When you pass what was once the eastern limit of the Trapezuntine Empire, around 35km east of Rize, you enter the territory of the Laz, the Black Sea’s most celebrated minority group. While Turks often use the term “Laz” as a catch-all description of all residents of the country’s eastern Black Sea coastline, strictly speaking the Laz themselves are a distinctively Caucasian people who speak a language related to Georgian, 150,000 of whom inhabit Pazar, Ardeşen, Fındıklı, Arhavi and Hopa, plus certain inland enclaves. The men, with their aquiline features and often reddish hair, particularly stand out; they also distinguish themselves by an extroversion unusual even for the Black Sea, and an extraordinary business acumen. Laz own and operate a sizeable chunk of Turkey’s shipping, and the resultant worldly exposure has made them relatively modern in outlook; the women are out and about in Western garb from Fındıklı east, and the men, too, seem better dressed in the latest styles.

It seems likely that the Laz are descended from the ancient Colchians (from whom Jason supposedly stole the Golden Fleece). The Laz accepted Christianity in the sixth century and almost immediately got embroiled in protracted wars with the Byzantines, whose governors had managed to offend them. No power managed fully to subdue them until the Ottomans induced conversion to Islam early in the sixteenth century. Like their neighbours the Hemşinli, they generally practise their faith without the dour piety of some of their countrymen, though they are now well integrated into the national fabric.

Perhaps too well integrated – Lazuri, the spoken language, is under threat, as until recently no systematic transcription system existed. The Turkish authorities have strongly discouraged any attempts to study the language in situ. Despite being declared persona non grata, German linguist Wolfgang Feurstein finally compiled the first Turkish–Lazuri dictionary, complete with a specially devised alphabet, in 1999.

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