When Jeff told me several months ago that he wanted to go to Trabzon for his birthday, I was less than enthused. Trabzon? I said. For your birthday?
There wasn't much I remembered of Trabzon from my first visit there some 12 years ago on a Rotary trip with other foreign exchange students. I remembered the Sumela Monastery and how gorgeous that was, of course, but mainly had a vision of a bland, grey industrial port town.
"Don't you want to go to Antalya or something? Somewhere we can really celebrate?" I asked.
Nope. So Trabzon it was.
I set about trying to make the most of our 48-hour trip by booking us into the Novotel -- it's the city's most Western hotel and I figured we could get a nice drink there -- and arranging a private driver to take us all over the city on Saturday, Jeff's actual birthday.
But clearly the star of our weekend -- and the reason we had travelled to Trabzon in the first place -- was the Sumela Monastery.
We first laid eyes on it from the car (above) on a 3-km road that switchbacked up a cliff facing the Altındere valley. Because we were in a car, we didn't have that much walking to do on the way to the actual monastery, not as much as I remembered from 12 years ago when we came by a large bus.
The walk up provided the perfect backdrop for a few portrait photos.
And then just a few minutes later, we saw it: the Greek Orthodox monastery built first in 386 AD and rebuilt by several subsequent emperors, used as a place of worship by generations of Pontic Greeks living in Trabzon.
What you see today is the monastery as it basically stood in the 13th century, when Alexios III (1349-1390), ruler of the Empire of Trabzon, poured money into its upkeep and expansion.
The monastery's famous frescoes, however, weren't added until the 18th century. And I must say, the frescoes are amazing. Truly outstanding. Substantial restoration work has been done to the monastery and the frescoes are bright, vivid and clear. I've seen many smaller churches in Turkey with sadly faded and warped frescoes but these are magnificent.
My knowledge of Christianity has improved greatly having lived in Turkey these five years -- go figure -- yet I still have trouble determining what's happening in many frescoes and often turn to Jeff and say, "Who is that and what is he doing?" It's rather embarassing, really, though we did pick up a lovely book at the exit -- "The Unknown Frescoes of Sumela" by Ismail Kose -- that page by page, fresco by fresco, explains what each represents. A magnificent idea for a book. If only I had it while I was in the monastery!
We spent about two hours roaming the monastery, much of which is closed to visitors though there is definitely plenty to see. We even managed to shoot I dare say the absolute best self-portrait I've ever been able to do.
It was a fabulous start to Jeff's birthday and the weekend in general, and I was pleased to be able to go back and see the monastery a second time.
Useful Info: Getting to Sumela Monastery is remarkably easy with a tour guide. Eyce Tours offers daily trips to the monastery for 25 TL, which includes the entrance fee to Altındere National Park. Entry to the site is a separate 8 TL per person.