Trabzon – Kids with Guns and Monks with Taste

Trabzon was to be my first and, alas, only meeting with Turkey’s relatively unexplored Black Sea coast. At first glance, it doesn’t set the world on fire, but after a long stretch of travel through the pious, landlocked confines of Konya and Erzurum, I was glad to arrive in a salty sailor town with an air of cut-throat danger and merriment. Well, it’s not exactly Naples or New York (one of the few bars I frequented was hidden away on the fifth floor of the main street and women were afforded a designated section) but most of the hotels in our area doubled up as part-time brothels, and our window overlooked some of the seediest nightclubs this side of Hull. Also, Trabzon has a less colourful reputation. During WW1, after the Russian army retreated, thousands of Armenians were burnt at the stake or sent down the river in boats and thrown overboard. More recently, in 2004, it was the site of a bombing in a McDonalds that injured 6. It also serves as the city that spawned the teenage ultra-nationalist that three years later would gun down Hrant Dink, the editor of a Turkish-Armenian newspaper, outside his office in Istanbul. My knowledge is limited, but some brief research will show you that the McDonalds bomber ordered the assassination. More sinister still is the leaked photo of the shooting suspect immediately after being taken into custody, given a hero’s welcome, flanked by two smiling Turkish police officers and the red and white flag emblazoned in the background. Ogun Samast was 17 when he was arrested for that murder, which makes him seem like an old-timer compared to 16-year old Oguzhan Akdin, (also from Trabzon) the boy who shot dead Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro the previous year while he knelt in prayer at his church.

Not that I am in any way dwelling on the dark side of Trabzon, I am on holiday after all. But after I left, l read that the city was a hotbed of ultranationalist activity. After doing some reading about it, apparently it is the case. Maybe it doesn’t change anything, but I wonder if I had known this before I came, would I have enjoyed wandering the streets so aimlessly, or would I have eyed everyone suspiciously? In any case, I visited the stunning Sumela Monastery, which practically hovers atop the Pontic Mountains, overlooking lush green forests and swirling streams. Some truly impressive frescoes can be found. Even if they have been maddeningly desecrated by graffiti, the experience of climbing into the caves, allowing your eyes to focus and suddenly letting the colours of the cave walls stream into your eyes, and being stared down by Virgin Mary, is a powerful one.

Also, Trabzon has a great bazaar and, curiously, some parts of town which resemble much more somewhere in Mittleeurope like Vysehrad district in Prague rather than Turkey…

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