belonged to an older edifice, one of the few bits of pagan antiquity left to see in Trabzon. The Byzantine frescoes described by scholars as late as in the 1920s are now gone.
The walled “old city” of Trabzon stands on a long and narrow hill that is cut off from the rest of the city by deep ravines on either side. Its table top shape-the trapeza-accounts for the original name of the city. It is girdled by Byzantine walls which split it into three consecutive sections-the upper citadel, the historic middle city or Ortahisar, and the lower city which merges with the jumble of the bazaar district. Ortahisar, across the Tabakhane bridge, is the most picturesque of all.
Dominanting the quarter is the Church of Panagia Chrysocephalos, or “the Golden-Headed Virgin”. This was built in its present form in the 13th century and rebuilt in 1341 after a fire destroyed it during one of Trebizond’s civil wars. For two and a half centuries, the Chrysocephalos served as the imperial cathedral of the Comneni and witnessed most of the coronations, solemn processions and imperial funerals of their imaginary Empire. At its heyday its dome was plated in sheet gold-hence the name-and travelers spoke of it in wonder and amazement as the dominant feature of Trebizond’s exotic skyline.
The church was converted to Muslim use shortly after the conquest and it is now known as the Ortahisar or Fatih Mosque. The original frescoes are invisible under layers of whitewash and the Ionic colums in the interior, apparently lifted from a classical temple, have been painted over in pistachio green. Still, the beauty and grandeur of the overall architectural conception does not fail to impress the visitor with a sense of imperial majesty.
The crowds of believers who fill the mosque and the square outside it perpetuate the spirit of religious
devotion that once characterized the affairs of Byzantine Trabzon. The charming Hisar Teahouse is an ideal place to observe their comings and goings. With its tiny round tables and straw stools, the setting seems more suitable to children and it is humorous to watch swarthy, moustached Turks perched precariously on these little seats.
A similar setting is offered by the Atapark Teahouse across the Zaganos Paşa Bridge. Built in 1467 by Fatih’s ubiquitous general and advisor, a Byzantine convert, the bridge consists of a 25 m high stone wall. In Pontic times a wooden drawbridge existed here which during times of war could isolate the citadel from invasions. The teahouse presents an excellent view of the crenellated city walls rising on the steep cliffside. Ancient wood-and stucco townhouses hang over the top. A rustic scene of vegetable patches with clusters of red-roofed houses and white mosques occupies the ravine bottom. Looking down, one may see a woman and her daughters sift through a mountain of hazelnuts piled upon a roof while a group of 15 year olds pursue a hard hitting game of street soccer. At sunset the yellow-ocher walls of abandoned Greek houses shine with a crepuscular glow. Twenty minutes later, the luminescence is gone and the gutted remains of these once grand residences become indistinguishable from the other houses along the walls.
A little further on lies the most important Ottoman monument in the city, the Gulbahar Hatun Mosque and Mausoleum. Built in 1514 by Selim 1, the mosque commemorates his mother, the “Lady Springrose”, who was apparently born a princess of the Comneni house. Her tomb stands nearby and was revered as a shrine by both Muslims and Christians throughout Ottoman times. Surrounding the mosque and tomb is a pleasant garden where,
under the shade of an ancient plane tree, old timers will pontificate on the erstwhile glory of their favorite mosque.
With sufficiently strong feet you may want to make a detour from Gulbahar to Soğuksu Hill, the high peak bracing the city on the west. It is a steep climb to a very pleasant residential suburb where many Trabzon families-in an urban holdover from the yayla tradition-maintain their summer homes. That they did the same a hundred years ago is indicated by the many splendid mansions along the way, now in various states of decline. The best among them, though, stands in perfect shape, being blessed by the good fortune of briefly serving the founder of the Turkish Republic as a home away from home.
The Atatürk House is an extremely graceful art nouveau residence whose whimsical design deserves to be cited among the best examples of the architecture of the period anywhere in the world. It was built in 1903 for the Greek banker Constantine Kapagiannidis, and served as his home at a time when his name figured prominently among the political leaders of the imaginary Pontic Republic. It was abandoned in 1923, when another, very different, republic carried the day.
From the citadel, follow the winding road back into the east ravine. As you descend into the quaint pastoral quarter below. groups of rambunctious children will latch on to you and a Pied Piper effect will emerge as more children pop out 01′ hidden alleys and houses, eager to join in the fun. As the men are either working or sitting in the teahouses it is only the women and the children that are seen. Since not many tourists come this way your presence will be regarded as an event in itself. The female faces that were covered in Belediye Square are open here, exposing pale skin, red and blonde hair and blue-green eyes. The welcoming smiles, a spontaneous offer of hazelnuts, and invitations to tea signal your entrance into the private domain of these people.
Up the hill from this rustic oasis stands another of Trabzon’s major monuments, the Church of St. Eugenius, or Yeni Cuma Mosque. Built in the nascent years of the Empire (1204-1222) the church celebrated the 3rd century saint who overthrew the cult idol of Mithra at Boztepe, suffered martyrdom under Diocletian and as a result was revered as the patron saint of Trebizond. As so often happens, his skull was miraculously discovered shortly after the foundation of the Comnene empire and a church was erected on the hallowed spot. The gold-plated cranium was put on display in a silver case within the church. It came in handy on occasion, as in 1222 when a leader of the Seljuk Turks laid siege to the city and promised to destroy it. He pitched his tent atop the saint’s tomb which stood outside the city walls, and even brought (as Byzantine chronicles inform us) women of light virtue into it. The saint then appeared to the blasphemer in a dream and misled him into an ill-prepared attack on the city where a divinely inspired flood wiped away the Turkish army. Sufficiently humbled, the Seljuk agreed to a pact with the Emperor and sent generous contributions to the church of St. Eugenius for the rest of his life.
However, the saint’s powers proved impotent in the face of Fatih’s invasion, and upon the city’s
surrender the church was quickly converted into a mosque where the victorious Sultan made his first prayers in the city-hence the name Yeni Cuma Camii, the New Friday Mosque.
Aesthetically speaking, the Yeni Cuma Camii is the most pleasing of Trabzon’s church/mosques. Built of a faded white ashlar stone, it has a graceful cupola with a feeling of extraordinary lightness and a slightly incongruous minaret added in 1461. From its vantage point atop the ravine you may also look back from where you came and trace your footsteps-up and over the valleys-all the way back to the Gdlbahar Mosque. A quick walk down any of the narrow streets in the other direction brings you back to the familiar terrain of Belediye Square.
Kostaki Mansion – Museum of Trebizond
Among the other elements of the garden is the decorative pool with its rather different fountain at the south-eastern corner. The garden houses pine and palm trees with a large variation of flowers
The bazaar district of Trabzon
The bazaar district of Trabzon is located on the seaward (north) side of Maraş Avenue. It is the oldest and most colorful marketplace of the Black Sea region You can spend a full day or more getting lost in its colorful back streets and alleyways, admiring both trinkets and treasures amid the musty antiquity of its centuries-old warehouses and archways.
Start your walk on Kunduracılar Caddesi, an avenue that glitters with the rows of jewelry shops that line both sides of the street. Keep an eye out for the distinctive Trabzon bracelet. a wide wristband woven out of extremely fine threads of silver. This is a form of art unique to the Trabzon region, and all the bracelets are crafted by hand in the backstreet ateliers of the bazaar.
At the end of Kunduracilar a light turn on the winding cobblestone of Semerciler Sokak takes you into he heart of the textile section of the
bazaar. Congested with choosy housewives sifting through piles off S linen and scarves, this is where one can find the widest selection of traditional Trabzon-area feminine attire. The tiny shop of Mehmet Kiran at No. 66 offers an excellent choice of red-black-cream keşans and variously striped peştemals ranging from high quality models made of pure fine cotton, to cheaper ones with colors that are less vibrant. He also has more exotic varieties that are not generally seen on the streets.
Coutinuing on Semerciler you pass the tiny Ebubekir Mosque and enter the heart of the bazaar, centered around Çarşı Camii, the biggest mosque in town. As usual in all Turkish towns the block around the market mosque is an ideal vantage point from which to observe the ebb and flow of urban life. The mixture of business and ritual, routine and fantastic, drab and colorful define the oriental marketplace. The Bedesten, formerly the vortex and safe house of the Trabzon bazaar. is located near the mosque. The edifice was constructed by the Genoese in the 14th century and subsequently added to and restored by various Ottoman governors. With its looming walls now overgrown with shrubbery and its ornate portal barely visible, it now serves as a storage area for lumber and a haven for stray cats.
The nearby Taş Han (“Stone Inn”) is a different story. Also known as Vakıf Han, this is one of the many structures of its kind in the bazaar which served both as a mall for local craftsmen and small merchants of a specific line of trade as well as an inn for visiting long distance traders. It was built in 1531 by a former governor, Iskender Paşa, and follows the plan of other Ottoman caravanserais of the same period. A rectangular courtyard is surrounded by arched enclaves where the camels of visiting merchants were stabled while their owners stayed upstairs in rooms which also served as shops.
Walking into Taş Han is like taking a step back in time. The two major trades carried on within are broom making and the manufacture of tin sheets. From the street one
hears the voice of children in the small mosque upstairs reciting Arabic verse by rote from the Quran under the stern glare of a bearded hoca. On the second floor walkway Dickensian urchins sit in small vaulted rooms hammering tin containers into uneven sheets. Groups of men cut, sift and fasten strands of straw until the shape of a broom emerges. Old men sit on straw stools, shuffling their worry beads and toying with cups of tea. Streams of light wafting in through the iron grilled windows cast a surreal gleam upon the blackened walls of the han’s interior.
Further down Bedesten street is the open market where all the food and produce in the city is bought and sold. Under the roofed platform built within the crumbling city walls, the din of peddling vendors, haggling women, and bawling children is deafening. Unlike the Istanbul bazaar which caters primarily to the tourist, Trabzon’s bazaar is purely functional. Every vegetable and fruit from dark cabbage to cornelian cherry can be found here-a feast for the nose and eye. On the surrounding streets, great barrels of goat cheese and butter brought down from the highlands stand on display beside tubs of gooey, waxy honey. Feel free to dip in with your finger: the shopkeepers are usually eager to test their produce on the foreigner’s discriminating palate.
Having pushed yourself to the limits of fatigue in the Oriental bazaar, what better way can there be to wash off the grime and sweat of the day’s exertions than a Turkish bath? Meydan Hamamı on Maraş Caddesi is the recommended spot. Unlike other hamams in the region it has a separate section where women too can bathe. Fully refreshed, you might then enjoy a cold beer at the rooftop restaurant at the Trabzon Hotel, which takes on a festive air with a little dancing and singing on weekends.
The Hagia Sophia of Trebizond
The Hagia Sophia of Trebizond was built during.the reign of Manuel I (1238-1263), at a time when the refugee Byzantine court first began regarding itself as a long-term alternative to the Empire in Constantinople. It was conceived as a rival of its namesake, the great cathedral of the Hagia Sophia in the Byzantine capital and constituted one of the most important monuments of medieval Byzantine architecture. Its bold and original design, which displayed the influence of Armenian and Georgian traditions prevalent in the east, eventually influenced all late Byzantine (and Russian) ecclesiastical monuments.
following the conquest, Hagia Sophia became in turn, a mosque, a military depot, a cholera hospital, a mosque again in 1880. It was turned into a museum in 1964, after the extraordinary restoration work undertaken by David Talbot Rice and David Winfield had succesfully recovered many of the original frescoes from under centuries of grime and whitewash.
Some 55 frescoes in various states of preservation are discernible in the church. They all date from the 1260s, and constitute one of the most striking collections of Byzantine art to be found anywhere in the world. Like the architecture of the church itself they represent a turn away from the rigid formalism of earlier ages toward a sort of Byzantine artistic renaissance. One notes, for example, the scene of Christ at Lake Tiberias on the left (north) wall of the apsis, where the facial expressions of each
character is worked out with a degree of realism that is unusual in Byzantine art. The composition as a whole has a dynamism and balance worthy of the Italian masters. On the arch of the apsis, the Ascension of Christ is depicted with a depth and gentleness that is far removed from the stern Pantocrators of Byzantine tradition. In the north porch a Suffering ,Job stands out among a series of Old Testament scenes with the genuinely forlorn expression on his face. The deep spirituality and solid design of the compositions is often lightened with realistic detail, like a jolly old man with jaunty hat on the north wall, or scenes of fairyland phantasy like the one of Jesus Healing the Canaanite’s Daughter where a hairy devil bursts furiously out of the girl’s tthroat. The handsome belfry is an addition of 1443, and reflects the Italian influence that was dominant in the late years of the Empire. It contains frescoes of inferior quality dating from a later period.
The tall hill overlooking Trabzon in the east, now called Boztepe or “Brownhill”, used to be the sacred site of the cult of Mithra in antiquity. The Persian Sun-god was, strangely enough, the dominant divinity of pre-Christian Trabzon and an all-important annual pilgrimage was made to his temple on the steep north facade of the sacred hill. The temple was successfully destroyed by St. Eugenius’s Christian emulators. As it so often happens with ancient holy places, the name of “Mount Mithra” stuck until early this century as did a sense of religious awe associated with it. The Cave Churches of St. Sabas sprung up at the exact same spot as the former temple and began to attract the pilgrims. Two rock-carved chapels that survive from St. Sabas can be reached with some serious cliff climbing off the airport road. Unfortunately most of their frescoes that were visible 30 years ago are now destroyed.
Two other ruined monasteries on the sacred mountain are more easily accessible although they are rarely, if ever, visited by tourists.
The Convent of Pan agia Theoskepastos (“God-protected Virgin”) is called Kızlar Manastırı, or the Girls’ Monastery in Turkish. Built in 1349, it was continuously inhabited until 1923 when it was evacuated like all other monasteries in the region. In 1978 the Ministry of Tourism awoke to the site’s potential and locked the building up for future restoration, expelling a thriving squatter community in the process. Ten years later the doors remain padlocked and the promised restoration has yet to begin. In order- to gain entry one has to charm an irascible old hoca who owns a key to the main door and lives in an adjacent house. The main complex is in a sad state of vandalization, and attracts the visitor mainly for the gloomy spirit that lurks amid its grandiose, gutted walls. The original medieval church is built into a cave in the courtyard, while a more
recent church stands on an upper level. Except for a few traces. the only fresco that survives is a relatively recent Christ painted under the cupola of an ivy-covered torch in the garden.
The Boztepe Park, Trabzon’s favorite weekend outing and picnic site, lies just above the monastery and offers a spectacular panorama of the city. Further up is Ahi Evren Camii, the mosque and tomb of a Muslim saint often visited by the people of Trabzon ill a faithful continuation of the traditions of the sacred mountain.
From this point a long hike (or more reasonably a taxi) gets one to the Kaymaklı Monastery. Before 1923 this used to be the main Armenian religious institution in the Trabzon area. An altogether obscure gem not even recognized as an official sight by the Tourism Ministry, it is easily one of the highlights of a visit to Trabzon.
The complex is located on a grassy plateau overlooking a valley and consists of a stone-block church, built in 1431, and the original eastern facade of the monastery into which a local family has built their house. The church is now used as a barn. As in other cases of similar use, the owner has taken good care of the roof and has seen no reason to destroy the wallpaintings. Thus protected from bad weather, graffiti artists, treasure hunters and plaster happy mullahs, the frescoes inside the church are in an excellent state of preservation-the best in the region with the exception of those in Hagia Sophia. They date back to 1622, and reflect a sophisticated style and superior craftsmanship unlike most other examples of such late date.
From May onward the church is filled with bales of hay but the rare visitor is welcomed by the Kantekin family with genuine warmth and their children delight in pointing out their favorite frescoes. In mid morning the sun beams through the single window in the apse, illuminating a striking depiction of hell on the far wall-replete with a nefarious looking devil, the black dog of Hades and griffins galore. As the family looks on with amusement, one burrows through great heaps of hay to find the images of some biblical passage, the children break into peals of laughter, the watchdog howls with frustration and the evicted cow moos angrily.
The great Sumela Monastery was by far the most important of the lot, as it is now the best-known and the best-preserved. It derived its immense prestige from a black icon of the Virgin Mary that was held to have been painted by St. Luke himself-hence the name “of the Black Virgin”, Panagia tou melas, or soumelas in Pontic Greek. The icon was the source of countless miracles throughout the ages and copies were prized throughout the Orthodox world.
The sacred picture was supposed to have been brought to these parts by two Athenian hermites in the year 385. The monastery itself was built under Emperors Anastasius (491 – 518) and Justinian (527-565) as a crucial link in the Byzantine drive to evangelize the Pontic natives. It took its current shape in the 13th century after the original edifices were destroyed during a Turkish raid. Its monks took an active part in the endless political fighting of the Trebizond Empire. Several emperors, including Alexios Ill (1349-1390), chose to stage their coronation in the mountain fastness of the monastery rather than in the city itself.
Sumela retained its prestige under Turkish rule as well. Mehmed the Conqueror paid a visit to the monks, and Selim I reputedly made valuable gifts to them when he took refuge in the monastery after a hunting accident. Additions were made to the buildings in 1710 and again in 1860. As late as in 1909 the monks took an active part in ecclesiastical wrangles, employing the time-honored Byzantine manoeuver of threatening to secede and join the Latin church.
In 1923 Jeremiah, the last abbot, was forced to leave along with the remaining monks. Six years later a fire reduced the monastery to a bare skeleton. In 1931 the monk Ambrosios came back in disguise, removed the miraculous icon of the Virgin from a hiding place and took it to Athens where it was put on display at the Benaki Museum. In 1952 a new Sumela Monastery was founded near Salonica to house the surviving monks.
Lady of the Mountains, Panagia Sumela, Trabzon
In setting and appearance, the gutted remains of Sumela are among the most unforgettable sights of Turkey and compare with the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in their power to inspire and awe.
Getting to the building itself requires a hard climb of 40 minutes on a forest path sprinkled with an international collection of tourists in various stages of exhaustion and somehow friendlier because of it. At the top, the astounding view over the valley contributes to the feeling of breathlessness.
Back down at the base one has the choice of joining the crowds at the little lunch stand or walking a short distance upstream to a delightful chain of cascades and pools where one can bathe or fish for trout. An unpaved road continues from here on to the yaylas of’ Meryemana (Mother Mary) where the predominantly Greek-speaking villagers of the area stage bacchanalian revels in early summer.
Obscure Monasteries of Trabzon
More than a half dozen ruined monasteries are said to exist in the mountains of Maçka district. Hardly any visitor ever disturbs their peace. None rival the spectacle of Sumela, but two of them. in particular. may impress the adventurous traveler even more with their unspoiled ambience.
The Monastery of St. George in Peristera (known locally as Hızır Ilyas Manastırı is found near the village of Şimşirli (formerly Kutul). a bad 15 km drive from the tow n of Esiroğlu below Maçka. It crowns a rocky promontory which calls for a 45 minute climb. Its history is typical: founded under Justinian, it was rebuilt in the Middle Ages and abandoned in 1923. Very little that is worth seeing remains of the building itself, but the panorama arguably surpasses that of Sumela: the broad expanse of the Kuştul Valley is directly underfeet and Trabzon visible as a speck in the distance. The premises are overgrown with poison ivy and one suspects that no more than a handful of stray souls attempt the strenuous climb in any given year.
The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Vazelon is even less accessible but far better preserved and more impressive. Built under Justinian and rebuilt in 1410, Vazelon used to rank next to Sumela in wealth and influence. As late as in 1903 its library contained an invaluable collection of manuscripts relating to the history of the Trebizond Empire.
Although the building itself is in ruins, a sense of monastic serenity pervades the grounds. Hidden chambers and cave-like enclosures abound, arousing the strong temptation to look for some undiscovered gem-an ancient icon or maybe some silver coins? The triple-naved church is covered with a collection of vibrantly colored frescoes which apparently date to the 16th century. As in Sumela, each vandal has signed his name proudly along with the date next to the gaping hole from where he lifted a fresco piece: a Greek in 1907, an Armenian in 1921 and a Turk in 1987. Despite the plunder one can still admire some very fine scenes, including a powerful Last Judgement.Maçka, The Way to the Pass
From Maçka the transit road climbs steeply to the Zigana Pass, following the trajectory of the ancient Silk Route to Erzurum and beyond. The landscape is broad, green and spectacularly beautiful. Endless convoys of overladen trucks carrying goods to Iran and Afghanistan have replaced the camel caravans of old. The newly completed broad highway along the west side of the valley reduces the chances of being driven off the precipice by a lanejumping bus. The curvy old road is still in service, though underused. It passes by the site of the former village of Çatak, which was wiped off the face of the earth by a 1988 landslide. The sight evokes powerful thoughts about the unbridled force of raw nature. Hamsikoy is a perfect alpine idyll located just below the treeline at 1800 meters. Over the years it has become customary for passengers to stop at this village to take in the Black Sea landscape for a final time before tackling the Pass and to eat the scrumptious corn bread and sütlaç (rice pudding) at one of the colorful roadside restaurants. Above the village, where the vast expanse of the treeless yayla dominates, custom calls for a second stop to please Blind Ahmet who sends his ten year old grandson to collect alms from passengers. Those who do not comply run the risk of being cursed by the mountain. Blind Ahmet himself is a witness, as he will readily tell anyone willing to listen to his poignant story.
Behind the Mountains: Beyond the Pass the landscape changes sharply. The rich green of the northern face is quickly replaced by the arid, craggy hills of the upper Harşit Valley. The narrow valley bed is irrigated by the Harşit and covered with pretty orchards of apple, apricot, peaches and pome granate, which form the region’s principal source of income. This area was historically known as Khaldia after the native inhabitants who had impressed Xenophon with their industrious and independent lifestyle and who only became Hellenized relatively late in the Middle Ages. As late as 1923 the dominant Greek element of the area (mostly Turkish -speakers who belonged to the Greek church) were derisively called the “Khaldi”.
Just past Gümüshane a partly paved 39 km road on the left leads to one of the most remote gems of all Turkey. Yagmurdere is an idyllic Black Sea yayla town, a cross between Hamsikoy and Hemşin, on the northern face of the mountains but only accessible via an imposing mountain pass from the south, because it is located on a natural ledge that allows no passage downward-unless one attempts to raft one’s way down to Arakh on the Karadere stream. The delightfully hospitable inhabitants recall few foreigners ever having made the detour to their out-of-the-way paradise.
The scenery changes once again at the Vavuk Pass (1910 m), which announces the definitive transition to the eastern Anatolian high plateau and its grandiose landscape of immense, treeless, rolling mountains. The boundary is also a historical one:
The change is apparent in the details of local culture. Villages now consist of tight, well-defined clusters, unlike the scattershot farmsteads of the Black Sea region. Men wear more substantial moustaches. The dancing and drinking of the Black Sea mountains is frowned upon as undignified behavior. Women walk around in earth-colored body sacks that cover them from head to toe. They scramble away in panic when a stranger is seen to approach. Spending some time in Bayburt allows one to adjust to this different historical and cultural milieu and to reflect on the Black Sea experience by comparison and contrast.
As should be expected, the town has Turkish monuments of far greater interest than anything to be found on the Black Sea coast. Of special note are the Ulucami, built circa 1225 by a lord of the local Saltuk dynasty, and the Yakutiye Mosque, endowed in 1315 by a governor of the Mongolian empire of Genghis Khan. The market is a colorful one with cobblestoned streets dense with shops selling everything from wooden hoes to antique pocket-watches.
After a few hours, the visitor may begin to warm up to the peculiar charm of Bayburt. The funky Sevil Hotel has large rooms with balconies jutting directly over the Çoruh River. Under the moonlight it begins to look like an ersatz Seine. The Kartal Restaurant, the only place in town where one can get a beer (this is conservative land!), has an ancient stone balcony big enough for one table where one can dine under the stars with an enchanting view of the castle. This is time to shift mental gears for a voyage into the very different world of Eastern Turkey.
Nor is it too late to go back to the friendlier climate of the Black Sea. An unpaved but reasonable road crosses directly from Bayburt to Çaykara and Of via the dizzying heights of the Soğanlı Pass, which is some 550 meters higher than the Zigana. Another road, a veritable car-killer in this case, leads east through the spectacular landscapes of the Çoruh Valley to Ispir and eventually Artvin. The sensation of crossing the magic line back into the now familiar riot of greens makes either journey entirely worthwhile.
How to get there, where to stay?
Tel: (462) 32 1 2 95 Fax: (462) 322 37 93 This three-star hotel has 76 rooms with a capacity for 140 people. All rooms offer private shower and toilet.
Aksular Hotel Uzunkum Mevkii 33, Trabzon Tel: (462) 229 76 53 Fax: (462) 229 47 59 This two-star hotel has 36 rooms and 7 suites, offering a total capacity for 78 people. All rooms offer private shower and toilet, satellite TV, direct dial telephone and individually controlled central heating.
Horon Hotel Sıramagazalar Cad. 125, Trabzon Tel: (462) 32 1 1 1 99 Fax: (462) 32 1 68 60 Telex: 831 11
Horon is a one-star hotel with 42 rooms. Each room has its own private shower and toilet, direct, dial telephone and central heating. There are four meeting rooms, each with a capacity for 40 people.