Feb 27, 2011

Little Muscovites in Turkey

At 1800 meters high, in the furthest northeastern part of the Anatolian plateau, totally covered with snow in a vast emptiness, I was one more time taken by my own country that revealed a totally different culture and aura to me. Here I was  in Kars, at the border with Armenia where at one time 19 different ethnicities lived side by side. The first republic of Anatolia (before Republic of Turkey) was also established here although it was a short lived one.  Today it is mostly Kurdish (65%) with Turks and Azeris constituting the largest minority among others.

A view from the Old Town with the Kars river passing through.

This boy from Kars wanted me to put his picture in Facebook.

People from Kars glide on ice and laugh while you barely can take a proper step.
What so struck me was the fact that 40 years of occupation by Russians at the end of nineteenth century left so many 19th century Baltic architecture buildings in the city. (For a city plan in Russian, scroll down). The first time I heard about this heritage was in Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”. He was describing  events taking place in 3-4 days when the town was cut off by heavy snow from the world. The hero found himself in the middle of political struggles in the city and often walked around decrepit buildings while yearning for love. There was a certain sadness and melancholy accompanying the novel. In Reha Erdem’s “Kosmos”, (for a trailer see http://www.kosmos.com.tr/), this melancholy seemed to be accompanied by the poetic beauty of the snow covering the city. Indeed, Kars seems to have benefited from all this scenery with the former mayor turning it into a movie set.

Another 19th century Baltic style building in Kars: doctors' house.

This is the trade exchange building in Kars, now privately owned.

Otel Ferah in Kars in which Pamuk's Snow is taking place.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.
Turkish politics recently handed another landmark to Kars. Prime minister Erdoğan during the commemoration of the dead soldiers of the First World War in nearby Sarıkamış numbering around 90.000, looked up to the citadel and called a newly erected statue as “monstrosity” and ordered its demolition. It was designed by the artist Mehmet Aksoy, as a result of a competition for the memory of those soldiers. There has been much debate whether it should be torn down because the PM did not like it. When I was there in February 2011, it was one of the tourist attractions of the city but has been removed piece by piece. So much for art that is not liked by (long live) my Sultan! It has been said that this was a maneuver of the prime minister probably to counter balance the publicity created by the collective prayer of the MHP (Nationalist Action Party)  in the Fethiye Mosque in Ani. Located 45 km from Kars, Ani used to be a big town on the Silk Road in Middle Ages. It also happens to be the place where Turks entered Anatolia in 11th century. The Fethiye (means conquest) Mosque is supposed to be the first place where prayer was held in Anatolia by Turks. Hence, the emphasis of that point by the nationalists.

The twelve Apostils Church in Kars with the Kars castle on the right.

The constitution of the first republic in Anatolia established in Kars.

And the famous, unfinished "monstrosity" in Kars, before its removal.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.
Because it is right at the border with Armenia and partly is in a military zone, Ani remained closed for decades to visit. No doubt Kars will benefit from the opening of the border with Armenia. Even today many Armenians are visiting Ani. Our guide explains the use of dynamite for mining right across the river in Armenia is damaging Ani. Unfortunately, Ani also lies on the North Anatolian fault line which meant it was destructed by earthquakes.

The stone bier of the Fethiye Mosque (to lay the dead) in Kars. Converted from a church,
notice the removal of the vertical peace of the cross.

The interior of the Fethiye Mosque in Kars converted from Aleksander Nevsky Church.

The Fethiye Mosque in Kars at night.
Kars’ economy is based on stock breeding and its cheese and honey are excellent. Recently ski tourism also increased thanks to better air connection. The nearby Sarıkamış has one of the longest  ski-run in Europe and very good quality snow. In the town itself, there is the 12 apostils church which bares the clear hallmarks of Armenian architecture. Along the river there is a Turkish bath and old houses such as Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Palace and on top the castle of Kars. Another interesting building is the former Aleksander Nevsky Church which is today the Fethiye mosque. It was originally built as an army base during the Ottoman-Russian War.

A view from Kars streets.

University of Caucasia, Department of Political Science in Kars.

This square in Kars is covered with typical Baltic style buildings with the one
on the right being the Mayor's residence.
The newly opened University of Caucasia must also be mentioned as it pulls students to the town, contributing to the economy. Built in the beautiful Baltic architecture, the political science department of the university is where political prisoners used to be held in appalling conditions during the military rule in 1980-3. One man, Cemal Kırbayır, is said to have notoriously “disappeared” from here. His 103 year old mother Berfo, recently met prime minister Erdoğan to discuss his whereabouts and other disappearances that have happened in the past. It has been recently confirmed to her by a Parliamentary Commission that it is certain that he died in the hand of the military regime. Today, in the same building, political science students, learn “on site” about power, state and civil society where once the former two were plenty while the latter none. Now, that’s what I call the irony of history:-).

KAMER restaurant in Kars, run by women for victims of domestic violence.

A barber store in Kars.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.

Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Palace in Kars.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.
Not only the architecture but also the politics of the town bore a Russian mark: it voted left in a neighborhood of Turkey with clear conservative tendencies. Indeed people from Kars proudly tell you about the city’s tolerant attitude. In such a small town, restaurants remain open in Ramadan or non fasting people freely smoke in public, something you do not see in 150 km away Erzurum. “Erzurum strangles us when we need to go there. We cannot wait to get back”. No wonder they used to call Kars “little Moscow”. However, with the shift of Kurdish politics from left, Kars no longer votes left. It has one MP from MHP and two from Prime Minister’s AKP, hence the political shows about the statue and the collective prayer from both parties:-).

View from Ani, Kars.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.

View from Ani, Kars.
Picture: Zeren Göktan.

Manuşehr (moon faced) Mosque on the very left in Ani is the first Turkish mosque in Anatolia.
The Fethiye Mosque in the middle is the spot of collective prayer by MHP.

Arpaçay river in Ani, forming the Turkey-Armenia border, Turkey on the left.
When in Kars, you should taste the famous goose, salty but yummy. I would also recommend the KAMER restaurant which is run by women. Its income supports a shelter for women escaping from domestic violence. I tasted “hengel” which can be best described as ravioli without meat.  If you have time, what could make your experience a truly different one would be to take the train to Kars. If not, it is one and half hours of flight from Istanbul. Try staying in Kars’ only boutique hotel Kar's. I would truly hope that the now decrepit Ferah Hotel mentioned in Pamuk’s snow is soon restored. And do not forget to take your camera, small amount of brandy, and warm boots and explore the city on foot at night for a truly romantic experience. The dim lights, the lonely streets, the light reflected from the snow is otherworldly.
On the way to Sarıkamış, these men ride horses without saddle to train them.

And these horses in Kars slide on ice and still carry people.
A shorter version of this post is available at Hurriyet Daily News.