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Kars / Ani : Past. Present. Future. Tense.

Kars Travel Blog

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Kars Castle... a little yawn inducing for the well traveled castle conoisseur.
Pre. Tense.

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.
A relatively modern but intact Armenian style church in Kars city (now named/ converted to a mosque)
Mild military tensions in the air. Border smuggling. PKK. That strange pretence of order calm that many border towns strain under. Few women out and about. Received a bollocking for taking a snap of an ARV. Stared at a loony local who struts up and down the main street in a smart pin-stripe suit with a large laminated portrait of Abdullah Öcalan (imprisoned leader of the PKK) clipped to his breast. 'Careful my brother.' I am warned 'This man, he is crazy. He has killed many brothers already.' I look elsewhere. To Biblical Mount Ararat. A bundle of white clouds huddle in a silent whispering council around her twin peaks making her look like a snow dusted volcano, smouldering, about to loose upon the world her centuries of igneous indigestion.
Kars seen in its unassuming mediocrity from the Castle vantage point.
Via a bus change in ungracious Igdir where even in the ten minutes I am there some grotty kids have the temerity to pull and kick my backpack as I hot foot it out of their sh*thole home town. 'Munny munny munny.' 'F**K OFF you little brats!' No. I am no longer being polite about this.

Past. Tense.

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.
To bleed until death the ruins of Ani today attest.

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.
Russian style facade.
Out of season and this far out in the 'Wild East' of Turkey very few people are here today. In fact, but for a one-bus French tour group we (Ales, Linda, Michael and I) would have been pretty alone. The sun brightened cotton-cloth overcast skies, whilst ruinous for today's photography do compliment Ani's mournful, sombre profile. The large gorge that splits the land to the East of the site and forms the natural border between Turkey and Armenia creates dramatic panoramas as fleeting, escapee sprites of golden sunlight fire the land alive from time to time. A river runs along the gorge's base. A tiny, pretty, broken church (The Convent of the Virgins) perches improbably close to the cliff edge below.

Present. Tense.

One of the strangest sights when visiting Ani is what's happening visibly just over the border.
Steeping through the fortified walls of Ani, former capital of Armenia.
Over the gorge to the left a Russian military base. Calil (pronounced Jalil, our driver here) had explained that there's a base every 5 - 10 kilometres or so along the Armenian border at this point. Armenia being Russia's only ally in the region at this time and - Calil claims - effectively a government marionette puppet dandled by the powers that be in The Kremlin.

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.
The fields and churches of haunting Ani.
Just one man visible in combat fatigues today. Ales and his binoculars confirm no soldiers manning any of the Russian watch towers. Certain areas of Turkish land here in Ani though are designated out of bounds.

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.
Cracked in two by lightening.
Michael strangely uncomfortable with Calil's (I think relatively mild) manner of Turkish driving despite having visited the country 30 times!

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.
Social progressiveness. Making an assumption that anything this far from the financial hubs of Istanbul and Ankara would inevitably be a relatively conservative environment, my expectations are turned upon their heads. Kars has one of the most relaxed social atmospheres of anywhere I visit in Turkey. By that, my observations are predominantly with regard to the free and easy interactions between, and social choices being embraced by both sexes. Small and large groups of girls of all ages stroll around in little packs together without headscarves on, resplendent in hairstyles and smiles expressive, consciously or not, of overt individuality. Kars girls often mingling without the usual social strain of guilt with their male contemporaries over çay despite Ramadan's continuation. Believe me, to sit care free with a sun-dappled glass of tea is a pleasure I am currently not taking for granted! Good breakfast too.
Church undergoing restoration works.
Consumed behind cafe windows respectfully covered in newspaper sheets so as to conceal the offending gluttons within from the faithful devout without. A real treat!

Future. Tense.

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 river gorge that forms the natural border between Turkey & Armenia
A very sharp increase of female suicide in the rapidly developing city of Batman in 2000* brought a much needed spotlight to the issue of the lives and positions of women within a socially modernising Turkey.

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.
The Cathedral of Ani
One often fears in many countries and contexts that the perception of known female suffering is like a glimpse of an ice berg far off at sea. A sliver of a misery that runs maybe ten times deeper down or more into a lonely cold abyss.

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.
Inside Kars Cathedral
.. no it's just the idea of this one area of cultural, or rather social incompatibility that many see as the unspoken, or moral deal breaker. As Levent, the Turkish manager of my last guest house in Istanbul quips 'Can you imagine?! The borders open and all of a sudden there's a peasant from the farthest mountain villages of Kurdistan drawing his goat to water at a swimming pool in Paris wondering where he is, staring at all the beautiful ladies in their bikinis and grinning! Bullsh*t, this can never work my friend! Ha Ha.' An example by way of comic exaggeration but it expresses a possible truth for the time being.

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'.
Kars cathedral interior
Young, attractive and a qualified university graduate who'd tasted the certain freedoms of an independent life and of the mind and who was now, following an arranged marriage, never allowed to leave her home. So happy to have Ems and C as her guests and breaking down in tears of misery and some vain hope for impossible 'help' on the morning of their departure.

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.
Kars cathedral interior.
There is always, always this feeling that what I have to say is unimportant. Not worthy of attention. They listen but rarely respond. What I say doesn't mean anything to them as it comes from a woman. So I have just stopped trying.'
This again she cites as a reason for major incompatibility at a fundamental social level between perceived EU attitudes of 'equality of the sexes' (yes questionable success on many levels I know girls) and those more retrograde and seen to be lingering on in The East, or - more controversially - predominantly the Islamic societies of the East.

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.
I am reminded of my friend Thu and her (non) position as an American Vietnamese lady of 20 studying Arabic in Alexandria. 'As foreigners and especially as Asian foreigners we are all just prostitutes to them.' Linda and Ales are on route to Iran and expecting a further polarisation of the status of the sexes their, Linda is not now looking forward to the journey much.

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.
'
There are fears expressed by some Turks I have spoken to of the perceived creep of social (read religious) conservatism under the presiding religiously-tinged government of Erdogan who whilst retaining secularist and Euro-friendly at a headline level, some see as fostering old school social orthodoxies and permitting 'slide back' at a grass roots, Local Authority level. There's little doubt in many Turkish minds (those who are free and happy to offer their opinion) that social conservatism is (back) on the rise making eventual EU membership fanciful to impossible some of them think. It is near impossible for an Outsider to gauge of course but I have been surprised by the pronounced 'piety' of the nation as a whole, although of course it has been Ramadan.

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.
The girls preferring to annihilate themselves rather than removing their head scarves to attend educational institutions. Or is it just a response to increased patriarchal pressure to be 'pious and pure'? This remains an issue of pronounced controversy in Turkey and some think that as in the past; as in the novel, if the still-loyal-to-Atatürk army get too nervous they could step in once more in defence of secularity... though I fear with minimal interest in women's equality.

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!' )
Stevie_Wes says:
Cheers Derek, hope your plans for Turkey are coming along well. I was feeling all nostalgic for the country this week having spent Ramadan and Eid there two years ago.
Posted on: Sep 03, 2011
derekmode says:
ive read some of your other blogs and will read more before and after i leave for turkey (and also kars/ani) on wednesday. i really enjoy your writing style.
Posted on: Aug 23, 2011
whitelion says:
I've read it with great interest. Ani is a place I've missed in Turkey so far but if I go to Armenia one day I will certainly have a look at Ani's churches. Thanks for the blog.
Posted on: Oct 20, 2009
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Kars Castle... a little yawn induc…
Kars Castle... a little yawn indu…
A relatively modern but intact Arm…
A relatively modern but intact Ar…
Kars seen in its unassuming medioc…
Kars seen in its unassuming medio…
Russian style facade.
Russian style facade.
Steeping through the fortified wal…
Steeping through the fortified wa…
The fields and churches of hauntin…
The fields and churches of haunti…
Cracked in two by lightening.
Cracked in two by lightening.
Church undergoing restoration work…
Church undergoing restoration wor…
The river gorge that forms the nat…
The river gorge that forms the na…
The Cathedral of Ani
The Cathedral of Ani
Inside Kars Cathedral
Inside Kars Cathedral
Kars cathedral interior
Kars cathedral interior
Kars cathedral interior.
Kars cathedral interior.
Tumble down ruins
Tumble down ruins
Free and easy living.  Tea in the …
Free and easy living. Tea in the…
Kars
photo by: Stevie_Wes