Trabzon, Turkey: Ancient history meets modern culture

Photo: Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey. Credit: Lisa Borre.
The Sumela Monastery near Trabzon is one of the most famous tourist attractions in this area. Photo by Lisa Borre.

Black Sea Logbook Entry

Date: 7/03/2010
Distance: 16 nm
Sailed from: Akçakale
Lat: 41° 00.1’N
Long: 39° 46.9’E

We both found Trabzon to be a very interesting city. A major stop on the Silk Road, it’s long history as a cultural melting pot is still evident today. Oddly enough, our first stop was to the Forum, a large, modern shopping mall complete with high-end, international chain stores, including a Migros supermarket, and with a mix of Iranian, Arab and local clientele. Likewise, the old bazaar quarter in the city center is packed with similar clientele, many of whom are women with colorful, silk headscarves shopping for fine jewelry, exotic fabrics, and designer clothes. They come to Turkey for a dose of Western culture in an slamic nation that is less traditional than their own.

Using the convenient dolmus (minibus) system, we made our way into the city center next, the first of numerous visits to the city during our 10-day stay. At the tourist information office, we found Yahya Saka, an extremely helpful information officer. He provided us with useful maps and publications and offered to help in any way. We explained the project we were working on and asked if either the mayor or provincial governor might be interested in learning more about yachting interests on the Black Sea.

Photo: Aya Sofia, a Byzantine church in Trabzon, Turkey. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Aya Sofia, a Byzantine church in Trabzon, Turkey. Photo by Lisa Borre.

At our suggestion, he agreed to request a meeting with Dr. Recep Kizilcik, the Governor of Trabzon Province, and two days later we were sitting in the Governor’s office. It turns out that the well-educated provincial leader speaks perfect English and is very interested in discussing his plans for the future of the province with foreigners. Although he is most interested in attracting cruise ship business to Trabzon, he explained that many of the province’s efforts to restore its rich cultural heritage would be of interest to all foreign visitors, including those on yachts. The governor was a gracious host and sent us away with a goodie bag of Trabzon products, including hazelnuts and tea.

Photo: The ancient city of Trabzon, Turkey. Photo by Lisa Borre.
The ancient city of Trabzon, Turkey. Photo by Lisa Borre.

Only a handful of yachts make it this far east on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea each year. We followed the advice of those who have come before us with the requisite visits to the Sumela Monastery, set high in the cliffs inland from Trabzon, and to the Aya Sofia, the pre-eminent Byzantine church with a beautiful view of the sea.

Unlike most other cruising sailors, we also came to this historic city to explore some specific aspects of its ancient history. While conducting research for our cruise, David came across accounts of Xenophon’s retreat with his band of 10,000 mercenary soldiers from Babylon (modern-day Baghdad) to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) in 400 BC which involved sea voyages along the Black Sea coast. One scholar’s book identified a cairn in the yayla’s (mountain meadows) near Trabzon which was the place where the 10,000 celebrated their first sight of the Black Sea by crying out, “Thalassa, Thalassa!” (The sea, the sea!).

After marching overland across Asia Minor, they knew they could get home if they just reached the sea. David was determined to see the place where their spontaneous celebration took place, so we hired Tenir Demirbulut, the manager of Zenofon Tours, to take us there. He apologized for not having a four-wheel drive vehicle available but drove us high up into the mountains in his small sedan anyways.

Photo: Yayla, or high meadows, Eastern Black Sea. Credit: Lisa Borre.
The high meadows above Trabzon, Turkey. Photo by Lisa Borre.

We forded streams, traversed deep gullies and bounced over rocky roads to arrive at the site of the cairn. Along the way, we stopped in tiny mountain settlements where people had come to graze their cows and sheep like many generations before them to ask for directions. We thought we might not ever find the place, but slowly we got warmer and warmer.

By the time we arrived, clouds had settled into the valleys below, but it was an otherwise clear and sunny day. Although we could not see the sea, the evidence of the cairn was compelling. Others had seen the sea from this same spot, but usually in May or October when the heat radiating from the land is lower. We celebrated our small success with a barbeque lunch at the mountain butcher’s shop in the closest town. It was the best grilled lamb either of us had ever had — a combination of its freshness and the fact that the sheep graze on the special mix of mountain herbs found only in the yayla.

Since we are also working on an update to the Black Sea cruising guide, we decided to check-out the easternmost of Trabzon’s harbors first. The purpose-built yacht harbor was under construction nine years ago when the last guide was written, but we had heard from other cruisers that it was still not officially open in 2010. We had also heard from the owners of the Dutch-flagged yacht Atlantis, that a security guard met them at the dock, and mistakenly thinking they were a Russian yacht because of the similarities of the flags, instructed them to leave immediately. They persisted and were allowed to stay in the end.

The yacht harbor is also where we had been instructed to meet our local contact, Ertug Düzgünes, dean of the faculty of marine sciences at Karadeniz Technical University (KTU) which operates a waterfront hotel, restaurant and athletic club next door as part of their hospitality training program for students.

The same security guard was there when we arrived, and he also asked us to leave. We politely ignored him, secured Gyatso’s docklines and asked him to escort David to the manager’s office. At exactly the same moment, a large motorcade arrived at the security gate. The leading opposition candidate in Turkey’s presidential race had arrived for a campaign event at the headquarters of Trabzonspor football club’s facility adjacent to the harbor. As he waited outside the security office, David was relieved to find Ertug in the middle of all the confusion. He instructed the club’s management that we be allowed to stay in the harbor, and that was that.

David and Ertug returned to Gyatso where we got acquainted and relaxed over a beer in the cockpit. We then went with Ertug to KTU’s beautiful facility next door where we sampled local sweets for which Trabzon is famous and met several other faculty members. We were welcomed as the dean’s guests and invited to make full use of the facility during our stay — a nice perk since there are no facilities or services in the yacht harbor itself.

Photo: Trabzonspor yacht harbor, Black Sea, Trabzon, Turkey. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Trabzonspor yacht harbor in Trabzon, Turkey. Photo by Lisa Borre.

Trabzon’s yacht harbor is owned by Trabzonspor, the local football (soccer) club. The club’s management explained to us that they are in the business of winning football games and not managing a yacht marina. Like the Dutch yacht before us, we were welcome to stay for as long as we liked for free as guests of the club, however, they would not provide any services such as water and electricity. It just so happens that the harbor was included in the property they leased on the Black Sea waterfront.

Over the years, they have allowed the owners of a few fishing and motor boats to keep their boats in the harbor, but without exception, the owners of local yachts were not happy that the fully constructed harbor, which has a large breakwater, cement finger piers and the infrastructure for water and electricity at each berth, was not being managed for its intended use. The most common phrase used by the club management and the local boat owners to describe the situation was “big problem.” This might explain why the water and electricity was not available at the time of our visit.

We met several times with Trabzonspor staff who helped orient us to the region’s transportation system and nearby shopping centers, etc. They also said that they would try to continue accommodating the occasional foreign yacht but made no promises. We plan to follow-up with Turkish yachting contacts when we return to Istanbul.

In preparation for our upcoming visits to Georgia and Russia, we spent several days gathering information and meeting with officials at the offices of the Consulate General for the Russian Federation and the Republic of Georgia, both conveniently located in the same neighborhood. In the latter case, the Consul General met with us personally and assured us that Batumi was now a port of entry for yachts and that we would be welcomed in Georgia. Sadly, the information we gained during our visit in Trabzon led to our ultimate decision not to visit Russia. This was in part due to the information we received from the Russian Consulate that we would not be allowed to visit Russia if we visited Georgia first. It was also due to the detailed accounts of the skipper and crew of the German-flagged Mien Chip which saw us moored in the yacht harbor and spent several days there as well. They tried unsuccessfully to enter three separate Russian ports, despite having all paperwork in order and a fluent Russian speaker onboard.

The time eventually came for us to push-on further east. We departed Trabzon with a much better appreciation for the ancient history and an understanding for how this is reflected in the modern culture of the Eastern Black Sea.