I walked along the main street a short distance, then noticed a sign for the Basaran Hotel. At reception I was offered a room for 35TL a night with en suite facilities and breakfast in the morning. The hotel was clean, quite comfortable and centrally located, but the overnight cost was ludicrously low. After confirming the room was okay and the price for real, I committed to the two nights. I quickly unpacked a few things and freshened up, then set off for the citadel. It was late afternoon and the light at its very best. This was too good an opportunity to miss.
It was a brisk walk of about ten minutes to the foot of the mountain from where a very good path leads to the entrance to the citadel. In the old part of Sebinkarahisar is an almost abandoned pazar because most commercial activity has now relocated to the modern town. Near the pazar are many old houses, those with timber frames outnumbering those made with stone. Some of the timber-framed houses are very large and, although families too poor to maintain them adequately live in them, a little tender loving care will secure their future for at least another generation or two. The pitched, corrugated iron roofs of the houses usually shelter storage spaces open to the elements because walls are often absent. Gardens, trees, dogs, cats, cockerels and hens made it feel as if I had strayed into one of the nearby villages. Males and females made sure I went in the right direction even though it was obvious where I had to go. Some mature trees had been savagely polled, which gave them a surreal appearance. Although the one-time business premises in the pazar look forlorn, they are very photogenic, as is most of the old town. Many of the pazar’s buildings have unwanted wooden, metal and household items stored behind locked doors. Some of the stored items will become collectible in a few years.
I arrived at the last building in the old town and walked along a road that turned into a path. The path zig-zagged up the mountain to a gateway in the outer ring of fortifications. Views from the path were excellent the higher I ascended, but, once within the citadel and walking around its extensive site, even better views opened up, and on this occasion in every direction rather than primarily to the west. Even without the citadel on its summit the mountain would be worth ascending for the views alone. I was especially impressed with how the countryside opened up toward the south and how the road to Giresun very soon entered the mountains to the north. I looked to the south-east hoping to identify the Greek monastery that was my main destination for the following day, but could not identify it with the naked eye. Then again, I was not sure where its exact location was.
In Turkish, “sebin” means “alum”, “kara” means “black” and “hisar” means “castle”, so the name “Sebinkarahisar” can be translated to mean “black castle of alum”. The castle is the citadel, of course, and its ruins are, as the name of the town suggests, very dark in colour. Because the rock used to build the citadel is the same colour as that of the mountain on which it stands, it is safe to assume that the stone for the fortifications was quarried locally. Given worries expressed earlier about over-zealous restoration, the thing I liked best about the citadel, beside its vast size, its spectacular position and the remarkable amount that has survived the ravages of time, is that only remedial work had been undertaken to keep it in its present condition. Consequently, it was easy to connect with what it was like when intact.
Sinclair devotes no fewer than four pages to the citadel, although two of the pages are taken up with a very detailed plan of what survives. Here I provide a summary in an effort to convey something of the majesty of the ruins:
In the 9th to the 11th centuries Sebinkarahisar was the centre of a Byzantine theme, in other words, a district the military obligations of whose inhabitants formed the basis of the army organisation. Its citadel rock rises abruptly out of the cultivated and gently rising west side of the Buyuk Irmak valley. On the summit of the rock is a small upper citadel; below this the greater part of the rock, which is about a kilometre long, was encircled by a second wall… It seems probable that in the middle ages the majority of the houses were on the same site as the present (old) town and on the slope between the two, because of the shortage of suitable ground within the outer wall of the citadel…
The roughly square upper citadel (probably Ottoman) includes a big octagonal tower in the middle of the wall opposite the gate. The outer wall, mainly mid-Byzantine and only preserved in short stretches, takes in that part of the main ridge of the rock which rises southwards to the second summit, and a spur going roughly se. from the highest part of the rock.
After the towering gateway in the outer walls, one goes through a depression in the main ridge and moves over a slope, keeping the summit to the left, to the rock’s e. side. Below the path is a brick-arched entrance to a rock-cut staircase originally leading to the underground water level. The brickwork may date from the time of Justinian (6th century CE). There are four other rock-cut staircases to cisterns, all blocked.
The alum which supplies part of the town’s present name was mined on a large scale from the 14th century and used for cleaning cloth in the then expanding European textile industries. The mines are at distances of 15-20 kilometres up the old road to Giresun, which is to the west of the present road…
Upper citadel… The towers on the two easterly corners and by the gate are rounded and open-backed… The (octagonal) tower has four storeys…
Outer circuit. The rock tails off towards the s. in a spur; the fortifications end here in a small enclosure… Beyond this the spur drops, and then continues in a pinnacled knife-edge. A second spur… (with) traces of wall on this spur’s outer edge, and a stretch with triangular tower and semi-circular tower on its se. side… On the w. side of the rock just a few fragments mark the wall’s course until the stretch in which the present entrance is built… Further on the whole rock’s nw. corner forms a triangular apron…
The entrance. The upper of the two towers either side of the gateway is of small and neatly cut but heavily weathered blocks, and the same masonry continues for a short stretch south-westwards. The tower probably represents a medieval Turkish reconstruction of part of the mid-Byzantine work. The rest of the wall in which the gateway is cut is Ottoman…
It was now about 6.00pm so I returned to the old town to take some photos. I saw a woman washing sheep’s fleeces in a large, shallow blue plastic bowl. Nearby were five mature cats, all her pets, and down the road a bitch was followed by her puppies as she looked for something to eat. On the edge of the pazar I met two elderly brothers who earned some money repairing and making wooden doors in just the same way they have been repairing and making doors for about fifty years. I took photos of the brothers and the results of their labour, some of the latter being propped against a wall in the sunshine. One brother got very emotional when I showed him the photo. He shook my hand vigorously and spoke in an animated fashion with two people who walked by. I got the impression it was one of the first times he had been photographed.
A little later I came across the ruins of an old han with exposed arches on two levels revealing where the rooms had once been. Nearby, four women wearing headscarves and aged about twenty-five to thirty-five chatted with one another as they plucked mint and the leaves of other herbs from stalks collected earlier in the day.
I had spent most of my day with Alevi Kurds who have a very relaxed attitude toward tobacco and alcohol, but in Sebinkarahisar the dress of the women and the appearance of many of the men suggested that I was in a town with a Sunni Muslim and Turkish majority. For this reason I was reluctant to take photos of women. In fact, some women watched me warily as I walked by to ensure I did not use my camera on the sly and a few covered their face with their scarf when I came into sight. This said, two or three women did chat with me, but only when they were sure that men they might know could not witness what was going on.
Sebinkarahisar had a large number of dogs, perhaps the most dogs encountered on the trip so far. Some dogs were cared for properly as pets and some were kept to guard property. The latter barked and bared their teeth in ways that caused me some alarm. However, the largest number of dogs roamed at will and seemed to be feral. The foot-loose and fancy-free dogs every so often formed gangs of different sizes, but, as far as I could tell, did not pose threats to humans.
Sebinkarahisar is in Giresun province and, a few years ago, Giresun University opened an outpost in the town that now meets the educational needs of a considerable number of undergraduate students. A lot of the female students dress in ways that satisfy pious Sunni Muslims, but I found it odd that most make sure their trousers are very tight, even when wearing a headscarf that covers their hair and ears.
I called at a small supermarket to buy two ayrans to quench my thirst, then walked along the main road in an easterly direction to see again the view that had first got me so excited about Sebinkarahisar. I walked into a parking lot behind a large building where the Belediye parked its idle motor vehicles, dustcarts included. The views, although over piles of waste and debris awaiting disposal or recycling, were very impressive toward the citadel.
I returned to the hotel to shower and change my clothes. I planned to have a sit-down meal because I knew I could do justice to one.
Sebinkarahisar may have an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population, but some Sunni women work in businesses around the town. One such business where women work is Sevim Ana Ev Yemekleri, a lokanta on the main street. In fact, the lokanta is owned and run by women and, being thus owned and run, was bound to serve food a little less ordinary. I went inside and began chatting with three female university students and the owners themselves. In fact, only one other male, an elderly customer, was inside at the time, although two or three males popped in and out while I waited for and ate my food.
Although one of the university students wore a headscarf, she was happy to chat with me. She came from Gaziantep, which provided the ideal opportunity to celebrate the city’s enviable reputation for high quality food served in very good lokantas.
The food at Sevim Ana Ev Yemekleri was excellent. I ordered two icli kebaps as good as if they had been made in someone’s home, manti with a warm yoghurt and pepper sauce, a very runny and therefore refreshing cacik, salad, a creamy sutlac still warm from the oven and yet another ayran. Bread arrived with the salad and I was given tea to conclude the meal. The bill came to 25TL, but only because I insisted on giving Fatma, the young woman with a headscarf who served me, a tip she thoroughly deserved. When I handed Fatma the money, everyone in the lokanta clapped their hands and said a few appreciative words. Fatma had a special need, but it was not obvious what it was.
To help digest the large meal I went for a walk around the town centre. Sebinkarahisar is not a large town by Turkish standards, but its pastanes, lokantas and food shops confirm that it takes matters to do with eating and drinking seriously (although I saw only one place that sold alcohol). I looked around some of the shops specialising in sweets such as kome and pestil, then walked to a supermarket near the hotel to pick up a litre of orange juice just in case I was thirsty during the night. All the ayran and yoghurt I had had should have ensured that thirst would be the least of my problems, but I was not taking a chance.