31 May 2004

From Trebizond to Trabzon

Robert D. Kaplan's Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Vintage, 2000) is full of wonderful vignettes of places that were once out-of-the-way, and are now taking on new significance. Here's a glance at a former outpost of Byzantium on the Black Sea.
The bus pulled into Trabzon during a golden sunset: exactly what this city had constituted in world history.

Trabzon is the Turkish-language corruption of the Greek Trebizona, which comes from the Greek word for "table"--trapeza--a reference to the flat promontory on which the city sits. In 1204, Alexius and David Comnenus, scions of the Byzantine Greek royal family, escaped the Crusader conquest and looting of Constantinople and, with the help of an army provided by the Georgian queen Tamara, created a sovereign outpost of Byzantium here in eastern Anatolia. The new city-state of Trebizond got a boost in the mid-thirteenth century when the Mongol invasion of the Near East forced a diversion of trade routes north from Persia to Anatolia. Just as Dubrovnik's noble families were to play Ottomans off against Habsburgs to preserve the independence of their Adriatic city-state, the nobles and diplomats of Trebizond played Turkomans off against Mongols to survive, keeping this city and its sylvan environs as a cosmopolitan outpost amid the monochrome Turkic nomadism--for the goods that amassed at the docks here were transported to Europe by Genoese boats, bringing Latin civilization to this eastern port. And because the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror did not subjugate Trebizond until 1461, eight years after Constantinople had fallen, history has conferred upon this place the aura of a last bastion of Greek Byzantium. In fact, a substantial Greek and Armenian population survived here through the centuries of Ottoman rule, until Atatürk's revolution took root; so here, too, modernity meant ethnic cleansing, though of a relatively benign and gradual kind.

My first night in Trabzon I was awakened by the blast of the Moslem call to prayer--louder, I recalled, than a few years earlier, when I had last visited. In the morning I noticed the ubiquity of head scarves. Trabzon had become a bastion of Fazilet, the Islamic Virtue party, whose vitality here was a backlash against the "Natashas"--Russian and Ukrainian prostitutes who had arrived in the 1990s from the nearby former Soviet states, threatening the stability of local family life. Reportedly, it was Turkish housewives--angered by what their husbands were doing at night--who brought Fazilet victory at the polls.

Trabzon represented historical discontinuity. The various artistic monuments of the Byzantine past notwithstanding, what I saw was a drab and dynamic, utilitarian parade of bustling kebab stands, cheap cafeteria-style restaurants, and shops selling crockery, auto parts, vacuum cleaners, kitchen and bathroom tiles, and so on, lining narrow, serpentine streets noisy and polluted with trucks and automobiles. The industrial uniformity wiped out any specific cultural trait or connection to the past....

The next day I found what remained of the Armenian monastery of Kaymakli, up a nearly impassable dirt road a few miles from the city center, amid a squatters' slum loud with children and roosters. A small boy led me into a destroyed building with a makeshift tin roof. The dirt floor, foul with excrement, was cluttered with hay, firewood, scraps of corrugated iron, and a set of barbells, which the boy proudly lifted to his waist. I looked at the stone walls, decorated with a turquoise-and-rosy-pink pageantry of Hell and the Apocalypse amid saints' portraits, all faded, defaced, and framed by fabulous filigree work, recalling the beauty of this fifteenth-century Armenian church. As the unknowing boy jumped up and down on the corrugated-iron pile, each rumble of the iron reminded me of another human displacement. I thought of the brutal ethnic expulsions that have pockmarked the history of the Near East, of which that of Kosovar Albanians taking place that same spring was merely the latest. The smell of earth, the reek of feces, and the artistic fragments of a past Armenian civilization conjured up for me yet another great crime. A monoethnic Turkish nation blanketing Anatolia with its cartographic imprint had not occurred naturally or peacefully, and was not therefore necessarily permanent.

For geography holds the key not only to the past but the future, too. The Black Sea, with its diverse civilizations, may transform this part of Turkey now that the Soviet Union and its formerly impenetrable borders are gone. The Natashas were only a part of what was happening here. Along Trabzon's harbor, there was now an endless market for goods from the former Soviet Union: fabrics, silverware, old war medals, cheap jewelry, tea services, and just about everything else, from socks to cell phones, was on sale. This was a working-class bazaar, like the Chinese market I had seen in Budapest. Trabzon was becoming more of a multiethnic Black Sea capital and less of a purely Turkish one. The kingdom of Trebizond could be reborn, I thought, in dreary, working-class hues.

My last day in eastern Turkey was like my last day in eastern Hungary [on the way to Romania]. In both places I was conscious of being near a great fault line, beyond which lay a starkly different world. Few people in eastern Turkey had any idea what was happening next door in Georgia. The large tourist office beside my hotel in Trabzon had no information about Batumi, the Georgian city on the other side of the border--not the names of hotels, the prices, not even the name of the Georgian currency. Batumi and Gürcistan (the Turkish name for Georgia) were terra incognita, and this heightened my sense of adventure.
The New America Foundation, where Kaplan is a senior fellow, has posted on its site a prescient review of this prescient book by Richard Bernstein in The New York Times on 15 December 2000.

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