Trabzon, Turkey: Ancient History, Modern Life

 

Theis Black Sea-side city of about 800,000 inhabitant, was originally established about 2500 years ago on the table (trápeza) above the natural harbor, starting out as Trapezus. Romans settled this region, using it as a military base for campaigns against the Persians. The Turks took over in 1071, applying the name Turkey to this Muslim region in 1081.  When Christian soldiers of the Crusades destroyed Constantinople in 1204, the sultan and noble families moved to the Anatolia region, settling in what was renamed Trebizond. The Trebizond empire flourished in this region reaching its peak culturally and economically in the early 1300s.

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The climate is mild, cool in the summer and mild in the winter, with high rainfall year round, which gives it a lush greenery, and supports the name of Emerald City of the Black Sea. Pine forests cover the hills, while chestnut trees and tea plantations flourish. Livestock graze on plentiful grass, with milk from the cows creating many native cheeses.

Of course, given the seaside location, fishing is a major industry, with hamsi (sardine-like fish) in abundance everywhere. The Ottoman empire took over and created a bustling port city, with alliances between numerous trading partners, as Sultan Mehmet (1460's) established it as a gateway to Iran and Crimea. Located on the historical Silk Road, trade and growth was brisk. Many different cultures contributed to its success, including Greek, Venetian and Genoese merchants.

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With this brief history, I set about seeing the walls of the Trabzon Castle/Citadel, which can be found near the city center, as they surround two valleys with the city in the middle. The walls have been in place for centuries, starting in the 2nd century and fortified by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Aqueducts were constructed, and they can be seen within the walls.

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The King of Trabzon (Alexis Commenos) built his palace on the high plains of the inner fortress. The inner part of the citadel was Christian, while the outer part was Muslim. Muslim pirates would attack from the sea, and thus, walls were further built to defend the city from coastal attack. Thus, the fortress is actually in three parts: Upper Fortress (Yukari Hisar), the Middle Fortress (Orta Hisar) and the Lower Fortress (Aşağı Hisar). The upper fortress was the acropolis, with walls higher than any of the other parts of the wall, with thicker southern walls. The Middle Fortress (built in the early 1300's), added several gates and also several mosques, bridges, and mansions. The Lower Fortress continues to the sea.

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Along with mosques and other buildings, several hamams and fountains were built in this region (Sekiz Düzenli Hamam; Tophane Hamam). The most of the city walls are still standing and are among the city’s oldest buildings. The walls are under a major renovation project, with a complete overhaul of the region. The space will be converted into a park, with paths, hiking, biking, and performance spaces. It was certainly interesting to see the construction underway, and it is supposed to be finished in a few years.

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I continued further to where the Hagia Sophia is located. The church was built in the Greek cross architectural style, in the 13th century. It was named after St. Sophia. During construction, the walls and ceilings were covered in Christian frescos. It was covered to a mosque in 1670, but the frescoes were left intact. Hagia Sophia means Divine Wisdom, but alas, in 1863 the St. Sophia (Ayasofya) mosque was restored, with the pictures in the mosque covered with plaster; stairs were built for the bell-tower which was used as a minaret. While the church is currently closed for renovation, you can still walk around the exterior, and get a glimpse of some of the frescoes, although restoration is not complete at this time. There is no entrance fee, as you are not really visiting the church.

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Another one of the famous churches (Panaghia Krys Krysokephalos) was converted to a Mosque in the mid 1400's by Sultan Mehmet, and it is the Fatih Mosque to this day. A couple generations later, Suleyman the Magnificent was born. At 15 years old, he took over the governance of Trabzon, while his father Sultan Yavuz Selim busied himself with science and sports. He built the Hatuniye Mosque for his mother (completed in 1514), considered one of the master pieces of the Ottoman empire.

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My hotel was just a few blocks from the main square in town, called the Municipal Square. This used to be the main shopping district, starting during the mid 1800s, with goods from all over the world sold there. People used to stroll the square, reminded of the Champs Elysee in Paris. There are dozens of cafe's, with fountains and seats for citizens to chat and watch society go by.

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No trip to Trabzon would be complete without a drive out to the Sumela Monastery, about 40 miles outside the city. Two Greek monks, Barnaby and Sophronios, began to build the Monastery in the 4th century on the slopes of the Zigana Mountains.  A Virgin Mary Icon was painted in one of the chapels, and it became the symbol of the monastery. This may be the source of the name, as Sumela comes from the Greek word "melas" (black), referring to the dark color of the icon. Still, Melas is the mountain name and "sou" means "at the" so Sumela (Sou + Mela) means "at the mountain"!

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Byzantine emperors restored the Monastery in the 14th century, but it fell into ruin repeatedly. The Sumela Monastery is carved into the side of the mountain in the valley of the Maçka district, about 1200 meters above the sea. There is a Greek Orthodox church at the center, with 5 floors and 72 rooms comprising the monastery. The buildings are all covered in frescoes and wall paintings. However, after a blood curdling drive up the side of the mountain, and a steep climb to the entrance of the monastery, and paying to go in -- there is nothing to see at all at this incredibly popular tourist destination! It is undergoing a years long restoration and geological study, and thus is closed to any visitor! Thus, a view from afar is all that you will get.

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A few final scenes from Trabazon for you...

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