Extending from just east of İstanbul to the frontier with Georgia, the Black Sea region is a real anomaly, guaranteed to smash any stereotypes you may hold about Turkey. The combination of damp northerly and westerly winds, confronting an almost uninterrupted wall of mountains south of the shore, has created a relentlessly rainy and riotously green realm. It’s not unlike the northwest coasts of North America or Spain. The peaks force the clouds to disgorge themselves on the seaward side of the watershed, leaving central Anatolia beyond the passes in a permanent rain shadow. With the short summer season ensuring the area sees few package tourists or backpackers, most foreign visitors are either archeology groups or trekkers.
That said, when the semi-tropical heat sets in, in July and August, you’ll certainly want to swim. The sea here has its own peculiarities, just like the weather. Fed huge volumes of fresh water by the Don, Dnieper and Danube rivers to the north, it’s diminished not by evaporation but by strong currents through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The resulting upper layer is of such low salinity that you could almost drink it, were it not for the pollution.
Starting north of Ankara as mere humps, the coastal ranges attain world-class grandeur by the time they reach the Georgian border. Until recently they made land access all but impossible, and provided refuge for a complex quilt of tribes and ethnic subgroups that still exist among the Hemşin valleys and the Kaçkar mountains. Even so, travelling largely consists of soaking up the atmosphere, with little need to worry about missing important sights. Apart from the old mercantile towns of Ünye and Giresun, there are no major attractions outside the ancient port city of Trabzon (Trebizond) with its nearby monastery of Sumela.
Although the region’s characterless central portion is dominated by the hulking port of Samsun, the coast west of the strikingly sited town of Sinop, towards the Byzantine/Genoese harbour of Amasra, is filled with attractive villages and deserted beaches. The lack of bus and dolmuş links spares the area from mass tourism.
The ancient Greeks ventured onto the Black Sea, or as they called it, the Pontos Euxine, at the start of the first millennium BC. They fought with the local “barbarians” and occasionally, as in the semi-legendary tale of Jason and the Argonauts, got the better of them. Between the seventh and fourth centuries BC, the Aegean cities founded numerous colonies. These became the ancestors of virtually every modern Black Sea town, whose names as often as not are Turkifications of their ancient monikers. The region made its first brief appearance on the world stage when a local Pontic king, Mithridates IV Eupator, came close to expelling the Romans from Anatolia.
With the arrival of Christianity, relations between natives and imperial overlords hardly changed at all. Only the Byzantine urban centres by the sea became thoroughly Hellenized. The Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071 (see The arrival of the Turks) initially meant little to the Black Sea, safe behind its wall of mountains; the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204 had far greater immediate effects, prompting the Black Sea’s second spell of historical prominence. For two and a half cultured (and ultimately decadent) centuries, the empire-in-exile of the Komnenos dynasty, centred on Trebizond (today’s Trabzon), exercised influence grossly disproportionate to its size.
After Manzikert, Turkish chieftains had begun to encroach on the coast, especially at the gap in the barrier ranges near Sinop and Samsun. The Trapezuntine dynasty even concluded alliances with them, doubtless to act as a counter to the power of the Genoese and Venetians who also set up shop hereabouts. Most of this factionalism came to an end under the Ottomans, though even they entrusted semi-autonomous administration of the Pontic foothills to feudal derebeys (“valley lords”) until early in the nineteenth century.
The equilibrium was upset when the Black Sea area entered the history books for the third time, as a theatre of war. Imperial Turkey and Russia clashed four times between 1828 and 1915, and the Tsarist regime gave aid and comfort to various regional separatist movements after 1877. Between 1918 and 1922, Greeks attempting to create a Pontic state fought with guerrillas loyal to Atatürk’s Nationalists. Following the victory of the Republic, the Greek merchant class was expelled, and the Black Sea experienced temporary economic disarray, verging on famine during the 1930s.
Most of the credit for the last few decades of recovery must go to the hamsis, as the locals are nicknamed (after the Black Sea anchovy formerly caught here in large numbers during winter). Enterprising, voluble and occasionally scandalous, they have set up mafias in the shipping, property and construction industries throughout the country, much of which is funded by industrious hamsis overseas. The most visible sign of the post-Soviet era, since Turkey’s eastern border opened up in the early 1990s, is a new coastal road and a further bout of urbanization.
The Black Sea region looks set to receive a further boost, with the state-run Turkish Petroleum Corporation joining with Shell in 2011 to develop vast beds of oil and gas reserves that apparently lie in waiting offshore.