A Quick Trip to Turkey’s Far Eastern Frontier – First Stop: Kars
This weekend I joined my archaeological group, American Friends of Research in Turkey (ARIT) for another amazing trip. We went to visit Kars and Ari, two former Armenian capitals on the Turkish-Armenian border. Since I’m planning for an Eastern Turkey road trip next month, it was an excellent introduction to Turkey’s frontier.
To get an idea of the area, we started reading Kar (Snow), a novel by Turkey’s Nobel Laureate in literature, Orhan Pamuk, which takes place in the town of Kars, the first stop on the trip. Although I never managed to finish any of his other books, we both got really into this one (although we still haven’t finished it). Along with an intriguing story, the novel provides a lot of information about the city and the political changes and history of Eastern Turkey. Most of the Turks I know are not fans of the author, and both blame him for giving Kars a bad name and cite his book as a reason not to visit.
Here’s a quick list of the civilizations that controlled the Kars area over time: Urartians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Arsaks, Huns, Sasanids, Arabs, Armenian Bagratids, Byzantines, Seljuks, Georgians, Mongolians, Timurids, Karakoyunlus, Akkoyunlus, Afsar Turks, Ottomans, and Russians. It’s a long and complicated list, and all of the dates of occupations, conquests, and administrations are still unclear. The lasting ruins buildings are mostly from the Bagratid period and after, but the town’s current architecture is mostly 19th century Russian and Balkan. Kars is unique for a Turkish town in that it’s on a planned grid (thanks to the Russian era) with sidewalks. Even though the town is currently in Turkey, I immediately sensed the unfamiliar feeling of organization!
We started with a visit to some of Kars’s renovated buildings, a movement that has only recently started. The town is built mostly of basalt and other light-absorbing materials, which give it a somewhat grim and gloomy appearance, especially during the long winters. We were there on a sunny day, however, and I enjoyed the downtown area. Here are a few pictures from the streets:
Later we visited some of the historical ruins, to include the Armenian Church of the Holy Apostles, built in the early 900s A.D. by the Bagradit King Abbas. It’s currently used as the Kumbet mosque but retains it’s original church character. The church’s name comes from the 12 apostles engraved on its upper dome.
Even though we probably could have walked up the hill to the medieval castle in 10 minutes or so, our group chose to circle the whole complex on the bus. The road was challenging and our driver had to stop several times to get directions, and then other times to reposition the bus on the turns of the single lane tight cobblestone switchbacks. Most of us walked back down! Fear aside, it was a beautiful drive.
The castle was originally built by the Saltaks in 1153, destroyed by the Mongols, rebuilt by the Ottomans, and then used by the various civilizations over the years. The current structure dates back to the 1500s and is in decent shape. It also provides a great overlook of Kars and the surrounding area.
Finally, Kars is now famous for it’s cheese and honey. We stopped at a local store in town and stocked up.
As more evidence of how diverse Kars’s roots are, Catherine the Great once had a hunting lodge outside of town. The structure still exists, but it’s not open for visits.