Monday, February 29, 2016

Out and about from Trabzon

Out and about from Trabzon

Out and about from Trabzon
Sumela Monastery (Photo: Sunday's Zaman, Pat Yale)

Way down towards the far eastern end of Turkey's black sea coast the great port city of Trabzon has an illustrious history that is somewhat belied by its workaday modern appearance. It was to this distant outpost that the Byzantine emperor fled in 1204 when the army of the Fourth Crusade overran what was then Constantinople (today's İstanbul).
Even after their rivals for the throne managed to seize the city back in 1261, the rulers of the breakaway Empire of Trebizond stayed put here. It wasn't until 1461 that the Ottomans pushed them out and seized it for themselves.
But Byzantine culture had left a lasting mark on Trabzon. It wasn't until 1924 that the last Greeks were forced by the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne to “return” to Greece, while Turks from Greece came to take their place.

For centuries, Trabzon sat at the end of one of the Silk Road trails, its port bustling with merchants exporting the silks and spices of the East and dispatching by road the less exotic produce of the West. Right into the 20th century, camel trains were still a common sight around town.

Today Trabzon is an exciting, energetic city brimming with self-confidence and with a distinctive atmosphere born of its long contact with Russia and the Caucasus. The exquisite Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia (now converted into a mosque) and a pair of elegant museums aside, the town center is not big on historic sightseeing. Very little is made, for example, of the role once played by the Fatih Cami as the Church of Panagia Khristokefalos where the breakaway Byzantine emperors were crowned; most other reminders of the Byzantine era, including the old palace, go utterly ignored.

But Trabzon remains a great place to stay with lots of pleasant local restaurants and tea gardens, and a lively bazaar to discover in between trips out to explore the surrounding area.

Sumela Monastery

The number-one drawcard that pulls tourists by the busload into this area is the Sumela Monastery, clinging like a limpet to a rock-face deep in the glorious pine forest of the Altındere National Park. After the last of the monks left at the time of the population exchange, the once-flourishing monastery fell into ruins. Recently, though, it has been effectively rebuilt, which makes it easier to imagine how life might have been lived on the mountainside if harder to remember just how old the original building was.

To understand that, you need to step inside the rock shelter at the back of the site and look up at its colorful Byzantine frescoes. For it was here that in the fourth century Saints Barnabas and Sophronius claimed to have found an icon of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke, one of the four evangelists who had been born in what is now Antakya. Despite the difficulty of reaching the site, a shrine rapidly grew up here. Work on expanding it continued well into the 19th century as can be seen from the somewhat battered frescoes adorning the outside wall of a smaller church on the site making it look rather like a church from deepest Transylvania.

To get the most out of a visit here, it's probably best to come alone so that you can take your time over the climb up to the monastery, then take a good look round before perhaps pausing for lunch in the national park.


Second in popularity only to the monastery as a day-trip destination is Uzungöl, the “long lake” that nestles in the mountains to the east of Trabzon, inland from the small town of Of, known mainly for the piety of its residents. Uzungöl is often promoted as a second Switzerland, evoking images of pretty, pointy-roofed chalets grouped picturesquely around the water. Unfortunately, reality comes with a great deal more concrete, although recent years have seen an attempt to improve things by wood-facing some of the older buildings.

These days, Uzungöl finds particular favor with visitors from Saudi Arabia; “they love the greenery and the rain,” a local hotel receptionist explained.


If you're staying in Trabzon for a few days, you might want to head out west to visit the small town of Akçaabat, which is best known for its tasty köfte, served with aplomb at a string of large sea-facing restaurants along the main road.

For most people, that's about as far as a trip to Akçaabat goes, but really the thing to do is to struggle up the steep hill behind the town center in search of the lovely old Ortamahalle, the part of the town where the Greeks used to live in delightful wooden-framed houses clustered around the early 14th-century Church of the Archangel Michael.

As with Trabzon, so with Akçaabat as it appears that the locals have preferred to forget their Byzantine past: On my most recent visit, the church was open to visitors, although nothing had been done to protect its beautiful mosaic floor or provide any information about it. On the other hand, the lovely houses were being restored and will no doubt provide wonderful new homes with sea views for better-off Akçaabatlıs. In due course, no doubt the church, too, will receive more attention.


Vakfıkebir is known throughout Turkey for producing mouth-wateringly delicious bread in loaves the size of cartwheels. If you are in Trabzon on a Monday, it's worth popping out here to take a turn around a sprawling riverside market. Then you can treat yourself to a sandwich you won't be forgetting in a hurry.


Beyond Akçaabat and Vakfıkebir is the small town of Tirebolu where a castle, probably built by Genoese traders in the 14th century, perched on a rock, dominates a pretty fishing harbor. It won't take long to look around here, which means that you can come by bus, then hop on and off at Vakfıkebir and Akçaabat on the way back to Trabzon.



The Black Sea Highway roars along the eastern Black Sea coast, a boon to truckers in a hurry to get to Georgia, a nightmare for more or less everyone else. The highway was built on reclaimed land, a fact that's easy to forget when you're in the towns along the way, but that becomes more obvious if you side-trip east to Sürmene to visit the stunning Memişağa Konaği, a huge mansion with a wooden-framed superstructure attached to a stone ground floor, that is known locally as the Kastell. When it was built in the 19th century, the mansion would have sat in enviable tranquility with its wooden shutters opening onto a glorious vista of the Black Sea. Now it's stranded inland astride a bluff above the highway.

The Memişağa Konaği is theoretically open to the public, although you may have to ask around for the caretaker. Inside it showcases marvelous examples of the sort of painted woodwork that once adorned the walls and ceilings of the homes of the Black Sea wealthy. Stroll back in the Trabzon direction towards the center of Sürmene, and on the outskirts you'll find a cluster of the sort of solid wooden mansions that would have been the homes of the more middling class of merchant. Now, of course, they're expensive to maintain and most are standing empty.


Beyond Sürmene lies Rize, the capital of Turkish tea-growing country with a museum to show off all the fine packaging that has been used to market the product since it was introduced to the area in the 1930s by Zihni Derin, whose bust sits outside the Tea Research Institute to celebrate his achievement. Like Trabzon, Rize is a town that is more focused on looking forward than back, but the tea museum is housed in a fine restored Ottoman house in the town center and the remains of a castle still protect the western flanks of the town. Come here to get a taste of the Laz and Hemşin cultures that live on in the coastal towns and hidden valleys beyond Rize, quite literally if you order one of the tasty local delicacies, lahana çorbası (cabbage soup), mıhlama (cheese fondue) or mısır ekmeği (cornbread).

Monday, February 15, 2016

From Harput to Lake Van, Erzurum and Trabzon with Henry Fanshawe Tozer (2)

From Harput to Lake Van, Erzurum and Trabzon with Henry Fanshawe Tozer (2)

From Harput to Lake Van, Erzurum and Trabzon with Henry Fanshawe Tozer (2)
Akdamar Church, Van

Disembarking at the Black Sea port of Samsun in the spring of 1879, the British geographer Henry Fanshawe Tozer made his way southwest over several mountain chains to the Central Anatolia plateau. Here he explored the fascinating remains around the Hittite capital of Hattuşa, east of Ankara, before riding southeast to the crucial trading hub of Kayseri. After a quick detour west to the fairy tale landscape of Cappadocia, Tozer and his party headed northeast to Sivas, then southeast across the biblical Euphrates to Harput (outside modern Elazığ).
From Harput onward, the territory the curious Tozer would venture through was inhabited largely by Kurds and Armenians. It was a remote and mountainous region that the Ottoman authorities were struggling to keep a firm grip on -- especially in the wake of the crippling 1877-8 war with Russia. Britain, motivated by its own interests in the region, had stepped in to help Ottoman Turkey against imperial Russia. In return, the ruling sultan, Abdul Hamid II, had been forced to accept the presence of British officials roaming at will over Anatolia -- handy for British travelers' such as Tozer in the short-term, but the resentment caused by this partial ceding of independence to a foreign power was to eventually have devastating consequences for Anatolia's Christian population.

From Harput to Muş

From Harput, Tozer headed east to the today little-visited town of Palu. Here he was shown some rock-cut chambers in the Urartian fortress, which his guides informed him “were the dwelling place of St Mezrop, the Armenian saint, who invented the Armenian alphabet about 406 AD.” The party then skirted the mountainous Dersim region (today the Munzur Mountains around Tunceli). Having mainly fraternized with Turks, Greeks and Armenians up until now, the party had their first contact with Kurds. The group they met “hardly spoke a word of Turkish, so that we had difficulty communicating with them, and we found them very suspicious, and demanding high price for articles such as milk and cheese, which we bought of them, and demanding the money be paid on the spot.”

Today the Surp Garabet Monastery on the Muş Plain, the party's next destination, is completely ruined and desolate. Tozer reached it on Aug. 24, 1879 and found this important monastery -- believed by Armenians to contain a very holy relic, the body of John the Baptist -- and pilgrimage stop “full of men, women and children … picnicking on the ground. … Some of the women had one nostril pierced for a silver ornament.”  The monastery was then home to 20 monks, the head priest of which spoke fluent French, and 180 lay brothers.
The town of Muş was quite the contrast to the monastery, being “quite the filthiest town we had met with in Turkey … the pavements were broken and ragged; every street was an open drain, and the stenches were fearful.” After lodging in Muş with a well-off Armenian, the travelers set-off the next morning on fresh horses for Bitlis, nestling deep down in a valley below Lake Van. Here they were hosted by a well-known American missionary, Reverend George Knapp, who was working with the local Armenian community. According to Tozer, Bitlis -- today a fascinating place clustered around its imposing old citadel -- consisted of “3000 houses, 2000 of which belong to Kurds, 1000 to Armenians, 20 to the Turks and 50 to the Syrians.”

Up Mount Süphan and by boat across Lake Van

Every traveler to eastern Turkey today longs for their first sight of Lake Van. Back in 1979, Tozer first saw it following a five-hour ride from Bitlis. “A beautiful view, owing to the numerous bays, the succession of headlands, and the finely cut outline of the ridges.” The party rode around the north shore of the lake to Ahlat, famed for its Selçuk tombs and gravestones, before reaching the pretty settlement of Adilcevaz. Having conquered Mount Erciyes outside of Kayseri, the lure of the even higher Mount Süphan, a volcanic cone towering above the village, was irresistible. Despite camping 7,000 feet up on the slopes of the peak and leaving at 3 a.m. the next morning, Tozer, who was weakened by the journey, failed to reach the summit. He did, however, enjoy the splendid lake and mountain views from the rim of this crater-topped, 4,058-meter-high peak.
Tozer and his companions reached Van by sailing from Adilcevaz and lodged in the old, walled town at the foot of the dramatic Rock of Van. Today Van is an undulating sea of rubble, bar a couple of well-restored Ottoman mosques and the scant remnants of a church and a couple of caravanserais, but it then had a prosperous population of some 30,000 “of whom three fourths are Armenians.”

The Rock of Van

Eager to explore the Rock of Van, Tozer first had to get permission from the commandant of the Ottoman garrison then stationed atop it. Then, as now, the view from the summit of the sheer, 100-meter-high, 1.5-kilometer-long rock was spectacular: “The panorama from the highest point was enchanting, for on one side lay the expanse of the blue sparkly lake, with its circuit of mountains, among which Siphan [Süphan] and Nimrud Dagh [Nemrut] were conspicuous, while on the opposite direction the broken Varak Dagh [Erek] formed a noble object.”
The oldest historic remains on the rock are now known to be Urartian, a unique civilization centered in Van between 900 and 600 B.C. At the time of Tozer's visit, they were thought to be Assyrian and the cuneiform inscriptions that mark the rock-cut tomb of Urartian King Argishti I that Tozer saw were “still a riddle to philologists.” Before leaving Van, Tozer visited another American missionary promoting the Protestant variant of the Christian faith to the sometimes unwilling Apostolic Armenians led by Dr. Reynolds.

Üç Kümbetler, Erzurum (Photo: Cihan)

Past Kurdish encampments and a biblical peak to Erzurum

They left Van on Sept. 6, riding north along the eastern shore of the lake and then following the gorge of Bendimah River. Led by a local, they overnighted at a Kurdish encampment “with numerous tents forming a long line, some large and black, others smaller, round and white. The men who were hanging about them were a wild and surly looking set, with hair streaming down in long locks … all of course were armed. Their possessions might be seen about the encampment -- sheep, goats, oxen and cows, herds of horses, big mastiff dogs, and greyhounds clothed in small coats. The whole formed a highly picturesque scene.”

Avoiding Doğubeyazıt, which according to the locals had been ruined in the war with Russia, they headed across high, volcanic peaks to Diyadin -- today known for its hot springs -- reveling in the fine view of 5,165-meter-high Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağ) en route. From Diyadin they continued westward towards Erzurum, passing “a long line of 170 laden camels.” Tozer was impressed with Erzurum as they approached, noting, “As seen from without, it seemed the most imposing city, with the exception of Amasia, that we had reached on our journey, owing to the numerous minarets and other striking buildings that rise from its midst.”
In Erzurum they were “received with the greatest kindness by our consul, General Major Trotter, who entertained us during our stay.” Trotter had been in the city during the recent Russian siege during which the strategically crucial outpost nearly fell, and according to Tozer, the population had fallen to around 20,000 as a result of the recent difficulties. Tozer reported that the whole region was in disarray as the Kurds were taking advantage of the lack of central control (the Ottoman troops had not been paid in four years) to pillage the Armenians. Worse, the Circassians (Çerkez) who had arrived as a result of Russian advances “came with nothing but their arms … they follow no pursuits save those of highway robbers and petty pilfering, and being well-armed with rifles, revolvers and swords, whilst the Zapitehs (Ottoman police) often have nothing better than flintlock guns.”

Uzungöl, Trabzon (Photo: Cihan)

Over the Pontic Alps to Trabzon

From Erzurum Tozer's party headed north, over the Kop Pass, to the top of the Pontic Alps from where they “looked down into a deep valley, in which were cheerful, well-built villages, with walls of stone and red-tile roofs; beyond this rose forest clad mountains … delicately cut ridges … the snow-topped mountains of Lazistan and, completing all, the expanse of the soft-blue Euxine (Black Sea).” The cultural, topographic and climatic contrast between the arid Anatolian Plateau and the Black Sea hinterland still shocks travelers today, how much more marked it must have been in Tozer's day.
Tozer waxed lyrical about their next stop, the famous cliff-hanging monastery of Sumela, then still inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks. They were hosted by the gracious monks and as they left the next day for Trabzon the normally reserved Brit was moved to write that it was “one of the loveliest spots we had ever seen.” It remains a picturesque place with the monastery recently restored. The monks, though, are long gone, prey to the post-WWI population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
Finally they reached Trabzon, or Trebizond as Tozer knew it: “We came in sight of the city, which was the term of our wandering. We had concluded a ride of 1,500 miles, which had been accomplished without illness or incident of any kind.” It was indeed quite an achievement. In Trabzon they explored the various Byzantine churches turned mosques, but couldn't gain access to the famous Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) as it “had been appropriated for military purposes.” Then on Sept. 27 Tozer and his companion, TM Crowder, boarded a French steamship bound for Constantinople.

Sümela Monastery, Trabzon (Photo: Cihan)
Henry Fanshawe Tozer's “Turkish Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor” can be read online at
Keywords: Tozer , Turkey

Monday, February 1, 2016

From Samsun to Cappadocia and Beyond with Henry Fanshawe Tozer. Part 1

From Samsun to Cappadocia and Beyond with Henry Fanshawe Tozer. Part 1

From Samsun to Cappadocia and Beyond with Henry Fanshawe Tozer. Part 1
Hattuşa remains (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)

When Henry Fanshawe Tozer embarked on a long journey across Anatolia in the spring of 1879, the fascinating region that was then the heartland of the Ottoman Empire was on the edge of crisis.
Muslim refugees had flooded in from the Balkans and Caucasus, victims of the expansionist policies of imperialist Russia. Their arrival upset the natural balance of the longer-established Anatolian people -- Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and other ethno-religious groups. In 1874 a major famine had decimated the population, state taxes went uncollected.
The sultanate was in disarray with Abdul Aziz forced to step down in 1876. His successor, Murad V, had a nervous breakdown and was deposed later the same year, paving the way for the paranoid Abdul Hamid II to take over the ailing empire. The war with Russia, which began in 1877, was to have disastrous consequences as well. Faced with the loss of vast swathes of territory, the Ottomans had no choice but to accept the help of Britain, who in 1878 obtained the island of Cyprus in return. The sultan also agreed to respect the rights of the empire's substantial Christian population and British officials penetrated the remotest parts of Anatolia to supervise the implementation of the agreement.

Amasya’s famous apples (Photo: Cihan)

Over the mountains from Samsun to Amasya

Given the parlous state of Anatolia in the 1870s, it's no wonder that Tozer cancelled his original trip, scheduled for 1874, and waited until the final year of the decade to set out into Anatolia. Like so many travellers' before him, he made the first part of the journey -- from Constantinople (İstanbul) to Samsun -- by boat. Tozer's travelling companions were TM Crowder, the bursar of Corpus Christi, Oxford, and a Greek dragoman whom Tozer noted with faint praise as “a rough and far from first-rate travelling servant, but hardy and healthy, and possessing a thorough knowledge of Turkey.”
Tozer was less than enthusiastic about the Black Sea port of city Samsun when his ship docked, writing: “Samsun is inconsiderable in size and by no means imposing in appearance. … There are few minarets and the most conspicuous building is a church of recent construction.” Rather like a backpacker today setting off for some less visited part of Turkey, Tozer sought information about the lay of the land from other foreigners who had been there before, in his case the French consul in Samsun. His words were a stark warning: “You must not think of starting for several days; you must wait until a caravan is formed. … The roads are thoroughly unsafe owing to Circassians and other brigands.”
Undeterred, Tozer eventually managed to scrape together five horses for the journey and set-off at three o'clock that afternoon. “Fortified by a firman from the sultan,” Tozer and his companions were officially sanctioned to roam across Anatolia and were able to enlist a couple of military guards, one Turk and one Circassian to accompany them. A “post boy” also accompanied them to care for the steeds as Tozer had persuaded the official postmaster in town to provide him with horses -- Samsun then being the last stop before Constantinople on the postal route between the Baghdad and the Ottoman capital.
Four mountain chains and one “verminous inn” later the party reached Amasya. They stayed in a caravanserai right by the turbid Yesilırmak river, opposite the chief draw of the town even today, the “famous ‘Tombs of the Kings,' which were the principal object of our visit.” Equally exciting to the Oxford-educated geographer Tozer was that he was now in the birthplace of one of the most famous geographers in antiquity, Strabo (63 BC-AD 24), “to whom everyone who is interested in ancient geography is so much indebted.”

En route to visit another foreign consul stationed in Anatolia high up above the river, Tozer “stopped to admire the magnificent view… the town lying beneath you, with its trees and minarets, the river spanned by several bridges, the rocky heights on both sides.” For the British academic this was heady prose and praise indeed, as rarely did the phlegmatic Tozer allow romance to colour his descriptions.

From the land of the Hittites to Kayseri

Next the party rode across yet more mountains to Çorum and then onto Alaca. Today the impressive pair of Hittite-era sphinxes flanking a gateway there are replicas, while the originals are on display in Ankara's splendid and recently renovated Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. Tozer was privileged to see the originals still in situ, noting, “It was impossible not to feel astonishment at these strange objects lying in such a remote place.” Archaeology was very much in the embryonic stage at the time of Tozer's travels, so it is not surprising that at the party's next goal, Boğazkale, there is virtually no description of the extensive remains of the former Hittite capital of Hattuşa. It had simply not been uncovered. Tozer did manage, however, to view the delightful relief-carved scenes of Hittite warriors and deities at nearby Yazılıkaya.
Continuing their journey southward, the party reached Yozgat, then a settlement of “3,000 families, 50 of whom are Greek, 1,000 Armenian, the rest Turkish” and were struck by “the unusual cleanness of the town.” Tozer attributed this to the wealth generated by Yozgat's principal product -- Angora wool. Their next destination was Kayseri, a four days ride away. There they lodged in the Armenian quarter, hosted by Kerope Yakobian, a protestant pastor who had spent two years undergoing training for his ministry in Scotland. Today booming Kayseri has a population of well over 1 million. According to Tozer, in 1879 it comprised just 60,000 souls of which 16,000 of were Armenian, 4,000 Greek and the remainder Turkish.
Like many visitors to Kayseri both before and after him, Tozer was fascinated by the spectacular volcanic peak of Mount Erciyes, rising above the city in unearthly, snow-capped splendour. Unlike the vast majority of travellers, however, Tozer was determined to climb this 3,916 meter high-peak. Guided by an elderly Armenian called Stephan the party camped at 2,700 meters. The next day they rose at 2 a.m. and carrying only “a piece of meat and some bread each” made their way up a snow-filled gully to the summit ridge, which they reached at 6 a.m. They reached the actual summit well ahead of their guide, who struggled up manfully behind them. The spectacular views were “as wonderful a sight as can be conceived,” allowed the normally guarded geographer.

Cappadocia (Photo: DHA)

From Cappadocia to Sivas

The next day they headed west to Cappadocia. Today this unique and beautiful region is so rammed with boutique cave hotels and overflown by squadrons of hot-air balloons that it's hard to imagine it as the little-visited backwater it was at the time of Tozer's expedition. They lodged in Ürgüp with a Greek called “Capitan Oglu” who took them to Göreme the next day. Tozer described the area as “a valley, perhaps three-quarters of a mile in length, which has been scooped out to a depth of five hundred feet. … The cliffs fall steeply on both sides, sometimes with sheer descent, sometimes in a succession of terraces… and about these terraces… were pinnacles, obelisks, pyramids and broken towers of tufa, presenting the wildest scene of confusion.” At least Cappadocia's topography has changed but little since Tozer's day.
The party returned to Kayseri before setting out on the four day ride northeast to Sivas. En route they visited the Armenian monastery of Surp Garabed, passed a salt lake and explored the famous caravanserai at Sultanhanı. The village surrounding it is still a scruffy sort of place, out of keeping with the grandness of the remains of the caravanserai. Even back then it was “a small, poverty-stricken village.” Of Sivas itself Tozer had little to say, but he used the time he spent there to talk to the locals and reflect on what they thought of the current state of affairs in Anatolia. “The opinion prevailed that the present regime was intolerable. On this subject there was no difference; Mahometans and Christians, natives and foreign residents, all thought alike.”

Çifte minareli medrese, Sivas (Photo: DHA)

Across the Euphrates to Harput

Tozer and his entourage left Sivas on Aug. 12 and after a further four days riding they reached the Euphrates, always a thrilling moment for the traveller, especially a geographer. The famed river presented “a wild but most impressive scene” being “about 300 feet wide…the current strong.” Tozer wasn't so impressed by the craft that would take them to the eastern shores of the biblical river for “it was of extremely crude and primitive construction… 30 feet long by 15 feet wide, flat bottomed…had it been roofed over, it would not have made a bad Noah's Ark.”
They overnighted at Keban, today best known for its dam. Even then the silver mines, which had previously brought much prosperity to the settlement, were exhausted. They lodged at the house of a wealthy Armenian before riding on to Harput. Today a rather forlorn collection of ruins outside Elazığ, Harput was then a flourishing Armenian town and a centre of American protestant missionary activity in Eastern Anatolia, well-known for its theological seminary and English language school (renamed Euphrates College not long after Tozer's visit), but is now completely destroyed.
Tozer was enchanted by Harput, writing of the panorama from the ruined castle at its heart. “After the dreary scenery of the Anti-Taurus, I hailed with delight the change to bold, sharply cut mountain outlines and brighter colouring… we now seem to have reached a new and more romantic land.”
For Tozer, the real adventure was about to begin.
Henry Fanshawe Tozer's “Turkish Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor” can be read online at

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