Beyond the towering Black Sea Mountains lies a hidden landscape rich with forgotten medieval churches. For centuries they were ignored, their ancient glories allowed to crumble to dust. Before new roads reached the Coruh Valley, Brian Sewell had to enlist the help of shepherds on his quest to find these forerunners of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Photographs by Simon Upton
In the far northeast of Turkey, in the corner that is contained by Trabzon, Erzurum and Kars, lies a land all but unknown to the tourist hordes who have brought such vulgarity and derelection to the Aegean coast. To the north of the Pontic Alps it is verdant with forest and the wildflowers of my childhood grow waist-high in the meadows – but then it rains, heavily, even in high summer, and the tumbling streams are crossed on swaying bridges of rope and weathered planks, or in iron baskets swinging perilously from cables.
To the south, the mountains are harshly barren, ochre cliffs plunging into lakes of suede-green stillness, the rivers between here and there raging with white water. East of the courses of the Tortum and the Çoruh, following Rose Macauley’s footsteps from “Trebizond” to Lake Çıldır and its ruined chapel, with Russia a humpbacked hill away, midsummer nights shivering cold, the road passes through mountain uplands with vast herds of wild horses and cattle, and on into a bleakness that at sunset is as dramatically chilling as an Arctic waste.
All are host to ancient churches of crisp-cut masonry, with soaring arches, domes and squinches, their towers capped with cones of tiles glossy as opals.
To these I thumbed lifts on lorries, for few cars and buses could contend with the axle-breaking tracks, and once for 15 kilometres shared the cab of a Mercedes truck with a mad dwarf so small that he stood to drive it, clinging to the steering wheel at every bend, dancing and stamping on the pedals. I scrambled on all fours up goat tracks to the snow, still lying deep and clean above Yusufeli to a frescoed chapel of finely dressed pink stone. ‘Bayırkilise,’ said the shy shepherd boy. ‘You are the first to see it’ – not true in any absolute sense, but I treasure the thought that I may have been the first European to climb so far above Dörtkilise, which had been my prime destination, so far above the rills that water the village terraces, and the scent of wild time and verbena…
This article from 1997 could not have anticipated the rate of new development and loss of artistic heritage apparent today.
Brian Sewell is an art critic and media columnist on the Evening Standard.
In the rain forests of Turkey’s Black Sea Mountains, where jackals howl and the River Firtina (the Storm) crashes towards the Black Sea, live the Hemşinli people, who were here when Jason came in search of the Golden Fleece. In more recent years they prospered as bakers and restaurateurs in Tsarist Russia, returning to their beautiful, haunting country houses hidden in the hills east of Trabzon. Patrica Daunt visits one family and shares their memories of a Chekovian rural life.
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