Continuing our cruise on the Black Sea we berthed at the charming port of Batumi, Georgia. I say charming with irony as the seafront façade is very European with high-end fashion shops back dropped by the ‘minor Causicus’ mountains. Travelling inland a few hundred metres the shanty towns are tumbling down. Another hundred metres on you come across building sites galore. The target of the wrecker’s ball is dozens of soviet-style apartments, judging by the look of them totally uninhabitable. Donald Trump has set up an office here to catch the wave of development produced by an emerging tourist industry. The first target is for Turkish holidaymakers on the lookout for casinos forbidden by Islamist law in their own country. Multi-story casinos are popping up like mushrooms in new developments of international hotels and apartments. The weather is certainly more moderate in Batumi than Turkey so it’s not difficult to see the place taking off in years to come.
The next day held in store a totally different experience; climbing hundreds of steps up a mountainside and 60 down into the monastery we’d set out for. The air was thin and the oppressive humidity had all but gone. The cruise director had given us a daunting outline of the ascent/descent where I’d perceived no handrails to narrow staircases clinging to rock faces plunging 100s of metres down to deep, lush valleys of pine and streams. 700 metres or so of climbing over gigantic tree roots and walking loose gravel paths all too easy to slip on. I was uneasy at the prospect of the day ahead. However, I thought big tree roots would be harder to miss than the small slippery variety that had tripped me up in the NZ bush a year ago, and I set out with my two trusty tramping poles, and Harry of course.
This was one of the stand-out tours of the trip. It left a wonderful memory.
After Mary had been canonized she appeared in a vision to a monk in Northern Turkey. She asked for a monastery to be built in the area looking down the Altindere Valley. Legend has it two monks set out on donkeys to look for a suitable site. They decided a strategy that left the decision in the ‘hands of the Lord’ although a cynic might be inclined to believe it had been left to the donkeys. It was decided wherever the donkeys stopped, they had arrived at the blessed site.
The sheer cliff has been carved out over the centuries. Layer upon layer of painted frescos revealed by subsequent archeologists from the late 19th century and continues today. Many reveal the Black Virgin and in time this Byzantine monastery drew hundreds of cloistered monks and a city grew within its walls.
We entered the Black Sea from Istanbul three days ago and explored two northern Turkish ports. The onshore expedition included another Turkish Mosque; this one however came with a twist. Originally it had been built as a Christian church within a fortified region built to protect early Christians following the disciple appointed no. 12 after the death of Judas. Ataturk came along in 1923 with his secular politics and removed the church from its ‘Christian’ status into that of ‘museum’. The ‘museum’ remained until just one month ago when it reverted to ‘mosque’. Our guide, for those of you following my posts, is very critical of the current government’s trend toward Islamic rule. He informed us his commentary would be closely monitored by those in control of the ‘mosque’ while we remained in the compound. It was hot and oppressive. I had begun to feel uncomfortable in the high humidity. The prospect of another gloomy mosque crammed with tourists just didn’t appeal so I sought the shade of a portico while the rest of the group trooped inside. After a few minutes our group came out and disappeared into a knave on the other side. Lest I lose sight of them I followed. Looking around the gloom I noticed what I thought to be at the time restoration work; the dome was boarded up and the walls were covered with sheets of hardboard. I’d failed to notice before entering workmen laying red carpet across the stone floors. People had taken their shoes off at the door and here was I stranded on red carpet wearing flip-flops!
It was two days later when Harry was checking this post I got the full story. In the month since the change of status from museum to mosque, the ‘renovations’ included covering the frescoes of Christian origin, hence the sheets of hardboard. Carpet had been laid throughout in order to have visitors remove their shoes. This knowledge on top of the guide’s commentary being bugged no doubt will give you an idea where the current Islamist government is headed. There are general elections here next year and so it’s good we’ve made it to Turkey before the build-up to those.