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Articles Blog

Trabzon, Turkey

Karyn Planett

Trade and Tradition 

The proud nation of Turkey is shaped surprisingly like an almost perfect rectangle surrounded by the busy waters of three different seas. The Aegean laps the country’s western shores, the Mediterranean the southern, and the Black Sea the northern beaches where Trabzon is located. Plus there’s the aquatic embrace of the Sea of Marmara in the northwestern part of the country. 

If this alone doesn’t spell enough intrigue and opportunity for powerful traders and rulers alike, it would be difficult to guess what would. So this is precisely why a seaport like Trabzon has always been in the crosshairs of opportunists bent on wresting away from the existing powers the valuable trade that was carried out along this lucrative stretch of the Silk Route. Among the treasures piled high atop pack animals and beasts of burden lumbering through here were aromatic spices, glittering gemstones, shimmering silks, priceless gold and ivory. With it came the whispers and influences of different cultures and religions and Trabzon experienced it all, for it was the terminus of the Caucassia / Iran transit road, between Central Asia, Persia and the Black Sea, near the Zigana Pass. It’s a cartographer’s dream come true. 

Even today, Trabzon is the largest port on the entire Black Sea coast. 

Remnants From A Turbulent Past

What stands out among the historic events that played out in this region? Well, a trip up Boztepe Peak offers a visual overview, so to speak. In the distance you’ll spot the outlines of mosques and churches, a citadel, and the verdant hills beyond. Many chapters of Trabzon’s history, as you will learn, were written in blood since its founding in 1000 BC by traders from Sinope. Romans, Goths, and Byzantines all battled here and left their marks. Evidence of these occupations is written on the walls of their houses of worship. Many appear before you. 

Considered Trabzon’s most important structure, St. Sophia Church is a must. The original structure was built by an important family known as Commenos in the 13th century, but was expanded by Emperor Manuel Paleologos VIII. When Mehmed II conquered Trabzon, 1461, he converted it to a mosque. During Byzantine times it was a monastery and the beautifully preserved paintings and frescoes highlight these times. Thankfully, this Trabzon centerpiece has been protected since 1957 as an important museum. 

Other notable religious structures include the Gatih Mosque with its three naves dedicated to Mother Mary, and the Gulbahar Hatun Mosque dating back to the 15th century. The site that probably holds the greatest interest for many Turks is the house where their beloved founder of this nation, Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, lived in 1921. A wander through Akcaabat, with its traditional Turkish houses, showcases the lifestyle of Trabzon’s ordinary people. 

Beyond Trabzon Proper 

Sumela Monastery is first on many visitor’s itineraries and rightfully so. Founded in 386 AD by Athenian monks, it’s perched on a sheer cliff 1200 meters up in the Pontic Mountains looking out toward the Altindere Valley. It, too, has a turbulent history. When the Russian Empire occupied Trabzon from 1916 to 1918, they seized the monastery. Then, in 1923, there was a forced population exchange and the monks had to leave, taking nothing with them. Cleverly, however, they buried the monastery’s famous icon under the floorboards in St. Barbara’s Chapel. Seven years later, one of the monks sneaked back into the monastery, retrieved the icon, and secreted it out to safety in the Panagia Soumela Monastery near Naousa, Greece. 

Well, with this tale to ponder, visitors to the region relax on the shores of Lake Uzungol some 4,000 feet up in the mountains. Families picnic on fresh trout or cooked local anchovies with rice called hamsi pilar or such traditional foods as karadeniz pidesi (a type of bread filled with cheese or minced meats), tava misir ekmek (corn bread) served with akcaabat kofte (spicy meatballs made of ground lamb), all followed by tea from the nearby Pontus Mountains or a typical yogurty drink called Aryan and hamsikoy rice pudding. 

Treats For Friends Back Home 

Like visitors to Trabzon before you, you simply must come away with some wonderful treasures like a make kemence instrument, similar to our fiddle. The Kemeralti Bazaar is where the townspeople shop or at the Russian market with goods from neighboring countries. Uzun Sokak is a walking street that’s abuzz all day long. Merchants along Kunduracilar Street offer traditional gold and silver woven bracelets called hasir bilezik that carry high prices. You can also search in the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Bazaar with its main entrance Kunduracilar Caddesi. 

Tired from shopping… consider sitting in a café watching locals smoke hubbly bubbly hookahs while playing backgammon, learn about the Pontic people who speak a form of ancient Greek, or ask someone to demonstrate a few steps from the horon. It’s a dance seen at festive events like weddings with dancers performing in a circle. Then you can show them the hokey-pokey.

                                                                            Karyn L. Planett