Eastern Turkey – From the Black Sea Coast to Tarsus
I was positive I heard Aunt Dot offering me her camel for my journey from Trabzon to Kars, and beyond. My camel, patiently waiting for me at the door, turned out to be a small bus. Possibly for the best, since I only had three weeks to explore Eastern Turkey, and the camel may not have been up to it. I had obviously been influenced by Rose Macauley’s Towers of Trebizond.
Kars, a city on the Turkish border with Armenia was a huge disappointment. Where was the snow? My vision of Kars had been formed by Orhan Pamuk’s description of the city in his novel “Snow” and because the word Kar means snow, I did not think my expectation of the snow experience was at all unrealistic. I was not prepared for the reality of Kars in late spring sans snow. There was no doubt at all that the border was close by. Armoured vehicles lined the road in to Kars, and military personnel were thick on the ground.
No such disappointment with the archeological site of Ani, 43 km from Kars, on the Armenian border. As I wandered around this site, the capital of Armenia 12 or 1300 years ago, I was truly thankful on two counts. Firstly, that the rulers of Ani clearly decided that religion was a good thing, because it gave me the opportunity to explore a large number of houses of god in varying states of repair, including a mosque and a fire temple. Secondly, that I do not live in a time where the number of houses of god are of any particular relevance. Having travelled on the Silk Road in several countries, I was very happy to walk along another portion of it at Ani.
I visited Abraham’s birthplace – in two different places. Firstly in Sanliurfa, previously Edessa (Alexander the Great) and Urfa (the Ottomans). Secondly in Harran, a small town of beehive style mud houses said to be one of the oldest continuously occupied places on earth. If there was in fact an Abraham, I think I will put my money on Sanliurfa as his birthplace. Illogical reasons inform my view. Firstly, there is a rather nondescript cave in which it is said, Abraham was born. The devout enter, pay their respects and then crawl out – backwards. Why would you do that, if it were not really the true birthplace. Secondly, the site of a fire which had been lit for the purpose of casting Abraham from the castle above to his death became a lake, and so Abraham lived.
I have little time for St. Paul. Anyone who believes that women are inferior to men does not deserve any attention from me. On the other hand, I did enjoy the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, so a visit to Tarsus was scheduled. St Paul may well have been born in Tarsus, but there is nothing in Tarsus to associate it with St Paul. There is an old well, named St Paul’s well. On closer investigation, I found a sign saying there was no evidence that St Paul had any connection with the well. It was merely a very old well of the type that would have been around when St Paul was. Disappointingly, there were neither lions or dens to be seen. I did see a site which was said to contain Daniel’s tomb. Claims that Daniel is buried in Susa in Iran, Kirkuk in Iraq and in Egypt and Babylon mean that I cannot be confident that I saw the site of Daniel’s tomb.
The drive to Nemrut Dag from Kahta winds and climbs through part of the ancient Greek kingdom of Commagene founded by Mithridates. The Roman Bridge of Septimus Severan, constructed in 200AD is still in constant use. Walking over it, with cars and buses driving by, it was difficult to visualize the Romans walking and riding over this graceful structure. The path down to the river was lined with yellow wildflowers in full flower, adding to the beauty of the site.
Passing by ruined castles, and burial tumulus, the road wound its way upwards towards Nemrut Dag, the roadside ablaze with wildflowers.
Standing at the foot of Nemrut Dag contemplating the stairs which lead to the tomb of King Antiochus I, 1 kilometre directly up, a voice from behind called “taxi, taxi.” Somewhat tempted, I turned to see a group of people leading donkeys to the foot of the stairs. Watching the donkeys slipping and sliding up the pebble/rock route made the ascent by stairs decidedly attractive. After numerous pauses to admire the view, photograph wildflowers and get my breath I finally made it to the top. Scrambling up the path of gravel at the top of the stairs, I reached the east terrace, cut into the mountain top. The tombs of Mithridates and his son Antiochus are said to be in the mountain top. If I had any breath left after the climb, it would have been taken away by the sight of huge seated headless statues. The various heads, having toppled off at some time, were on the ground just below the statues. The heads are around 2 metres high, and the seated figures are 8 to 10 metres high. The statues blend Persian and Greek deities, reflecting Antiochus claim that he was descended from the Persian King Darius the Great, and also from Alexander the Great.
My journey had taken me along the borders of Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, sometimes so close that I could see over the border. Soldiers and armoured vehicles lined part of the route, adding a not altogether comfortable dimension to the day. I looked out across the Mesopotamia plains. I put my toe in the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. I saw spectacular kurdish dancing at a wedding. I ate a lot of kebabs and I enjoyed one of the most stimulating holidays I have ever experienced.
Archaeologists, artists, historians, adventurers and dreamers alike will all find plenty to challenge and excite them in eastern Turkey.