Trebizond (modern Trabzon) is a city on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey located on the historical Silk Road, became a melting pot of religions, languages and culture for centuries and a trade gateway to Iran in the southeast and the Caucasus to the northeast. The Venetian and Genoese merchants paid visits to Trebizond during the medieval period and sold silk, linen and woolen fabric; the Republic of Genoa had an important merchant colony within the city called Leonkastron that played a role to Trebizond similar to the one Galata played to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Trabzon formed the basis of several states in its long history and was the capital city of the Empire of Trebizond between 1204 and 1461. During the early modern period, Trabzon, because of the importance of its port, became a focal point of trade to Iran and the Caucasus. The population of the urban center is 1,254,350 (2011 census)
According to the Christian author Eusebius, writing more than a millennium after the event, Trapezus was founded in 756 BC, in the country that was called Colchis. Its first settlers were from Sinope, a Greek city on the southern shore of the Black Sea, about 400 kilometers to the west. If we are to believe Pausanias, there was a second wave of immigrants from the Peloponnese, after the city had been destroyed by the Cimmerians in c.630.
This story may be a late invention, only meant to explain why there was a town named Trapezus in Arcadia too; on the other hand, this may have been the city’s real founding moment, the first one being just a legend. However this may be, the city was a very important port and appears to have played a pivotal role in the trade between Greece and the Iron Age civilizations of Anatolia, especially Urartu. Many metal artifacts must have been shipped to Greece from Trapezus, which may explain why so many pieces of Greek art in the Oriental Style resemble Urartian objects.
The city was not to become wealthy because of its agricultural produce. Its acropolis is one an outcrop of the Paryadres, a mountain range parallel to the coastline; there’s almost no flat land that might have been suitable for agriculture. However, there’s a good port (the only one east of Amisus), and there are several roads across the Paryadres mountains.
The mountain slopes were covered with forests, allowing the Trapezians to build ships and produce wine and honey. Tuna fish is mentioned by Strabo, a geographer from nearby Amasia. The Chalybes, as the Greeks called the mountain tribes, were well-known for producing iron ore.
Persian influence must have been real in the late sixth century, at least theoretically, because the southern shore of the Black Sea is mentioned by Herodotus of Halicarnassus as part of the third and thirteenth tax districts of the Achaemenid Empire. Later, the city may have been one the towns of the Delian League.
In the early Spring of 400, the remains of the army of the Persian usurper Cyrus the Younger, which had returned from their ill-fated expedition against Artaxerxes II Mnemon, arrived in Trapezus. One of its commanders, Xenophon, offers some information about the city in his Anabasis, which he calls “populous”. The army supported the Trapezians, who had a quarel with both the Drilae and the Mossynoeci.
Several years later, in 368/367, people from Arcadian Trapezus who were not willing to move to newly-founded Megalopolis, migrated to Pontic Trapezus. Another generation later, the city was allotted to Eumenes of Cardia, one of the successors of Alexander the Great.
The Roman Age
In the first half of the first century BC, the city was part of the Pontic kingdom of Mithradates VI, and its port was used by the fleet of Pontus. Nevertheless, it soon joined the Romans, and was offered by Pompey the Great to king Deiotares of Galatia. In the first century BC, the Romans later recognized Trapezus as a free city. According to later legends, Saint Andrew was to explain Christianity to the Trapezians.
The conflict between Rome and the Parthians was mainly fought in Syria, but the strategic importance of Armenia made the Romans occupy the greater part of Anatolia. This made Trapezus an important city, because it was one of the few ports on the northern coast of this area. During the reign of Nero (53-68), the city was in use as a supply base for the Armenian campaign of Corbulo; its strategic importance was, in the Year of the Four Emperors, recognized by Anicetus, one of the supporters of Vitellius; and Vespasian developed the area, building a road across the Zigana Pass, which was defended by the legionary fortress at Satala, base of XVI Flavia and, later, XV Apollinaris. Finally, it was Hadrian who improved the port.
The city walls were repaired by Diocletian (284-305), and Trapezus received a new garrison: the First Legion Pontica. This appears to have happened in the first decade of Diocletian’s rule. The unit is mentioned in a dedication that can be dated to 297-305 and was still in this town when the Notitia Dignitatum was composed, an early fifth-century list of Roman magistracies and military units.
During the reign of Constantine, the city belonged to the Diocese Oriens. It was represented by its bishop, Domnus, during the Council of Nicaea.
During the reign of Justinian, the aqueduct was improved and named after the martyr Eugenius. An inscription proves that the walls were repaired as well.
Under the Byzantine emperors, Trapezus suffered decline, although it was one of the places where Muslim merchants arrived to do business with Byzantine traders. Since 824, it was the capital of the theme (military district) of Chaldia.
After the knights of the Fourth Crusade had captured Constantinople, however, the imperial dynasty of Byzantium, the Comnenes, escaped to Trapezus, making it the capital of the Empire of Trebizond. It surrendered to the Ottomans in 1461, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire.
Little remains of ancient and medieval Trapezus, except for the ruin of the palace of the Comnenes and the medieval church of Hagia Sophia, the answer of Trebizond to the church with the same name in Constantinople and The Sumela (Soumela) monastery which was founded in AD 386 during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375 – 395). According to William Miller, Barnabas and Sophronios two Athenian monks, founded the monastery, which was famous for an icon of the Virgin Mary known as the Panagia Gorgoepekoos, said to have been painted by the Apostle Luke.
During its long history, the monastery fell into ruin several times and was restored by various emperors. During the 6th century, it was restored and enlarged by General Belisarius at the behest of Justinian.
It reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the existence of the Empire of Trebizond. While the Emperors Basil and John II had endowed the monastery richly, it was during the reign of Alexios III (1349 – 1390) that Sumela received its most important largess.
After the Ottoman take-over, Trapezian artists and scholars like Cardinal Bessarion traveled to Italy, taking with them precious manuscripts. The ancient city was, in this way, an important connection between the ancient culture, as continued in Byzantine art and scholarship, and the European Renaissance.