In the rain forests of Turkey’s Black Sea Mountains, where jackals howl and the River Fırtına (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. In one of the treasured architectural stories ever published Cornucopia, Patricia Daunt visits one family and shares their memories of a Chekhovian rural life. Photographs by Simon Upton
Even before Jason led his band of heroes along the shores of the Black Sea – then known as the Euxine – to fetch the Golden Fleece from the foot of Mount Caucasus, the Hemşinli inhabited the rainforests in the surrounding valleys of the Kaçkar Mountains. The pragmatic Hemşinli are a singular race even by Black Sea standards. Isolated in remote, narrow valleys, they have preserved their own language, dress and customs.
The heartland of the Hemşinli is the Fırtına Valley, the ‘Storm’ valley now known as the Büyükdere, one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is a wild and we land of thundering rivers and misty landscapes, where jackals howl unceasingly and beehives are hidden high in the trees out of reach of the honey-loving bears. For fifty kilometres the waters of two streams thunder down from mountain glaciers and lakes beneath the cockscomb crags of the Kaçkar until they meet in Çamlıhemşin, the old First Station on the Hemşin trade route over the Kaçkar Mountains twenty-five kilometres from the Black Sea, and the main town in Hemşinli.
Farmsteads cling to the wooded slopes behind the valley’s tea plantations and hazel groves that cover the foothills. Built on stone foundations, these wooden houses date back five hundred years and are ideally suited to the harsh climate of the Pontic Alps and to the extended families who for eight months of the year lead self-sufficient lives by tending small herds, keeping bees, growing maize and exploiting the abundant woodlands.
Among these wooden farmsteads is an unexpected collection of grand country houses, their imposing white and blue façades incongruously prominent amid the weathered timbers of their neighbours. They are quasi-palatial homes, and the finest of these astonishing edifices stand on an almost sheer hillside in the old district of Makrevis, now known as Konaklar Mahallesi, , ‘the District of the Mansions’. They are scattered an hour’s walk above the town of Çamlihemşin, reached from the road to İspir…
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.
Outside the seraglio, away from the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, the Turkish interior is a source of inspiration for modern designers: ergonomic, minimalist, refreshingly white-washed.