The Fabulous Kurdish and Armenian Legacy
28.05.2012 - 31.05.2013 20 °C
This was a bit of a challenge, as I completely ignored my usual rules of writing notes down as soon as possible. A necessary result of my increasingly decrepit memory! So much was packed into this 4 day, 3 night dash through the easternmost parts of Turkey, and nary a word did I type! Let’s see what I can actually remember. Thank goodness for my incessant clicking, it definitely helped me piece together our explorations.
After a wonderful long weekend in Cappadocia, Christa and I took off for our Eastern Explorations. I have to give a shout-out to Christa here. It was her desire to see Ani that pushed us to fit this in, and I’m so glad we did. Eastern Turkey, at least for the brief visit we had, was just as beautiful as I’d come to expect from the rest of our explorations, but somehow more wild, stark and raw. We were hard-pressed to see any other tourists on our journey, with the exception of a handful at Ani and at the Armenian Cathedral Church in Van. Driving through mostly farmland filled with crops, horses and sheep, back dropped by soaring, snow-covered mountains, with sign posts pointing the way to Georgia and Iran, time seems to have stopped, or at least slowed down here.
We arrived into Kars, a small city in the northeast of Turkey that has had many occupations: Seljuks, Karakoyunlus, Byzantines, Georgians, Ottomans, and most recently (and longest) Russians. In antiquity, its roots lie with ancient Rome and Armenia. We were met by the wonderful Celil Ersoğlu, who whisked us off to our hotel and then to tour Ani. We were staying at the very white and imaginatively named Kar’s Otel. Housed in an old Russian building, everything is painted white – floors, walls, ceiling, railings… everything! Was a nice hotel and a good location for our brief stay. After dropping off our bags, it was back to Celil and off to Anі.
Anі, City of 1001 Churches, was once the capital of the Catholic, medieval Kingdom of Ani and a major stop on the Silk Road. It was an important and advanced city that rivaled the greats of its time: Constantinople, Damascus and Baghdad. Now, it is an eerie, desolate, expanse of green fields, crumbling walls and ruined churches and buildings, uninhabited except for the birds, in particular hundreds of swifts, whose aerial antics provided a nice bit of life to the stark vistas.
Moving from Kars, Ani was established in 961 as the site of the new Armenian capital. It is ideally defended because of the steep valley on one side, and the Akhurian River on the other. Family succession squabbles, left the empire weak and the Byzantine’s took over the city in 1045, and then the Persian Seljuks popped in in 1064. They of course turned all the churches into mosques, until the Christian Kingdom of Georgia came over and turned them back. Then for a short time the Kurdish emirs were in power before finally Georgia started a successful restoration in 1199. Successful that is, until the Mongols arrived in 1239. The city started to decay and then the great earthquake of 1319 finished most of the remaining city off. Tamerlane 1380 completed the devastation and the major powers shifted their capitals elsewhere. A small town continued to exist behind the remaining walls, ruled by the Persian Safavids and then the Ottoman Empire, until 17th century. This once great city, with such a tumultuous history was completely abandoned in the middle of the 18th.
On our visit, it was an alternatively cloudy and thundering rain afternoon, with rays of sunshine gradually coming out. This only added to the haunted atmosphere and feeling of the place. It’s hard to describe, but we both felt the melancholy of the site. In later readings I came across an historian’s (Sibt ibn al-Jawzi) accounting of an eye-witness account to the attack in 1064 of the Seljuk Turkish army.
“The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive...The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible.”
Small wonder the city felt haunted!
A highlight in Kars had to be the wonderful restaurant Ocakbaşi Restoran. And not for the food alone, which was fabulous – Anteplim pide (a tasty meat stuffing with nuts, cheese and egg, surrounded by a baked sesame bread), and of course their version of Iskendar Kebap – but for the wonderful service of our waiter. An older, dapper gentleman, that performed everything with a deft flourish. Place a fallen napkin back in your lap, oh no! It must be snapped fresh and clean high into the air, before floating it gently down to land perfectly on the lap. Such a fun gentleman he was. At the end of the meal, he rushed downstairs to catch us and freshen our hands with cologne before leaving.
This is a particular Turkish custom that I’ve not found elsewhere. Traditionally you would great your guest with lightly scented cologne to freshen their hands and rid them of any germs and smells from the outside. This would often be followed up by sweet, which is meant to ensure an evening of sweet conversation. The cologne offer is traditional not only for guest visits, but on bus trips and in restaurants.
Largely left off now in many modern establishments, a poor version can be found in the ubiquitous scented moist towlet packages you find everywhere you go, and certainly at every restaurant.
One night and packed ½ day in Anі and we were off too soon to Van. Celil helped us navigate the bus-ticket-buying and dropped us at the station. He also set us up to meet the unbelievably lovely Osman Akkuş, his friend in Doğubayazit, where we had a few hours before catching our final bus to Van. But I’m getting ahead of myself, first, the bus trip, which aside from the adventure was stunning!
Bus travel in Turkey is very affordable, and supposedly very efficient -- beating the train system by a large margin. We were a bit worried, when our bus was an hour late arriving, since we only had 3 hours in Doğubayazit, but not unduly. That is until we left. Now the roads, especially coming from India, are really not bad in Eastern Turkey, but this nice, brand-spanking new Mercedes bus must have been a bit delicate, because our bus driver, I swear, did not see upward of 15km an hour the entire journey! Tractors were passing us on the road!
Finally climbing down from our tortoise-like bus, our last leg to Doğubayazit was in a mini-bus/van. These 15-seater vans are used quite a lot in Turkey, and we had read they often don’t leave for their destination until full. How long would we wait? Happily not too long. Just long enough to fit 17 people into the extremely small 15-seats, plus two pigeons! They also wouldn’t load the luggage until the van was full, so we had some anxious moments wondering if the bags made it onto the vehicle at all. Though speaking not a word of English, or French, the locals on the van were lovely and trying very hard to help us, though they didn’t know what we were worried about. One elderly gentleman took a particular shine to Christa, kindly squeezing her cheek when we left! Happily not THAT cheek!
We finally reached Doğubayazit, with about 1 hour remaining before our only connecting bus to Van. We had planned to do a tour of the small city with Osman, and were really sad we didn’t have the time. Osman owns a carpet shop – Kurdish Crafts (www.kurdishcrafts.com), not far from the bus station. Which would have been perfect if the bus went to the station. That couldn’t happen, could it? Nope, doors open, bags off, point in a direction, bus leaves. Uh huh? Luckily we were approached relatively quickly by a private taxi, who took us to the worried Osman’s shop, which wasn’t too far off.
What a lovely man! His English was excellent, as was his brother’s and Belgian sister-in-law’s. He had been talking with Celil and was very worried about us. We were sure we had no time for sight-seeing, but he said no problem and drove us up quickly to see the airy and elegant İshak Paşa Palace. Perched high above the city, with Mt. Ararat as a backdrop on one side (in clouds of course), and stark cliffs on the other. This palace, started in 1685 was built by a Kurdish chieftain and incredibly beautiful, not only for the views. I could see myself living there! When I win that elusive lottery of course.
After a quick run around the palace, we were off for lunch at a nice cafe across from the bus terminal, while Osman ran over to try and get us tickets. Oops, only 1 ticket left! Not to worry he says. He’ll work on it, and if all else fails, he’ll drive us to Van. He was such a gentle man, I wish I could have purchased a carpet from him! After some haggling, he procured us that extra ticket on the bus to Van, a 3-hour trip. The solution? They placed a small plastic stool in the aisle of the bus! Uhhhhh… happily the bus wasn’t full, and seating wasn’t assigned, so we grabbed a couple of regular seats and set off, saying Bye to Osman, and both hoping one day to be back in this area. Doğubayazit was a lovely, friendly, eastern Turkish town that we’d love to explore. If you’re in the area, pop in to see Osman. He’ll take you on a tour of the sights in the area, and absolutely not pressure you to buy a carpet.
About an hour from Van, we stopped in a small village to pick up our other passengers. An elderly man got on with his slightly younger wife and she proceeded to sit on the ‘stool’. Uh oh! Happily for us, as we were about to offer up our seat, a nearby young man did the same. All’s well that ends well!
Finally in Van and checked in to our OK, but grossly overpriced hotel Büyük Asur Oteli. Van is known for the Van Cat, and the Van Breakfast – kahvalti! Funnily enough in Van we had our worst breakfast of the trip (the included breakfast at the hotel) and the best breakfast of the trip – the kahvalti. My advice, skip all included breakfasts here, it’s not worth the free-aspect, and walk over to the nearby Eski Sümerbank Sokak, a street closed to traffic with several, apparently equally good, restaurants. Kahvalti is served daily from 7am till noon and is fab! Typically you will get the local cheese (Beyaz Peynir), olives, kaymak (a divine clotted cream), tomatoes, cukes, Otlu Peynir (a tangy dip of cheese and herbs), of course the local honey, eggs cooked in a copper bowl, sausages, fresh pita and of course coffee or tea. So good!
Time being limited, we hired a tour guide to take us around to the many sights of the region. The area has evidence of human habitation as far back as 5000 BCE, so much to see! The hotel arranged the guide for us, and while good, was expensive, as was everything in this town.
Cat person that I am, the first stop was to see the famous landrace (local variety of domestic animal occurring naturally) Van cat. The Van cat is an all-white large cat from the region, frequently with odd coloured eyes. The Turkish Van cat we see as a breed, and developed in the UK is not regarded as an authentic Van cat, having colour patterns on the head and tail. These cats have been declining in number, so a (so far ineffective) government breeding program has been created and we visited one of the centres. It was pretty sad actually. Although the cats seemed healthy for the most part, and their area clean, it was devoid of anything to play with, except for 1 lone plastic chair. Poor cats were so bored, they were eager to play with us through the chain fence.
Driving southeast from Van, our next stop was the imposing Kurdish castle, Hoşap Kalesi. A fantastic castle, perched up high, as castles will do. It was built in 1643 by a Kurdish warlord, Mahmudi Süleyman. Was fun to wander the remains of this atmospheric castle but it was the visit to our next stop, the Çavuştepe Fortress and Necropolis that was the most interesting for me.
Crowning an imposing hill set alone in the middle of the flat fields of the Gürpınar Plain was this former home of kings from the ancient kingdom of Urartu, a prehistoric, iron-age Armenian kingdom. Çavuştepe was the 3rd largest settlement in the kingdom and built between 756-730 BCE by King Sardur II. The massive stones that remain of the walls were quarried many miles away, and fit together perfectly, without the aid of mortar. In fact it was so well built, the 30+ kilometre long, original irrigation canal built in the fields of the valley, continued to supply water to the farmers until a replacement was built only a few years ago.
In front of the temple was a stone used for ritual sacrifices. On a nearby circular stone, the animals were then butchered for eating, a drainage channel leading down the side of the hill.
Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross
Next up? Lunch of course. Had an OK, but overpriced lunch at Akdamar Camping & Restaurant. The restaurant is conveniently opposite the ferry terminal on Lake Van to take us to Akdamar Island (Aghtamar in Armenian).
The island has one of the most beautiful churches I’ve seen – the Armenian Cathedral Church, known as the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross. It was built from 915-921, the outside façade covered in 3-dimensional reliefs of various bible stories. It was an important site for Armenian Catholics, being the seat of their power from 1116-1895 and is the only remaining building from elaborate residence of King Gagik I Artsruni (908-914). Remains of the attached monastery complex also remain.
In 1951, the Turkish government began demolishing the church! This beautiful monument might very easily not have been there. The chapel beside the church was demolished before Yasar Kemal, a writer, managed to enlist support to halt the demolition. After controversial and massive restoration, the church was opened as a museum in 2007. Critics said the restoration, secularization and renaming was really a Turkishification of an Armenian monument. Any and all of this may be true, but all I know is we loved it! Beautiful church, grounds, elaborate tombstones, almond trees and art.
Our final stop, and last major hike of the trip was to the Van Castle, on top of the imposing Rock of Van. It had spectacular views, after we’d huffed our way to the top in record time (running to close to closing as it was), of the city and lake. When you’re at the top and looking down into the fields on the southern side, you start to notice the patterns in the grass and soil. This was the foundation ruins of Eski Van, the old city that was mostly leveled in the aftermath of the chaos surrounding WWI, the persecution and slaughter of Turkish Armenians and subsequent invasion by Russia.
Van Castle itself is the largest Urartu, 9th century BCE stone fortification of its kind. It was taken over by the Assyrians in the 7th century BCE and has visible remnants of both civilisations, as well as from the Ottoman empire. Van was also conquered by that boy about town, Alexander the Great. Also here is a tri-lingual inscription by Xerxes the Great, son of Darius, in the 5th century in almost perfect condition that became the Rosetta Stone of old Persian cuneiform.
It was a good two days exploring briefly this region, but we were both looking forward to returning to Istanbul the next day. Van was the site of a devastating earthquake in 2011 that killed approximately 650 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. We saw quite a few temporary trailer housing sites still in use, when we drove into town that still provide housing for the dispossessed.
Perhaps because of this, we constantly felt that many of the people we encountered were out to take as much money as they could get from you. It was a bit wearing after a while. And such a shock after the other places we’d stopped along the way in Turkey. Van was also far more expensive than Istanbul or Ankara in value for money. Accommodation, food, guides, everything. Not somewhere we wanted to linger, but still happy we visited and saw its beauty.
Our last night we had a fabulous dinner at Tamara Ocakbaşi in the Tamara Hotel. A bit difficult to find in the dark, hallways of the hotel, it was such fun! Each of the tables had their own grill (ocak) and you select your meat, and of course selection of mezes, and grill your meat at the table. Very good! We went up to select our food and meat, helped by two lovely servers, gamely working to translate what it was we’d be eating if we selected each item, that is until… “what’s that?” I ask. Both men look at each other, and there’s an audible delay before one blurts out “eggs” Now, I’ve had eggs a few times in my life, and this did not match up to my expectations. I looked at Christa and we tried to puzzle out what it was. Looked a bit like a large, flat scallop, but more chicken-like in colour. OK, we selected our other food, and then thought, what the heck, let’s have some “eggs”!
Happily grilling away, and enjoying all our food, including the delicate flavoured eggs, whose texture turned out to be somewhere between firm tofu and crème caramel. One of the fellows came over to see how we were enjoying our meal and I had him type in the Turkish equivalent for the “eggs” in my Google Translate to check later at the hotel. Turns out the translation was 'eggs'. OK, finally got an answer from a Turkish friend and ‘eggs’ turns out to be a local delicacy… lambs balls! Oh dear…
After a foggy airport delay, we were back to Istanbul for a last few days – chatted about in my first Turkey blog installment. What a wonderful country, full of wonderful people, interesting and stimulating history, well looked after ruins and monuments, and fabulous adventures with food. A pretty-near-perfect mix in my book! Till next time Turkey!