Snow can suit a city only so much. Kars is a city that suppresses its tempestuous past with snow and carries white with an elegant nobility. Although, for a traveller in pursuit of ‘Exotic Anatolia’, Kars look like a city lacking in luster, the banks of the Kars Stream, the Castle and the Kalealtı Neighborhood, where Taş Köprü (Stone Bridge) is located, and magnificent stone houses from the era of the Russian occupation make this a prominent city. Streets as wide as 24 meters put their stamp on the character of the city.
Nature and climate in Kars are cruel and harsh ancak when the tarmac-coating of the streets lined with willow trees on both sides is covered entirely with snow, an Anatolian city of undisputed beauty and mystery emerges. Almost all of the sights worth seeing are close to the city center. The fact that the city has a grid-like plan and has broad streets makes going around the city easy and enjoyable. You should walk in the streets where strikingly beautiful Russian buildings stand and the heart of the city beats. In particular, Özellikle Faik Bey Street, which is an extension of Erzurum- Armenia motorway and Halil Paşa Street, one of Kars’s busiest streets, Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Paşa Street, Atatürk Street surprising you with its horse statue and Kazım Paşa Street with its lion statues… Ottoman and Armenian houses can also be seen though few in number.
On the way to the Castle opposite the Kars Stream is On iki Havariler Kilisesi, or the Church of Twelve Disciples. Reliefs of the twelve disciples can be seen on the twelve archs of the dome of the dark-colored stone basalt structure, which was built by the Armenian King Abbas Tekver II in honor of the twelve disciples between the years 930 and 937. When Kars was in the hands of Christians, this structure was used as a church, when in the hands of the Ottomans a mosque (Kümbet Mosque) and as a religious temple again when the city was invaded by the Russians. When you go past this church, it is possible to ascend to the castle, which is the symbol of the city and has been observing it for 2 thousand years from this spot, within ten minutes after a short climb that does not require much effort. However, first, you should turn to the Kars Stream, whose banks are lined with old Ottoman houses, and take a look at the Taş Köprü (Stone Bridge). You may feel as if you are in the middle of a scene from a black and white classic film. Made of volcanic material, the bridge was restored by Murat the III in 1580. There are a few public baths nearby built after the 18th century.
It is known that there has been a castle here for two thousand years. This Armenian-Byzantine structure was repaired by the Seljuks but devastated by the Mongols again. The Ottomans rebuilt this castle anew towards the end of the 16th century but when the Russians came, they demolished it. It took the Ottomans until the 19th century to rebuild the castle. Not admitting visitors for years due to being a military zone, the castle today serves as a park. Right at the entrance to the castle on the right right is the Celal Baba Türbesi (Tomb). The tomb of Celal Baba, who was martyred in the 12th century during the Georgian-Kypchak raids, is visited by the people of Kars. The castle includes sections such as a masjid and cavalry stables.
Apart from a city tour, when you follow locals of Kars, surprises become inevitable. Kars livestock market is one of them. Peasants heading for the market pay the driver for two persons. Thinking why this is so, you realize that there is a sheep by his side. For the residents of Kars and peasants this is the most important bread and butter and almost bursts at the seams. Kars is Turkey’s largest meat provider. Every day, between 7 and 11 a.m, a chase occurs between men and animals on the asphalt road passing in front of this market. In addition to the efforts aimed at cattle and sheep, controlling these animals is another huge task. Especially when a raging bull wants climb over another, the whole market turns into a battle field. Every morning, brokers, guards, sellers and butchers are here. They buy, sell and act as brokers. It is possible to find each of the different communities constituting the people of Kars, the Azeris, Kurds, Terekems of Caucasian origin, Malagans of Russian origin and Ottoman natives.
Skiing in the Sarıçam Woods
Within a distance of 1.5 hours to Kars is Sarıkamış. For many, this is the best in Turkey. In fact, it is believed that in terms of the quality of snow and ski courses, it can be considered among the best in the world. You ski, through the Sarıçam Woods, on magnificent powder snow that never loses its quality. Home to Turkey’s severest winters, Sarıkamış is the homeland of famous skiers and ski instructors. The season lasts from mid-November to mid-April. Thanks to Sarıkamış’s dry and cold climate, snow does not get humid and hence maintains its crystal state. Moreover, since the pine trees in the vicinity prevent winds, snows pile up. As ski courses are covered with Sarıçam Woods, there is no risk of landslide or avalanche in the area.
The Tragedy of the Winter of 1915
On the Kars- Sarıkamış motorway, especially when under snow, ‘Allahuekber Martyrs’ Memorial’ attracts attention. Having remained under Russian occupation for 40 years at the end of the 1877- 1878 Ottoman-Russian War, Sarıkamış was liberated from Russian invasion on September 29, 1920 and came under Turkish rule with the Treaty of Gyumri. This memorial and its story reflect the traces of this recent history in the most poignant way. During Worl War I, according to some sources 30.000 and according to others 90.000 Turkish soldiers under the command of Enver Pasha froze to death and became martyrs in the winter of 1915 when they attempted to cross over the Allahuekber Mountains despite adverse conditions. The memorial was built to commemorate those who were martyred there.
On the way from Sarıkamış to Osman Yüce’s premises, it is possible to see Catherine’s Mansion on the slope on the left where, during the Tsardom of Russia, hunting parties were held.
The city of a thousand and one churches
Ani, which is 50 km to Kars, was the capital city of the Kingdom of Bagrat, which had spread to a large portion of today’s Armenia and northeastern Turkey a thousand years ago. Today, it is a huge and almost empty plain. Yet, Ani was once a wealthy and famous city also called “the city of a thousand and one churches” with a population of at least 100 thousand people. Though it seems like a collection of ruins today, it possessed the the best religious and military buildings of the time. Its palaces, churches and city walls were among the most advanced in Europe technically and artistically. Armenian people reflected their mastery in masonry in churches which they built of dark volcanic stones and pink-red sandstone.
One of these buildings is Tigran Honents Church (Saint Krikor Lusavorich). The frescoes of this church, also called the Illustrated Church, are impressive. According to the inscription on the eastern facet of the church, this church was built by a rich merchant called Tigran Honents and completed in1215.
The largest and the most important structure in Ani is the Ani Cathedral, which was built between 989 and 1010 and still maintains its elegance despite its massive size. Its architect was Trdat Mendet, one of the best known masters of Medieval Armenia. He is also famous for repairing the dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which had collapsed in an earthquake. Following the besiege of 1064, this stone cathedral was converted into a mosque and renamed Fethiye Mosque.
Another building of interest in Ani, Menuchehr Mosque, is regarded as the first Seljuk mosque in Anatolia. When one looks at the magnificent interior of the mosque overlooking the River Arpaçay, it seems more like a palace. The structure on the northwestern tip of Ani, its unquestionably purest Islamic building, is the Seljuk Palace.
Fishing in the ice
55 km to Kars is Lake Cildir, Turkey’s only lake that is deeper than a sea. This volcanic lake, which is deeper than the Marmara Sea, is at the same time largest of the lakes in the country that are higher than 2 thousand meters. It is possible to move forward for 70 km around the lake while enjoying the striking scenes created by mountains around the lake reaching upto 2700- 3000 meters. In winter, when the lake freezes for six months, the heores of this whiteness are fishermen and dogs that walk fearlessly on the surface of the lake for hours. Since everywhere is snowwhite, it becomes really hard to distinguish which is the coast and which is the lake. Fishermen depart from houses opposite an Ottoman cemetery buried deep in snow where twenty people live together, women sort carp and geese walk about in the garden, and walk on the frozen Lake Cildir for 45 minutes. They do not listen to the weather forecast for the day before they leave, so they do not know it is minus 13 centigrade. The only thing they need to know is that now it is dangerous to walk on the lake even when it freezes in winter and gets so thick as to allow walking on it and when three radiations of heat begin to fall. All year round, they catch and sell yellow carp, grey mullet, grey bream, Cildir Red and Yellow Fish. That is how the houses around the lake manage to survive. And the geese, too… Goose meat is often cooked village households in the vicinity of Kars. Fishermen lay their nets across the holes they dig on the ice. Yet, nature does not seem to care; in the morning, they see that the holes they have dug are covered with ice again. They find their nets by looking at the contours on the Lake.
In Sarıkamış, drop in Trabzon Çayevi (Teahouse) which is famous for its tea made on firewood, chat with people from the Black Sea region, Kurds, Circassians, and local people of Ottoman origin speaking with Erzurum accent around a stove and drink tea brewed on pine wood .
BEFORE THEY DISAPPEAR
Go find minstrels of Kars, which are famous for folk poets and singers, and before they disappear, listen to them teasing each other while snowflakes drop without hurry.
When you climb the castle to get a panoramic view of Kars, do not miss the Ottoman cannon directed at the city bearing the seal of the sultan.
DID YOU KNOW?
The wooden building by the side of the Kars Stream was built by Abdullatif Pasha, grandfather of famous poet Namık Kemal. Namık Kemal reportedly wrote his first poem in this house in 1853.
DO NOT MISS
In Kars Museum, which is one of the richest in Eastern Anatolia, see terra-cotta Heracles’s head dressed in lion’s fur found in Ardahan, stone pieces belonging to the Orthodox Church with plant motifs made in the form of reliefs, massive carved church gates made before 1920, and the enormous cast-bronze bell bearing the inscription “I ring this bell for the sake of God” on it.
The suite rooms of four-star and long-established and centrally located Sim-Er Hotel (www.simerhotel.com), which organizes tours in the vicinity, are quite comfortable. The aesthetic architecture of Kar’s Otel (www.karsotel.com) and its suites with fireplaces may surprise you.
A TASTE BREAK
Roasted goose kebab is a specialty of Kars. Reportedly, if goose is slaugtered before snows falls on it, then its meat tastes bland. You can sample dishes at Kaz Evi (www.karskazevi.com) prepared by Mrs. Nuran and her daughters.
Superb kashar cheese, gruyere, honey and butter of Kars… Plus, while tasting them, treats including village bread and tea. Ariş Ticaret (Halitpaşa Cad. No: 254, 0474 223 13 13)
Take a horse-pulled sledge ride in Sarıkamış to experience one of the pleasures of the region.
DO NOT MISS
Do not miss the frescoes of Tigran Honents Church in Ani.
Look down on the collapsed bridge form the minaret of Menüchehr Mosque in Ani.