Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sex And Politics

Eastern Syria, apart from a conspicuous green belt of irrigated farmland along the Euphrates, is dry and empty. I therefore thought I would only stay one night in the regional capital of Deir Ez Zur, long enough to pop down to some Roman/Hellenistic ruins, before heading off again. In the end I stayed for three nights.

The reason for my tarrying was a student called Mohammed. We were sitting next to each other on the bus to Deir and exchanged pleasantries, and although he wasn't very talkative I could see his understanding was good. When he heard I was planning to stay at a hotel he offered for me to stay with him. He was living in what probably passes for halls of residence in Syria: a couple of basic buildings around a decrepit courtyard with largish, boxy rooms devoid of any furnishings except for a couple of plastic mats to cover some of the concrete floor, two wafer-thin mattresses and a couple of blankets for bedding. In one corner was a jumbled pile of assorted pots and plates along with the all-important teapot and heating element for making tea. I'm not fussy so I wasn't in the least bothered, though I doubt I would want to live in a place like that for an extended period of time. And although Mohammed had so little he consistently refused my offers for paying for anything, even to take him out to dinner.

The welcome I received was boisterous as the (exclusively male) students all tried to practice their patchy English at the same time and grab my attention for themselves. During my time with Mohammed and the students I went with them to some classes, drank a lot of tea, chatted, and generally just lazed (which pretty much sums up 99% of their activities). The conversations, when they didn't consist of a long list of Arab celebrities, who I'd never heard of, for me to pass judgement on, were the most interesting aspect of my stay, not only because I started to pick up a few words of Arabic, but also because it gave me an insight into the hopes, fears and preoccupations of the people from this much-maligned country. And two topics of conversation that are worlds apart, unless you happen to be a British cabinet minister, dominated: politics and sex.

The politics aspect is unsurprising given that Syria is deeply enmeshed in the miasma that is the Middle East Situation. It is still technically at war with the Israelis and part of Syria, the Golan (or Jolan in Arabic) Heights, is occupied by them. So my unfeigned antipathy towards Bush, Blair and radical Zionism made me instantly popular. Though they seemed unable to comprehend that I could also support some of the things done by the West. For them politics is black or white and there seems to be no room for disliking someone and yet approving of some of their actions. The Israel situation seems to loom large in the national psyche and Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah command enormous grassroots support throughout the country, as can be seen by the countless posters of the bearded cleric and green-and-yellow flags. There might even be as many pictures of Nasrallah as of the Assads, Syria's de facto ruling dynasty (present president Bashar, his brother Basil, and their father an ex-president Hafez who died in 2000). It is this pictorial ubiquity that reminds you that, despite appearances to the contrary, you are in a police state (for example, less than a day after arriving at Mohammed's the infamous mukhabarat, secret police, came knocking to ask a few questions and to take down our passport details) and political dissension is weeded out with efficiency. Apparently there are so many informants that even families will refuse to discuss domestic politics amongst themselves in their own homes. However, the young president (he was only 34 when he took office, leading to a hasty re-jigging of the constitutional age-limit for the head of state), who was plucked from obscurity as a London ophthalmologist, really does seem to have popular support amongst ordinary Syrians.

Politics can be a touchy subject and so you can never be sure of getting the right picture, so at least on the topic of sex in secular Syria there is less likelihood of self-censorship. It's only natural that since my companions were hormonal 20 year-old males in a society that forbids pre-marital sex they have video phones full of porn and kept asking me about my own adventures; questions that I tried to sidestep diplomatically, not least because since I've been travelling alone for over two years my sex life is nothing to write home about (not that I usually write home about it, but still). And yet on the other hand they look down on sex as something dirty and shameful, and Western society as decadent and immoral. When I pointed out the hypocrisy of their position and that, incidentally, all their parents must have had sex it caused a fair amount of mirth, but also an outburst of: "Khalas (enough)! There is no sex in Syria, it is moharram (against Islam)! No more talking of sex!" Although this same guy, not ten minutes later piped up with, "...so, in Scotland, if you see a girl can you..." They seemed to oscillate between viewing women as simple sex objects and placing them on some untouchable, virginal pedestal. They cannot even comprehend the idea of having a purely platonic friendship with a girl. Which pretty much sums up the behaviour of young men in many countries I have travelled through, not just Syria, where there is little or no everyday interaction between the sexes: the men, who invariably have the power, are unable to view women as people in their own right, worth listening to, with a point of view and with something to contribute (other than cooking, cleaning and making children). It is one of the things that I think the West has got right (at least in theory, although in practice there is still room for improvement) and many cultures are losing out big time by marginalising 50% of their own population.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Man With Style

Aleppo, Syria's second city with a strong mix of both Christian and Muslim communities, is famed for its bustling souq and citadel in the heart of the old city. During the week after Ramadan, unfortunately, many people are on holiday so the souq was lifeless until today, and even now half the shops are shut. But there is still plenty of activity and one can see that the souq is still the beating heart of the local community. Each trade and type of shop has its own little corner, alleyway or courtyard in which similar stalls huddle together as women in scarves and veils glide around browsing through bolts of fabric; tailors make clothes to measure; traditional olive oil soap is sold by the kilo; butchers' with hanging meat and spice merchants vie for olfactory supremacy; and local men stroll purposefully dressed in bathrobe-like jalabiyyas and keffiyehs wrapped around their heads. The iconic keffiyehs are not just a symbol of Arabness, but also a useful piece of clothing with a myriad ways of being worn and tied. And since I'm a sucker for headgear I've already invested in one for myself along with an agal (the black circlet used to keep it in place) though I baulked at getting myself the jalabiyya. I have already started practising tying it on in front of the bathroom mirror and I think it looks rather stylish, if I do say so myself, so watch this space for future pictures of me striking some poses a-la Laurence of Arabia.

Another local, with a style all his own, was Saint Simeon. This hardcore ascetic was disappointed with his fellow monks' luxurious habits, such as sleeping on stone beds and eating bread and water once a day during Lent. So Simeon found himself a tall rock, and sat on it. For a very long time. Soon pilgrims started flocking to this holy man sitting on his style (Greek for column). As his fame and popularity spread more people came (from as far away as Britain and France) and he used progressively taller columns to get away from his groupies. Allegedly when he died, after having spent some 40-odd years up columns, Simeon's column was 15m tall and devotees would climb a ladder up to him to ask him for advice and his blessing. Due to his antics column living became quite a craze in early Christendom, though European aficionados didn't seem as successful (or as long-lived), most probably due to the chillier climate. After his death a 4-church cathedral, the largest in the world at the time, was built around his column, the remains of which are still imposing to this day. The countryside around is also charming with the remains of Byzantine-era pilgrim resthouses used by local villagers as foundations for their houses or barns, seemingly oblivious to their illustrious past, and olive groves stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Sleeping In No-Man's Land

Salam aleikum from sunny Syria.Well, that's not quite true, it's overcast and it rained throughout last night, but I don't care because I'm in Syria. Yay! It just goes to show that sometimes you have to be flexible in following the rules. My love for the Syrian border guards for letting me into their country and allowing me to carry on as planned was tempered by the fact that I was sitting around for seven hours waiting for the visa, and when I did get it it was 9pm. But without a guidebook or map of Aleppo, without any local money (the bank at the border refused to exchange my Turkish lira) and not speaking the language, I didn't fancy my chances in town. So instead I wandered past the barb wire by the main road and found myself a place to pitch my tent. In the morning I discovered that my campsite wasn't as removed from the road as I had imagined the night before, and had some spectators viewing my presence with bemusement.

So my trip has made another transition, from Europe-oriented Turkey to Arab Middle East. My last few days in Turkey were spent in and around the city of Antakya, ancient Antioch (on the Orontes). The city was founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals who inherited the eastern part of the empire. Apparently Seleucus didn't have much of an imagination because as well as founding Antioch on the Orontes he founded no less than 15 other Antiochs, undoubtedly leading to a great deal of confusion amongst cartographers of the time. But this Antioch was the mother of them all and became the capital of the Seleucid empire. Later on it became the most important city for eastern Christians and is still the theoretical seat of five patriarchates (although none of the patriarchs actually reside there). I was there during Eid al-Fitr (or Bayram, as it is known in Turkey), the holidays that follow the month of Ramadan. However Bayram in Turkey is a bit of a non-event for tourists as locals mainly use the holidays to visit friends and family and spend some time together. Unlike what I had experienced last year in Kashgar with crazy dancing in the square and piles of mutton, either stewing away or kebabed, and a mass public display of gluttony.

But generally my month in Turkey has been very interesting (and surprisingly cheap, at less than $13 a day thanks to hitching and camping in unlikely places), in part because it hasn't been the Turkey that most people see. I only had a brief glimpse of the Mediterranean a couple of days ago and ritually dipped my hands in, but apart from that I spent most of my time in the eastern Anatolian highlands, which some may say isn't Turkey at all, but Kurdistan (highly contentious!). And I met very few fellow travellers. Indeed, I received a bit of a culture shock upon arriving in Aleppo this morning when I found myself a true backpacker hostel (complete with rooftop dorms and muesli breakfast), something I haven't experienced since the mountains of Pakistan. But one thing I'm pretty sure is universal to anyone's visit to Turkey is lemon cologne. Smelling somewhat like that pleasant stuff they infuse airplane towelettes with, but 100 times more powerful. Lemon cologne is Turkey's epitome of class. It is ladled out onto unsuspecting customers' hands on luxury buses, restaurants, fancy shops and even cyber cafes. The stuff is so potent that even three days and a shower later I was still distinctly noticeable. That is certainly one thing I won't be missing.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Spanner In The Works

My plan from Turkey was to head south for the Winter, to Syria and the rest of the Middle East, where my lone jumper and single-season sleeping bag would suffice. So I made my way to Gazi Antep, the largest city in southeast Turkey, where Syria has a handy consulate. And on Friday morning I bounded over, passport in hand and smile on my face. The smile was soon erased when the man behind the counter jabbered at me that I needed a letter. Uh-oh I thought, remembering the last time I needed a letter for a Pakistani visa in India the process cost me a lot of time and, more importantly, money. And here the situation was exactly the same ... except that there is no British consulate in Gazi Antep.

"No problem," insisted the Syrian lady, "they can just fax it through like everyone else." Except Britain, as always, refuses to do things like everyone else. "We can fax it through alright," said the lady at the British embassy over the phone, "but you'll have to come over here and pay for it in person." (The pro forma letter, incidentally, costs significantly more than the multiple entry visa for Syria, whereas other countries' embassies give them away like candies on Hallowe'en.) I pleaded my case, I got down on my hands and knees before the vice-consul (figuratively speaking as it was over the phone) but she would not budge from her position. And I refuse to travel over 1000 miles to collect the letter, partly because it would be horribly expensive (some $250 or more), but also because I am too proud to submit myself to such illogical, frivolous and petty box-ticking when a plain and simple solution is so glaringly obvious. And so, my dear readers, my best laid plans have well and truly gone agley. But what pisses me off the most is not the thwarting per se, that I could have lived with, if it was done by some overbearing, autocratic bureaucracy of a repressive regime. No, what really gets my goat is the fact that my dreams are denied by my own government who are supposed to be there to help me if I encounter difficulties abroad, not produce them. And I pay taxes for this? (I assure you that I have paid taxes, at some point) It almost makes me sick enough to renounce my citizenship. My only hope to get into Syria now is to just turn up at the border and pray that my innocent, puppy-dog eyes (and perhaps an appropriate "facilitation fee") melt the border guards' hearts. I wouldn't hold my breath though.

Anyway, that's enough of my moaning. Seeing as this is a travel blog I really ought to write a little something about my surroundings for those of you back home. Gazi Antep is the materialistic slut to Urfa's Amish housewife. Gone are the headscarves and skullcaps to be replaced by expensive hair-do's and rudeboys in pimped up cars and blaring music. Here is the last bastion of western Turkey before the wild wild east begins. As such Gazi Antep offers little for the casual tourist, except for one thing: its museum. The ruins of Zeugma were known about for some time, but when a dam was slated to submerge the site under its reservoir work got under way to properly excavate the ancient city. It turned out to be perhaps the most significant Roman ruins since Pompeii. Thus started a frantic race against the clock to save as much as possible before being lost under the rising floodwaters (because nothing as poncey as archaeology could ever stop the Turkish government from building a dam). Of all the treasures that could be saved the most stunning are the immaculate mosaics which are by far and away the most beautiful ancient mosaics I have ever seen (a bit of a disingenuous statement perhaps as I have not seen any other ancient mosaics, but even if I had I am sure the statement would still be true). It is also rather fitting, now that most of the city is under water, that the showpiece of the entire collection is a huge mosaic of Poseidon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Déjà Vu?

In eastern Turkey the big tour groups don't go to Ani (too far and too Armenian) or Hasankeyf (not monumental enough and soon to be submerged), instead they head for Nemrut Daği (Mount Nimrod). Now those of you who have been paying attention to my posts will remark that I have been there already, and judging from my bland commentary at the time you would assume that it's not particularly remarkable. And that is what I thought too, until I discovered that there are in fact 2 Nemrut Dağis and that the other is considerably more interesting. Around 100 B.C. the tiny kingdom of Commagene was nestled uncomfortably between two giant neighbours: the Romans to the west and the Persians to the east. And despite being outsized and outmuscled by these two giants the rulers of Commagene certainly didn't have any inferiority complexes, considering themselves the equals of their more illustrious peers. This is best illustrated by Mount Nemrut where the Commagene king Antiochus built his tomb. Not only was he not content with the size of the mountain and therefore added a 50m cone on top (thereby making it nice and spikey, more like a proper mountain), but around the base of this tumulus he erected statues of himself hob-nobbing with his friends: the gods Zeus, Ahura-Mazda, Apollo and Hercules among them. Certainly not one to be modest about his connections. The statues are still standing but all sans heads, which are lying around on the ground, which makes for an amusing sight. Most tour groups come to catch either the sunrise or the sunset on the mountain, but since I was trudging up on foot like a true penniless backpacker (even managing to skirt the ticket office as the attendant was having a snooze) I got there at midday and had the whole site to myself. A nice place to sit and ponder the transience of existence and what we leave behind us when we are gone. I wonder if someday somebody will come upon this blog and read it. What will they think (apart from the obvious of me being a tight Scotsman)? how pertinent will it be? or will this just be another entry for the cyber-dustbin, never to make it past my circle of friends and family?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Prophetable City

I can certainly feel that I am getting closer to the Holy Land. The devout-o-meter is steadily climbing, as seen by the greater proportion of women wearing headscarves and people observing Ramadan, and the number of pilgrimage sites is also increasing. This is particularly true of Urfa. The town has been around for donkey's years and has therefore accumulated more than its fair share of connections to biblical prophets (Abraham, Lot, Moses, Job, Jethro (who the hell was Jethro?), Jacob, Elijah and Jesus). Actually I didn't even know there were that many prophets and I think it's overkill and perhaps Urfa should share its prophets with other towns. The big draw is the old man himself, the father of the Israelites and their religions that have now spread all across the world: Abraham. According to legend he was born in a cave, in what is now the old town, during the reign of the evil king Nimrod, Abraham takes him on and gets rid of him and his idolatrous ways. Whatever the historical accuracy of the tale the tiny cave (and it truly is uninspiring) attracts pilgrims from all three Abrahamic faiths to prostrate themselves and wash themselves and drink from the holy water (though not now as it's still Ramadan).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Turkish TV Is Crap

If any of you are planning to visit Turkey don't bother watching the TV or paying extra for a room with one (unless it has international satellite channels), because Turkish TV just doesn't quite cut the mustard. This became all too evident to me whilst I was visiting Diyarbakir. The town has a rather rough reputation, but I quite liked the edginess. This is PKK heartland and the underdog is very much supported here, as I discovered if ever I decided to say I was Iranian: "Ahmadinejad good! bomb America!" Which would lead me to make a hasty exit with a mumbled "err, OK, whatever you say mate." But that's beside the point, Diyarbakir has a long and distinguished history running all the way back to Roman times, and it's impressive city walls that stretch for over 5km date from the Byzantine period. The town is also known as the Black City because not only its walls, but also many of the old houses are made of black basalt. This certainly doesn't add to the city's photogenicity, but it does give it a certain moody charm, and when this is used in conjunction with white stones you get some buildings with a unique zebra effect. But any visitor keeps getting drawn back to the city walls and the warren of alleyways in the old town beneath them. And although t is great fun to stomp around there, one is soon forced to flee due to incessant cries of "tooreest!", "hallo!", "my name is?", and, most puzzlingly, "Japon!"" hurled at me like ransom demands from the innumerable street urchins that seem to inhabit every nook and cranny of every alleyway. Not only are these little brats annoying, cloying, impolite and covered in snot, but they can be downright nasty as well when I experienced my first ever stone-throwing. Not dangerous, but certainly disconcerting and definitely very unpleasant and unfriendly. Something certainly needs to be done to stop this plague of not-quite-Biblical proportions, and I'm calling upon Turkish TV programmers for help, because if they start showing some better programmes than local, young couples will have something else to do in the evenings other than producing more rugrats. Insha'allah!

Thursday, October 12, 2006


So far in my Turkey posts I've mentioned the persecution of the Kurds and the Armenian genocide, the latter, as of two days ago, enjoying a strange legal existence: if you say it happened here in Turkey you are likely to go to jail, but in France if you were to deny it happened you could also go to jail. Anyway, I now have another ethnic group to add to the list: the Syriacs.

Now I must admit that, before meeting them, I hadn't really heard of them. The Syriacs, though once quite widely distributed, are now mostly found in the south of the country close to the Syrian border around the towns of Midyat and Mardin (and of course in Syria proper). The reason for their persecution is that they are Christians, though they have their own, independent church which broke from the other western churches in 451 over the highly contentious issue of Christ's nature (the western churches claim he has two natures: human and divine, whereas the Syriacs insist that he has only one: divine). They speak their own language which is a modern version of Aramaic (leading to them, especially those of the diaspora, also referring to themselves as Aramaeans) and their liturgy is conducted in old Aramaic, the language in which Jesus spoke and the New Testament was originally written in, meaning that their services most closely resemble those of the first churches some 2000 years ago. Needless to say they are intensely proud of their heritage.

Whilst visiting the monastery of Mor Gabriel (possibly the oldest monastery in the world) I was lucky enough, not only to witness the midday service, but also to have a long conversation with the lay director who spoke excellent English. I therefore got the lowdown on their grievances, how they were also affected by the 1915 genocide, how they're discriminated against by the authorities, how they are treated by their Muslim neighbours (rather ironic given that their neighbours are generally Kurds and are therefore also a disadvantaged minority, but then again people who are bullied often turn round and bully someone smaller in turn), and how their lands and churches are taken from them. Apparently 30 years ago there were 50,000 Syriacs living in the Midyat area and now there are only 2,000, the rest having emigrated to Germany, Sweden and other western countries.

Now it may seem that I am unfairly picking on Turkey as an evil and repressive government when I have travelled through countries with much harsher regimes and barely said a thing. Such criticism is entirely justified, but I do have my reasons. Firstly I have undoubtedly changed during the course of my trip and have probably become more socially aware; secondly I may not always come across every polemic issue in every country I visit, either just by chance or because of communication problems (such as in China with the Tibetans and Uighurs); and finally, and perhaps most importantly, because Turkey claims and aspires to the status of EU membership and joining this club of privileged nations. This is something I am all for as, economically, Turkey seems to be doing quite well, and it would be good for us Europeans to have closer contacts with other cultures and not be so homogeneous. Yet it is precisely on this point that Turkey itself fails the test by no recognising and cherishing the differences that exist within itself. Indeed it is this intolerance, this ugly, selfish nationalism that was the bane of the last century, which caused once (relatively) harmonious communities to fall upon each other in the name of race, religion, language and dubious history. It appeared that such tendencies were beginning to die out in Europe but have unfortunately been undergoing a bit of a renaissance. It's sad to see, especially when it seems so obvious (at least to me) that multiculturalism has so many advantages. Though, to end on a positive note, talking to Kurds and Syriacs here it does look as if things are getting slightly better, mainly due to pressure from the EU for reforms, so let's hope things continue like that.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dam Those Kurds

In Doğubeyazıt I found myself a Kiwi, called Kerry, and together we travelled for a bit in Turkish Kurdistan. (I also made full use of his geology skills, as he is a geological engineer, to ask some silly questions: "is this limestone?") Our first stop was van on the shores of its eponymous lake. The lake is unique; not because it is Turkey's largest, but because of its high altitude (1720m) and carbonated, alkaline water in which only one species of fish can survive. And trust me, after having tasted the water I can understand why. Van used to be the capital of the ancient Urartians (though in those days it was called Tushpa) with its fortress at its core. The fortress is built on an improbable outcrop of rock some 100m high, a mile long and yet no more than 40m at its widest point. Whilst clambering around this old castle Kerry and I were ambushed by a Kurdish theatre group who started chatting to us, adopted us and then started a traditional, Kurdish circle dance (which we had to join), all in the space of 5 minutes. They invited us to their theatre performance that evening, and since there didn't seem to be much else going on in Van (and having no guidebook to tell us otherwise) we turned up with a fair amount of trepidation, not knowing exactly what to expect. It turned out to be an eclectic mix of comedy and allegory, and I was quite surprised that I managed to follow most of it (at least I think I did). Afterwards we were taken to an underground (despite being on the 4th floor) session of traditional Kurdish singing that is still illegal. Another disarming experience in Van occurred when a girl from a carpet shop asked us in so that she could "practice her English", and then proceeded to do exactly that. Carpets, and the selling thereof, weren't even mentioned in the two hours we spent chatting away.

This whole section of southeast Turkey is predominantly Kurdish (about 80% of the population) and they have generally been given a rough deal in modern Turkey, mainly because in Turkey there are no minorities and everyone is Turkish (Kurds are apparently "Mountain Turks"). Minority languages and cultures have traditionally been strongly suppressed and a monolithic image of the country thrust upon the people (it is even a heavily punishable offence to "insult Turkishness", whatever that may be). Enter the PKK and the Kurdish separatist movement that for the past 30-odd years has been fighting for a better status/independent country for Kurds. Things, though, are getting slightly better: there are satellite channels in Kurdish, several newspapers, and it s even possible to teach Kurdish (though only in private schools). But things are a long way from perfect and Turkey has a lot more to do if it wants to seriously consider becoming an EU member, not least because of military interference in politics (and boy, do you see the military in Kurdistan).

Other attractions in Kurdistan included a hike up Nemrut Daği, an extinct volcano with lakes and a forest in the caldera; a huge Seljuk cemetery on the shores of lake Van (more interesting than it sounds); and the improbably named town of Batman (which really is wasting a golden marketing and merchandising opportunity). The town itself is rather dreary and industrial, but the place comes alive in the evening when men crowd the pavements, sitting on low stools, sipping çay and playing backgammon until the wee hours. The must-see site of the region, without a doubt, has to be Hasankeyf. The modern town sits on the bank of the mighty Tigris (Dicle in Turkish), but the historical remains, dating all the way back to the 8th millenniumm B.C. are on, and sometimes in, the sheer cliffs that rise 200m above the river. The spectacular setting and archaeological importance of the site should make this eastern Turkey's prime tourist attraction in anyone's book. The Turkish government, on the other hand, don't seem to have any books and would beg to disagree, and so not only is Hasankeyf barely mentioned in tourist brochures, but in 4 years time it certainly won't be, due to the fact that the entire town will be under water. Yes, the Turkish government has had the phenomenally stupid brainwave that building dams is the answer to all socio-economic problems. This is despite the fact that all the people in the area are dead set against the project; many historical monuments will be lost forever; tens of thousands of people will be displaced from their ancestral homes; and the river will be irreversibly affected downstream, the government is still blithely going on with construction. But the killer argument for me is that, due to silting, the dam will have an effective lifespan of only 50-75 years. When you stack up all the irrevocable damage and destruction against the dubious short-term gains it seems more like a spiteful and vindictive act against the Kurds who almost exclusively inhabit the region to be affected. So, if this pisses you off as much as it does me have a look at the Ilisu Dam Campaign website to see what you can do to stop this monumental act of folly.

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.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

More Churches

Despite the Ottoman Empire (with present-day Turkey at its core) being the seat of the Caliphate, and therefore the centre of temporal Muslim orthodoxy, for over 400 years the Islamic monuments in the east of the country are no great shakes. Most Ottoman era mosques owe their designs to Byzantine churches and are little more than domed boxes with a missile-shaped minaret or two. I'm therefore on the trail of Christian remains remains that point to more tolerant times when the two faiths coexisted side by side. From the Greek Orthodox Aya Sofya perched by the sea in Trabzon, to the overgrown ruins of the Georgian nunnery at Dordkelise hidden in the scenic Kachkar mountains close to Yusufeli. The walk to the nunnery was fascinating in itself as I got to see the local villagers harvesting the rice crop, and I got to munch on the wild figs, pomegranates, brambles and walnuts that line the roads here (as long as nobody was looking). I also discovered what is really meant by the term "rolling thunder" when lightning struck a few kilometres down the narrow valley I was walking along. After the first peal of thunder hit me, and almost knocked me over, it took over 10 seconds for the last rumblings to escape the confines of the mountains walls, continuously reverberating from one side to the other. Truly awe-inspiring. Now, if someone could just stop the rain...