One reason why historic monuments hold such magic for us is surely the thought that centuries before people stood on exactly the same spot looking at the same building. The inspiration for this article was a drawing of Amasra Castle’s Genoese Gate executed in 1847 by Jules Laurens. Every detail of the stonework can be discerned on the faded paper. A woman beside the gate hides shyly behind her veil, and on the other side, an elderly man sits on the threshold staring about him fiercely. Seeing this beautiful old gate in Laurens’ drawing invested it with fresh meaning for me. It was the beginning of my fascination with the three-year journey on which Jules Laurens set out 153 years ago.

For most of us, it is hard to understand how travelers of the past left everything behind to venture into the unknown. We decided to trace part of the long journey made by Jules Laurens and his companions in the hope that something of the spirit which moved them might be whispered to us despite the passage of so many years.

We followed in his footsteps from the town of Riva on the western Black Sea coast as far as Trabzon, wondering how much would be left of the imposing walls, street fountains, and houses which he had recorded in such meticulous detail.

Laurens was born into a family of artists, and after completing his own training arrived in Paris in 1842 at the age of 17. In 1845 he was disappointed when the historical landscapes he had entered in a competition failed to win any prizes, but his meeting with geographer and scholar Xavier Hommaire de Hell was to change his life. The French government had appointed De Hell to carry out a geographical and historical survey of the countries bordering the Black and Caspian seas. After one year spent in preparation, De Hell and the 21-year-old artist Jules Laurens set out from Toulon on 18 May 1846 on their way to Turkey and Persia. After arriving in Istanbul, Laurens roamed through the city sketching its walls, mosques, fountains, and tombs. He described the city as ‘utterly enchanting, and like a vision out of the Arabian Nights’.

Their next stop was Izmit, whose ancient walls were then still standing, Lake Sapanca with its Roman bridge, Iznik founded by a mermaid, and Bursa, one of the foremost sources of inspiration for Orientalist artists.

Between 20 June and 24 August 1847 they traveled from Riva to Trabzon via Eregli, Amasra, Sinop, Gerze, Çarsamba, Ünye, Bolaman, and Tirebolu. Laurens’ ability to sketch quickly and accurately, combined with De Hell’s scientific guidance, meant that each drawing was a remarkable document. One drawing which had us puzzled depicted Sinop Castle. With its double walls and amongst so many towers, we could not work out the spot on which the artist had stood. Finally, we identified the magnificent stone tower in the picture with one that had in Laurens’ time been visible from the grounds of old Sinop Prison – now empty and open to the public.

Laurens had done his picture from a spot near the prison, but the view of the tower was now hidden behind a modern building.
Another drawing was of Çarsamba and showed a wooden bridge extending like a huge centipede across the River Yesilirmak. In Ünye we found no trace of the exquisite Ünye Palace, once one of the largest and most magnificent stately homes in the Black Sea region. It had been destroyed by fire, so lived on only in Laurens’ drawings.

The Black Sea coast is haunted by tragic tales of seamen who set off never to return. In Bolaman, Laurens had depicted the house of Mehmet, a sea captain whose house stood like a white hat on top of a ruined tower. Years had passed, and the waves had brought back nothing but sand and shells to Mehmet’s mourning relatives. We found the tower which looks so tall in Laurens’ drawing half-buried in the sand. When we arrived at Trabzon, our last stop, we saw that the city had changed almost beyond recognition, making it was extremely difficult to identify the places in the drawings.

New roads, drawn as if with a giant ruler, had been built along the coast. In his views of the cities, towns, and villages through which he passed, Laurens always included glimpses into the life of the time.

If he drew a bridge, there was sure to be a horseman crossing it; if a river, and particularly if that river was the Euphrates, he recorded how people crossed it. We see people deep in conversation as they pass through city gates and travelers beneath the walls of Diyarbakir halting to eat and rest with their camels. The bustle of life in the 1840s is always in evidence. Of the shops which Laurens depicted in Gerze, with their intricate wood carving and embellishments, Hazinedaroglu House in Ünye, and Kelalioglu Palace in Tirebolu we found nothing remaining. So we took consolation in the drawings showing them in all their beauty which Jules Laurens executed during his journey.

When we arrived at Trabzon, our last stop, we saw that the city had changed almost beyond recognition, making it was extremely difficult to identify the places in the drawings. New roads, drawn as if with a giant ruler, had been built along the coast.

In his views of the cities, towns, and villages through which he passed, Laurens always included glimpses into the life of the time. If he drew a bridge, there was sure to be a horseman crossing it; if a river, and particularly if that river was the Euphrates, he recorded how people crossed it. We see people deep in conversation as they pass through city gates and travelers beneath the walls of Diyarbakir halting to eat and rest with their camels. The bustle of life in the 1840s is always in evidence.

Of the shops which Laurens depicted in Gerze, with their intricate wood carving and embellishments, Hazinedaroglu House in Ünye, and Kelalioglu Palace in Tirebolu we found nothing remaining. So we took consolation in the drawings showing them in all their beauty which Jules Laurens executed during his journey.

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