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
in 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
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: 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
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.
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.
While 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
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.