After another midnight bus trip–this time from black sea port Trabzon through the mountains of northern Turkey, we arrived through desolate, tree-less high plateau steppes to Kars, a frontier town near Armenia which has harsh winters with up to 40-feet of snow.
The word “kars” means “snow” in Turkish. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s nobel-prize novelist, based his best-seller “Snow” in Kars. The people in Kars are descended from the Karsaks, a Turkic tribe that came from the Caucasus in the the 2nd century B.C.
Kars has saved many of its pastel-colored stone buildings built during the Russian occupation from 1877 to 1921, and often reminded us visually of our time in the former Soviet Union. The older Russian-era town with its picket fences and square grid streets contrasted with the newer, more modern Turkish parts of town.
Kars Castle, overlooking the whole town
from its mountain top, was actually built by Armenians before the Moslem conquest. An exquisitely restored 12th century Armenian-built stone “Church of the 12 Apostles” is now an active mosque. The Russians gained this northeast part of Turkey by conquest during the Crimean War, and the Czar even built his family a ski lodge here. Russia’s new Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky, however,–in a “singularly stupid moment” — gave Kars and the province back to Ataturk in 1921, in an effort to win his friendship.
Although all the people we met were helpful and friendly, only one local spoke English; he was the young owner of a music and book store. He explained that he had been a tour guide, and tourism had pretty much closed down after the beginning of the “Kurdish troubles”. There is plenty to see in Kars, including produce markets with the famous two-foot-in-diameter Kars cabbages, but we found very little in the way of handicrafts that are so plentiful in other parts of Turkey.
The real reason for visiting
Kars is to travel 28 miles to the Armenian border in the shadow of Mount Ararat to see the ruins of Ani, one of the most impressive sights in Turkey.
At the height of its golden age in the 10th century, Ani had 100,000 people and rivaled Constantinople in glory and power. The Armenians and Byzantines, each supporting a different brand of Christianity, bickered and fought between themselves, enabling the Moslems to conquer first one and then the other.
A huge earthquake in 1310 destroyed the city, including its monumental churches and mosques, a few of which were rebuilt only to suffer near destruction in later disasters. Spending a day in its strangely quiet, abandoned ruins (seeing only a few other tourists) made us think about how civilizations come and go.
The name Ani came from Anahit, an ancient Persian goddess identified with Aphrodite, one of the chief deities of the pre-Christian Armenians. Among the dozen or so structures remaining inside the mile square massive walls, in addition to churches and mosques, were both a synagogue and a zoroastrian fire temple–testament to the diversity that once thrived here.
On the somber drive back to Kars, we were reminded of a more recent conflict in this cradle of civilization: the Armenian-Turkish conflict of the early 20th century. While we usually hear about the genocide of Turks killing Armenians in Turkish-majority areas, out here in what was once an Armenian-majority area, we came across a small monument on the highway commemorating the massacre of the entire population of Turks in a small town by their Armenian neighbors. In our travels, we are constantly being reminded by sights such as this that our “understanding” of historical events is often too simplistic.