Sunday, July 1, 2012

Day One: Trabzon and Sümela Monastery The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day one of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

A year ago me and my girlfriend moved to Istanbul to plunge into what we imagined would be lives of oriental adventure.  But during the school year we plodded through our jobs as elementary school teachers at a plodding nine-to-five pace.  On the weekends we would sometimes muster up the energy to explore the ponderous great city of Istanbul.  But after twelve months, we had become jaded with the mosaics and the palaces.  We had seen it all before, and taken pictures before, and read the information plaques before.  The smog-filled sticky heat of summer laid over the city, and we were listless.  Last Friday finally, school ended.

We rented a car and gathered a trio of friends recruited from Wisconsin, Istanbul, and Arkansas.  We will see the country—all of it—or as much of it as we can manage.  We met in a hotel in Trabzon late Saturday morning, excited and hopeful.


Trabzon is an ancient port on the Black Sea, founded in the 8th Century BC.  Once known as Trebizond and a key part of the Roman Empire, the city has stood while Empires have surged and crashed around it.  From Alexander to Augustus, from Justinian to Mehmet the conqueror to Ataturk, each has laid his own claim to the city.  And when he left, the city remained behind, facing the blue sea as always.  The streets follow a tangled course, jumbling around squares and apartment buildings, rising and falling and overlapping.  Through these arteries cars weave around each other brazenly, avoiding accident again and again at the very last minute.

Beyond the jigsawed skyline of the city center, we could see the broad blue stretch of the Black Sea.  Above the city stood bulging piney mountains.

We drove south.  Soon the city was done.  The landscape rolled on, wave after wave of increasingly prouder hills.  The road-side offered intermittent and mysterious industrial scenes:  concrete factories, car door factories, and half-finished skeletons of buildings crouching in the hill-folds.  After forty minutes we made it to the foot of the mountain.


The air was misty and cool, a light drizzle making the air feel wet and fresh.  Families were barbecuing overlooking the quick flow of the river, and I could taste the delicious taste of cooked meat just by breathing.

We walked up the road, the other cars racing beside us at irresponsible speeds.  But in those moments when we could see no cars, the mountain let us forget ourselves in its trees and the surge of river.  A slither of rainwater ran down the shoulder, grey with dirt.

Sumela Monastery and its mountain.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

And then there was a gap in the trees, and we got a view of the monastery we were climbing towards.  It was improbably flattened onto the mountainside high above us.  This was Sümela Monastery, ancient, built in the forth century to commemorate a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary discovered in a high mountain cave, as if made by Anatolian angels helpful enough to make a nice icon, but tricksy enough to hide it in the highest cave they could find.

A little further up the road, a bridge crossed the river over cascading waterfall  The sluice of water rumbled fell over the dark wet rocks, throwing up spray that tickled our skin.  It looked like a picture.  So posed for pictures.

The scenery inspired many observations.

“Looks like Wisconsin.”

“Looks like Korea.”

“Looks like Lord of the Rings.”

Then a steep mountain trail broke off from the road and we left the asphalt and the other cars behind us to plunge into the trees.  After five minutes we could barely hear the cars anymore, and we were panting as we hiked.  The whole world seemed only to be trees, and the dripping wet, and us.

After ten minutes of climbing path became steep, and we clambered up the muddy ground.  Then the forest opened into a clearing of white queen anne’s lace and morning glory.  The sounds of cars was gone.  We can hear the strains of a Turkish violin, and clapping.

We climbed the trail to a small pavilion.  An old man sat under it, safe from the rain, sawing at his Turkish violin with earnest, businesslike concentration.  Arranged around him was a Turkish tour group, laughingly beginning a half-remembered folk dance, linking arms, kicking up their feet, smiling.  And like that we were back on the main road, entered again into the artery of tourism.  The path curved around the mountainside, and we followed it to the monastary.


Rooms carved into the rock.  Photo by Jenna Staff.
The rooms were bare.  The windows were empty.  There were no beds, no bibles, no monks.  The complex stood as a symbol of something that had once lived, but was by now dead enough to be merely history.  The monastery had been abandoned in the bloody chaos of the First World War, after the area had been conquered by the Russians, and then the Russians had revolted and become Communists, and then the Communists pulled out and were replaced by the new Republican government of the great general Ataturk.

A set of steep stairs led finally to the Rock Church, the center of Sümela.  A facade of frescos stood in the open air, half-faded after the century and a half of rain and wind.

Historical desecration of history.  Photo by Jenna Staff.
As I made it closer, I saw that the fresco had seen better days.  The faces of the prophets and Jesus were scored away.  The paint had faded.  The whole bottom half of the frescos was scratched with thousands of words of graffiti.  In places the plaster had fallen off in chunks, revealing hints of paint—earlier frescos, now forgotten.

The painting itself was crude.  The figures were stylized and grave.  The buildings were lopsided, colorful, impossible—a Jerusalem of the mind, painted by monks who had never seen Jerusalem, and who had climbed the mountain to get away from buildings, whose faces were all stern and holy, whose colors were bright and unreal.

But then, after a closer look, I saw something.  Some of the graffiti was dated.  1876.  1891.  It was written in cursive Greek and Armenian and Roman letters.  This desecration was itself historical, I realized.  My disgust faded to confusion.

The facade led into a large cave, the whole face of it plastered and painted with huge images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and robe-clad saints with helpful Greek inscriptions next to their faces so you could tell which saint exactly they were.  The figures here were more confident than those outside, and better preserved.

Ceiling Jesus.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

We stood together, me and the other tourists and my friends, wondering at the monks who had long ago made their way up to this holy mountain, and had managed to hold on for a millennium and a half, looking with awe over the same valley as we were, climbing the same rocks, breathing the same air.  I thought of them turning their backs on the diseased cities below them, losing themselves in the forest and the rocks, imagining sometimes that there never had been such things as Emperors or roads or chariots, or their old banal lives.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

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