By ALEXANDER MELAMID
Northeastern Turkey is outstanding among regions in that country. This region extends along the Black Sea coast from east of the city of Sinop to the border with the former Soviet Union (Fig. 1). The area was known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, a term that probably included both the eastern Turkish coast and adjacent parts of Georgia. Present-day Colchis is a strip of territory that extends up to one hundred kilometers inland from the shores of the Black Sea to encompass a series of parallel mountains, the Pontic Mountains, which are often called the Pontic Alps because of their grandeur. The mountains reach one thousand meters of elevation, sometimes within fifty kilometers of the coast, and in the easternmost portion of the region they are almost four thousand meters high.
Throughout the region rainfall is high. It may reach 250 centimeters in the east, although values between 100 and 150 centimeters annually are typical. The rainfall has no seasonal distribution; it is brought by moisture-bearing winds off the Black Sea whose flow is arrested by the high mountains. This climatic pattern differentiates the region from the rest of Turkey, which has winter rainfall and summer drought. One consequence is the absence of olive trees. Temperatures are moderate, in contrast with the summer-winter extremes in adjacent Anatolia or Armenia.
The region has distinctive agricultural patterns (Erinc and Tuncdilek 1952). Maize is the dominant food crop, having displaced barley as early as the seventeenth century; tobacco and hazelnuts, destined for export, are also important. The cultivation of tea was introduced to the region from Russia early in the twentieth century. Tea is now the national drink of Turkey rather than coffee, which must be imported at a high cost in foreign exchange. Turkish tea is of good quality. Tea cultivation in Colchis, though limited to a narrow band of land near the coast, supplies most of the internal Turkish demand. Until the 1950s, tea marketing was restricted to a governmental monopoly (Hann 1990). Since abolition Of that monopoly, tea cultivation has expanded significantly beyond the area shown in 1952 (Erinc and Tuncdilek 1952). It is located primarily near Rize, formerly the headquarters of the governmental monopoly and now the site of many offices of trading firms. The city has a population of almost 100,000, up from only 15,000 in the early 1950s. Tea cultivation occurs mainly on small farms, which conform better than large ones to the undulating land surface dissected by many small streams. Hazelnuts are also an important crop in this area.
Before the establishment of the republic in the 1920s, large farms owned by the local aristocracy prevailed. The division of those holdings into small farming units prevented the introduction of mechanization that characterized tea production in the Soviet Union. The evolution of small farms also reduced the significance of transhumance in the lowlands of Colchis, and it has virtually disappeared. Tea cultivation is less important west of Trabzon, where tobacco and other crops dominate the agricultural landscape. Despite the diminished role of tea cultivation, Trabzon is the regional capital of Colchis.
Knowledge of the area extends far into prehistory, as witnessed by the legend of Jason and the argonauts and their quest for the golden fleece of Colchis. Greeks from Miletus, a city in Asia Minor on the southern Aegean coast, settled at Sinop in the seventh century B.C. and subsequently elsewhere along this coast (Boardman 1964, 245-253). The Greek settlers took a poor view of the local inhabitants, because of their alleged propensity for thievery and their sexual practices. The area, though known, was on the fringe of the Greco-Roman world. The region was part of the empire of Trebizond, which split from the Byzantine Empire in a minor dynastic quarrel. The Ottoman Turks did not capture the Trebizond Empire until eight years after the fall of Constantinople. The survival of the Trebizond Empire mirrored the separateness of the region in the wide framework of Asia Minor. Conquest by the Turks introduced a substantial Turkish population that, possibly together with previous Seljuk and other immigrants, became dominant in the region.
Until its conquest by the Turks, the region had been a terminus of the silk route from China when travel and trade had been secured by the extent and power of the Mongol Empire in Asia. Many buildings from this prosperous era remain, although most churches and monasteries were converted to mosques or decayed under Turkish rule. Marco Polo had his luggage stolen here on his journey to China (Olschki 1960, 109). Another period of prosperity occurred in the nineteenth century after the Black Sea was opened to foreign commerce. Trade was especially brisk in carpets from Iran. Evidence of that prosperity lay in the good housing constructed by Greek merchants in the coastal cities, where foreign consulates were opened. Some ruined monasteries were also well restored during that era. That period ended with the construction of railroads through the Caucasus Mountains into Iran and with the opening of the Suez Canal.
By the mid-twentieth century, Armenian and Greek populations had disappeared from the region, and later the few Jews emigrated. Firms and monopolies of the Turkish government tended to dominate commerce. The Turkish population thus became even more dominant. However, the Laz, a group speaking a Mingrelian language also found in the Caucasus, stayed. Additional Laz speakers migrated to the region from Russia during the nineteenth century. The Laz were astute in business and gave the region its reputation as a vital trading area in Turkey; they were Muslim and assimilated readily with the Turks. Today, only a few old women are still monolingual in Laz. Despite the distinctive landuse characteristics, northeastern Turkey may be regarded culturally as the most Turkish part of the country.
The following comments about the current geography of the region derive in large part from fieldwork in 1992, undertaken with the assistance of the University of Istanbul. The region remains difficult of access, and the best way to reach it is via a coastal steamer that can berth in harbors, which have been improved in recent years. A winding road roughly paralleling the coast provides an alternative access. Some lateral roads cut through the mountains in narrow valleys; much bridging and tunneling have also been constructed. A railroad following a wide river valley reaches the coast at Samsun, which is the largest city in the region and has a hinterland that far exceeds the area of Colchis. Virtually no roads cut through the mountains east of Trabzon, which confirms its regional metropolitan status. An exception is a new road close to the border with Georgia that extends inland to Ardahan and Kars, an area that the Soviet Union claimed after World War II. The road passes near the highest mountains of the region, some of which are glaciated. The view has been described as the most beautiful in Turkey, but the road is not much used by commercial traffic.
The rural population densities are among the highest in contemporary Turkey. This results from the intense landuse and the absence of mechanized agriculture. The limitations of the transportation system have prevented growth of many urban centers, except for Samsun, which has mainly extra-regional functions, and Trabzon. The percentage for the urban population is the smallest regional one in the Turkey, and the population data again emphasize the distinctive character of the-region.
The relative absence of tourism distinguishes the region from the rest of Turkey. Elsewhere on the Turkish coastline, hotels and other beach developments dot the shore. But not in this region, with its heavy rainfall; it is avoided especially in the summer, when foreign tourists as well as residents of Turkish cities arrive in droves in other parts of Turkey. There is no winter tourist season in this relatively cool, wet region. Visitor accommodations are limited to a few commercial hotels in cities, and not many tourists come to admire the mosques and other antiquities.
Since the opening of the coastal road from Georgia at Zarb in 1988, a new group of visitors is coming to Colchis. They are mainly Russian or Georgian shoppers who journey in dilapidated buses that are reported to cross the border faster than more modern Turkish vehicles. These visitors come on short-term visas to sell household goods such as porcelain and silver and to buy food and other merchandise. No accommodations have been built specifically for this group, but signs in Cyrillic or Cyrillic-style letters, a script that has not been seen in the region since the migration of the Greeks in 1923, are now visible in shop windows in Trabzon and Sinop. Turkish-speaking visitors from Azerbaijan are few, despite improved access by construction of a bridge over the Araxes River to connect Nakchevan directly to the Turkish road system. For many years river crossing at this point had been prohibited (Melamid 1959).
A commercial agreement between Turkey and other Black Sea coastal states is reportedly ready for signature (Neue Zuricher Zeitung 1992). Its provisions may promote further economic growth. If oil fields in Central Asia west of the Aral Sea are developed, a pipeline is projected from the fields to the Black Sea coast across the Caspian Sea in its shallowest northern half to link with other pipelines from Baku (New York Times 1992). The new pipeline, financed by foreign capital, would terminate in Colchis, the safest outlet to maritime access. A more immediate prospect is for tourism from the interior of Anatolia with its hot summers. Accommodations are already being built near or off the highway that parallels the border of Georgia. The high elevations would give visitors relief from summer heat; the Turkish Mountain Club has erected huts in the area, and hotels may follow, in a pattern of development similar to that in Oman (Melamid 1992). Thus the mountains of Colchis, so far mainly used for transhumance, may become a zone of economic growth, as the coastal zone has been.
* I gratefully acknowledge assistance received from Attile Eremli, Talat Halman, Dennis Wright, and countless persons in the Colchis region.
MAP: FIG. 1--Colchis today.
Boardman, J. 1964. Greeks overseas. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books. Erinc, S., and N. Tuncdilek. 1952. Agricultural regions of Turkey. Geographical Review 42:179-203.
Hann, C.M. 1990. Tea and the domestication of the Turkish state. Huntington, U.K.: Eothen Press.
Melamid, A. 1959. Russian-Iranian boundary. Geographical Review 49:122-124. 1992. Jebel al-Akhdar (Oman). Geographical Review 82:470-472.
Neue Zuricher Zeitung. 3 October 1992.
New York Times. 29 December 1992.
Olschki, L. 1960. Marco Polo's Asia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
By ALEXANDER MELAMID
DR. MELAMID is a Councilor of the American Geographical Society.