Living in our middle-class Moda neighborhood, surrounded by the beauty of the sea and indulged by the delicious varieties of food and drink so near at hand, tends to cloud our view of Turkey as a whole. That’s why it’s good from time to time to rebalance our perspective by spending a few days in a different part of Anatolia, one far from the cosmopolitan delights of the seaside towns and cities. For that purpose. the northeastern section of the country, especially the districts containing the cities of Erzurum and Kars, are an excellent choice. These are the borderlands where the landscapes of mountains and steppe remind us that over the centuries it was through here that the waves of Selcuk and Ottoman Turks and the Mongol hordes from Central Asia passed to conquer and settle Asia Minor.
The city of Erzurum is situated on a vast plateau 2,000 meters above sea level. As Kay and I stepped off our Onur Air flight onto the tarmac accompanied by our visiting American friends Larry and Susan, we were immediately struck by an air temperature at least ten degrees cooler than Istanbul’s. Some of the distant mountains were still streaked with snow. This is the region that routinely reports Turkey’s coldest winter temperatures. However, we had arrived in June, on the seasonal cusp; a day or two later we would feel the daytime temperatures climb to an uncomfortably warm extent.
In the airport terminal, I had an immediate reminder of how the quality of provincial life differs from what I am used to. The tiny men’s room’s single urinal was out of order and several men ahead of me stood in line to use the two remaining Turkish toilets. Our taxi into town was a thrill ride, as our driver wasted no time gitting us to our lodging.
Our hotel, the Dilaver, was worn and charmless but comfortable enough. Our sleeping room had a desk and a chair where I could write in the mornings. There was WI-Fi, as well. Most importantly, the staff was welcoming and helpful. As it happened, we would need their help under special circumstances a couple of days later.
Apart from some great mosques, fortresses, and other historical sites, Turkish towns are often rather ugly by Western standards. Their broken sidewalks are often difficult to negotiate and their principal streets are lined with nondescript buildings whose facades are covered with enormous signs and banners that fight with each other for attention. These streetscapes are rarely relieved by municipal parks and squares.
In fact, in Erzurum, there is only one square, an immense concrete platform that takes its name from the eponymous, 14th-century medrese that stands at its center. The Yakuts are a Turkic-speaking people that live somewhere in Central Asia, and the exotic-looking medrese with its single minaret covered with a knotted lattice of tile work has a Central Asian or Persian look. Surrounded as it is by urban sprawl, this building’s appearance commands attention.
Though it was built long ago as a Koranic seminary, today it houses the Museum of Islamic and Turkish Arts. Inside is a large central space surrounded by chambers that were once student cells. Stooping to enter these through low doorways, we found some very attractive displays of traditional men’s and women’s dress and accessories along with ceramics, tools, weapons, and measuring devices. Each item was identified and explained in both Turkish and English. The central area contained a gift shop and a small cafe that were lovely spots to browse and relax.
Behind the medrese the squat mid-16th-century Lala Mustafa Paşa Camii or mosque is said to have been built by the great architect Sinan. If so, it is not one of his greatest works.
Surrounding these historical monuments on the edges of the park are benches where old men wearing skullcaps sit chatting and drowsing in the morning sunshine. Passersby include parents with small children pedaling their tiny bicycles and toy automobiles.
Erzurum has several monuments of note along or just off the city’s main thoroughfare, and I’ll mention just one other that has become a kind of civic icon.
The Çifte Minareli Madrese whose name meaning, “double-minareted,” derives from the two thirty-meter-tall towers that flank the building’s wide façade. If, in fact these were built in the 13th century to be minarets, it’s odd that they have no balconies from which the muezzin could sound the call to prayer. We would have loved to explore this fascinating monument. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation. Its façade and towers were covered with scaffolding and its ground-level storey hidden behind a construction barrier.
Leaving the realm of historical monuments, Erzurum had a couple of other attractions for us. One was the jewelry fashioned from oltu taşı, a black stone resembling obsidian that is mined in the district. We found this in abundance in every shop in Erzurum’s ancient covered bazaar. All of us had fun trying to find the perfect souvenirs among such a vast assortment.
The other Erzurum specialty is edible. The cağ kabob is a skewer of delicious marinated lamb sliced from large pieces on a rotating spit known in local dialect as a “cağ.” The method is to take a piece of thin, flat bread known as lavash, smear it with a spicy red-pepper condiment and dollops of rich yogurt, and wrap it around the succulent morsels of meat drawn off the skewer. This, together with a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, made for some tasty meals.
Our plan for the week away from Istanbul was to spend two days in Erzurum then drive two hundred kilometers northeast to the smaller city of Kars from where we would explore the ruins at Ani, the medieval capital of the Kingdom of Armenia. It was a good plan; however, fate intervened. Early on the morning of our departure for Kars, I found Larry and Susan in the hotel breakfast room with a bad-news announcement. An emergency phone call during the night informed Susan that her 96-year-old mother had fallen and was lying unresponsive in a Baltimore hospital ICU. It was imperative that our friends return to the U.S. at once.
The next hour was fraught with haste as we got our friends two last-minute seats on a Turkish Air flight to Istanbul and gave them keys and directions to our apartment where they needed to retrieve some belongings. Happily, we can report that Larry and Susan arrived safely at their U.S. destination and that Susan’s mother survived and was able to recognize them when they appeared at her bedside. Meanwhile, Kay and I followed the original plan by hitting the road in a dirty, rented Renault Fluence that came with a cracked windshield and an empty fuel tank.
In June, the scenery between the two cities was beautiful and strange. The treeless steppe appeared in multi-shades of green with great patches of wildflowers. The low mountains were green, too, and soft looking without trees and outcroppings of rock to sharpen their contours.
Erzurum is a relatively poor city, and Kars, closer to the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan is even more so. A few years ago it gained some literary attention as the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Otherwise, its distinction is that from 1875 until World War I Russians ruled the town and redesigned its center on a grid plan with wide streets and avenues. After a day or two, we found we could find our way around with ease.
There also remain a number of Russian-built buildings from that era, most of which are in serious disrepair. The Kar’s (sic) Hotel where Kay and I lodged for four nights is located in a former Russian mansion. It provided us a level of style and comfort exceptional for this part of Anatolia.
Before relating some of our adventures in the Kars’ hinterland, I have to write a few words about the town’s restaurant scene. It comes down to the fact that we could order anything we wanted as long as it was meat. This part of Turkey is cattle country; we encountered herds of them as we drove along the back roads. It became almost a joke between us as we walked the streets of Kars in search of a meal whose main dish didn’t come from a cow.
This is also a part of Turkey that raises a lot of geese. We saw them everywhere along the roads and in the villages we entered. Curiously though, we didn’t find goose on the menus of the restaurants where we ate. Another observation about restaurant dining in this part of Turkey is that it seems to be principally a male activity. There was more than one evening when Kay was the only woman in a dining room full of men. I imagined a Kars’ marriage to be one in which the man gives the woman a home and children while he remains free to socialize with other men.
The ruins at Ani are a haunted scene. Spread sparsely over a large tract of land just inside the Turkish-Armenia border, they are all that remain of Armenia’s medieval capital. Earthquakes and Mongol raids did such a thorough job of destruction that Ani was abandoned centuries ago. Since relations between Turkey and Armenia have been mostly frozen since the death march that killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, the border lands where Ani is located were for a long time mostly off-limits to tourism. Even today certain sections of the landscape around Ani are controlled by the Turkish military and still restricted.
To explore Ani Kay and I followed well-defined paths that took us past the major ruins, almost all of them churches. The most intact of these was the cathedral, a tall edifice of contrasting red and black stones laid in a modified checkerboard pattern. We did not learn where these stones had been quarried but were to discover that they were a common building material used in the vicinity’s other ancient churches. Other common architectural features are the beautifully proportioned blind arches and tall narrow windows that add visual interest to exterior surfaces. The Armenians were fine architects and master stonemasons. Even in a ruined state it is possible to appreciate the delicacy of their art. Stepping inside the cathedral, we admired the soaring columns supporting what had once a dome, now missing.
Other Ani buildings of note are the small Church of St Gregory (he being one of the early Christians that brought their religion to Armenia)
and a curiously modern-looking structure known as the Menüçehir Camii, possibly the first Selcuk mosque to be built in what is now Turkey. Of course I photographed these structures as well as their surrounding natural settings.
Whereas Ani is easily accessible, other sites we visited presented more of a challenge, and this, to me at least, made them even more interesting. One is located in the village of Bayraktar. Its church is an almost completely intact 13th-century example known as the Karmir Vank or Kizil Kilise. Both titles mean “red church,” names derived from the church’s predominantly red stone exterior. The village is small and the church located in what is now a farmer’s barnyard. A young girl welcomed us and stayed with us during our visit. The farm family has probably used the church as a barn for animals. When the girl tugged open the rough wooden door, it startled a flock of pigeons that roost high among the tops of columns. The interior was gloomy since the church has kept its domed roof.
Finally, we drove to the nearby village of Oğuzlu where there is a partial ruin of what once had been a large church. There wasn’t much to see, and as we were leaving, two elderly village men stopped us and invited us to their home for tea.
We accepted and were soon sitting on a raised platform with Mehmet Inci and some of his family members. Mehmet is 65 years old and his senior relative 87. A married daughter prepared a light meal for us, and it would have been rude to explain that we had just eaten lunch. In these circumstances an invitation to “tea” is never simply for the beverage. We were served two kinds of bread, — pide and lavash – with tomatoes and cucumbers, honey, a jar of butter fat, a couple of different cheeses, and a soupy version of tahini — all, by the way, made or grown on the farm. We asked a lot of questions in order to make conversation as best we could in our fractured Turkish. While we visited, two young boys played around the doorway while through a window, I could see the usual flock of geese.
Our hosts were very friendly and no doubt would have liked us to stay longer than we did. Before we left I took a group photo and promised to send a print. Oğuzlu is not a wired settlement, and none have email.
Our remaining forays out of Kars were more rigorous. The following day, having decided to visit another remote Armenian church, we chose one that had once anchored the medieval town of Mren (Mirini). Today, it stands all alone in the middle of a desolate plain five kilometers from the village of Karabağ, about 60 kilometers from town on highway 70.
We were able to drive our Fluence to the village and a bit beyond along a deeply rutted dirt road. From there we could see the church, looking very small far out on the plain. To get there we would first have to descend a steep hill, cross a stream by a footbridge, climb another steep hill on the far side, and set off on foot across flat country in the direction of the Armenian border.
Kay was not up to that ordeal and decided to stay in the car and read. As I neared the bottom of the hill and approached the stream a local family spotted me. The women had been washing village carpets (a routine of spring cleaning, I guess) while a man was washing his small tractor in the middle of the stream.
A hoard of children ran toward me asking for money and for me to take their picture. Then the man approached wanting to take me out to the church on his tractor, for money, of course. I liked the look of him and since the sun was hot and the church an hour away on foot, I decided to take his offer. He first asked for $100, which was ridiculous. As I walked away, he dropped his demand to half, and we finally settled on 50 Turkish Lira or a bit less than $30. I walked across the bridge and met the tractor on the other side. From a distance I hadn’t realized how small the tractor’s enclosed cabin was. Next to the operator’s seat there was just enough room for me to stand bent over and braced against the door. My new acquaintance’s name was Serkan, and his ten-year-old son, who accompanied us, was Taner.
My remorse began as soon as the tractor began to move. The ride up the stony hillside was incredibly rough. Even in my four-wheeling, off-road days I never experienced anything like it. It took everything I had to brace myself and not bang my head on the roof of the cab or my elbow against the door. To make matters worse, the small enclosure became insufferably hot. A fan was blowing air but if there had been an air-conditioner, it wasn’t working. I began to sweat profusely. Fortunately, I had a bandana in my pocket and used it to keep the perspiration out of my eyes.
Once up the hillside, we followed a trail toward a distant ruined house. There the trail ended, and we had to abandon the tractor and continue on foot. The church was still a mile of so away, but the walking was fairly easy, and I was glad to be able to breathe. I was a bit surprised that Serkan and Taner chose to accompany me, as they could have waited for me to return. I offered them water from my bottle, which they declined. By the time we reached the church it was nearing 1 p.m. and very warm.
Up close, the church was quite large, as big as the cathedral at Ani and made of the same kind of red and black stone. It was, in fact, the cathedral of the once fair-sized town of Mren. The south side of the church had collapsed so we could enter by climbing over a heap of rubble. The west wall’s exterior was very interesting with at least two long inscriptions in what I took to be Old Armenian.
Carvings of religious figures accompanied these. Some of this work had been defaced, yet it was still possible to discern the excellent quality of the carving. This church is remarkable for having been built in 639-640 by the Armenian Prince David Saharuni. It is a very early example of its type. Of the surrounding town, abandoned in the 14th century during the Mongol raids, nothing remains except rubble stone. Except for the collapsed south wall and the stones around the foundation pilfered by locals to reuse as building materials, the church has weathered the centuries well. It was truly built to last. Today, its lower parts have been defaced by graffiti, a scourge of the modern world.
I said goodbye to my acquaintances back at our starting point, thankful to be out of the tractor cab. Accompanied by Taner I climbed the steep hill and found Kay being pestered by a group of village boys. After some difficulty with the car we finally drove out of the village and back to Kars on the highway.
We had packed a picnic lunch that, in the end, we ate in our room. The problem with a picnic in these parts is that without trees there is absolutely no shade.
I had one more adventure worth recounting. It was to seek yet another medieval Armenian Church even more isolated than the last. On this occasion, Kay didn’t even pretend to want to join me. She stayed behind in our comfortable hotel room while I drove the forty kilometers in the direction of the town of Digor.
The church was several kilometers from the town, and according to my Rough Guide the best approach was to start walking from a point on the highway 4.5 kilometers north of the town. I couldn’t find the point on my own so I drove into Digor in the hope of getting useful information.
Digor is a poor-looking place whose principal commerce seemed to be the sale of farm machinery. In the center were a couple of shops and the usual bunches of men standing around or sitting drinking tea. I saw no women or children. Most of the men were either middle-aged or elderly. I sat down at an outdoor table in front of a tea shop and introduced myself to three friendly locals seated side by side. The man in the center was clearly an imbecile. He kept grinning and making sounds through a mouth of rotting teeth.
I explained that I had come to find the ancient church known as Beşkilise. Other men joined us and everyone knew of the church although, astoundingly, none had actually gone to see it.
One man named Bekir said he knew the place on the highway that would serve as a jumping-off point for a trek to the church. He also wanted to make the trek with me.
Back off the highway we drove on a sandy access road to a white pumice quarry where, after speaking to an elderly man on the site, we left the car and began our walk uphill over open ground in the direction indicated by the elderly gent.
I should add that my new acquaintances are Kurds and spoke Kurdish among themselves.
Although Bekir had never been to the church, he knew the general direction because he and I both knew it sat above a gorge carved over the millennia by the small river known as a çayı that flowed through the town of Digor.
We climbed uphill for a certain time before descending and confronting a ravine that we had to walk aways around to be able to cross. The going was rough in places with the kind of loose stones that can be treacherous on a downhill slope
At a certain point Bekir announced that we had a choice. We could climb uphill or take a lower trail along the hillside. I don’t know why, but I opted for the uphill course. It brought us onto a trail along an escarpment that was easy walking and with a cooling breeze. After fifteen minutes or so we came to point on a cliff where we could look down far below us at the object of our quest perched on a promontory overlooking the deep gorge and the çayı. The setting was dramatic. All around us was green with scatterings of wild flowers. Other than bird song, however, there were no sounds or signs of life.
Now, we were faced with the problem of how to get down to the church, and at this point our walk became pretty hairy. The middle-aged Bekir, who has lived all his life in these hills, walked with confidence down a steep, rocky slope while I followed with much more difficulty. He was wearing street shoes while I had on my trusty hiking boots that have saved me more than once from twisting an ankle. I was also carrying my backpack loaded with bread, a heavy cheese, my Rough Guide, and extra water. My camera hung from my shoulder. As I picked my way down the slope, I regretted not having chosen the lower path.
Finally, we reached the path and made our way along it until we reached the ruined church, standing where it had been built a thousand years before. Why it was located in such a remote and inaccessible place is a mystery. A few bits of ruins around the church made me think there had perhaps been a monastery at one time.
The church is a small polygonal structure beautifully proportioned with a conical roof rising to a dome. The exterior walls are decorated with the same kind of blind arches I’d seen elsewhere.
On its west side the church is covered with deeply incised inscriptions in Old Armenian except where the wall had been broken open. I wondered where translations of these inscriptions might be found.
Two large wall sections are missing and there is a long vertical crack in another wall clearly visible from within the building. While the locals may not have visited this ruin, others certainly had. There was much too much graffiti, some of it in spots that seemed impossible to reach without a sky hook. I took a number of photos of the church and its dramatic setting before we moved on. To Bekir’s query of who had built the church, I explained that the builders had been Armenians a thousand years before. The people that live in rural areas like Digor are seldom educated and barely literate in many cases. They have little interest or curiosity about the remote past and the history of the people who inhabited these lands centuries ago.
I asked Bekir what he did for a living. He replied that he had no regular job but that he did odd jobs and sometimes watched the herds of animals that seem to sustain many in the region. I also asked him about the many horses Kay and I have been seeing along the roadsides, some, mares with their foals. He said that the horses were bred to work in the fields, although we saw no evidence of this.
Our walk back went smoothly until we had to do some serious climbing up the steep hill that would bring us back to the quarry. We rested for a quarter of an hour while I ate some bread and cheese. The climb up the long hillside was fairly exhausting for me. I stopped once for a few moments to catch my breath. I was very pleased when we reached a point on top of the quarry from where I could look down on my rental car.
Back in Digor I gave Bekir fifty Turkish Lira that I know he appreciated. He led me to the town’s filthy latrine where there were two sinks. It felt good to wash my sweaty face, hands, and arms. Saying goodbye, I climbed back in the car and headed back to Kars. At one point I passed a hitchhiker and wouldn’t have stopped were it not for a line of cows crossing the road in front of me. The hitchhiker, a swarthy, middle-aged man with a bindle, rushed up and climbed in next to me. He was bound for a place east of Erzurum and was very grateful to me for the lift as far as Kars.
Kay and I enjoyed our days in and around Kars. We had a couple of good meals and were entertained one evening in a restaurant where live music brought diners to their feet to perform the traditional dances of the region. We also explored the town itself, taking in its excellent small museum, its ancient fortress and our relics of the past.
By luck, we chose a time of year when the wildflowers were in prolific bloom. During one of our walks Kay counted at least thirty varieties.
Our drive back to Erzurum was pleasantly uneventful, and after one last night at the Dilaver we flew home to restore ourselves and dream of the next adventure.