A hidden treasure Eastern Turkey

| March 9, 2012

Eastern Turkey is an area often overlooked by tourists. Here, Cecilia Ban explains why it is in fact a fantastic place to visit.

Kars Banner

Explaining to my Turkish friends in London, why I was travelling to the province of Kars, proved to be quite a challenging task. Most visitors usually travel the Western coast of Turkey or Istanbul to see the ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman heritage. Eastern Anatolia is less economically developed than many areas of Turkey and its proximity to the border with Armenia (which is still closed due to the lack of diplomatic ties between the two countries), has meant that visitors have been less inclined to explore this area. However, my trip to Kars proved to be the discovery of a real hidden gem, a civilization and a culture that I was completely fascinated by.

Kars is a friendly town with bendy cobbled streets lined with small restaurants, where locals sit in the afternoon sipping and enjoying their coffee. It was an ideal place to base ourselves to visit the highlight of our tour, Ani, only a 20-minute car drive from Kars. Once the capital of the Armenian Kingdom, Ani was the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo in the Middle Ages. One could not help but feel overwhelmed when walking alone along the streets.

Today, Ani is uninhabited and still relatively unexcavated. It is strange to think that this was once such a vibrant and important city, with over 200,000 inhabitants. It was known as the City of 1001 Churches and one can see a variety of buildings of different faiths and historical backgrounds. When entering the city walls one immediately sees some of the Persian and Middle Eastern influences on the buildings, such as a lion similar to those depicted on the Ishtar Gates of Babylon (in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin now) and a swastika.

I was also surprised when I saw the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple from the first century BC during our walk. The churches we visited were predominantly Armenian Orthodox. The Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents had impressive frescoes painted on a black background, dating back to the 13th century.  However, to understand the real cultural diversity and richness of Ani, one could not miss the first Seljuk mosque of Anatolia, the Menüçehr Camii with its imposing geometric patterns dating back to the 11th century.

I remember dreaming and trying to understand the notion of the lost city of Atlantis as a child. In many ways, visiting Ani was an experience similar to finding a lost city, one could only dream of and try to grasp. The visit to this wonderful city was followed by an interesting conference organised by the United Nations, where we had a discussion of how to preserve and promote such an important cultural treasure. I personally would welcome to see Ani granted UNESCO World Heritage status in the future.

Cox & Kings organises cultural tours to Turkey.


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