“There is no way we could have done it. We were too busy fighting the war in the West and the South and everywhere!” said our guide adamantly.
We were cruising along in his car, funky slightly belly-dancerish music blaring, and if the ground outside wasn’t a vast plain of snow we might have had wind in our hair too.
I love moments like this – interesting discussion and nothing to do but enjoy the scenery, sounds … and to realise in a sort of out of body experience that you are here!
Turkey’s North East and Ani
Turkey’s North East. Up in the mountains and the daily high was around -7 °C. It was our first taste of real cold and, where we were going, it sure wasn’t going to be our last! Three of us now (my sister, a girl friend from home and I), we layered up with all the clothes we had, literally “double socking” it then adding plastic bags inside our puny thin sneakers for extra protection.
We were heading to the long ago deserted, and disputed, former Armenian capital of Ani (map and info here).
Ani virtually hangs off the border between Turkey and Armenia on the lip of a deep gorge. Once with an estimated population of 100,000 to 200,000 people, and the capital of an ancient Armenian Kingdom between 961 and 1045, it was rival to Damascus, Baghdad and Constantinople (Istanbul). Following a devastating earthquake in 1319, all that now remains is a vast spread of ruins.
Our guide was referring to the alleged “Armenian Genocide“. Around World War I, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and many suffered abuse, rape and forced marches, at the hands of the then Ottoman Empire. Some claim this was the first ever genocide, and the second most studied genocide after the Holocaust.
Turkey denies genocide and considers it all part of the overall picture of WWI. However, under pressure in some cases from Armenian lobby groups, many countries have now formally declared the tragedies “Genocide” and some EU states have also pushed to require Turkey to acknowledge this “Genocide” as a criteria for entry to the EU.
The views were spectacular as we drove along and we strained into the hazy horizon for a peek at snow-covered Mt Ararat, where Noah’s Ark came to rest in Bible stories.
Armenia, the first ever country to declare Christianity as its state religion, reveres this mountain which watches over its capital city Yerevan and appears on its Coat of Arms. Yet, Ararat, Ani and a swathe of other territory were lost to Turkey after WWI and remain in Turkey.
Our guide for the day was at pains to point out the Seljuks, Turkish and many others had also contributed to Ani at one time or another, as can be seen from its mixed architecture, and that the town was not only Armenian.
Poignant and Beautiful
Hearing my sister’s experiences in Armenia from earlier in the year, and with the fervour of our Turkish guide, the strength of feeling hung in the air.
It seemed surreal to stop on the way at a comparatively small roadside monument of remembrance, for Turks who fought the Armenians, with some of the words haphazardly erased.
Ani turned out to be stunning, set against a backdrop of snowy mountains on the edge of its dramatic gorge. Foundations of old streets and houses, towering churches (often later used as mosques) and Zoroastrian temples stretched out before us as we crunched around shifting from foot edge to foot edge in the cold.
A beautiful, early 13th century Armenian church, with their distinctive scrawling script and colourful Bible story frescoes, seemed to have sidled down onto the rocky edge of the gorge gazing mournfully but proudly at its homeland across the way. Armenian border posts were clear to see and we were hesitant not to step into any of the no-go areas as we climbed down to it, feeling watched.
A sign pointing the way along the “Silk Road” seemed out of place.
My hands stung with cold as I tried to capture it all, torn between taking photos and preserving fingers for the future! I had to take my hands out of my gloves to use my smartphone camera and then would desperately shove them back in banging them together repeatedly to try to recover feeling. I later discovered that a small woolly hole opening up just at the base of my index finger worked well for phone access as long as I didn’t need to zoom!
When time was up, we virtually ran for the car! Mt Ararat appeared in the rear view mirror as we headed back to Kars, our base, and we all agreed that the long and windy (but incredibly beautiful) bus ride we had taken up here into the mountains, well out of our way, had given us one of our top travel days yet!
More photos here. I’ll tell you about Kars next time!! And we’re going to Armenia too!
Despite the difficult history and politics here, this was an amazing place to visit. Do you have moments when you suddenly stop and realise just how lucky you are? When is that for you?
Or, have you been personally affected by this conflict? Would you share with us? You can leave comments below.