A WINTER'S TALE: 

KARS

Cover story for Anadolu Jet Airlines Magazine (Turkish Airlines), Jan 2020.

 

Kars is a charming city at the eastern edge of Turkey which displays all its beauty when covered in snow.

I arrive at Kars on an evening when the whole city is painted white. Even though, every inch of the city is wrapped up in a snow-white shawl, it minutely displays all its beauties. From the moment I set eyes on the historical houses that appear underneath the dim light of the elegant street lamps, the stately castle that I catch a glimpse of from afar, and the full moon that steals the show looming over the poplar trees spread out widely, I fall in love with Kars.

Before day breaks, I head over to the Ani ruins that are located to the east of Kars, on the banks of the Arpaçay brook, a branch of the Aras River that runs through the Turkish-Armenian border. It is impressive to see this ancient city in those moments when both the sun and the moon can be seen in the sky. Set up over a wide expanse of volcanic layer, the thousands-year old city was once one of the most important accommodation centers for the caravans that would thread over to Anatolia on the Silk Road. Today, it looks like a snow-covered dreamland randomly placed at the east edge of the country. It feels like I’m traveling back to another time as I visit the Church of the Holy Redeemer (St. Prkitch), church of ST. Gregory of Tigran Honents, the octagonal domed Abughamrents’ churches, Fethiye Mosque, and Ebu’l Menûçihr Mosque, the minaret of which is only partly extant today, in this ancient city that is hard to grasp where it starts and ends. Even the biting cold cannot outshine the Silk Road Bridge that slowly lights up and the other vistas I behold around me.

When I get back to the city center, since I’m famished, I go straight to one of the local restaurants to taste the local culinary delicacies. Tasting the Kars börek, evelik soup, which is made from potatoes and green lentils, and the dumplings called “hangel,” I grow excited about the meat chickpea dish, known as piti, I will be tasting for the first time that evening. Delicacies in Kars are not limited to these. It is possible to find the famous goose meat that is left to rest in the dry cold of snow and then roasted in a floor furnace (tandoori); gruyere, the gift of the region’s nature, in the shops around the bazaar; and authentic delicacies of Kars like Kars cheese and honey.

After having my fill, surrounded by snow and with the sun showing its face from time to time, engulfed in a romantic feeling, I start exploring this city from Taş Köprü (Stone Bridge), which was built in the 16th century. On both sides of the bridge, the bathhouses made in the Ottoman times draw my attention with their domes. Setting out from here, after a short walk, I get to the Kars Castle dating back to the Seljuks and I begin observing the city. Much like a winter painting, the city with minarets tall and short, and snow-covered roofs is visible beyond the meandering road which has assumed a silver color under the sun, daubed by those heading home with firewood in their hands, wearing calpacs on their heads. The buildings of Kars that have been conserved and made it to our day feature the traces of the different cultures that have flourished here. The influence of those who inhabited this land -the Seljuks in the 11th century, the Georgians in the 13th century, and specifically the Russians who resided here for about 40 years in the 19th century- on the architecture of the city can be explored by taking a short walk. The Holy Apostles Church, which was renamed Kümbet Mosque when the city was dominated by the Muslims in the 11th century, is one of the city’s must-visit historical buildings. The old Governor Mansion I come across after heading south around the castle and the Revenue Office a little bit further down the road are the best examples of the city’s Baltic architectural heritage. In these moments when I feel as if I’m in a historical period drama, an elderly lady who happens to pass by stops right in the middle of the street and pointing out the icicles says, “For mercy! Be careful when you walk right beneath those buildings!” and snaps me back into reality.

Taking a tea and dessert break at the cafes providing services in the restored old Russian houses, I not only get the chance to warm up but to meet a few people and make some small talk. Özgür Bey, who is sitting at the table beside mine, makes a living as a ski instructor in Sarıkamış and says, “In this city, there is spring, summer, winter, and the dead of winter.” He adds, “You must enjoy the unique nature of Kars also in spring when it’s green all around.” A group of photographers sitting at another table are in Kars to take photos of the birds. Specifically, Lake Kuyucuk and its environs, which are home to hundreds of bird species, are the stomping grounds of bird watchers and documentarists.

Before calling it a day, I head towards the Fethiye Mosque, which I was very curious to visit after seeing its black-and-white photos. This building, which was built by the Russians at the beginning of the 19th century, was transformed into a mosque after Kars was liberated. Going around it and spending a few moments in its garden becomes the highlight of my day. I get informed about the history of the city in the Caucuses Frontier War History Museum setup at the building referred to as Kanlı Tabya (Bloody Bastion) with the interactive narratives. And in Özgen Beşli Art Gallery, I bear witness to the most beautiful states of Kars reflected in photographs.

On the morning of my last day, with a taxi I called from the center, I head towards Lake Çıldır, which remains within the bounds of Kars and Ardahan. Lake Çıldır freezes in winter and can be traversed with sleighs. When I finally get to the lake, I find myself in a dream without a horizon line. It is hard to grasp that this endless white is just a frozen lake. Taking the adornments, before coming to Kars I prepared a gift made with semen pegani and wool yarn, I find the sleigh driver Uncle Tekin. Thanking me for the ornaments I brought for his horse, he crowns our tour over the frozen lake with touching folk songs. He also tells us tales of these lands where he has spent his life and of his beloved horses. When I look around me, I see people wearing colorful snow coats trying to make headway over the ice racing fast out of sight, a group of fishermen showing the techniques of ice fishing to wanderers as they stand around a hole, and the titivated horses that ride over the ice with a sleigh full of jovial passengers. An eastern folk song ringing in my ears says, “If I was to listen to a single winter tale, I’ d want it to be on Kars.” And under the impression of these landscapes, I know that I will be visiting Kars again to hear the tale once more.

© 2023 by Deniz Yılmaz Akman

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