Eastern Turkey

In some ways the May 2012 visit to Eastern Turkey is complementary to the trip to Armenia two years earlier. We had always seen majestic Mount Ararat in the distance and this evoked the desire to get closer to the mountain. The trip also had a political dimension. The border between Armenia and Turkey is closed due to the twin dispute about the Armenian genocide during World War I (which Turkey wrongfully denies) and the more recent conflict concerning Nagorno-Karabakh (in which Turkey sides with Azerbaijan). From Armenia, you can often see Ararat but you can never reach it. Many Armenians feel themselves morally superior to the Turks and I heard more often that the border should remain closed than I heard that the border should be opened (although that would economically be very beneficial to Armenia). Turkey is the “other” side, the bad side that wrongfully or not gets demonized. One taxi driver stated his conviction that the border should be closed because otherwise the Turks would come and kill people again. Although I am generally very sympathetic to the Armenian position because Turkish government actions did indeed lead to a genocide in some ways the Armenian irreconcilability got on my nerves as well. In my world, you should not forget but you must forgive. And we are talking about events that took place not last year and not 10 years ago but more than 90 years ago. Most often, the smartest way to get the other side to admit mistakes is by getting into contact, building understanding and trust. It rarely happens in a kind of big-bang that a whole society suddenly changes direction and sees its own history in a totally different light and is ready to admit that. In my point of view, Armenians visiting the sacred slopes of Ararat, visiting the Armenian cultural treasures strewn around Eastern Turkey would help. Most Armenians though had no intention to do that, they seemed to expect a total “capitulation” of the Turkish side and before that would never set foot on Turkish soil. The topic picked my interest, if Turkey is the other side, I wanted to see that other side, I wanted to see if it is full of bad people as some Armenians seemed to suggest. If I got you interested in what this genocide topic is all about I wrote more deeply about it in my report on Armenia.

I went again with my friend Marco and as we wanted to explore some natural treasures and churches located in small villages, we decided to hire a car for the whole journey. So, after a day of sightseeing in Trabzon (I city I had in 2003 only changed buses in), I took the car and headed to Erzurum to meet up with Marco (who had been to Georgia before). We visit Khakhuli Monastery (also known as Haho), on first sight it looks so similar to the monasteries we have seen in Armenia but it reveals itself as being founded by Georgians. The history of these lands knows more than two people. At Oshki Monastery this insight repeats itself. Impressive ruin, I am especially taken by the high nave. The car gives us the flexibility to reach these village monasteries easily.

Yusufeli

We begin to lose faith in our map. We know that a succession of dams is planned along the Çoruh River and we know that the project is controversial with much local opposition. According to our guidebook, construction has not even started on most dams but according to our map the dams seem already finished, where the town of Yusufeli should be there is just an expense of blue. We are unsure what to believe, it turns out the map is just plain wrong, Yusufeli is in full swing, we even spend the night there. Otkhta is another monastery of Georgian origin. On the way to Artvin we get a glimpse of the future of the region, the driving is bad, sometimes we are still on the old road down in the valley, at times we are on the new road that is being constructed with great effort higher up in the valley. Most of all it is dusty. We stop to take pictures of a village in the process of being abandoned; the river has already left its bed and will never get back into it. There is no new construction visible anywhere so it seems the people have been resettled far away. A few kilometres before Artvin we finally see the dam, it is finished and slowly starting to fill. Doliskana Monastery is another of the former Georgian monasteries. The neglect is heart-breaking, no people are living here anymore that have any interest in the religious practices these churches were built for. It is located right in the middle of a village but slowly crumbling. The local population seems to treat the building with respect, there is a sign outside with some explanation, there is no rubbish, there is a door that someone seems to close in the evening. But the floor is not visible, you walk on the rubble that has fallen down from the walls. Would this church be located in Georgia it would be renovated, would be filled with some life. Here, the mosque is right next door and the monastery a relic from a long-gone past.

We head to the Karagöl-Sahara National Park (no relation to THE Sahara), an area of sublime natural beauty with gentle mountains only interspersed with remote villages. We reach the lovely lake Meşeli Karagöl. In the evening we visit Şeytan Castle, how the writer of our guidebook could assume that you could drive on that road with a car remains a mystery to me. At least we can already see the castle as we leave the car behind. We finally reach Kars, a city etched into my memory since reading Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”. I hope to meet beautiful İpek (what a lovely name) on the street.

Ani

Ani sits right on the border. From the immensely beautiful Church of St. Gregory only the river, down in the valley, separates us from Armenia. The Turkish military has a watchtower nearby and the Armenians have a small military camp on the other side. Ani had once been the capital of an Armenian kingdom and is considered a great national treasure in Armenia. Like Ararat it is so close to Armenia but so far. St. Gregory is a marvel, just imagine how this church must have looked like with all the interior paintings intact. Most of the rest of the city is in ruins, I am especially impressed by the cupola that has been sliced in half like with a knife. We speak with one of the guides, we ask about the Armenian heritage, they get nearly no Armenia visitors and she points to the destroyed mosque, it’s not all Armenian here, the city had also been Turkish for a long time before its abandonment.

We finally get a glimpse of Ararat, we are getting closer, such a beautifully shaped mountain. Doğubayazıt’s Ishak Pasha Palace looks surprisingly modern for having been built between 1685 and 1784, the stone carvings are extraordinary. We are as close as we will get to Ararat but it is a hazy day, strangely I like the mountain more from the distance, if you get too close it loses some of its elegance. In parts, the road runs close to the Armenian border, watchtowers are frequent. We take a look at Muradiye Selalesi Waterfall and in the evening, we reach Van. We enjoy the sunset over lake Van from the fortress. A man annoys us, he speaks some German, we are not sure if he has taken drugs, he wants to introduce us to his sister who is a prostitute he says. We rather leave. We have had some discussion between us if we should visit Van. Eight months ago, an earthquake had hit the city, killed about 600 people and destroyed many houses. I prevail with the argument that not keeping up the normal economic pattern of a city after such a disaster kills it a second time. The first hotel we search for does not exist anymore but the second on our list is still in operation and we are warmly welcomed. We see some destroyed buildings and two container villages but otherwise the city seems to have recovered well.

Football Love

We follow the shore of Lake Van and take the boat to Akdamar Island. The Church of the Holy Cross has some of the most impressive stone carvings I have ever seen on its outside walls. The inside cannot compare to Ani’s St. Gregory but is still beautiful. It is Saturday and many people visit the Church. It has been restored a few years ago but in the same breath it has been officially transformed from a church into a museum. A large Turkish flag has been set up close to the church and permissions to hold religious services have been refused, for that reason Turkey’s small but still-existing Armenian minority had boycotted the opening ceremony of the newly renovated “museum”. We spend the night in Tatvan and witness the Turkish love for football. The far east of Turkey is devoid of any top division football team, from Tatvan on the western end of Lake Van, it is a few hundred kilometres to the nearest stadium in Trabzon. Anyway, Turkish football is dominated by the big three of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray all from Istanbul who have won 47 titles of the Süper Lig in 53 seasons between themselves. Because of this dominance nearly all Turks (as long as they are interested in football) are fan of one of the three clubs. Today we have an interesting constellation as the last game will directly decide the new champion. Galatasaray is in the lead, if they win or achieve a draw, they are the new champion, Fenerbahçe needs a victory to surpass them. All the cafés are full with men in anticipation of the game, we get the preferred foreigner treatment as we squeeze into one, otherwise, we would not have managed to see anything. The game is a goalless draw that lives from the tension that just one goal could change everything. Galatasaray is the new champion and this is wildly celebrated on the streets of Tatvan about 1,200km away from Istanbul. Cars honking, men marching through the streets in their football shirts, chanting and burning flares.

We have to abandon our car again. The snow is to deep to drive up to Nemrut Volcano so we have to walk to see the crater lake. We spend most of the day on the road and in the afternoon our car abandons us and we have to change a flat tire. We head towards Siirt, the guidebook describes it as a city of high Kurdish-Turkish tensions but also promises tower-houses similar to the one’s in Sana’a in Yemen. This being a long-held dream destination I want to take the chance to see them in Siirt. We ask somewhere for the direction and a young man wants to come with us part of the way. We can hardly communicate but as he leaves our car, he makes it clear that we should come and meet his family, we politely decline. Siirt turns out to be a disaster, the people are extremely reserved and soon we have a bunch of boys trailing us that are starting to throw small stones towards us. Apparently, we are not welcome. As we cannot see the promised houses anywhere, we soon leave the city for good.

Hasankeyf is an ancient town (spanning nine civilizations) wedged between the cliffs and the river Tigris. The setting is very beautiful and the town is home to a fortress, a mosque, a mausoleum and many caves cut into the rock. It has been the poster child of the campaign against the Ilısu Dam which threatens historical Hasankeyf with flooding. Besides Ani this was the place I definitely wanted to see while in eastern Turkey. The town has been dying a slow death, who wants to invest in a place where the risk that eventually all will be lost to the water is high. International financial institutions eventually backed out of the project but for the Turkish government it had become a point of honour that had to be finished at all cost. As I write these lines in August 2019 the town is just being eaten by the water, never to come back again. Some buildings have been relocated to an higher “archaeological park”. The project also had political overtones with the local opposition being mostly Kurdish and the central Turkish government showing who rules the game.

I have to mention the Kurdish-Turkish conflict at this point. The Kurds are an ethnic group that got somehow short-changed by history. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, part of the settlement process after the first world war, made provisions for a Kurdish state, however three years later that promise was gone as the final treaty of Lausanne set the boundaries of modern Turkey. This led to the situation nowadays that about 35 million Kurds, living in a continuous area of settlement, do not have a state on their own but instead form minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Their rights were often denied, in Turkey they were long classified as Mountain Turks instead of Kurds, a word which use was prohibited. After the military coup in 1980 the use of the Kurdish language (an Iranian language, not a Turkic language) was prohibited in public and even private life. Opposition formed, and in 1984 a Kurdish uprising was declared with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) waging guerrilla warfare against Turkish government forces. Since 1999, the PKK has declared several ceasefires (they cannot win militarily) and some attempts have been made to find a negotiated solution. Overall, throughout the 2000s, it seemed that the situation was improving with reduced hostilities, Kurdish political parties and a Kurdish-language TV station being established. As we visited in May 2012 the area did not in any way have the feel of a conflict zone. Unfortunately, since 2015 the situation has greatly deteriorated with some of the areas we visited becoming active war zones. According to the International Crisis Group the casualties include about 1,200 Turkish soldiers, about 2,600 Kurdish fighters and about 700 civilians (numbers from late 2018).

Back in 2012 and back on the road we admire Mor Gabriel, the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. We later head to Der Mor Evgin monastery at the edge of the mountains where we are greeted in perfect German. The monk is a recent arrival from Germany’s Ruhr area who has decided to pursue his quest to come closer to the god of his forefathers in this remote location. We look out over the plain, we look out into Syria where the civil war has already begun.

Mount Nemrut

We visit beautiful Mardin and the graves and amazing cisterns of the ruined city of Dara. Deyrul Zafaran is another important Syriac Orthodox Monastery. Our next stop is Diyarbakır the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan. The next morning at 04:13 we are standing at the closed gate of Nemrut Dag. The early bird catches the (early) worm and we are out to catch the sunset today. Mount Nemrut is a 2,134m high mountain where, around the top, a number of large statues had been erected in the 1st century BCE, it is thought to be the gravesite of the Armenian king Antiochus. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of these monuments where you ask yourself why someone took this effort, to erect these statues on a mountain that is covered by snow for half the year. It must have been terrible for the workers. At 4:30 we knock at the door; the guard comes and opens the gate for the mountain road.

Divriği

Leaving Nemrut Dag, we follow some small roads and soon the reality on the ground starts to detach itself from our map. We have entered a labyrinth of valleys, beautiful valleys where we follow unpaved roads and hope that the next turn will bring us closer to our destination. Mostly it does not, we kind of know where we are but we have long entered white territory on our map. After a few hours of driving Mount Nemrut is still visible in the distance. We just hope that we will not come to a dead end. We are kind of relieved as we finally get back on a bigger road that brings us to Elazig. We arrive in Divriği with its famed mosque-hospital complex (another UNESCO site) just in time for the Friday prayer, we just sit quietly in the back of the mosque and are greeted friendly by several worshippers afterwards. In the afternoon we reach Sivas with its cluster of mosques and madrasahs.

It is our last day together and I have a full programme. In the morning a bit more sightseeing in Sivas, and after that I have to take the long drive back to Trabzon just with a stop in beautiful Amasya. I hope to reach Trabzon in time for the Champions League Final that evening. It is a ride of roughly 671km, shorter routes would be available but we have collected a fair amount of knowledge on roads in Turkey’s east and shorter does not necessarily mean faster. As we prepare to leave the hotel, the friendly receptionist points to our car. We have a flat tire, again, and we know we made a mistake. We already used the spare wheel and we thought we would get away with not having it fixed. Communication is difficult, the receptionist speaks no English but knows how to handle Google translate. He asks if he should call someone to fix it. It is a posh hotel, the nicest and most expensive we stayed in on our trip and I already fear the price tag. Ten minutes later a young man arrives, he wants to open the boot but as he sees the spare wheel, he learns what we already know, it is as flat as the other tire. He disappears and another twenty minutes later he is back with a car and a compressor. He fills our wheel and we drive to their repair shop. They brought us from the hotel, they fixed both wheels, mounted them, did everything and in the end they want something like 12€ as a payment. I give them 20. I drop Marco at the bus station (he will explore Turkey further) and hit the road. It is a long drive. The coastal highway is in good condition but for many towns it is terribly disruptive, the highway often runs where a coastal promenade could/should be. Upon entering a town, the speed limit drops to 50 km/h but the cars keep going at about 90 km/h. Bridges have been built to allow pedestrians access to the sea.

I reach Trabzon in time for the second half but to my great surprise no one seem interested in the match, the Turks seem to be interested in Turkish football foremost. I have trouble finding a place where the game is shown, I end up at the rooftop Efes Pub. As the game goes into extra-time it is only a bunch of foreigners watching and they keep the place open only to be nice to us. I am satisfied with the outcome of the game.

I get the timing wrong on the last day, I head to the lake at Uzungöl but as I reach the famous cliff-hanging Sumela Monastery I have no time to go inside. I have to return and give the car back. I wanted to clean it as well but no time for that either, it is dirty from top to bottom but the rental guy does not mind, everything good.

I have a few more hours in Trabzon and I use some of them to explore the seedier parts of the city. I had read an article a while ago about Trabzon being one of the most conservative cities in Turkey and at the same time having a fairly robust prostitution business. The night before, I found one part of it. Not far from my hotel a row of bars just looked different, no windows to see through, guys in suits standing at the front door. As one man comes out with a sexily dressed blonde lady at his side, I know what is going on. The next day while driving out of town I realize there are plenty of really seedy hotels in the area behind that lane. When you walk around that neighbourhood prostitutes ply their trade on the street, middle-aged Russian women past their prime and with plenty of make-up whisper sex, sex when you walk past.

Back in the centre, I witness something I find disturbing, two young women are withdrawing money from an ATM as a man approaches and comes ever closer to one of them. He constantly talks to them and is in the end only centimetres away from one of them. The other pushes in between to protect her friend but is basically having to get into full body contact with the guy in the process. He just doesn’t move; he just stays where he is and harasses the women. The ATM is a bit away from the main street but I am not the only one who has a good view on the scene. We had seen something similar (but less gross) before in Van, two girls where sitting in the family-section of a restaurant. A guy was sitting across the table and kept talking to them although they never seemed to answer and, we had the feeling, just tried to ignore him.

As I enter the minivan towards the airport shortly afterwards, the only passenger is a girl in the first row. I take the seat right next to her because the first row is the best place with my backpack. Still, having the harassment situation I witnessed before in mind, I take pains not to touch her. As she shifts a bit in her seat so that our legs touch, I know that she is relaxed. As I leave the minivan, she says goodbye with a beautiful smile.