Trabzon's Byzantine Churches

Trabzon is a city on Turkey’s Eastern Black Sea coast constructed on terraces and hemmed in by the natural ramparts of the Soganli, Zigana, Canik and Caucasian mountains. Like the rest of the southern Black Sea coast, the climate is mild and rainy throughout the year, as a result of which the province is lush with vegetation.

The city dates back to the 7th century BC when settlers from Miletus sailed through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea and founded first the colony of Sinope (Sinop), and then Carassus (Giresun) and Trapezus (Trabzon).

Subsequently Trabzon passed into the hands of the Cimmerians, Scythians and Persians. Persian domination of Trabzon, as in the rest of Anatolia, was brought to an end by Alexander the Great’s eastern campaign in 334 BC. After Alexander’s death, the region became part of the Seleucid Kingdom (312-280 BC), which was succeeded by the Pontic State (280-63 BC).

When the Roman general Pompei defeated the Pontic king Mithradates in 63 BC, the region came under Roman rule, and when the Roman Empire split into two in 395 AD, Trabzon became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. The city’s importance increased over the centuries, and it was fortified and bedecked with new buildings. During the time of the Emperor Justinian many of the churches in the city were renovated and an aqueduct dedicated to Saint Eugene was built to provide the city with water.

Trabzon’s churches reflected its status as a city of economic and strategic importance, and it is those which have survived to the present day that are the subject of this article. Following the Latin invasion of the Byzantine capital Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1204, the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus fled the city and with the assistance of the Georgians established an independent empire in Trabzon which survived until being conquered by the Turkish sultan Mehmet II in 1462.

The oldest surviving church in Trabzon is St Anne’s known in Turkish as Küçük Ayvasil. It is in the form of a basilica divided into a nave flanked by two aisles, and there is an inscription over the door referring to repairs carried out in the 9th century.

The church dedicated to Trabzon’s guardian saint Eugene is today known as Yeni Cuma Mosque. It was built in the 13th or 14th century on the site of an earlier basilica, whose founding date is unknown, which was demolished to make way for the cruciform plan church.

Panaghia Chrysocephalos is a monastery church dedicated to ‘Mary of the golden head’ built in the 10th century. The original basilica was converted into a cruciform plan in the 12th century. Over the central section is a dome with a high drum. The interior of the church is decorated with Byzantine period frescos and the floors are paved with mosaics.

After the Turkish conquest, the main entrance was moved to the north façade, and a mihrab (alter niche of a mosque) and minber (pulpit) added. A college known as Fatih Medrese was constructed adjoining the church, which became known as Orta Hisar Mosque.

Travellers and scholars who visited Trabzon over the centuries were always impressed most by the monastery church of Haghia Sophia 2 km west of the city. This was built on the site of an earlier ecclesiastical building during the years 1250-60 by Manuel I of the Comnenus dynasty, members of whom had fled to the region after the conquest of Istanbul by the Latin crusaders. The chapel on the north side of the church is of earlier date, while the bell tower to the west was added in 1427. During the First World War it was used as a warehouse and military hospital. Following the restoration in 1964 it was opened to the public as a museum.

The cruciform plan church exhibits superb stone craftsmanship. The large central dome resting on four columns is covered by a tiled roof, which rising above the high drum pierced by windows has the appearance of a tower when seen from a distance.

The church is an unusual example of a Byzantine church with magnificent porticos on the west, south and north façades. To the east are three apses, the central one being semicircular within but five-sided on the exterior, while the two side apses are semicircular both inside and out.

Haghia Sophia is elaborately decorated with relief stone carving, frescos, and floor mosaics. The façades are decorated with geometric and floriate designs and fantastic creatures carved in relief. The niches with stalactite decoration in the west façade, column capitals and geometric interlacing on the north façade appear to reflect the influence of Turkish Seljuk and Georgian art.

The frescos on the walls and in the apses, dome, vaults and arches consist of biblical scenes and portraits of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Christian saints.

As well as churches, Trabzon had many monasteries situated in remote spots where monks lived in isolation from the world, devoting most of their time to prayer. One of these was the Monastery of Theocephastos (known in Turkish as Kizlar Manastir), which stands on the lower slopes of Mount Boztepe overlooking the city. An inscription records that it was founded by the Emperor Alexius III Comnenus, and a fresco depicts the founder with his family. Like other monasteries in the region, the church, chapel and living quarters of the monks were originally carved into the rock, and later extended using other building materials. The monastery continued to be inhabited until the late 19th century.

Another monastery, the Vazelon, is situated in pine forest near the village of Kiremitli in the district of Maçka. The original monastery consists of a large cave, an ayazma (holy spring), and chapel, while the church and monks’ cells are later additions dating from the 19th century. Of all the provincsns religious buildings, undoubtedly the most celebrated is the Monastery of Sümela on Mount Karadag near the village of Altindere in Maçka. Natural caves in the mountainside are incorporated into the complex, which is built on terraces. It was originally founded by the Comnenian emperors in the 13th century. During Ottoman times pious endowments provided the monastery with revenue, and fermans (imperial edicts) were issued concerning the preservation of its traditional rights. In the 19th century the monastery was greatly enlarged, with the addition of a library, guest house and other sections.

The most ancient part of the monastery is the chamber of the sacred spring and the adjoining cave with an apse which was used as a church. The frescos outside the apse have been re-painted on many occasions over the centuries.

With its churches and monasteries dating from the 13th century onwards which have survived in a remarkable state of preservation to the present day, Trabzon is one of the most fascinating cities on the Black Sea. While some of the churches in the city itself are still in use as mosques today, the church of Haghia Sophia and the Monastery of Sümela are museums which are visited by thousands of people every year.

* Assistant Prof Dr Gülgün Köroglu is a lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Art History at Mimar Sinan University .