After only a brief start in Rize we were heading west along the coast towards the province of Trabzon. While I had been to the area before, I didn’t really speak Turkish yet and spent most of the week utterly confused, following our friends wherever they led us. Now that I was back and planning my own trip I was able to see how unique these two provinces are, even from one another. While both provinces are known for lush mountains wreathed in fog, locals with difficult accents and blond hair, and a strong appetite for tea and anchovies, there are some subtle differences. For one, while both are lush, Rize is green to the point where it looks like nature is trying to choke out humanity in a sea of tendrils. In Trabzon I actually saw the occasional patch of dry earth! The biggest difference though is what attractions these provinces hold. While Rize is about nature and simple village life in the mountains, Trabzon, once the last holdout of the Byzantine Empire, is full of history. Now, obviously both have history, but little has survived of Rize’s history, whereas the ruins and monuments of Trabzon still hide in the forested valleys.
Our goal was to visit three Greek monasteries, each similar, and yet in a different stage of decay. With poor information available online (and almost nothing in guidebooks) we really had no idea if we were going to be able to find them or not.
Arriving in Trabzon late in the evening, our priority was food, not ruins and we settled on Akçabaat Köftesi, a local version of the Turkish meatball for dinner. While we really should have tried Trabzon’s most iconic dish, a great pan of fried anchovies, I was too tired to feel adventurous with my supper. Instead, we were destined to have a different sort of adventure that night.
After supper Fred and I set out to find a cheap hotel, wandering and asking the price at the desk of any dingy place we came across. The first place we stopped at didn’t look hopeful. The carpeted steps leading up to where the receptionist was were threadbare and badly stained. It looked like the sort of place you’d likely contract a skin disease from. I figured we may as well ask the price and get an idea of what prices were like in the city. Certain I had misheard the price I had to ask a couple of times, 1,600 TL? That didn’t seem right, we were used to paying 150-200TL per person for hotels much nicer than this. We asked at another hotel, then another, then another. All prices were roughly the same and 10-15 times what they should cost! Finally, we went to the Öğretmen Evi, the secret weapon of any traveller in Turkey: a simple hotel reserved for school teachers and their families. I got halfway through asking if there was room when the apologetic look on the receptionist’s face gave me my answer. Apparently, they were booked full for the next month.
Confused as to why the small city of Trabzon would be busier and more expensive than more traditionally touristic cities, I asked him what was going on. The short answer was “Arabs”. Apparently Gulf State Arabs had poured into the area, attracted by low costs, halal food, and endless greenery. In a somewhat quieter voice he also mentioned that all the real cheap hotels which had doubled as brothels had been torn down shrinking the market when there was a sudden post-pandemic surge in visitors. Lovely.
The real issue of course was not Arabs. Arabs simply come and pay. The issue is opportunistic hotel owners raising their prices ten times the usual rate. Lucky for us Turkey’s famous hospitality culture would overcome this opportunism and come to our rescue.
Deciding to abandon the city of Trabzon and find some place in the countryside we went to pick up our car from the car park where we bumped into the security guard we had met on the way in. After explaining our predicament, he began making calls to friends, making up a story about how we were old friends come to visit who needed a place to stay, reluctantly admitting that we were in fact foreigners. After a few calls he managed to find a friend to arrange a place for us at 500 TL a night even though the listed price in the hotel was 1700! It was a close call, but Turkish hospitality had saved the day!
The next morning we left our reasonably priced hotel at sunrise, hoping to visit Trabzon’s most popular tourist destination before the crowds. The Pontic Greeks built three monasteries in the mountains of central Trabzon, all similar in that they are perched among impossible cliffs, yet incredibly different in their vastly different stages of decay or preservation. Our first stop was Sumela Monastery, by far the most popular tourist destination in Turkey, and the only one to have been restored or maintained in the past century.
When we arrived, the area around the monastery was still quiet though the massive parking lots for tour busses suggested the quiet wouldn’t last long. We followed the road as it wound its way up from the valley floor to the height of the monastery itself. We came to a viewpoint displaying the magnificent monastery clinging to its cliff face over a deep valley of spruce trees.
From the outside the monastery is a sheer and proud edifice, but, after you’ve passed through the narrow tunnel entrance into the inner courtyard, you get a hint at the monastery’s far humbler origin. The church structure, covered inside and out with frescoes and sheltered under the eaves of the overhanging rock, began its life as a simple cave church. The irregular shape of the unworked stone is covered in massive depictions of Biblical scenes and figures in stunning detail.
Abandoned since the departure of the Greeks in the population exchange of 1923 I couldn’t help but wonder what this place would have been like in its heyday, or better yet, how it had evolved over its 1600 years of active use from a humble retreat in a cave to a grand structure with rooms and chapels for a crowd of monks, clergy, and visitors.
We wouldn’t have to wait long to get an idea of what Sumela Monastery may have looked like during its years of abandonment. Descending back into the valley just as the long lines of tour busses began to arrive we made our way into less frequented valleys to find the abandoned Vazelon Monastery.
Believed to be the oldest monastery in the region, Vazelon is much like Sumela, consisting of a massive stone façade built against a cliff with a shallow natural cave and church in a sheltered courtyard-like space behind. Both monasteries have a smaller church sitting just outside the complex. The site of Vazelon is somewhat hidden among the trees rather than set high in a cliff where you can see it from far away and so it was with some doubt that we followed the terrible, overgrown road up into the mountains. Eventually we came to a place where the road had washed out, the falling earth tearing out a swath of trees, creating an opening through which we finally spotted the outer face of the church that we could have easily missed completely.
After a bit of searching, we finally managed to find the trail up to the monastery itself, following a path that wound its way between grey tree trunks, wild rhododendrons, and patches of stinging nettles. The final stretch ran under an over-hang of the cliff up to a little church that sat a little separate from the rest of the complex. The roof had collapsed but we could still make out the frescoes clearly including a baptism scene with John the Baptist in his shirt of camel hair, after whom the church takes its other name “The Monastery of the Forerunner”, AKA John the Baptist.
Just around the corner we entered the monastery through a hole that hadebeen crudely broken through the wall, the proper entrance out of sight and out of reach behind stinging nettles. The hole led into a room choked with rubble from the collapsed ceiling, and climbing up into the room above we managed to enter into an inner courtyard similar to that of Sumela Monastery. With a small inner church built at the mouth of a natural cave, under an overhanging cliff, and closed in by a tall structure with a nearly flat outer façade, the designs of these two monasteries were strikingly similar.
Finding a way into the large outer building turned out to be trickier than expected. With everything made of wood long rotted away, there was no floor or stairs and only open air three to four storeys high. Open to the sky above, large trees had grown up inside and vines hung down the walls from above.
While the design of Sumela and Vazelon Monasteries may have been similar, they were very different now. Where Sumela was cleared of rubble and repaired Vazelon was completely natural. Some of Sumela’s “restoration” efforts have been shoddy and destroyed the authenticity of some sections. By comparison Vazelon is utterly authentic, yet its this “authentic” greenery and abandonment that will be its demise.
With a proper restoration being unlikely, the decision seems to be between losing this historic monument forever or preserving it at the expense of its historicity.
Finding Vazelon Monastery had been much easier than expected, our much abused car managed to take us up the rough and muddy trail that we had expected to hike, and so we had time to visit the last monastery of the area before dark.
The third and final monastery we hoped to visit is known locally as Kuştul, though its proper name is the Monastery of Saint George Peristereoas, or Saint George of the Pigeons after a legend regarding its founding.
The road to the site was long and windy and as afternoon passed into evening we found ourselves some of that infamous Black Sea weather. While it was still warm, thick clouds filled the sky and slowly descended on the landscape, filling the forests with mist. Once again we found ourselves without internet and having not seen any signs for a long time, we were unsure if we were even on the right road. The hills above us were hidden in cloud so we really had no idea if we were close.
Eventually we found some people and, asking directions we were met with confused looks. They then pointed back the way we had come and said “its just right there.” But when we looked there was nothing but thick cloud and fog.
Unable to see anything they told us that there was an access from the otherside of the mountain that we could take or we could take a trail from the bottom of the valley where we stood.
Deciding to take the slightly less vague route from the valley, we retraced our steps then turned up a steep track into the hazelnut trees. It became immediately obvious that we didn’t actually know where we were going and that our car wasn’t going to take us there.
Fortunately we met a hazelnut farmer taking his lunch who told us to simply “Keep the hill to our left and keep heading up”. Though rather vague, it seemed easy enough and we set off. Much of the land here has been cultivated for centuries and there are fair trails criss-crossing the landscape. While this makes for easy walking, it also makes it easy to get lost.
The trail was buried in the dense vegetation most of the time and whenever we came to an opening the fog was so thick we couldnt see anything to get our bearings. After 45 minutes of brisk walking, we were drenched in sweat. The fog was thick and the air stifling. At one point the air suddenly became extremely humid and so much sweat was pouring off of me, I had to pack my camera back in the bag to keep it safe! Yet again I wished I hadn’t worn jeans to hike in. We were seriously beginning to wonder if we had lost our way when suddenly I looked up and there it was: a massive shadow in the fog looming right above us!
A muddy track led us up a short, steep slope and through a gateway into the monastery itself. Inside, we could sense the height rather than see it, the sound of a rushing stream coming out of the cloud far below us. The ruins were buried under thick ivy which made it impossible to know exactly where the edge of the cliffs were. Between fog and ivy there was remarkably little to see and apart from the odd standing wall, or the outline of a chapel floor, it was difficult to tell what anything was.
Unable to manage a decent photo from inside the monastery we made our way back down to the valley floor. For a brief moment the cloud lifted enough to manage a picture of the monastery from below, but even when the breeze blew away the fog everywhere else ,a stubborn cap of cloud remained on Kuştul which explained the suffocating atmosphere in and around the ruin.
While these clouds were making things rather difficult for me (both in regards to sweating and taking pictures), clouds and fog are a central part of Trabzon’s image. Sunshine and blue skies are simply not what the Black Sea is known for.
With that in mind, we went back to where we had started our day to visit Sumela Monastery in the clouds.
Now we at Art of Wayfaring are dedicated to providing you with thoroughly researched guides and directions for all of Turkey’s little-known sites and so it was that the next morning we were once again headed to Kuştul monastery to see if we could access the monastery by the upper route that was supposed to be easier.
The morning was warm and clear, meaning we should get a good view of the monastery this time. We spent well over an hour driving down barely passable mud lanes through picturesque forests, never really sure if we were going the right way or if there was even a right way. Eventually we made our way down a road that didn’t appear on any maps we had and found a trail running into the forest in a direction we hoped would work. A short distance later the path merged with another path that was built up with a significant wall of dry fitted stones. In places the wall had collapsed, revealing a clay pipe running under the path. Finally, some sign that we were heading the right direction!
As we walked I was just noticing how cool the air was when we caught sight of the monastery and suddenly found ourselves back in the sticking humidity we experienced the day before. Within moments we were drenched and I wondered why the monks ever decided to build a monastery in this horrible spot!
Going up into the monastery once again, only this time with a clear view of the valley below, I had to admit that this remote rocky outcropping was stunning.
Even though the fog was gone, the ruins of the monastery were still obscured by a thick blanket of ivy. Poking around we could see that the damage to Kuştul was considerable, with many structures lost, floors collapsed, and sections having fallen off the precipitous cliffs. If Sumela was an exampe of a what a restored monastery looks like and Vazelon what an abandoned monastery looks like, Kuştul Monastery is a ruin in its last stage before being lost entirely. While one could debate whether restoring Vazelon the way Sumela has been restored is the right choice, Kuştul is simply beyond saving. While it is always sad to see such significant places like this in the midst of being lost, it is fascinating to see it in contrast to places like Sumela.