Kars / Ani : Past. Present. Future. Tense.
Kars Travel Blog› entry 211 of 268 › view all entries
September 7th, 2009 – by: Stevie_Wes
Back to where I began my journey in Turkey. Well, kind of. The far North Eastern city of Kars. Setting for the novel of the same name by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk that I was near finishing as I crossed my midnight border on route to Istanbul six weeks ago. Kars. 'Kar'. Meaning 'snow'. Come the winter it snows here a lot! Minus thirty to forty degrees centigrade in extremis I'm told. But the sun has followed me here today.
And getting here? Via another sh*tty, stressful interlude in sh*tty Van. Via an evening and a night in Iranian border jump-off town Dogubayazit.
The main reason we Tourists come to Kars is in order to take the trip 45 kilometres East to the site of Ani. The church-riddled ruins of the former capital of Armenia. Established in the 10th Century AD by the Bagratid King Ashot III it became a major point on the East/ West Silk Road trading route and home of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate. As with so many such cities in antiquity a combination of conquest, re-conquest and earthquake damage would cause economic and political lifeblood to haemorrhage from the city over the centuries.
Behind the still very impressive (part reconstructed) city walls Ani, today resting in peace just within the modern Turkish border, feels more than any other such site I've visited to date, like a serene final resting place for a small slice of human History. A graveyard for churches. How ironic. A wide grassy expanse of gently undulating scrub land, scattered all over with a breadcrumb layer of mossy rubble. The final decaying molecules of an expired societal body. The only structures that remain in any state of recognisable composition are the cluster of Armenian churches and the one Cathedral that stand like lonely ghosts; a moot of time-cragged philosophers contemplating eternity at a respectful remove from one another amidst the grass and stone.
Ani is a haunting and quite beautiful place to wonder with one's thoughts for company for a few hours.
One of the strangest sights when visiting Ani is what's happening visibly just over the border.
The purity of the landscape aesthetic here is being further blighted as I write. Whole chunks of the Armenian border swathe being heavily excavated for construction at various points. More Russian military bases and watch towers being gouged and propped into the hill sides. Conditioned to respond to all the threats. Military tensions remain pronounced in the region despite surface level diplomatic status quo although things have improved. A trip here even a few years ago would have required a military escort around the site.
And mining over on the Armenian gorge cliffs too. Damaging and inexplicably sited mining. When initial dynamite cliff blasting was undertaken some years ago noticeable damage occurred to Ani's fragile, remaining structures. Indirect harm to their own former capital and heritage! It took the head of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate and a congregation of American Armenian well-wishers to make a pilgrimage to Ani in order to force a temporary moratorium on mining from the Armenian government.
Happy with our day (if not the photos therein) we all bundle back into Calil's car and back to Kars.
Kars itself? Well, it's hard to blow too many praises really. Most Turks are surprised when I mention I went there. 'Why? What is there to see there?'. 'Ani?'. 'Oh...but all that way for some ruins?!'. You get the idea. And, no, aside from Ani there's not much reason to come here. A bit of a curiosity of a city as throughout the 19th and early 20th Century it exchanged 'ownership' any number of times with Russia. This has left an indelible mark on much of its old town architecture and its more formal, angular city plan layout.
Socialist influences visible too in the disgustingly ugly pair of 35metre statues that stand tall, disfiguring the sky and all about them near Kars Castle. Supposed to be a 'friendship statue', a Turk and an Armenian holding hands it is truly one of the ugliest mega-monuments I have ever seen. And I've seen a fair few eye sores. It was erected controversially, despite civic protest on 'protected heritage' land by Kars' recent former mayor who is currently going through the court system on heavy charges of corruption. The city council and the people of Kars'd tear 'em down in an instant for the aesthetic stain they leave on an already fairly tired and unattractive city, but of course the diplomatic symbolism of such an act would so offend Armenia that it's not an option.
But for all the socialist concrete greys, Kars shines with one noteworthy element of positivity that I for one am happy to embrace.
Kars is an interesting tableau of the position and freedom of women in contemporary Turkish society. In a different way than I had expected. I.e. on the surface it seems comfortable and successful and redolent of a healthy social future. The poet-journalist protagonist of Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow has made the long journey from Istanbul for a number of reasons. Amongst them, to report on a recent spate of (semi-fictionalised) suicides amongst the city's young female populous. This is actually a novelistic transposition by Pamuk of the very real and actual phenomenon of significantly increased female suicide rates in the South Eastern and Eastern regions of Turkey that have been noted in recent times.
The reasons for such worrying trends are of course open to wide speculation. Poverty, unemployment and suppressed social status within rapidly modernising environments whose social context and 'rules' remain entirely under a patriarchal power structure are cited as possible factors. They all contribute potentially to stress points that make suicide more likely to occur. Bridal/ Marriage pressures. Bride 'burning' and disfigurement by other means for matters of family (read male) 'honour' are troubling and notable but even so the true number of incidents cannot be known, going largely unreported as they do for obvious reasons.
Conversationally amongst Europeans whilst I travel (and with the occasional Turk too) it is this subject, often more than any other, that brings the question of Turkey's (apparently) aspired to conjoinment with the European Union someway in the politically vague and distant future into most doubt. Forget the 'Cyprus Question'; the (alleged) 'Armenian Genocide' and the need for verbal reparation therein; the 'threat' of mass economic migration from what would immediately become Europe's per-capita poorest nation state upon accession; better human rights; the idea of Europe's borders stretching so far towards the Middle East (touching the politically pariah lands of Iraq and Iran no less 'shock horror!!!' ) or the idea of embracing Islam to the Union's predominantly Christian bosom.
There were my friends in Turkey Ems and Campbell who I met in Urfa. They went on to do a home stay in Mardin with a young Kurdish family where in their words the wife 'was quite literally a prisoner in her own home'.
I chat with Linda (Czech Republic) at dinner in Kars whilst her partner Ales gets more and more embroiled in a 'male buddy' conversation with the gregarious Turkish businessmen on the next table. 'This happens all the time' she says ' Ales is very sociable, and so am I, and we make many friends whilst travelling this way. But here in Turkey I just don't bother. When I try to join in the conversation or offer my opinions it just doesn't work.
A well hardened South Korean traveller (2 years backpacking and odd-jobbing around the globe) and Istanbul acquaintance of mine I shall call 'Y' emailed me at this time to describe the litany of sexual harassment she's had to endure whilst making her way around the country.
And it this tension that is again a key of Pamuk's novel. The personal and the political. The possession of and expression of the female form. 'The Head Scarf' issue. Conservatism Vs social modernity. Atatürk's vision for the future. The Republic to be guided by 'principles of science and reason' where 'our women have to be more enlightened, productive and informed than our men.
In Pamuk's novel - reflecting true past political incidents - the military roll into town and a local level coup is instigated to quell what is feared to be suicide and headscarf donning as a means of political expression and defiance.
I apologise. I have waffled and digressed too long. As usual. But have much to say or at least 'observe' in Turkey still and no time to write it. This will be basically the last before this blog probably starts to 'down size'. For my opinions on all of the above? You'll have to meet me over a beer someday. but Kars offered an opportunity I thought to bring a few of these 'issues' to the table.
At the end of Snow, the poet Ka, is escorted out of town and put on a train back to Istanbul. It's a journey that's kinda stuck in my mind. So, although I shan't be going all the way back by train tomorrow, a 28 hour butt-busting train will take me as far as Ankara. See you when I get there!
* of 31 recorded suicides and 99 recorded attempted suicides in Batman in the year 2000, 22 (71%) and 85 (86%) respectively were women. Aside from an inequality in the sex ratio this reveals, it also turns on its head the statistical norm practically the world over that sets male suicide rates significantly higher than female. ( 'oops, forgot to credit the source...sorry!' )
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