A WHITE WINTER’S DREAM:
KARS AND ERZURUM
Article for Sun Times Magazine (SunExpress Airlines), November 2019.
The unprecedented geography of East Anatolia outspreads all its beauty when winter comes. Under a snow-white cover, Kars which houses many preserved historical remains that made it to our day and Erzurum, where various civilizations meet, should be destinations to visit on your winter route.
Years ago, when I had read Snow, a novel by Orhan Pamuk, I had felt Kars calling out to me. As depicted by the author; with streets that have resigned themselves to white beneath snowflakes that seemed to hang in the air and its architecture ornamented with the minutest of details like lace, Kars, the naive beauty of Eastern Anatolia, had painted a romantic picture in my mind. Years later, on the day I arrived in the city in the early hours of the evening, the vista I beheld was enough to enchant me. The city which looked like a night painting beneath the dim yellow lights when I looked down at it from its castle was standing right before me. Inscribing this landscape into my mind, I steered my course towards Erzurum, to see structures featuring the traces of many civilizations, one more beautiful than the other, and get acquainted with the abundant land of the city, one of the most important stopovers on the Silk Road, that Evliya Çelebi spoke highly of in his The Book of Travels.
The City of Snow: Kars
On the morning of a brand new day, my first aim was to greet the day with the sunset at the Ani ruins. You can get here, from the Kars city center by taking the taxis you need to book in advance. The ancient city that I got to with the first lights of the day, seemed to be lingering in an abyss void of a horizon, right at the heart of eternity. The history of the ancient city, set up on a volcanic tuff layer to the west of River Arpaçay which draws the border of Turkey-Armenia, dates to 5,000 BC. When it was one of the stops on the Silk Road it was a crowded city. And now, as I traced the trails of historical buildings that are covered in snow, I could only hear my own footsteps.
I visited the Churches of St. Prkitch, St. Gregory Tigran and the octagonal domed Abughamrents and Ebul Manucehr Mosque, the minaret of which is only partly extant today. Following a few hours stroll, when the sun started to warm Ani, a yellow light began to fall on the remains of the stone bridge built over Arpaçay.
When I got back to the city, Kars, which reminds one of a winter dream, put a smile on my face. After visiting the Kars castle, crossing the Stone Bridge that has been built in the traditional arched bridge style of Anatolia, I passed by the historical bathhouses. The Baltic architecture that prevails in the city, is the most beautiful trail that strikes the eye in the historical buildings left behind by the Russians who in habited Kars for forty years in the 19th century. In the stores at the bazaar you can get local delights like honey, Kars kashar and gruyere cheese.
After visiting the Fethiye Mosque, The Church of 12 Apostles, Cheltikov Hotel and the Old Governor Mansion, I ended the day at the Kamer Restaurant with a delicious priyoshi bourek, hangel (a type of stuffing) and evelik soup. If you have time, you can stop by Lake Çıldır which remains within the borders of Ardahan and Kars and I would recommend you go on a horse-sled ride to the accompaniment of Uncle Tekin’s scalding folk songs.
At the Heart of History and Nature: Erzurum
One of the first places to come to mind when you say winter in Turkey, Erzurum is on the slope of Palandöken Mountains famous in ski tourism. The city, which has been an important trade center since antiquity, houses Seljuk and Ottoman remains. Tracing the trails of history, I visit the Tri-Rotunda, the monumental structures dating back to the Seljuks and the Madrasa with Double Minaret in close proximity to them. The craftsmanship employed in the making of the glazed tiles covering the dome of the madrasa are impressive. One other building that draws the attention as you visit them is the Ulu Mosque dating back to the Saltuqids.
Built by Byzantines in the 5th century, the Erzurum Fortress is worth seeing with the structures around it dating back to the times of the Seljuks, Ottomans and Byzantines. At the stores of Taşhan (Stone Inn), after perusing the accessories made from jet stone, I take a breather at its courtyard. In the crowded city center, whilst everyone is rushing about in their daily hassle, it is time for me to taste the famous cag kebab of Erzurum at the Gel Gör Cağ Kebap which I had found by following the scent wafting in the air. The kadaif dolması (walnut stuffed shredded dough) is one of the other famous local delights you must try in Erzurum.
Besides the historical buildings, there is one more place that leads my heart to beat fast: Tortum Lake which is located at Erzurum’s Uzundere district that is declared a cittaslow, assumes a fairytalish appearance especially in winter. The lake is ideal for trekking, boat tour and observing the birds of prey around you. And I put an end to my Erzurum tour enjoying the postcard-like appearance of the lake on the slope of a wonder of nature.