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.