Following the Black Sea

Batumi, Georgia. I was holed up in a stormy corner of the Black Sea when I decided to turn back westward for the second time. The first time was to meet a friend, but this time the only thing waiting for me was an airplane. It was nearly October, and my plan to continue eastward across the Caspian was falling apart. For starters, winter is a bad time to play around in Central Asia. Plus there was the excitement of the Arab Spring. Iraq and Turkey had only whetted my appetite to learn more about the Middle East and Egypt was constantly in the news. A friend had recently been turned back when trying to cross into Syria (the conflict was just beginning then) and I doubted my chances of heading south that way, so I bought a southbound flight to Lebanon that departed out of Istanbul. But first I had to get there. With one week and 800 miles to go, I followed the southern edge of Anatolia’s Pontic Mountains west from Batumi to Trabzon, Amasya to Safranbolu, and eventually arrived at the seat of the old Sublime Porte.

Sumela Monastery. I overnighted in the coastal city of Trabzon, taking the opportunity to visit nearby Sumela Monastery. The Greek Orthodox monastery is perched cliffside within Turkey’s Pontic Mountain range, an hour south of Trabzon. Although it dates from the 4th century, Sumela was at its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries under the patronage of the Empire of Trebizond, a remnant state that controlled the region from the port city of Trabzon after the dissolution the Byzantine Empire. Frescos from the period still cover the interior of the church, but time hasn’t been gentle on them. Many of the frescos have been scraped, removed, or otherwise defaced. In the photo below, all that remains are traces of the once-vibrant pastels and a dozen or so faceless halos.

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Amasya, Turkey.  I followed the Black Sea coast as far as the city of Samsun and then turned south for Amasya. In the first century BC this ancient town was home to Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer whose Geography was written during the lifetime of Augustus Ceasar. Strabo interested me because, like Herodotus four centuries before, he was among history’s first “travel writers.” Strabo traveled widely throughout the Greco-Roman world, including southward journeys through the Levant, across Sinai, and down the Nile all the way to Kush (Sudan). It was very much the new course which I set for myself and I liked the idea of beginning as Strabo did, even if I was going to be taking a short plane trip over Syria.

On the mountaintop above Amasya stands the Amaseia, an ancient fort whose foundations predate even Strabo. Built in ancient times by the Helenes, the structure was inhabited over the years by Romans and Ottomans among others. Far below, picturesque white Ottoman homes dot Amasya’s riverside, making the town a picturesque stopover in eastern Turkey. On my short stop I had breakfast on one of Amasya’s busy morning streets and then strolled around town. I enjoyed the crisp but sunny September weather and popped into several mosques that were quiet and peaceful.

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Below, a mosque interior in Amasya, Turkey.

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Safranbolu, Turkey. My next stop was a four-hour journey west across the flat, empty spaces of the northern Anatolian plateau. Safranbolu, whose name is derived from its history as a trading town for saffron, is today notable primarily for its architectural heritage. Due to its use of white exteriors criss-crossed by exposed wooden supports, those of us unfamiliar with European architecture (that includes me) might be forgiven for confusing this style with the Tudor architecture of 15th century England or even the half-timbered buildings associated with parts of France and Central Europe. On the contrary, Safranbolu’s homes are a novelty of 17th century Ottoman rule which spread widely throughout the empire. I’d seen this style of house as recently as in Amasya but also in places as distant as eastern Bulgaria.

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While in Safranbolu I also treated myself to a classic hamam (Turkish bath) experience. I’d seen many hamams across Turkey and the Balkans, identifiable as wide, squat structures with numerous low domes built into the roofs. Inside, visitors first rinse off in a steamy pool area before being placed on a massage table and subjected to a violent scrubbing with large marshmallowy sponges that remove old skin. Having been backpacking for a while, I was irrecoverably shamed when my enormous, hairy masseur paused with a big smile and outstretched hand to show me the rolls of dead skin he’d removed from my back. In it I could nearly make out the street grime I’d collected in Urfa, Erbil, and the other ancient cities of the region. I felt like an old and weathered artifact, and before emerging from Turkey’s rural eastern provinces into the cosmopolitan streets of Istanbul I needed to have the ages scrubbed out of me. Clearly I had come to the right place, and my enormous Turk was more than up to the task.

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From Safranbolu, I had only one more leg to my journey before arriving in Istanbul. On my way east I’d snuck into Turkey (figuratively speaking) at Kusadasi by crossing the Agean. So I had not yet seen this city which was one of the most important in Eurasian history. I was incredibly excited as I climbed into the reclining sleeper-seat of my overnight bus. In the morning, I would watch the orange sun rise over the Bosporus and begin preparing to turn my course southward toward the Levant.

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