No other Turkish city except İstanbul has exercised such a hold on the Western imagination as TRABZON (ancient Trebizond). Travel writers from Marco Polo to Rose Macaulay have been enthralled by the fabulous image of this quasi-mythical metropolis, long synonymous with intrigue, luxury, exotic customs and fairy-tale architecture. Today the celebrated gilded roofs and cosmopolitan texture of Trebizond are long gone, replaced by the blunt reality of a bustling, modern and initially disappointing Turkish provincial capital of over 400,000 people.
While modern Trabzon sprawls in all directions, its heart remains Atatürk Alanı. A plane-tree-shaded square ringed with tea gardens, restaurants and patisseries, it’s now closed to traffic on two sides, which mercifully reduces the former necessity of making an Olympic-style sprint through traffic to reach it. To the west lie the two areas most worthy of exploration: the Bazaar and the Ortahisar district. A poke around their cobbled alleyways will unearth tangible evidence of Trabzon’s former splendour, as will a visit to the monastic church of Aya Sofya, home to some of Anatolia’s most outstanding Byzantine frescoes.
Trabzon was founded during the eighth century BC by colonists from Sinope and Miletus, attracted by the readily defensible high plateau or trapeza (“table” in ancient Greek) after which it was first named “Trapezus”. Although the city prospered under both the Romans and Byzantines, Trabzon’s romantic allure derives almost exclusively from its brief, though resplendent, golden age during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when, after the sacking of Constantinople, it became the capital of the breakaway Trapezuntine Empire. Its wealth grew when the main Silk Route was diverted this way because Mongol raiders controlled territory further south.
Someone had to transport all the goods that accumulated at Trebizond’s docks, and this turned out to be the Genoese, followed soon after by the Venetians as well. Each demanded and won the same maritime trading privileges from the Trapezuntine Empire as they received from the re-established empire at Constantinople. Western ideas and personalities arrived continually with the boats of the Latins, making Trebizond an unexpected island of art and erudition in a sea of Turkish nomadism, and a cultural rival to the Italian Renaissance city-states of the same era.
Unfortunately, the empire’s factional politicking was excessive even by the standards of the age. One civil war in 1341 completely destroyed the city and sent the empire into its final decline. It was Mehmet the Conqueror, in a campaign along the Black Sea shore, who finally put paid to the self-styled empire; in 1461 the last emperor, David, true to Trapezuntine form, negotiated a more or less bloodless surrender to the sultan.
In late Ottoman times the population and influence of the city’s Christian element enjoyed a resurgence. The presence of a rich merchant class ushered in a spate of sumptuous civic and domestic building. But it was a mere echo of a distant past, soon ended by a decade of world war, the foundation of the Republic, and the steady transference of trade from ship to rails.
Today the outlook for Trabzon remains uncertain. While both port and town have been overtaken by Samsun to the west, Trabzon now benefits from the transhipment of goods to the Caucasian republics and onwards to Russia.
The monastery church of Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia) ranks among Turkey’s most romantic clusters of Byzantine remains. It seems certain that there was a pagan temple here, and then an early Byzantine chapel, long before Manuel I Komnenos commissioned the present structure between 1238 and 1263. The ground plan and overall conception were revolutionary at the time, successfully assimilating most of the architectural trends, Christian and Muslim, prevalent in contemporary Anatolia. Converted to a mosque after 1461, Aya Sofya subsequently endured leaner and more ignominious times as an ammunition store and then as a hospital during the Russian occupation in World War I, before it was restored in the early 1960s.
The church is laid out along a greatly modified cross-in-square scheme, with a dome supported by four columns and three apses at the east end of the triple nave. Before you rush inside to view the famous frescoes, take a moment to study the finely sculpted, albeit weatherworn, frieze illustrating Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the only one of the three friezes that adorn the south portal that wasn’t tampered with by the Ottomans when they re-consecrated the church.
In their fluidity, warmth and expressiveness, Aya Sofya’s original frescoes represented a drastic break with the rigidity of earlier painting, and compare well with the best work of their century, and the next, in Serbia and Macedonia as well as in Constantinople itself. Of the frescoes in the central apse, a serene Ascension hovers over The Virgin Enthroned between the two Archangels; on the north wall of the same apse appears The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. The southeast apse is thought to have once held Manuel I’s tomb. The Pantocrator in the dome was unhappily beyond repair, but a host of angels swirls around him, just above the Apostles.
The narthex, whose ceiling is divided into three sections by stone ribs, is almost wholly devoted to scenes from the life of Christ. The central zone exploits its complicated quadruple vaulting by depicting each of the Tetramorphs, symbols of the Evangelists, accompanied by seraphim. Alongside, such miraculous episodes as The Wedding at Cana, a decidedly adolescent Child Jesus Teaching in the Temple, Healing the Blind Man at Siloam and Healing the Canaanite’s Daughter (complete with vomited demon) fill the south vault, while Feeding the Five Thousand and Calming the Storm on the Lake of Galilee grace the north vault. The north portico is taken up mostly by Old Testament scenes, including The Sufferings of Job and Jacob’s Dream. Between 1957 and 1964, technicians restored dozens of these frescoes to their former glory. Well lit – no flash photography is allowed – and accurately labelled in English, these are compulsory viewing even if you’ve only a passing interest in religious art.
An ensemble of sunken masonry just north of the church was once the baptismal font; the square belfry to the west is a 1443 afterthought, indicative of the strong Italianate flavour of the waning empire. If the tower is open – a rare event – you’ll find that the frescoes within are not nearly of the same quality as those in the church proper.
The small museum consists of a village house built and furnished in typical Black Sea style, and a 1920s-vintage serender or grain crib on stilts, with wooden discs at the top of the stilts, to prevent mice attacking the stored grain. Adjacent to that is a gift shop and pleasant café, covered in wisteria and offering tea and snacks, including the popular local dish muhlama, a Black Sea-style cheese fondue.
The trip to Uzungöl (Long Lake) is the second most popular excursion out of Trabzon, after Sumela. Were it not for the mosques, you could be in Switzerland. The scenic lake, at just under 1100m, has a bazaar district around its outlet and is best seen by renting a mountain bike from one of the teashops.
Uzungöl makes an ideal base for rambles southeast up to the nearby peaks of Ziyaret (3111m) and Halizden (3376m), with a chain of glacier lakes at the base of the latter. It’s a very long day’s hike there and back – though you can go partway by car to save time – so take a tent and food for two days if at all possible.
Crossing to Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
Crossing to Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
At present, all non-Turkish travellers need to buy a visa for Russia in order to pass from Turkey into Russia. The Trabzon consulate currently issues visas to European Union passport holders, but no others (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US included). Visas cost US$70 (3-day wait) or US$120 (same day), and passport holders need to complete an application form (available at the consulate), invitation or proof of accommodation, and proof of medical insurance.
Trans-Black Sea services to Russia (Sochi) have increased in frequency over recent years; contact one of the ferry agencies in Trabzon for current information.
Citizens of most countries, including Australia, Canada, EU, New Zealand and the US, may enter Georgia visa-free for up to 360 days. From İstanbul, both Azerbaijan Airlines and Turkish Airlines offer regular flights to Baku in Azerbaijan.
Overland bus services have been less affected, with several services a day running over the border to Batumi. The Georgian frontier can be crossed either at Sarp, or at Posof, for onward connections to Armenia and Azerbaijan (see By bus). It’s easy enough to do the trip to Georgia in smaller chunks, taking a dolmuş or taxi from Sarp to the border and then arranging local transport on to Batumi on the Georgian side, from where several daily buses run to Armenia.