Obituary: Cumhur Odabasoglu

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The Independent Online
Cumhur Odabasoglu, historian, born Urfa Turkey 20 March 1924, married 1944 Fehamet Altmsdort (two sons, one daughter), died Trabzon 20 January 1993.

' 'TAKE my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.' The first sentence of Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond (1956) ranks among the great openings in literature.

She admitted that fiction was 'never perhaps her strongest suit', but it was not until chapter 14 of the novel that Rose Macaulay allowed a very real person his real name: Cumhur Odabasoglu - typically sorting out a spot of bother in the main square of the Black Sea port of Trebizond - the meydan of modern- day Trabzon, where caravans for Tabriz once assembled and Marco Polo lost all his luggage. They had no objection to aunt Dot's camel - after all the meydan is famous in Turkish heroic poetry as where Han Tural had wrestled down a fighting camel for love of a Trapezuntine princess, while the Ulusoy Bus Company has replaced the pack-camel stables there within living memory. But pious Trabzonlus, not natural converts to Anglicanism, drew the line at High Mass in the meydan and Cumhur sorted it out in fiction and Dame Rose in fact.

He also sorted out a good 10,000 British and other travellers who climbed from the port to the meydan past his modest office at No 64, whether they were writing Turkey books or not - from backpackers to Kathmandu to (dropping everything last summer) taking a Cabinet Secretary to Ani, just to see what the place was like. Knowing all about the 'mad honey' (deli bal) of Trebizond, Cumhur would have sorted Xenophon's lot out too.

This was in the name of traditional Turkish courtesy and hospitality. In fact, from 1948 Cumhur Odabasoglu helped revive the historic Trebizond-Tabriz transit route, which had fluctuated first with the comings and goings of the Mongols and then with the opening and closing of the Suez Canal, so he spent some years in Iran. A prodigious traveller, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca 13 times, leading a convoy of green-flagged Ulusoy desert buses out of the meydan.

Cumhur traced his Ottoman family, from Kastamonu, back to 1741, but was, as his first name declares, born with the Turkish Republic in 1924, son of Artillery General Husnu Odabasoglu (1892-1960). A founder member of the Democrat Party, Cumhur was elected Mayor of Trabzon in the heady days of the new democracy in 1950-52. But, increasingly disillusioned with the way things went thereafter, he turned to older and newer values.

Cumhur was an exemplar of the classic Turkish virtues of integrity and decorum, so lightly understood by travellers in the meydan. But he also became the historian and ecologist of Trabzon. He was dismayed by the pollution of the Black Sea, why his favourite hamsi fish no longer shoal on time, why evidence of Ottoman as well as ancient Trebizond is now smothered under concrete - why indeed concrete was poured over the Byzantine mosaic floor of its chief mosque and former cathedral. The founder of the Black Sea Writers' Society, Cumhur was author of four scholarly books on Ottoman Trabzon, and had more to come.

Cumhur Odabasoglu died suddenly of a heart attack aged 68, leaving his widow, Fehamet, his daughter, Sevtap (who runs the Trabzon Tourist Office, in the meydan), and his two sons, both colonels, one of the Trabzon garrison. He leaves other relations. In 1959 I became Cumhur's blood-brother (Turkish kardes), little understanding the implications of the term. It was an education in behaviour, constancy and trust, beginning with a spot of bother in the meydan, which Cumhur sorted out with a stern announcement: 'This man is not my friend.' (Pause, and expanding grin.) 'He is my brother]' Our family relationship, now in its third generation, is an extraordinary and intimate privilege which, by extension, Cumhur gave fellow students who loved his city.

Contemplating a neat pile of dung-cakes in some village east of Erzurum, Cumhur would wonder what democracy had brought Turkey. But he was in his element dancing beyond endurance to the kemence lyre in the upper air of the yayla, the boundless summer pastures above the clouds where the Tabriz caravans once toiled through the Pontic Gates. His civic funeral was held at the Iskender Pasa mosque, between No 64 and the meydan, which was unnaturally quiet.

(Photograph omitted)