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Eastern Anatolia: Where past meets present

A backwater border town, Kars is far off the grid of Turkish tourism. But the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow had captured my imagination, and was the first destination on a tri-country backpacking trip through Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. Hoping to catch a glimpse of Pamuk’s subversive references to Kars’ past as a crossroads of Caucasian culture, my fellow traveler and I arrived prepared for the bleak, homogenous present, hardly expecting what we would find.

It was difficult to tell when our cab had arrived in downtown Kars, which seemed to consist of a single street, dutifully named for Atatürk. Cars were newish and women walked past with salon-styled hair, but the atmosphere was hardly upbeat; the Soviet-looking city felt run-down and isolated, far removed from Istanbul’s shimmer. Medieval Kars, a flourishing Armenian capital, was impossible to envision.

The time was 3 pm, and the sky was already dimming over the drab buildings, their chimneys emitting light wisps of smoke in the frigid air. As Nebez, our Couchsurfing host approached, we breathed a sigh of relief. Without a local, Kars would be obscure at best.

Nebez led us to a sparse, but well heated apartment, shared with three other students at the conservatory. The roommates were all Kurds — a group that, according to our host, composes half the city’s population. Nebez was intent on conveying government suppression of their culture. The Kurdish language, banned in schools and discouraged in public, makes the apartment a refuge.

Dawn brought a feast of warm baguettes, fresh jam and bowls of honey, for which Kars is famous. We set out with Nebez and his roommate Serhat in sub-zero weather for our destination: Ani.  

The medieval Armenian capital succeeding Kars, Ani boasted a population of over 100,000 inhabitants at its height, rivaling Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad. A commercial hub on the Silk Road, Ani traded with the Arabs, Byzantines and Persians. Shifting trade routes, Mongol raids in the 13th century and a destructive earthquake a century later sent the city into decline. Today, Ani is a ghost city.

We entered through the towering Lion Gate, flanked by enormous walls, which once encircled the city. Distant mountains create a dramatic backdrop over the tundra-like winter landscape. The brick red and black volcanic basalt stones unify the architecture of the scattered buildings, which require three hours to explore. A sign describing Ani’s history made no reference to its Armenian founders.

Ani’s present condition is both breathtaking and alarming; those structures that survived earthquakes over the centuries have been no less threatened in the modern age. Under Turkish authority, the buildings have suffered vandalism, neglect and deliberate damage, while recent blasting in neighboring Armenia further shook the city. Lacking security guards or restrictive barriers, visitors are free to scrawl as they please.

Nevertheless, Ani’s handful of enduring structures — with their resilient stone masonry, detailed inscriptions and paintings — offer a window to the former magnificence of the “City of 1,001 Churches.”


Church of the Redeemer, Ani

The Church of the Redeemer is an eerie edifice. From one vantage, it appears a perfect rotunda; 90 degrees left or right, its jagged profile is revealed — one-half collapsed during a storm in 1957. Its murals have been whitewashed with a film of industrial paint, while the fallen walls, whose inscriptions provide the keys to its past, lie in rubble.  

Situated on the ledge of the ravine dividing Turkey and Armenia, the Church of Saint Gregory is easy to miss, but a must-see for its vivid, floor-to-ceiling frescoes. Among the biblical scenes depicted, is a small panel featuring four simurgh — the lion-headed bird of Persian legend — a testament to Ani’s place at the crossroads of empires.

On opposite sides of the river below, abutments of a medieval bridge remain. A mere stone’s throw from Armenia, a detour through Georgia or Iran is required to reach the land of Ani’s builders.

Returning to Kars, about 45 km away, we stopped at the foot of the looming Kars Castle, or citadel. With frozen toes, we skipped the hike, observing the ancient fortifications from afar.

Instead, we circled the 10th century Holy Apostles Church, constructed under Armenian rule. More fascinating than the relief carvings of the apostles, is the church’s identity — converted from church to mosque and back multiple times, it mirrors the centuries of political tug-of-war over the city. Modern Turkey settled on its function as a museum in the 1960s, but with the early nineties came war between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan — the building, whether for politics or prayer, once again became a mosque.  

At the suggestion of entering, Serhat — the Marxist of the bunch — gave us a stern no with a flick of his eyes. Observing it was closed, we followed our hosts to their prized eatery: Ka-Mer.


Ka-Mer restaurant, Kars

Ka-Mer (Women’s Center) is part of a nationwide organization, whose mission is to help survivors of domestic abuse gain financial independence through employment and training.

Simple, yet elegant, the single-room restaurant, which employs local women, features a floor of ornate tiles and is cozily heated by an antique wood-burning stove. The daily menu is written on a chalkboard, and the modern kitchen is open to the dining area.

The boureg, an appetizer of cheese, delicately wrapped in thin dough, was the best I have had. Our lentil and chicken soups were hearty and steaming hot — the perfect antidote to the winter chill. Alongside chai, Ka-Mer serves wine and beer.

Our last night in Kars warranted an outing with our hosts. At 9 pm the streets were lifeless. We walked past the imposing Azerbaijani Consulate and the house of its ambassador on our way to a café.  

Seated among plasma TVs playing Turkish pop videos, we settled into a game of backgammon, surrounded by tables of young women and men trying to pass the time. It is easy to comprehend why classical music studies thrive here — there is little else to do. Serhat made a throat-slitting gesture and warned us not to mention being Armenian in front of the café’s Azeri owners. A seemingly sleepy and irrelevant city, Kars is poisoned by regional disputes and ethnic tensions.

In 2011, a monument dedicated to Turkish-Armenian friendship was torn down after visiting Prime Minister Erdogan dubbed the structure a monstrosity. The former mayor, who commissioned the statue five years earlier, collected 50,000 signatures in support of opening the border with Armenia, closed since 1993 when Turkey backed Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. Not even potential tourism and trade has tempered this political standoff.

Yet, behind seemingly intractable tensions are complex narratives, and even artistic bridges. That evening, Nebez discussed his collaborative project with fellow Turks and Armenians from Gyumri, a city once connected to Kars by rail. It is a documentary about a nearby Kurdish village and an orphan boy.

That boy was Armenian, his family either deported or killed as part of a larger campaign against his people — the classification of which remains hotly debated in Turkey. Devoid of politics, the villagers took him in to be raised among them, preserving his life story through song. Representing a small but significant piece of the past, his life will be documented by Armenians, Kurds and Turks of the present, a sign of progress in a region of open wounds.

A note to the traveler: It is advisable to visit Kars during the warm summer, when the city is livelier and Ani’s fields are in full bloom. To experience Pamuk’s raw portrayal, visit during the winter.

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