From atop Nemrut we could almost see to Iraq and Iran. Ok, not exactly, but the fact was we were pretty close. Unfortunately, political situations being what they are, our silk road journey had to continue north instead of south. From Nemrut we headed to the Black Sea, on the err “Northern Silk Road.”
The Black Sea coast is beautiful, not at all like the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean, it rises quickly into the hills. Hidden among the hills are a number of old monasteries and churches, many of which pre-date the Ottoman empire and are decorated in magnificent byzantine frescoes. Northeastern Turkey, although still predominately Muslim, is home to a number of Greek Orthodox Christian’s as well, many of whom originated in Georgia or Armenia. Although many religious figures were exiled and run out of Turkey nearly a century ago, Christianity continues, and just recently a historic visit by the Greek Patriarch to Northeastern Turkey prompted the home for a potential thaw in religious relations.
Sumela Monastery, the grand dame of monasteries in the area, is tucked into a cliff overlooking the magnificent Alt?ndere valley. Set 1000 feet above a river, the monastery looks like something out of a fairy tale on first glance. Small but beautiful, we explored the site from top to bottom. Badly vandalized over time, the vibrantly colored frescoes still survive today. For me, the graffiti atop the religious scenes was actually the most interesting thing about the Monastery and I found myself wanting to photograph the medieval frescoes with “I was here” written in Greek, Russian and any number of other languages more than anything else. Graffiti, although incredibly destructive, is interesting. In Egypt we saw a “Napoleon was here” message in one of the Temples, and although I would never carve a message myself, it is interesting to see historical messages left over time.
Although Christian communities still exist in Turkey, the area is still predominately Muslim. Ramadan observance requires Muslim’s to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking or other distractions during daylight hours. About an hour or two before Iftar, the break fast meal, the streets fill with people rushing about to purchase sweets, food and drink for the big meal. In Trabzon there was a palpable excitement in the area at this time, and the sleepy streets where shop keepers had napped away the afternoon were suddenly full. One evening we found ourselves in downtown Trabzon five minutes after the breaking of the fast. Not another soul was on the street, a single car passed us, driving at break neck street, rushing home to eat. We laughed to ourselves, knowing that had we been fasting, we would have been the same way. As tourists we’re not expected to fast during Ramadan, but we are courteous and careful about eating in the open, especially in more religious areas. On the coast and in the major tourist areas there’s no problem with openly eating and all the restaurants are open and full. In fact, in these areas a number of Turks don’t keep the fast themselves and the atmosphere is lively all day. In the more rural areas the streets are quiet during the day, very little commerce goes on, and we’ve found ourselves surreptitiously eating in the back of stores, Church courtyards and ducking behind bus seats.
If You Go: Trabzon is easily accessible and serves as the gateway to Northeastern Turkey and the Kaçkar Mountain range. Hiking and camping opportunities exist in the area, but come prepared with most of your own gear. Onward transportation to Georgia is very frequent. Nearby Ayder is a popular summer vacation spot for Turks who come to enjoy the hot springs and day hikes.