Continuing Silk Road Explorations
My recent travels have not specifically been along the route of a silk road, as my earlier travel in China was. Rather, I have been on parts of routes said to have been taken by Marco Polo.
Describing the various trade routes as “The Silk Roads” is is a comparatively modern development. In around 1877, a German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen called the routes used by traders the Silk Roads, although a great deal more than silk was traded along these routes.
Travelling in Eastern Turkey provided many opportunities to explore places where traders, travellers and adventurers had been before. Possibly even Marco Polo had visited some of these places.
Approaching Kars, it became apparent we were travelling along a road which silk does not travel today. Along both sides of the road for miles stood army tanks, guns all pointing one way – towards Armenia, although Armenia would not be in range. I would have preferred camels. Head down, no photographs.
I did not find much to inspire me in Kars. Obviously influenced by Orhan Pamuk’s novel, “Snow”, I had expected a somewhat miserable place. It wasn’t particularly miserable, and did offer the Armenian Church, a 15th century Ottoman bridge and citadel and an interesting old hamam.
The purpose of my visit to Kars was to explore Ani, a ruined Armenian city, 43km east of Kars, on the Armenian border.
Ani, now in eastern Turkey, was Armenia’s capital city from 961 to 1045AD, although the first settlement on the site dates back to the 3000’s BC. The city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1319.
Ani was known as the city of 1001 churches. The site contains the ruins of dozens of churches, which are considered to be among the masterpieces of of Armenian Medieval architecture.
Ani was also known as the city of 40 gates. As I approached the site, the remains of the city wall loomed above me. Apparently more than 1km of the wall remains.
On entering the site, through one of the gates, I was met with a landscape of a windswept plain, dotted with the ruins of what was once a great city. The extant ruins were overwhelmingly places of worship.
Most of the places of worship were of christian churches. There was however the remains of what was thought to be a zoroastrian fire temple. Ani cathedral became the Fethiye mosque in 1064, and returned to christian worship in 1124. The mosque of Minuchihir was probably named after the ruler of Ani in around 1072. The minaret predates the mosque itself.
Ani was once on various trade routes. Did Marco Polo visit? There is a path leading down to the Akhurian river (the border between Armenia and Turkey) described as the silk road. The path leads to an ancient bridge, sometimes referred to as the Marco Polo bridge. There is no evidence that Polo himself was at Ani, but the city was situated on several trade routes, all of which could have been part of the silk road network. A walk along the path, thinking about the great caravans of the past, fulfilled another dream, adding a further part of the silk roads to my experiences.
The presence of Armenian watchtowers and border guards just across the river was a reminder that borders are a moveable feast. Where I was standing was formerly part of Armenia.
I was reminded of this fact again on approaching Mt Ararat, now in Turkey. Marco Polo described a very high mountain, shaped like a cube, in Greater Armenia, and said it was the mountain on which Noah’s Ark is said to have rested. Polo said the mountain was called the Mountain of Noah’s Ark.
Mt Ararat, with its snow covered top glistening in the sun, invited a far closer inspection. We drove past the best viewing spot. Apparently the young men of Dogubeyazit, the nearby town, tended to take a dim view of tourists and were inclined to arm themselves with large sticks with which they beat the sides of any vehicles which stopped there.
No such threat occurred in Armenia, and on a visit to Yerevan we could view the mountain from wherever we wished.
Doğubeyazıt is close to the border with Iran, and is situated on the main road between Turkey and Iran.
Groups of the PKK live in the mountains in between Turkey and Iran. The market in Dogubeyazit is a centre of drug trafficking. Ataturk’s reforms apparently never reached this area, with men still having more than one wife. Women are known to fall out of windows to their death, apparently while cleaning the windows. Well, that’s what I was told by a female archaeologist from Istanbul, who had been on a dig in the vicinity. She also told me that because of her age – late 20’s, she would only be considered as a second or third wife in this area. An offer had been made to her father when she was working near Dogubeyazit – a man who wanted a third wife would consider her, despite her age.
With this information in hand, I was interested to experience the town first hand. Women did not rain down on my head – no window cleaning that day perhaps. Groups of young boys were very unpleasant. Older men were openly hostile. I didn’t feel particularly threatened, but it was a less than pleasant experience. No venturing out after dark for me.
I did not see any caravanserais in Eastern Turkey.
I visited numerous caravanserais in Iran and the Caucasus. I scrambled around semi ruined caravanserais, I ate and slept in converted caravanserai and was mesmerised by the variety and intricacy of ornate brickwork in others.
Caravanserais were a roadside inn, and were built a day’s camel trek apart. They look a bit like forts, with thick walls, drum tower like structures on the corners of some and could withstand a siege for several days. Merchants and their animals could eat and sleep in a caravanserai, and the merchants could safely trade.
Marco Polo would certainly have stayed in these establishments, but I can find no evidence that he mentioned them.
The caravanserai Ribat-I Sharif is on the old Merv-Nishapur desert trade route. It was constructed during the Seljuk period and contains a remarkable variety of brickwork and plaster motifs. It also contains 2 mihrabs, still intact.
Marco Polo is said to have found Isfahan in Iran a very large and beautiful city. I thought it among the most beautiful cities I have visited. The beauty of the mosques with their exquisite tiling made me weep. The bridges over the non flowing (when I visited) Zayandeh River are of varying designs, each one of interest. The carpets and the miniature paintings are among the loveliest I have seen, and totally irresistible. Carpets and miniature art accompanied me home.
I stayed in a converted caravanserai in Isfahan, the Abassi Hotel. What a lovely building that is, and its courtyard gardens and fountains are of great beauty. However, single travellers beware. Even though you have paid a hefty single supplement, you may still get a dog of a room. Mine overlooked a car park. I took my bag back to reception, and advised them that a view of the carpark was not acceptable. “Oh, but you can see part of a fountain from the balcony.” After a fairly robust discussion, I got a room with a view over the beautiful courtyard.
Marco Polo described what was obviously Baku in Azerbaijan, when he described oil gushing, while not edible, was good for making fires and as a salve for men and camels affected with an itch or a scab. Polo also observed that men come from a long distance to collect this oil. Nothing much has changed in this regard as Baku, on the Caspian sea still has oil, and men still come from a long distance to collect it.
The prehistoric petroglyphs at Gobustan, about 40 miles from Baku, would obviously have been there when Marco Polo visited, but he would not have seen them as either they were exposed by an earthquake during the 20th century, or they were discovered in the 1930’s by quarry workers. I, on the other hand, saw them. The carvings are on rocky boulders, arising out of the flat plain, and they depict ancient peoples, animals, hunting scenes and boats. I thought one of the boats resembled an Egyptian solar boat, but apparently the boats have been interpreted as being Norwegian reed boats.
A converted caravanserai was my home for 2 nights in Sheki, in north western Azerbaijan. It had a most impressive entrance, and for a short person, a quite challenging stone staircase up to my room. I had to sit on a step, and then pull my legs up to that step, and then drag myself up to the next step. Such steep stairs would provide a good defence, provided the attackers were short people.
Marco Polo described Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Georgia as a fine city of great size and as a place where silk was woven. It is a fine city. I do not know if silk is still woven there, but it is a most joyous place, and I hope Polo found it as happy and bursting with life as I did. I also hope he sampled as much of the wonderful Georgian wine as I did.
The Metekhi church, in this form would not have been seen by Marco Polo, but there would have been a church on this spot.
This modern sculpture encapsulates the joyous experience I had in Tbilisi and Georgia overall.
Whether or not there was a Marco Polo, and whether he ever travelled beyond Constantinople doesn’t matter because his story has inspired so many adventures for others. The large number of travel companies who arrange tours of Silk Roads, and the numerous hotels and restaurants bearing Marco Polo’s name attest to an enduring interest in the ancient trade routes, and Marco Polo’s travels – whether or not some of those travels are a myth.