Hello again friends! I’m back with another adventure story to tell you all. I’m realizing that I’ve just been telling my stories as chronological lists of things with occasional stream of consciousness meanderings about the aura of the place etc. I want to switch that up a bit. Trabzon isn’t going to be explained chronologically. I’m going to tell you about things as they strike me. So let’s see where this takes us and if you and or I don’t like it, I will happily return to the old school version of storytelling.
I will however explain a little about Trabzon. It’s a city of about 750,000 people on the Eastern Black Sea coast. It’s only a few hours from the Georgian border by bus, as compared to 18 hours from Istanbul on said bus. The Black Sea coast has a different culture and cuisine from Istanbul, there is an ethnic minority in the region, the Laz, giving it some cultural diversity and the accent is entirely different from what I’m used to. I have been wanting to go to Trabzon ever since I knew I was coming back to Turkey. I can’t tell you exactly why. I knew that it would be interesting to get far away from Istanbul and try something completely knew. I thought it would be interesting to see what cultures in the foothills and edges of the Caucasus were like. There is supposed to be some amazing scenery around Trabzon and a couple of great sights. The shopping is amazing (this I will happily confirm). But I can’t put a finger on why exactly I wanted to go to Trabzon. I think I just wanted to. I knew the name, the approximate location and I’ve got the wanderlust pretty bad. So I went. My traveling companions were 5 American exchange students from Bogazici: Melissa, Maria, Sarah, Elaina and Hannah. This is the first time in Turkey for all of them and all of them are starting Turkish this semester. I was the mom for the weekend: organizing, head counting and translating.
The highlight of the weekend was Sumela Monastery, about 45 kilometers away from the city. Its situated in a national forest, though I would feel comfortable calling it a rain forest because when we went it was very rainy and seemed like it was always that way. We wound through the roads of Trabzon, such as they are and starting cutting through villages surrounded by tea fields, though plantations seems like a strong word since these were pretty small. A lot of homes were under construction, there were small businesses lining the side of the road and the hills of Trabzon quickly became larger and larger mountains, some of them dotted with mining roads and heavy machinery others with holiday homes and gardens. It reminded me that much of Turkey still looks like the regions in Azerbaijan. I spend my time in Istanbul and begin to think of the bustling metropolis as the face of Turkey. And it is, don’t get me wrong. But to assume that a nation has a single aspect is a mistake. It doesn’t. It can’t. Turkey is a chameleon undergoing modernization and urbanization, two ways in which our modern landscape can most drastically change its spots. The bus driver was playing a mix between pop and arabesque, bringing me back to mugham and last summer. I was struck by what I can only describe as a sort of homesickness for a place that became my own through the intense concentration of my entire life on it. I never would have thought that I would become homesick for Azerbaijan. It is a place of incredible natural beauty and splendor and the people are wonderful, but when I was there it was hot and often dusty, I was stressed out and sleep deprived and often frustrated by my mind’s inability to wrap itself around the language. And yet on those roads to Sumela my mouth formed into a smile and I felt the urge to speak in Azeri, not Turkish or English or German. I wanted to be back.
We climbed and the air got colder, the mist rose and then coalesced into first a drizzle, then rain and then a downpour. We drove on and up into pine forests covered in moss, winding our way along cliffs, catching occasional views of a white block structure clinging to the side of the mountain in a manner almost as precarious as we were. The bus released us and the last few hundred meters were on foot, the trails of mix of stone pathway and the soft matting of soil with layers of dead pine needles on top. The whine of an instrument like a violin but a couple hundred miles east of Vienna was faint at first, leading me to think that it was my imagination providing some theme music for the trip. Yet it grew louder and around a corner beneath an outcrop of rock sat an elderly gentleman, playing away. The frescoes that covered the once-holy walls remained vibrant; none of them with any type of explanation other than what our eyes could tell us. That scene there, the Last Supper deduced from the collection of men around a table. That one there must be later than those, look at the use of perspective in it. The painters followed the school of thought that celebrates nature’s form rather than trying to dominate it and followed the curvature of the stone in their work. An area that once must have been an altar was now a handy platform for photo taking. Most of the frescoes lacked faces, worn away not by wind or weather but by bored young individuals with a slingshot to hand. So too was the graffiti on the lower pieces overwhelming, leaving scars of natural gray cutting across the forms at every angle. An almost physical pain came over me at the destruction of art, and not only art but sacred art. Art that was meant to celebrate God, no matter the manner in which it was to be done. The urge to caress the figures, to soothe their pain and bandage their wounds successfully fought, outside I greeted a vista of proportions unknown to mankind. The mountains sang in their glory, something I have no doubt was on the minds of the original builders and many of the monks throughout the centuries who spent time and perhaps lifetimes in this place. The frailty of humankind was put on magnificent display as opposed to the wonder of something we could never hope to create, much less to conquer.
I was struck by the darkness of the forest. Growing up watching Disney movies forests might occasionally be frightening but this is only a passing impression followed closely by bright sunlit clearings and singing animals eagerly awaiting a human companion to translate for their new-found audience. This forest was dark. It wasn’t menacing, but it was unremitting. The trees were dark, the earth was dark, the stone was dark, the sky was gray as were the clouds and the rain and the mist. I reminded myself that people don’t live in fairy tales, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was one. I couldn’t decide which one exactly but the components had all come together. A large, secure and out of the way fortress. Check. The almost hidden path up to it. Check. The driving rain. In buckets. Swirling mist. Got you covered. Slight feeling of being watched from just beyond the path. Mood music. Cold wind. Raging river and waterfalls. Nature at its finest and most impressive. Band of adventurers. Only the feeling of isolation was missing, though in a way we were since I think there were perhaps 4 other foreign tourists there on the day we visited. Yet I was not isolated, for the words of others, though shrouded in a tongue that might have been unknown to me only 3 years ago was no longer mysterious.
And that my friends was Sumela. I’ll be back with Trabzon later.