Kars and Ani

April 24, 2019
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This is the second of two posts about the region centred on Mount Ararat. The first post is here.

MY guide’s family lived rurally, and he had met his wife when they were fifteen and seventeen. When we got back to Doğubeyazıt I met his family and had some fantastic food with them. I also found out that he had been right about the rocket. A checkpoint had been hit, maybe the very one we’d gone through.

The helicopters were evacuating the dead and wounded for two days. My guide had served in the Turkish military, so I guess he could tell the whoosh of a rocket from more natural mountain noises. He was Kurdish himself and quite sympathetic to the grievances of the PKK, but not their methods.

Driving to the City of Kars

We went from Doğubeyazıt to the city of Kars by car, which took about three hours. My guide told me that some Kurdish land in in the area had been confiscated by the Turkish government just recently. He showed me this area as our car sped past.

The guy driving was from a Bulgarian family who had moved to Turkey. Lots of Turks moved to Bulgaria in the old days when the Turks ruled most of Eastern Europe. After Turkey’s European empire fell apart, they started moving back. Somewhere along the way, his family had acquired a Bulgarian surname. So, ironically, they now stuck out once more.

The Turkish soldiers at the inevitable checkpoint (there are lots of them) chuckled at our salad of names and passports. “United Nations” they said, good-naturedly in the circumstances.

Kars is a really multi-ethnic city, both historically and today. It was, at one time, the capital of an Armenian kingdom. The map of the Kurdish region in the last blog includes Kars as a northern outpost of modern-day Kurdishness. Kars has a large population of Azeris, too.

Nor are these peoples completely homogeneous, themselves. The most numerous, the Kurds, speak at least three main dialects that can’t really be mutually understood. And because they have been conquered by different rulers, some Kurds also write in a version of the modern Turkish alphabet while others write in a more Persian-style script. However, in the interests of unity against their many oppressors, the Kurds tend to downplay these differences.

Kars and its Cathedral

I loved walking around Kars, when I got there. We dined at a Kurdish restaurant, which flew lots of Turkish flags. Maybe the military were among its clientele.

It was Friday, and the men were praying outside the mosques, which had been Armenian churches. The Armenians and Georgians are mostly Christian, while the Turks, Kurds, Iranians and Azeris are mostly Muslim.

Because this area is on the historic borderlands of Christian and Muslim empires and kingdoms, the exact significance of its holy sites has constantly changed. A good example is the building known to the Armenians, who first built it, as the Cathedral of Kars or the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Photograph of the Cathedral of Kars, now the Kümbet Mosque, by Yerevantsi, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a small cathedral — as cathedrals go — with a big history. It’s thought to have been first built during the 930s CE, in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times by the European historical calendar, and served as a place of Christian worship until the region was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in the 1060s. The Seljuks were an early dynasty of Turkish conquerors, before the Ottomans. Their local barons, with the similar but not identical name of the Saltuks, built a great citadel, which is still there as well.

The Saltuk citadel at Kars

The Saltuk citadel overshadows the Armenian cathedral, which was abandoned and partly covered with earth, so it is said — from the construction of the citadel, I wonder? — before being rediscovered by the Ottomans as a still-serviceable structure and transformed into a mosque in 1579.

The citadel and the cathedral

In 1877, the region was conquered by Tsarist Russia, so the mosque became a Christian church once more. In 1918 the region was regained by Ottoman Turkey for a short time and the church became a mosque. In 1919 the Armenians regained control and the mosque became a church again.

Walking around the centre of the historic city of Kars

Eventually, the city of Kars and the building that couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a church or a mosque fell into the hands of secular, Kemalist Turkey. The former church/mosque came close to being knocked down and then became, among other things, a petroleum storage depot. It was reconsecrated as a mosque in 1993: the Kümbet or Domed Mosque. It is now part of a larger mosque complex.

A tour around the former Kars Cathedral, now part of a mosque complex

From Kars to Ani

From Kars, we went a short distance eastward to Ani, a ruined city hard on the border with modern Armenia, which had once been a centre of an old-time Armenian empire with a similar Armenian cathedral to the one in Kars, before being over-run by the Seljuks and Saltuks in its turn. Unfortunately, Ani never really bounced back from its Mediaeval calamities, which included earthquakes as well as wars, and has been entirely abandoned for the past 300 years.

Modern Armenia is much smaller than the area historically controlled by Armenians, which at one time ran all the way down to the Mediterranean and well into modern Turkey. Those regions had been disputed three times over in comparatively recent times, by the Armenians, Turks and Kurds.

Ani is now a World Heritage site and the United Nations is helping to restore it. So, there’s a lot of scaffolding in view.

Here are some collages of Ani that show its many churches and also a surviving section of the city’s early-Mediaeval walls.

I spoke to an Armenian tour guide who led huge tour groups from Armenia to Ani, groups sixty or seventy strong. The Armenian women in the tour groups wore head scarves similar to devout Muslims. I don’t know whether this was a disguise or just the local Christian custom as well.

Worshippers inside a church that has seen better days, at Ani

The Armenians were conducting Christian services in the ruined churches, led by Armenian priests, while Turkish guards tried to stop them. No doubt the Turks thought that such worship was somehow subversive, a bit like the ultra-orthodox Jews who try to worship in the sections of the Temple Mount reserved for Muslims.

Well, maybe not that subversive. But Turkish officialdom seems to be sensitive about the Ani churches, hard on the closed border with Armenia as they are.

(The Armenians had to come the long way around, via Georgia, to try and worship at Ani, just a stone’s throw from their own country as it is presently defined.)

Here’s a selfie that shows the general state of the artwork inside the yet-to-be-restored churches at Ani.

A Dark History

It was at Ani that I got the impression that a terrible genocide had occurred: the first that I had known of it.

The spark for the genocide, perpetrated during World War One by the Ottoman rulers of Turkey, was the fact that the Armenians were Christian subjects of Turkey’s Sultan.

The Armenians, along with other Christian subjects also subjected to sudden persecution, were all suspected of disloyalty because the Allied powers fighting against Turkey were doing so in part to take over Istanbul, rename it Constantinople, and ensure that it remained controlled by Christian powers such as Greece, Britain, France and Russia forever.

In other words, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire thought that the West was waging the Crusades all over again, and that everyone had to take sides in religious terms.

Actually the drive to recapture Constantinople had less to do with religion as such, than with the strategic significance of a city that, once captured, would have allowed Western Allies and Russians to link up via the Mediterranean. Added to this was a longer-term feeling that the Ottoman Empire was falling apart and that any colonial power that didn’t grab a bit of Turkey for itself would only be leaving more for others to scoff (cartoonists of the day found it hard to resist the pun).

Here’s a map of the partition of Turkey under the initial post-War Treaty of Sèvres. The Treaty reduced Turkey to a little rump state, its former territory controlled almost everywhere by foreigners, Constantinople in particular. Basically, Turkey was going to turned into a Western colony along the lines of the Belgian Congo or French Indochina.

Treaty of Sèvres, public domain map by Str1977 via Wikimedia Commons

All the same, it looked a lot like the Crusades all over again: an impression increased by the fact that the Western Allies had also managed to reconquer Jerusalem in 1917.

Through whatever prism it was viewed, the Treaty of Sèvres soon became a dead letter in the face of an unexpected Turkish fightback led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Borders almost the same as those of modern Turkey were agreed at the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

In spite of the Crusader-versus-Muslim aspects of Turkey’s carve-up and subsequent restoration, Atatürk went on to impose a famously secular and modernising regime in which women who wanted to work in a government office had to ditch the headscarf, worn in those days by many Christians as well as Muslims. Maybe he had had enough of old-fashioned holy wars on both sides.

The over-reach of the Western powers didn’t excuse the genocide of the Armenians, of course.

But it was the background to it, just as it remains the background 100 years later to the similar extremism of organisations like ISIS. And for that matter, to President Erdoğan’s anti-Western populism.

According to my guide, the Kurdish people had for a long time lived peacefully with the Armenians and other groups in the area, but that at the time of the genocide the Turkish government had practiced divide-and-rule, setting the many local communities in the east against each other in horrible ways.

Better Angels

They were all very political about the idea of the shared, common interests of a border region where the local peoples had for so long been pawns in the game of empires. In fact, the woman who ran our tour company was a human rights activist who had spoken up for the Kurds and written a book about the Yazidis, another ethno-religious minority.

The Yazidis revere a figure called the Peacock Angel who fell to earth to look after the humans. They have often been persecuted as Devil-worshippers over the centuries, through a confusion of the Peacock Angel with Lucifer. ISIS are the latest band of zealots to have taken that view.

In the past, Christians also represented angels with peacock wings, as did Muslim and Jewish artists. This example, with an excellent background article on the significance of angels with colourful wings, is on

Our tour proprietor had been expelled from Turkey when Mt Ararat was closed back in 2015 and wasn’t allowed back when it re-opened in 2018. She now ran her tour company from abroad. All in all, these people are doing their best to raise up a rather forgotten and fragmented region of the world.

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