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Trabzon is a town with over 230,000 people (2009 census – it is currently believed to be over 300,000) on the northeast Turkish Black Sea coast at latitude 41°00′ north and longitude 39°45′ east (Figure 1).  It is the second largest Turkish urban centre (after Samsun) on the Black Sea.

by Sam Topalidis. 2015

1. Introduction

It is the second largest Turkish urban centre (after Samsun) on the Black Sea.  The Turkish northern coastline from Samsun to Batumi in the east is hemmed in to the Black Sea by the Pontic Alps (Figure 1) which rise to over 4,000 metres in the east (Bryer 1970).  The mean annual rainfall in Trabzon is around 760 millimetres with autumn being the peak rain season.  Snow can fall in winter (Acar et al 2007).  

Trabzon was settled by Greeks probably by the 7th century BC (Tsetskhladze 1994 see Note 1), but there were indigenous people already living in the area.  Trabzon was the ancient capital of the Greek speaking Komnenos Byzantine Kingdom (1204–1461) within the Pontos—the northeast portion of Anatolia adjacent the Black Sea.  It survived until 1461, 8 years after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople when both localities fell to the Ottoman Turks. 

Trabzon was previously called Trebizond which was the English name for the Greek Trapezous (Τραπεζος).  (Trapezi (τραπέζί) means table in Greek.)  It was named after the flat table like promontory on which the town was sited. 

In the 16th century, Ottoman Turks referred to the town as Tarabzon (Dankoff 2009).  Today, Turks use the name Trabzon, while the Greeks refer to the town as Trapezounta (Τραπεζούντα). 


Figure 1. The Black Sea region (King 2006) 


The classical town of Trabzon was protected by ravines on its eastern and western sides and on the northern side by a cliff overlooking a foreshore.  The site is trapezoid in form with the narrow side at the southern end; here there are no natural defences and a strong wall was built to close off the town from the rest of the neck of land (Bryer and Winfield 1985).

Historically, Trabzon was a strategic and commercially important port.  It was one of the few ports on the Anatolian Black Sea.  It was the capital of a distinct local identity with a productive hinterland, a combination of indigenous, especially Caucasian people and of Greek colonists and culture, the most easterly port (Figure 2) through which European shipping could once reach a major overland route over the Pontic Alps that penetrated central Asia.  The periods of Trabzon’s major commercial importance were from 1258 to 1475 and from 1829 to 1869 (Bryer 2006).  

In the 14th century the town walls were extended northward to the sea.  The ancient and medieval Trabzon possessed no natural harbour lying within the shelter of its defences; but there was protection for boats to the east at a bay called Daphnous.  There is no level hinterland to the town but the hills rise gently behind it for some distance inland (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  (See Note 2 for descriptions by some travellers who visited Trabzon from 1404 to 1916.)

The purpose of this work is to consolidate a more detailed summary in English of a history of Trabzon.  It concentrates on the history of the settlement of Trabzon with little reference to its hinterland.  The article covers the settlement of indigenous people around Trabzon, Greek colonisation, the Mithradatic Wars with Rome, the Byzantine period, the Seljuk Turks, the Ottoman Turks, its commercial rise in the 19th century, the Russian occupation during World War I, the exchange of christian and muslim populations between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s and some more recent developments in modern Trabzon.


Figure 2. Trabzon port, from Boz Tepe looking north (2003, author’s collection)


2. Early Human Settlement

Unfortunately, there are no archaeological findings on the site of Trabzon.  The ancient town is buried beneath the modern town.  In addition, the level of the Black Sea has risen up to 4 metres since the 1st century AD and this rise in the sea level may disguise its ancient foundations.  As a consequence, it is unknown when humans first settled in the Trabzon area (Tsetskhladze 2007).  

When the Greeks settled the site of Trabzon in the 7th century BC there was a local population living there.  These people were probably the same people (e.g. Colchians), mentioned by Xenophon when he arrived there in 400 BC with 10,000 Greek mercenaries from their journey deep in Persian territory. 

Before Xenophon, the Greek historian Herodotus (born c. 485 BC–died 425 BC) mentions the Moschians, Tibareni, Macrones and Mossynoeci (around Trabzon) as being included in a satrapy of the Persian Achaemenid Empire which fought under Xerxes (486–465 BC).  Thus, the Pontos appears to have been included within the Persian Empire from the 6th or 5th centuries BC and the Greek colonies would have been subject to it if only as vassals (Hewson 2009). 

According to Xenophon, Trapezous, a Greek settlement, was a colony of Sinope in Colchian territory (Sinope is 400 kilometres to the west).  In turn, Sinope was a Greek colony of Miletos, on the Anatolian west coast (Avram et al 2004).  Xenophon does not record if the Sinopian Greeks had to remove local people from the site of Trabzon. 

Xenophon stated that Trabzon continued to pay tribute to Sinope, so at that time (400 BC), they were not part of the Persian Empire Satrapy.  (But they may have paid gifts to Persia.)  Xenophon mentions that some local indigenous people were friendly to the Trabzon Greeks while other Colchian tribes were not.  

Xenophon describes several indigenous peoples near Trabzon, such as the Macrones immediately south and assorted Colchian tribes at the coast.  At the present site of Machka (32 kilometres south of Trabzon) Xenophon was initially barred from crossing the north bank of the river by the Macrones.  The Macrones were subsequently persuaded to help the Greeks.  In 3 days, due the difficult terrain, the Greeks covered only 19 kilometres above the east bank of the Degirmen River.  The river probably formed the natural boundary belonging to the Colchians.  It took the Greeks two further days to reach the sea at Trabzon (Mitford 2000).


3. Mithradates and the Romans

When Alexander the Great (356–23 BC) defeated the Persian King Darius III in Anatolia, on his way to defeating the Persian Empire, he did not advance north of Ankara.  So the west Pontos remained under the satraps of Persia while the remote eastern Pontos had not been conquered.  After the death of Alexander in 323 BC and the creation of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, Mithradates I declared east Pontos independent and at least no later than 302 BC established the Kingdom of Pontos (Koromila 2002). 

The origins of Mithradates I Ktistes (the builder) (302–266 BC), the first Pontic king, is not well understood.  He probably came from the upper classes of Pontos, and was possibly related to the Persian dynasts.  He did not interfere with the body politic in the Greek cities of the coast which controlled the markets and shipping.  Greek was the official language.  Mithradates I and a succession of kings from the same family ruled over the area from Heraclea (modern Eregli) to Trabzon on the Black Sea (see Figure 1) for over 150 years until the reign of Mithradates VI Eupator (120–63 BC), where the Kingdom of Pontos reached its peak (Erciyas 2001). 

Mithradates VI had ambitions beyond the Black Sea as he set his sights on the Hellenistic world of Anatolia which was under Roman rule.  The series of Mithradatic Wars waged against the Romans forced Rome to send considerable forces to Pontos to quash Mithradates.  Pompey defeated Mithradates in 64 BC bringing about the dissolution of the Mithradatic Kingdom (Koromila 2002). 

After the removal of Mithradates VI, Rome gave Trabzon to Deiotaros, the Galatian King south of Trabzon.  After his death of Deiotaros, Anthony transferred it to a grandson of Mithradates and after that, in 36 BC it became part of the reconstituted Pontic Kingdom under Polemo I, the former ruler of Cilicia Tracheia.  When Polemo II abdicated in 64 AD, it was incorporated as a free city into the expanded Roman province of Galatia.  After 64 AD, Trabzon became a station of the Roman fleet in the Black Sea making it the port of Santala, the Roman legionary and communications centre south of the Pontic Alps (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  

Roman Emperor Hadrian (117–38 AD) probably visited Trabzon in 129 AD.  The harbour was then built or improved.  Traditionally, Hadrian’s harbour is associated with the now largely submerged Molos below the Lower City.  The first major blow came when the Goths sacked Trabzon in 257 AD.  The town was slow to recover.  It stopped minting its own coins and lost its status as a free city.  St Eugenios and his martyrs were believed to have been put to death under Roman Emperor Diocletian (284–304 AD).  The martyr overthrew the statue of Mithras on Mt Minthrion (the 240 metre high hill now called Boz Tepe) which overlooked the town from the southeast (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  


4.  The Byzantines and the Megas Komnenoi of the Trapezuntine Empire

Trabzon had an important position in Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s Persian war (6th century) and the town had a revival in prosperity.  Under Emperor Leo the Isaurian (717–41), the Byzantine Empire was reorganized and divided into themes (administrative divisions); Trabzon became the capital of the 8th theme, Chaldea.  Its strong fortifications protected it from the Seljuk Turk invasion which swept over Anatolia after the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and at that critical time, Theodore Gabras, a local leader, saved it from the invaders.  Gabras was the first strong man who emerged out of the history of Byzantine Trabzon.  Another Gabras (Constantine) held Trabzon in 1139, which he governed like a tyrant (Miller 1926). 

Trabzon was walled before 257 AD and was probably restored during the Byzantine period in the 6th century and possibly in the 9th and late 11th century (Bryer and Winfield 1985). 

        In 1204, Trabzon became the capital of the Komnenos Byzantine Empire which existed more in a constitutional than a geographical sense.  It consisted of a long strip along the southern shore of the Black Sea protected from central Anatolia by the Pontic Mountains.  Its wealth and influence far outstripped its size and population.  The transit trade via land and sea was very profitable due to the collected taxes on goods entering and leaving the town to and from Asia.  The Komnenos Emperors of Trebizond listed in Table 1 were Greek by language, Byzantine by culture and tradition and Orthodox christian by faith.  This microcosm of a Byzantine Empire was constantly threatened by its Mongol and the Turk neighbours in the interior of Anatolia.  Their Emperors prospered partly by paying tribute and partly by marrying their daughters or sisters with their leaders (Nicol 1996).  This small empire outlasted the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople by 8 years.  A description of some of the Emperors’ Komnenos follows.  


Table 1. The Komnenos Emperors of Trebizond (Bryer and Winfield 1985)  


Years of reign


Alexios I


Grandson of Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I.

Andronikos I Gidon


Son-in-law of Alexios I. 

John (Ioannes) I Axouchos


Son of Alexios I.  Died in 1238 while playing a form of polo.

Manuel I


Son of Alexios I.

Andronikos II


Born c.1236 & died 1267.  Son of Manuel I. 



Born 1254.  Son of Manuel I.  Died 1280.  Deposed by his brother John. 

John (Ioannes) II

1280–85 & 1285–97

Son of Manuel I.



Half-sister of John II.

Alexios II


Son of John II.

Andronikos III


Died 1332. Son of Alexios II.

Manuel II


Born 1324. Son of Andronikos III. Overthrown by his uncle Basil.



Died 1340.  Son of Alexios II.

Anna Anachoutlou

1341 &

Murdered in 1342.  Daughter of Alexios II.


1341 &

Born c. 1285 & resigned in 1349.  Son of John II. 

John (Ioannes) III


Son of Michael.  Deposed in 1344. 

Alexios III


Second son of Basil.

Manuel III


Son of Alexios III.

Alexios IV


Son of Manuel III.

John (Ioannes) IV


Deposed his father Alexios IV.



Son of Alexios IV.  Dethroned 1461.


Alexios I (1204–22)

During the rule of the Byzantine Empire (c.324 to 1453), Greek unity was maintained until 1204 when the Latin Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople.  Then the Pontos separated from the state of Constantinople (Miller 1926). 

Alexios Komnenos was born in 1182, son of Manuel and grandson of Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I.  Alexios died in 1222.  Andronikos I had occupied the throne and was murdered in 1185.  His eldest son Manuel also died, leaving two children, Alexios and David.  In 1204, just before Constantinople fell to the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, the 22 year old Alexios and his brother, David, left Constantinople for Georgia.  From there with a Georgian contingent, provided by their paternal Aunt Thamar they occupied Trabzon (Miller 1926). 

In 1214 the Seljuk Turks occupied Sinope and forced Alexios Komnenos to pay tribute and render military service.  The Empire of Trabzon was reduced to a narrow strip of land to the east of the Iris and Thermodon rivers (Miller 1926). 

Andronikos I Gidon (1222–35)

Alexios I was succeeded by his able son-in-law Andronikos Gidon who had great experience in warfare.  Melik (son of the Seljuk Sultan Kai Kubad I and succeeded to the throne of Iconium in 1220) marched on Trabzon in 1223, but without success.  Melik was captured and then sent home.  From 1223 to 1231, Trabzon no longer needed to pay tribute to Iconium nor supply any military service.  After 1231 however, Trabzon once again became vassal of the Sultan of Iconium.  Andronikos I died in 1235 (Miller 1926). 

Manuel I (1238–63)

Son of Alexios I (Table 1) and died in 1263.  Manuel’s reign witnessed the exchange of Seljuk Turk for Mongol control.  His lances served the Seljuk ranks at the battle of Kousadac in 1243 when the Mongols routed the forces of the Seljuk Sultan.  After 1258, the date of the destruction of Bagdad by the Mongols, there was an increase in trade through Trabzon when goods from the East were transported to Trabzon and the Black Sea, instead of to the Mediterranean (Miller 1926). 

John II (1280–85 & 1285–97)

Born in 1262–63, son of Manuel 1 and died in 1297 after a weak and turbulent reign (Miller 1926).  In 1280, John II usurped the throne from his brother George.  In 1285, his half-sister Theodora temporarily gained power (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World).

In 1282 John II went to Constantinople to wed the Byzantine Emperor’s daughter, Eudokia.  John II was asked by the Constantinople envoys to remove his red boots (the symbol of the Imperial dignity) and wear black boots.  The Byzantine Emperor gave his son-in-law, John II, the lesser title of, ‘Emperor and Autocrat of all the East, the Iberians, and the Transmarine Provinces’.  The church of St Gregory of Nyssa in Trabzon contained his portrait with his robes adorned with single-headed eagles, the ‘special emblem of the Komneni of Trabzon’.  His wife’s robes were adorned with double-headed eagles of Byzantium, to show her ‘superior’ origin (Miller 1926).  Today, Pontic Greeks revere the emblem of the single-headed eagle. 

Alexios II (1297–1330)

Born in 1283, son of John II and died in 1330.  In 1301, Alexios mounted a victorious campaign to drive the Turkmens out of Kerasous (modern Giresun).  He signed treaties with Genoa (1316) and Venice (1319) granted both Italian cities trade privileges.  Alexios built the Lower City walls of Trabzon that run down to the sea (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium) (Figures 3 & 4).  This increased the total walled area from over 86,000 square metres to nearly 220,000 square metres (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  

When its defences were completed by 1324, Trabzon consisted of three connected but distinct walled enclosures, the Lower City, the Middle City, and the Citadel.  The Lower City, near sea level was over 134,000 square metres in size; above it is the Middle City, of about 67,000 square metres.  Finally, nearly 1 kilometre inland, 50 metres above sea level and 40 metres above the ravine beds below, lay the Citadel, of about 19,000 square metres (Bryer and Winfield 1985). 

During his reign, the Empire of Trebizond reached its peak.  He was a patron of the arts and science (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World). 


Figure 3. Map of Trabzon (Finlay 1850 in Bryer and Winfield 1985, between pp. 194–95)


Figure 4. Lower City, Zağnos Kapisi Tower from the southwest (2003, author’s collection)


Alexios III (1349–90)

Born in 1338, son of Basil I and died in 1390.  He enjoyed the longest reign of any Trebizond Emperor.  Alexios cemented good relations with the Turkomans by marrying two of his sisters and four of his daughters to their various rulers.  Alexios founded the monastery at Vazelon and restored the monastery at Soumela (south of Trabzon) (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium). 

During his reign he was confronted with civil wars between aristocratic families of Trabzon.  He also encountered the rivalries between the Venetians and the Genoese merchants, as well as the attacks by the Turkomans.  Alexios was a great patron of higher education and of many churches and monasteries of the area.  He also restored the walls of the Middle City (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World). 

From the mid-14th century, double-headed eagles appear on the coins of the Trapezuntine Empire and symbolise it on Catalan maps.  The ‘double’, rather than the ‘single’ headed eagle seems to have been used as a mark of the Empire.  It was, of course, a much more common symbol of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  Theodora Kantakouzene, wife of Alexios III, is depicted at the head of their chrysobull (document of state sealed with the seal of the Emperor) of 1385 for Dionysiou Monastery at Mt Athos, wearing double-headed eagles on her costume (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Alexios III and Theodora Kantakouzene from a chrysobull in the archives of the Dionysiou Monastery.


Manuel III (1390–1417)

Born in 1364, son of Alexios III and died in 1417.  Under the 1390 peace treaty, the Empire became tributary to Tamerlane (the muslim Turko-Mongol conqueror from central Asia).  In 1396, Alexios III granted the Venetians the privilege to trade over the Trapezuntine Empire (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World). 

Manuel III’s troops fought on the side of Tamerlane which defeated the Ottoman Turks thus allowing Trabzon to be spared after the battle of Ankara in 1402 (Nicol 1972).  In 1405, Tamerlane died and by 1430 the Ottoman frontier was back where it had been in 1401 (McEvedy 1992). 

Alexios IV (1417–29)

Born 1382, son of Manuel III, murdered in 1429.  He was the benefactor of many monasteries and churches.  Alexios managed to secure his territories against external threats by marrying female family members to other rulers.  Alexios was assassinated by the supporters of his son, John IV and buried near the Chrysokephalos church (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World).  His remains were discovered by Russian archaeologists in 1917 during the Russian occupation of Trabzon during World War I.  His remains were transferred to Greece by Metropolitan Chrysanthos when the latter left Trabzon during the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey (Bryer and Winfield 1985).  The remains are currently buried in the new Panayia Soumela Monastery in northern Greece.

John IV (1429–58)

Born around 1404–05, the son of Alexios IV and died in 1458.  In 1429 he deposed his father.  He was confronted by Turkmans including the Ottomans in Anatolia.  After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II turned against Trabzon.  John was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Ottoman Sultan and pay an annual tribute.  To build an alliance, John IV married his daughter Theodora, to Uzun Hasan (Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World), Sultan of the White Sheep Turkomans (the ruler from eastern Anatolia to western Iran). 

David I (1458–61)

Born around 1408, the third son of Alexios IV and was executed in 1463.  David was the last Emperor of Trebizond.  In 1461, he surrendered Trabzon to the Ottomans after a siege of over 1 month.  He and his family were taken prisoner and shipped to Constantinople.  Two years later he was accused of a conspiracy and executed by Sultan Mehmet II (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium).

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