Black Sea Cruise -- Trabzon and the Sumela Monastery

Trabzon, Turkey
Visited August 7, 2008
Our last Turkey stop started at Trabzon -- one of the easternmost of the Greek settlements, a big way station on the old Silk Road, and today the northeast edge of modern Turkey (about 100 miles from Georgia).  In 1204, the Fourth Crusade sacked Orthodox Constantinople (with Christians like this, who needs infidels?) Some Byzantine heirs moved their headquarters here for about 250 years until the Ottomans conquered what was then called the Empire of Trebizond.

Sumela's Cave Monastery 

Our day started with a 30-mile bus ride through the Zigana Mountains past the
noisy Değirmen Creek gurgling its way to the Black Sea.After switching to smaller vans, we approached the winding and slippery path to the Sumela Monastery, now a museum whose walls are its pictures.

Founded in 386 AD, the Sumela Monastery grew to its current footprint Sumela Virgin and Childin the 13th century when the Emperor of Trebizond began to support it and several other monasteries. Sometimes called "the Last Greek Empire," Trebizond was more of a juggling act than an empire; its kings would marry their beautiful daughters to Anatolian princes, making hostile neighbors into friendly family. Often the empire would vie with Venetians and Genoans for hegemony in its own cities. You never know when a monastery or two will keep the Divine on your side, especially one with Obama and Biden dressed as Madonna and Child.

But this wasn’t enough and eventually the Ottomans took over and beheaded the emperor and all of his sons. (Apparently they didn't sufficiently greet them as liberators.) But in typically tolerant fashion (at least to subjects), the Sultans allowed the monastery to exist; it remained a popular religious attraction until the 19th century. Like much of the Pontic Greek institutions, this monastery clung to both its wealth and its cliff. Its library was renowned.

Sumela cave chapel Sumela: caves made into chapels
Today the main attractions are frescoes in varying states of disrepair on both interior and exterior walls. The various armies which occupied this strategic territory would often deface Sumela’s icons and frescoes. It ceased being a monastery in 1923 when those Turks who were Orthodox were expelled to Greece (and Greece expelled its Muslims to Turkey). Many had lived in their adopted countries for many centuries and spoke only the local tongue.

An economy-sized Haiga Sophia

After visiting Sumela, we returned to central Trabzon to explore the 13th century Hagia Sophia. Built as a church for a long-gone monastery, it survived by converting to Islam in 1577, becoming a mosque over a century after the Ottoman conquest. Today it's a museum.

Trabzon Haiga Sophia
Its carved entrance and 12-sided dome augment Haiga Sophia's frescoes
Haiga Sophia rises 50 feet above the bordering Black Sea.  Around 1960, Edinburgh University scholars restored about 1/6 of the Byzantine images plastered under by mosque walls.

Haiga Sophia InteriorWhile some feel that this space was originally modeled on its much earlier and larger namesake in Constantinople, this is a much different church, roughly in the rectangular shape of a Roman basilica.

Its exterior carvings were probably influenced by churches in Georgia and Armenia, relative neighbors to this quite-distant Byzantine outpost.

At left we see a vertical slice of the frescoed interior from 12-sided dome down to the  fine Byzantine floor. A smaller and lighter Hagia Sophia here requires little of the elephantine columns found in Istanbul.  

The extant frescoes are considered major works of the late Byzantine period and are probably from the 3rd quarter of the 13th century. Once they covered the entire interior. Those that survive typically are marked by chip marks made when the 19th century mosque repairers new plaster a better grip on the frescoed walls.

Click here to see many more Trabzon Pictures   from this trip

Click here to see our next stop: Yalta, Ukraine.

Click here to see our previous stop: Amasya, Turkey

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