I had arrived in the northeast of Turkey, in the city of Trabzon. Sitting at the southeastern tip of the Black Sea and bordering Armenia, Trabzon was once a busy trading centre between Iran and the Caucasus. Marco Polo finished the land portion of his journey from Asia to Venice here in the late 13th century, at the height of the Trebizond Empire. After World War II, though, the city declined and has not returned to its former glory.
Trabzon is not pretty, although its seaside location gives the air a salty breeze. The buildings are unremarkable, except for a few restored mansions, and some of the downtown streets have a dingy port city feel to them.
But the reason to visit Trabzon is to revisit history by exploring one of Turkey’s most staggering sights: the Sumela Monastery. It is carved into a rock face on a high cliff overlooking a valley. Thick forest runs wild in all directions as the omnipresent mist wraps around the cliff. It’s easy to see why this location would have been chosen for its seclusion and protection from unwanted visitors.
The story goes that Sumela was founded in 386 AD by two Greek priests, making it over 1,600 years old. While the colourful frescoes survive from much later (most are from the 19th century), they are quite damaged and some have even been deliberately defaced. (Well-restored murals and the remains of a decorated dome are better seen at Hagia Sophia, just west of the city centre.)
The drive to Sumela passes foliage that is lush, vibrant and various shades of green, travelling inland 46 kilometres and up through a wooded valley. Dense forest lines both sides of the road before it enters Altındere Milli National Park, where an ascent up the Karadağlar Mountains begins.
I was in a van with a dozen Turkish tourists. Across the aisle from me was a family, and a young girl and her aunt sat directly to my right. The girl had been eying me since we left Trabzon and when we finally made eye contact, she smiled and blurted out something familiar in Turkish.
Seeing that I was having trouble piecing together the phrase, her aunt said in slow English, “She wants to know your name.”
“Oh, benim adım Lori.”
The girl was pleased. Her name was Hatice. By the time we had reached the entrance to the monastery, her and I had become friends.
I had seen glimpses of Sumela as the van climbed up the mountain. The massive structure loomed over the valley, yet by being etched into the cliff walls, it somehow appeared deferential to the surrounding forest. The abundant vegetation contrasted with the bare stone architecture that was carved into a church, sleeping rooms, kitchen, library and chapels.
We were dropped off in the parking lot 950 metres above sea level, from which we climbed up to the monastery at over 1,200 metres. There were people everywhere, mostly Turkish tourists.
The Greek Orthodox monastery was built around a cave, what is now called the Rock Church. The two priests who discovered the site found the icon of the Virgin Mary there and built the church around it, carving the church deeper into the rock face. Layers of frescoes are painted on the inner and outer walls depicting scenes from the bible.
After spending an hour or so wandering through the rooms and taking photos with my nine-year old friend, we boarded the van and were dropped off partway down the mountain road at a jungle of restaurants and souvenir shops. Hatice asked if I would have lunch with her and the rest of the family insisted that I join them.
We sat down at a long communal table outside and ordered the standard meal of the region – fresh fish; sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and lettuce; copious amounts of bread; and tea – and tried our best to get to know each other.
Hatice stayed huddled up to me the whole time and I could tell she had much to ask me, but kept forgetting that we had to wait for her aunt to translate. At one point she pulled out a compact mirror from her purse and proudly showed it to me: on the outside was the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the man who founded the Republic of Turkey and is credited for modernizing the country during his rule between 1923 and 1938.
The family all nodded their heads in approval and repeated “Atatürk” until they were sure I understood who he was. This was similar to what I had experienced in other parts of Turkey. I was told numerous times, especially by those from Istanbul, how “modern” they were, “just like you,” they would say. And that they weren’t religious.
Which is interesting. Although Turks travel all over the country to see their history represented in mosques, churches and ancient sites, those who I met from the cities are more interested in moving their country into the Western model of modern.
What does “modernity” mean for Turkey’s future?
*Please check the website before you visit Sumela, as it currently states that the monastery is closed until summer 2016 for renovations. (These projects often run behind.)*