Outside a mountain teahouse in the sharp, cool air of the Altindere Valley in the Turkish province of Trabzon, Mehmet Akturk hands monocle his chrome Colt 44mm revolver. For comparison, his friend Mustafa draws a hefty Glock pistol from where it’s tucked into the top of his burgundy jeans. It’s not unusual for men to carry firearms in this Black Sea region though there is a strict etiquette, says Mustafa. “We have a saying in Trabzon: it’s unmanly to draw a gun during a fight. So that doesn’t happen,” he says. “Guns aren’t for self-protection, they’re part of our culture.”
This precipitous territory between the Black Sea and the Kackar Mountains is Turkey’s highlands, home to hilltop mosques, hazelnut groves that cling to craggy cliffs and a hardy alpine culture. From the earthy dialect of its gun-carrying youth to the vigorous local folk dance performed in black bandanas and knee-high leather boots, Trabzon is home to Anatolia’s “tough guys”. It’s a place where military service is celebrated and the Republic of Turkey is sacred. “Other people see us as the agir abi [the heavy brother] of Turkey,” says Murat Aksu, a student sat drinking tea with his girlfriend in the early spring sunshine. “We’re protectors of the country’s honour.”
If the Trabzonlular are fiercely patriotic they are even more fervently proud of their region and its seaside capital of the same name, a city of about a million people that has been a trading point since the 7th century BC. Here, there are plenty of alpine characteristics (the locals live off lashings of tea and a fondue-like melted cheese dish served in a copper pan) but there’s also a salty port district and a fleet of fishing boats. “This is where green meets blue,” says the city’s moustachioed governor Abdil Celil Oz from behind his desk at Trabzon’s town hall. “Trabzon has 4,000 years of history – we were on the ancient Silk Road as a gateway to Asia and the Caucasus. Today we are one of the most important ports on the Black Sea: we’re a trading hub for Georgia, Russia and Iran. We also want to build our tourist industry. We want to be a centre for culture, nature and faith tourism.”
Down at the port, stevedores haul Siberian coal off super-tankers and onto waiting trucks, while containers of marble, onyx, zinc and hazelnuts are loaded onto boats. The harbour master, Muzaffer Ermis, explains more of the city’s strategy: to attract cruise ships and bus their passengers around Trabzon’s ancient sites and mountain passes. The conflict in Crimea has been a stimulus for the region as Black Sea operators have diverted their boats to Turkey, he says. “We saw 39 liners last year but would like to see more. Our port has great potential.”
Turning the city into a major centre of Black Sea tourism sounds simple enough. The region has a remote wildness and a rich history; its stunning mountainside Byzantine-era Sumela monastery (home to Greek Orthodox monks until the mid-1920s) is considered one of the wonders of Turkey. The city of Trabzon was the capital of the Greek Trebizond Empire – it was once the Black Sea’s answer to Constantinople – and still retains its own 13th-century Hagia Sophia church (now a mosque, more of which later). The governor says he plans to build a winter sports resort. Trabzon could become a cultural gathering point where visitors can swim in the sea in the morning, tour ancient sites before lunch and roam snowy peaks in the afternoon.
Yet Trabzon’s social dynamic makes its ambition to sell its heritage to the world more complex. The city no longer has a Greek minority to speak of and though plenty of its residents are blue-eyed and redheaded, many are loath to admit to Pontic heritage. Even less is said about the region’s role in the 1915 Armenian Genocide. “The Greek people either converted or left,” says Ulvi Bacioglu, a human-rights activist who describes the Greek exodus that followed the founding of the Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s. “Those who did stay felt the need to prove themselves as good Turks and good Muslims. We have very few examples of diversity, of difference; that’s not good for a society. Today there are people in Trabzon who are anti-global, anti-EU and they find it very easy to gain support.”
In many ways Trabzon is an anomaly; a frenetic port city with a closed mountain mentality. Despite its declared intention to attract international tourists there are signs its sequestered instinct stands to hold Trabzon back. In 2013, spurred on by Turkey’s General Directorate of Pious Foundations, the city took the decision to convert its Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia from its status as a museum into a mosque. To do this it has obscured most of the interior’s priceless frescoes with calico screens. When monocle visits, the ancient mosaic floor is covered with a cheap-looking, patterned, royal-blue fitted carpet.
“There is no need for another mosque here – there are two large ones nearby,” says Ali Kaynar, owner of Saray Silver, from behind the counter of his silver shop that sits across the road from the building. “The museum was a symbol of our city. Without it we’ve lost our charisma.”
Kaynar thinks the conversion is also a symptom of the Turkish government’s grip on the city and its shift towards the East; the AK party now polls a majority here. “This has been imposed on us by Ankara,” he says. “Take a look at our four-year plan: the focus is on bringing Arab tourists from the Middle East.”
Bacioglu agrees. “It’s a sign of Turkey’s new politics: pulling away from the West and moving towards the East,” he says. “The conversion of a religious edifice from a church to a mosque is an Ottoman tradition. It has no place in the postmodern era.” Bacioglu also makes the point that, increasingly, Trabzon takes its lead from the AK party on issues ranging from Kurdish independence to EU membership. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming synonymous with the region’s deeply felt national pride and appears to be beyond criticism.
This is partly down to sizeable investments that the AK party has made in the region. The government’s construction company Toki is in the midst of building a new 40,000-capacity stadium and football complex for the city’s much-loved team Trabzonspor on artificial land next to the sea on a site west of the city. “The location is breathtaking,” says stadium manager Huseyin Emin, who explains how he thinks Trabzon’s nexus of mini leagues and emphasis on youth development is one of the keys to the city’s transformation. “We hope to welcome international visitors,” he says. He adds that while Trabzon residents may have a formidable reputation, today’s culture is tolerant and proud of its diverse history. “There are people in the hills around this city that still speak Greek.”
Many Trabzonlular are open to frank discussions about identity, global influence and opportunity, yet in many ways the city is hamstrung by its context. Back at the port-authority offices in a building painted claret and pale blue (the colours of Trabzonspor), the harbour’s technical manager Emin Bilgin explains how the port’s importance took a nosedive when Turkey’s government closed its borders with Armenia in 1993. “Before the borders closed we were the main port for [the Armenian capital] Yerevan; you couldn’t drop a pin here we were so busy,” he says. “We’re hoping to regain this capacity.”
In the meantime the city is propelled by raw enthusiasm and pride. Though many of the young people we meet here insist there isn’t much in the way of social pursuits beyond a few bars, football and shooting practice, they still eulogise the city’s strength of character. “There is no place in the world that loves its city and its team more than we do,” says 21-year-old auburn-haired student Gulden Ordu, who stands in the city’s central square in a Trabzonspor scarf. “For us, everywhere is Trabzon: whenever we leave our dear city we are here in spirit. Trabzon is a state of mind.”