Thursday, October 05, 2006

Don't Mention The "A" Word

It is always unfortunate when history becomes a hostage to politics. One such place where the past has come in for a lot of change is here in eastern Turkey. Although there are Greek and Georgian vestiges here, by far the greatest non-Turkish imprint is Armenian. The cities of Kars and Van were both, at some point, the capitals of Armenian kingdoms and the seat of the Catholicosate, and yet, for example, the Kars citadel was "officially" built in the 16th century (according to the sign by the entrance), under the Ottomans, despite it being possible to see stonework with Armenian script embedded in the walls and anterior historical accounts. The landscape of this region is also dotted with ruins of Armenian churches, though these are rarely, if ever, signposted; and there is sufficient evidence to indicate intentional neglect, if not willful destruction, on the part of the Turkish authorities vis-a-vis these monuments so as to erase, historically, the Armenians from Anatolia. All this to convince the world, and perhaps, more importantly, their own people, that the Armenians were always only an insignificant minority in Anatolia and that stories of genocide are just fabrications.

The most spectacular, however, of these ex-capitals is undoubtedly Ani. Although now desserted and in ruins, home only to grazing cattle, Ani used to be one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the Near East. Situated on top of 200m cliffs on the west bank of the Arpaçay river, which forms the border with Armenia, the town is stunningly, and strategically, located, although nowadays all Armenians can do is gaze mournfully at the remains from their side of the closed border. The weather wasn't particularly clement: biting winds were chasing rainclouds across the high Ararat plateau (so high, and the clouds so low, that I felt I could reach up and touch them). Brooding would be the right term to describe the place and I'm sure Emily Brontë would have felt quite at home there. That was fine by me though as I had the place all to myself (and the cows, of course) and I could traipse about the extensive site at will. Many of the churches are in a sad state of decay with rampant graffiti, a surprising amount of giraffiti and a strange way of preserving delicate frescoes: whitewashing all over them. Two buildings, however, have been extensively restored. These are a mosque and a Seljuk palace i.e. the only two buildings to have been built by Turks. But rather than preserving the past they have been almost totally rebuilt, both badly and amateurishly, so that one can barely see any of the original structures.

Getting to Ani on a budget isn't particularly easy. It's way off the main road and there's only one dolmuş a day from Kars (at 1pm) and one back (at 7am). I did the calculations (it didn't take long) and saw I would have to stay the night. As there are no hotels there I was once again forced to camp in rather an odd location, especially as Ani is actually in a military zone (being right on the border). But then I had heard quite a few stories about the incompetence of Turkish soldiers and so wasn't too worried. My greatest worry was getting up on time for the dolmuş, otherwise I would have been stuck there for another day, sans food. Luckily I was woken by some friendly shepherds (because, true to form, I slept through my feeble alarm) and made it OK.

The next day I hitched south to the town of Doğubeyazıt in the shadow of Mount Ararat near the resting place of Noah's Ark. That's a bit of a tourist trap, but there is a pretty mountain palace and, more interestingly for me, is the fact that 3 months ago I was in Maku, only 40km away on the Iranian side of the border. I would have been faster if I had crawled on my stomach!

P.S. Again, for those who are interested here is an extremely detailed website about Armenian monuments in Turkey, especially Ani. The site naturally shows bias towards Armenia and against Turkey, but much of it is well-researched and hard to argue against.

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