Rising from the high steppe that leads into the Caucasus is the jumble of small alleys and narrow boulevards that make up the provincial city of Kars. Most foreigners who come to Kars are drawn by one of two reasons: either they are inspired to see the city because of Orhan Pamuk’s fabulous novel Snow, or they are using the city as a base camp to see the ruins of the old Armenian city of Ani. Either way, visitors on the whole are rare.
Few Turks visit the city either – it is simply too remote a destination for most to care about, unless the conversation turns to Kars cheese or honey. It is a shame, for bubbling underneath the drab exterior of a modern hastily thrown together Turkish border city beats a diverse heart. Here is where Russia and Turkey met in battles for the last 15o years; here is where you can still find a good number of Armenians, or at least those of mixed Armenian descent; here is a city of Kurds and Turks, Muslims and Christians, and even a few holdouts of Zoroastrianism from the days before Islam. Just scratch the surface, and it all come tumbling out.
The most impressive sites of the city are, without a doubt, the city’s fortress – which provides an amazing panorama of the rest of the city – as well as two former Russian churches now turned into mosques. Both religious buildings, the Church of the Twelve Apostles and Fethiye Camii, are built out of solid cuts of basalt stone in the Baltic style making them extremely out of place in the context of the rest of Turkey. Scattered throughout the rest of the city are similarly constructed former Russian buildings, from when Kars marked the furthest extent of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.
Kars has a long checkered history of being Turkish, which may explain why my students all simultaneously shouted, “No! Don’t go to Kars, it’s very ugly,” when I told them I could not attend a picnic they were hosting. In the majority of Turkish minds, it seems, Kars marks some sort of hinterland – a wild wild west that has never fully undergone Turkification.
Understandably so! Originally an Armenian city, Kars has changed hands between the Byzantines, Georgians, Turks, Mongols, Kurds, and Ottomans. That is, before it was lost to the Russians in 1828 and bounced around between Russian, Armenia and Turkey before solidly becoming part of the Turkish Republic after World War I. The people reflect this, too.
Generally Turks are the warmest people I have ever met – especially when you speak to them in Turkish. The people of Kars were not impressed, however, and seemed generally aloof. Once you cracked through, though, the stories began to spill out:
“I am not Turkish, no! I am Kurdish,” said the hotel keeper. “Do you speak any Kurdish?”
This was later reiterated by a different hotel guide. “Turkish, me? No no no. My father’s side is Laz – we are the old Pontic people. My mother’s side is Azeri. You know, some Azeri’s are still Zoroastrian. My cousins, for example. Sometimes they cross the border here and celebrate the Zoroastrian holidays. You know, Kars, you have everyone here. You even have some Russians who never left.”