Amid Trebizond’s concrete towers

Turning the clock back on the Black Sea

By John Scott | June 29, 2013


Just as happened at Ayasofya in Iznik last November, this week it was the turn of Trabzon’s Ayasofya – a pleasing 13th-century imperial church in Trabzon’s last truly magical, timeless corner. This magestic cross-in-square, three-apsed building has become a mosque once more, with the beautifully ornate marble floor and all signs of idolatrous imagery carefully concealed. On Friday the first prayers for more than 50 years were held below a screened dome. The shrine had been open to the public as a museum since 1958, when the art historian David Talbot Rice and a team from Edinburgh University undertook its restoration and the cleaning of its important, well-preserved wallpaintings, and is considered one of the Black Sea’s most important monuments.

A YouTube video (below) shows the white screens that now shield the wallpaintings and the apse from worshippers; it is unclear if they will be drawn back for visitors between prayer times. Certainly the constant reflection of sunlight back up to the frescoes is likely to speed their deterioation – UV is notoriously strong on Turkey's Black Sea, as photographers before the age of digital photography always lamented.

The significance of the frescoes is touched on by Steven Runciman in Byzantine Style and Civilization (Penguin, 1975): ‘It is in thirteenth-century Trebizond that we first find a new range of colours. The more linear style of Comenian art is abandoned. Highlights in dead white or in bright colours provided the modelling outlines. Elsewhere the gradations are delicate. With the new palette there comes what seems to be a disregard for realism. We begin to have scarlet horses and green oxen, vermilion and yellow houses and walls and chocolate-coloured foliage. These fanciful tints did not have any symbolic meaning. Rather, the artist, who conceive composition in terms of colour, used his pigments to provide emphasis in the picture; and as holy figures ahd their traditional colouring, other objects could be coloured to suit the composition.'

A new wall-to-wall carpet inevitably covers the fine opus Alexandrinum marble floor seen above (Wikimedia Commons), which will give the interior a very different sense of space. 

Ayasofya still stands in relative isolation in its Trabzon suburb, on a broad terrace overlooking the Black Sea, two kilometres outside the old walled city. It was founded in the 13th century as a large funerary church by the ambitious second Byzantine Emperor of Trebizond, Manuel I Megas Komnenos (1238–68). A vassal first of the Seljuk Turks (who employed his fleet) then of the Mongols, Manuel dedicated the church to Haghia Sophia or Divine Wisdom and built a large monastery next to it, which would be home in the 14th century to the  astronomer and mathematician Constantine Loukites. The four-storey tower was added in 1426 as a watchtower or an observatory.

Ayasofya has been the chief goal for tourists visiting this remote Black Sea port – and very welcome they were, too, in a city with high unemployment. We can only hope that the changes do not deal a severe blow to the region's tourist trade. The church is still registered on the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture's website as a museum.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the YouTube video in the long term, however, is the background noise of heavy-duty drilling. All is revealed in the last few seconds as the camera homes in on nearby scenes of devastation. No comment. It appears that a large chunk of the Ayasofya terrace has been given over to developers. If this is the case, it would be a calamity… not just for art historians, but for Trabzon and its citizens.

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