While under most circumstances it is traditional to greet the Black Sea for the first time with a hearty cry of “thalassa!”, it is difficult to muster the requisite enthusiasm when you first glimpse it at 4 in the morning when your bus has been delayed at the Turkish border owing to the presence in the luggage compartment of rather more cigarettes than might reasonably be regarded as acceptable for private use even by Georgians. The rain drizzled gently and persistently, my fellow passengers gloomily smoked their way through their remaining unconfiscated cigarettes, and the mist rolled down from the mountains and obliterated any view of the sea. It was all rather a long way from Xenophon.
There are perhaps some places that you shouldn’t go at all; the mystique needs to be preserved. This corner of Turkey in general, and Trabzon in particular, has been indelibly shaped for me by Rose Macaulay’s glorious, meandering, novel The Towers of Trebizond, in which Laurie, Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg ride around north-eastern Anatolia on a camel in a fruitless attempt to win converts for the Anglican church and emancipate the local women, before giving up and instead spending their time fishing, looking at old churches, meditating on love and religion, and engaging in the quintessentially 1950s activity of sneaking into the USSR (” a very popular pastime, like climbing Everest but more private”). I know this book so well that it seems impossible that anywhere could ever live up to it. But Turkey has always been a niggling gap in my mental map of this part of the world. Besides, I am rather fond of the latter Byzantines, who had Trebizond for their capital, for their firm and unwavering commitment to architecture, incest, murder, religious schisms and wildly convoluted and inept court intrigues as appropriate strategies to counter the enormous geopolitical threats their empire faced (this worked out about as well as you might expect, but at least their implosion was fittingly dramatic). So to Trabzon I went, albeit without a camel. Even with the interference of customs officials, buses are probably quicker.
For Macaulay, Trabzon is a city of dreams, haunted by Byzantine ghosts and populated by enchanters, camel-drivers and spies. These days, however, it requires a serious effort of will to romanticise Trabzon: it is a pleasant, modern port with a successful football team with a frankly eye-watering kit (I bought a pair of socks that somebody’s granny had enterprisingly knitted in the Trabzonspor colours: purple, sky blue and yellow is always a cheering combination), an Ataturk Square and all the other attributes of any self-respecting Turkish city. Hotels and apartment blocks have been built up against and over the old Byzantine citadel, where the last remnant of that huge empire clung on for eight years after Constantinople fell. It is very nicely landscaped. Here and there you run into little Byzantine churches now set about with minarets, and the tangle of narrow streets leading down to the docks still harbour mosques and bazaars and tiny shops selling copperware and spices and olive oil, as well as t-shirts and leather jackets and knock-off handbags, but it is all a little too tidy. If there are any Byzantine ghosts they are lying very low indeed.
There is still one great Byzantine relic: the thirteenth century church of Agia Sofia, which this summer was the object of outraged noises from many quarters, when after years as a museum, it was converted back into a mosque following a lawsuit from Trabzon’s notoriously conservative religious authorities. Over the past thousand years or so, control of the northeast of Turkey has passed between not only the Byzantines but also Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Ottomans, Seljuks, Persians and various combinations thereof. This political tangle has resulted in a great deal of hard feeling left over from this time, and consequently monuments such as these mosque-churches are immensely politically sensitive: debates over who is usurping whose cultural patrimony are lengthy and cantankerous, and there is a vibrant community of talking heads and blogs and message boards devoted to endlessly hashing out who has wronged who the most, and what should be done about it. From the point of view of a casual tourist this particular conversion is irritating primarily because most of the beautifully-restored frescoes and mosaics inside have been covered by screens and curtains. Trabzon is not exactly short on mosques, they apparently have over a thousand, and the populace seems to have survived perfectly well for the previous fifty years without this particular one. Still, it is only the last in a very long history of conversions and re-conversions, and at least the bell tower saves on the need to constantly put up and take down a minaret*.
Mosque or museum, it is still lovely, and there are inscriptions and carvings, and on the south wall eight hundred years’ worth of graffiti of boats carved by sailors hoping to avoid the notoriously capricious storms of the Black Sea. One blew up just as I had given up wondering what a narthex actually was (it sounds like a variety of small sea monster), and I sheltered in a tea garden with a Greek archaeologist, who was on a self-described pilgrimage to the Byzantine churches hereabouts, and still talked about flying from Athens to Constantinople, and had I noticed that the explanatory signs scattered around the gardens managed to describe the whole history of the region without mentioning the Greeks once, which was true, and indeed the linguistic contortions that some (not all) signs go through to avoid mentioning who built what is quite remarkable in this part of Turkey. Churches appear on the scene, fully formed, waiting until they can become mosques and outrage art historians and secularists or be destroyed by a passing horde, and then they can be rebuilt again, with minarets or without.
So I squinted behind the curtains, and the frescoes I could see were very nice indeed, and then I went and had some tea on Boz Tepe, the hill behind Trabzon, and watched the sun set on it, which is generally a good look for any town, and the Black Sea was much improved from a distance. Macaulay’s “lovely, haunting, corrupt, assassinating ghost, whispering of intrigue and palace revolutions and heresies in the brambled banqueting hall among the prowling cats beneath the eight Byzantine windows” is not really to be found here any more, nor are the banqueting hall or the Byzantine windows or even the cats, but I’m glad I came to see.
*On November 6 2013 a local judge ruled the conversion illegal, and ordered the building to be maintained as a museum. Plus ça change.