Great for: Mountain Views, Castles, Nature Lovers, Hemshin History, Poor Weather
Set against a backdrop of soaring mountains and green forests, the castle of Zilkale is simply stunning. Set on a spur of rock some 100 meters above the valley floor, its high tower looms over the ancient road that winds its way from the coast, along the Storm Valley, and up to the mountain villages. These mountains are known for their dramatic weather, which can shift from thick cloud clinging to the forested slopes, to suddenly open skies, revealing the distant peaks of the Kaçkar mountains.
There is some debate about the name Zilkale. While it means “Bell Castle” in Turkish, its possible that it comes from the Persian Zirkale, meaning “Lower Castle”, possibly referring to the fact that it is lower in the valley than Kale-i Bala, another historic castle built in the upper reaches of the valley.
The medieval builders of Zilkale designed the castle to fit to the natural landscape. The castle consists of three portions: an outer bailey which reached to the river far below, a middle bailey and the central keep with its high central tower on top of the summit of the natural rocky spur. The site of Zilkale also had another advantage. The Storm Valley, which runs from the sea in the north up into the high mountains, narrows into a gorge at this point allowing Zilkale to oversee all traffic passing through the valley both to protect and collect taxes.
According to some sources as well as the signs at the site, a small rectangular room in the middle bailey, just to the north of the central tower, was an Armenian chapel (the sign labels it a “temple”). There is some question as to whether it was in fact a chapel as its orientation is to the west rather than the east and the apse is a shallow rectangle rather than semi-circular and vaulted (while the architecture seems less than conclusive, Anthony Briar in his general survey of the area calls it an Armenian chapel as does the 18th century Armenian Geographer, Per Minas Bajishkyan). Excavations of the site found many tiles, suggesting that the room was used as a mosque after the region was taken by the Ottomans near the end of the 15th century.
The history of Zilkale and the region in general is rather murky and many articles on the site are contradictory making it difficult to say anything concise on the subject. However, the most likely and generally agreed upon history (mostly based on the work of Anthony Briar and his survey of the Black Sea region) states that the castle was built before the 15th century by the local Hemshin lords (Hemshin or Homshetsi peoples are a group related ethnically and linguistically to the Armenians who still live in the region today, though their culture is disappearing). Zilkale would have been built in conjunction with Kale-i Bala, some 20 kilometers up the valley, to guard the valleys between.
These castles were likely built to control more than local traffic. The Storm Valley runs from the sea up to the feet of the Kaçkar Mountains (Meaning “Cross Stone” in Armenian, these are the highest peaks in Turkey’s Black Sea range). There is a high pass at the valley’s summit, connecting the settlements of the coast and valleys to cities of the interior. While this route would only be open seasonally it allowed for trade to pass through the valley, connecting local producers with far off markets, and giving the rulers the opportunity to charge a tax on the goods heading for the coast. The door to Zilkale was built high enough to allow loaded animals to pass inside, suggesting that the castle was also used as a caravanserai, or fortified roadside inn. While this pass would have brought with it trade revenue, it also opened the area to the risk of invasion making fortifications such as Zilkale a necessity.
Unfortunately, there are numerous other sources that offer different histories of Zilkale. Some guides state that there was no road over the mountains, while others call it an important trade road. Some sources (especially older Turkish ones) say that the castle was founded by the Genoese in the 6th century, despite the Genoese being an insignificant village at this time and the fact that, even at their height around the 14th century, the Genoese tended to build their trading forts near the coast as their power was in their ships above all. According to Wikipedia “it is an Armenian chapel built by the Empire of Trebizond”, citing the Anthony Briar article that says it was likely not built by the Empire of Trebizond (a Byzantine successor state based in what is now Trabzon).
While Zilkale is a beautiful and impressive site in and of itself, it is also a fascinating example of how easily history can be lost and forgotten. The origins of Zilkale are for now as shrouded in mystery as these mountains are shrouded in mist.
How To Get There
Even though Zilkale and the Storm Valley can be full of visitors, there are only two easy ways to visit the sights of this area: Chartered tour, or rental car. While some people will rent a taxi for the day, it’s usually cheaper to just rent a car if you plan on travelling for more than a couple days.
A tour can be arranged through the tour offices that can be found in the center of the cities of Trabzon and Rize. You can choose to join a group or arrange a private tour depending on the size of your group and availability.
By car Zilkale is easy to find. From the city of Rize head east on the D010 highway to Ardeşen where you’ll see a massive brown sign marked for the various sights up the valley. Take the Ardeşen – Çamlıhemşin Road into the mountains following the Storm Creek with its beautiful historic bridges. Follow this road past the town of Çamlıhemşin (the road will go straight but become Halil Şişman Street) for another 15 kms when you’ll come round a bend and find the castle of Zilkale on your left.
For more about car rental and driving in Turkey make sure to read our full drivers guide.
Where To Stay
The mountains of Rize are dotted with picturesque mountain houses set up to host guests right in the midst of the natural beauty of the mountains. There are some nearby to Zilkale itself as well as in the nearby Yaylas. Pokut Yaylası is a stunning place to stay with some great guesthouses to stay in. There are also lots of boutique hotels and pensions nestled in the valley along the Storm Creek. These guesthouses will put you right in the midst of Rize’s nature, though the more remote yayla are by far the most tranquil. The larger towns tend to have the cheapest/lowest quality hotel options if you’re looking to save money and stay as cheap as possible.
Planning on visiting Zilkale? Make sure to check out Palovit Waterfall, just a few kilometers away, or stop at some of the stunning historic bridges along the Storm Creek Valley. For more guides to the region see all our Black Sea guides.
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