After arriving late into Kars we check into a friendly, central hotel with good plumbing, plenty of hot water and the smallest lift I have ever encountered. Taking the badly lit and rather uneven stairs seemed to be the preferable option!
Kars is an ancient city that stands near the currently closed border between Turkey & Armenia. It has been fought over by various factions over the centuries, and was occupied by Russia for a time, which is evident in the architecture of the town.
We headed out for something to eat before it got too late, and discovered a lively restaurant that seemed to be run entirely by women, which served fantastic home made food, and where a session of the famous “song duelling” was in full flow. Two saz players were entertaining a large group, and we sat there with the first of many delicious home cooked meals that we ate whilst we were on the road, entranced by the atmospheric music. What a way to arrive!
You can listen to a short excerpt here Saz Players of Kars
“According to the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Minstrelsy tradition of Turkey is performed by wandering poet-singers known as âşıks. Dressed in traditional clothes and plucking a stringed saz, the âşık is a common performer at weddings, in coffeehouses and during public festivals of all sorts. The âşık is called in a dream to undertake a long apprenticeship in the arts of playing string and percussion instruments, singing, storytelling and repartee that form the heart of the vocation. The poems they recite, usually about love, are written in rhymed syllabic meter and end with a quatrain in which the âşık utters the Mâhlas, his pseudonym. Their improvisational performances may also include riddles, folk tales, verbal duels of wit and creativity with other âşıks.”
The next day, we met early with Mert and Lucja (our friends from the train) to share a taxi for the highlight of our visit to Kars, the trip to Ani, “City of One Thousand & One Churches.”
The new, straight road cuts through the flat cold empty landscape, which is helpful, as our driver delights in speed; with less bends, and little traffic it is easier to look out of the window and to forget to look at just how fast we are going. The dark brown earth is showing the first shy shoots of wheat, barely showing in the cold air; there is still snow in places, and under the bright crisp light that lights the green hills, it is easy to forget that this land spends much of the year under a thick blanket of snow.
Ani appears after a half hour drive, and we are met with the enormous fortified walls of the magnificent medieval capital of the Bagradit Armenian Kingdom, dating to the 10th and 11th centuries. Back then it hosted a population of over one hundred thousand, and gained economic power and vast wealth by controlling the branch of the Silk Road that crossed the Akhurian river gorge which now defines the border between modern day Turkey & Armenia.
Even after coming under the sovereignty of Byzantines, Seljuks, and Georgians, Ani kept playing a vital role as a significant crossroads for merchants, but eventually the city started to go into decline after the Mongol invasion and was significantly damaged by earthquake that occurred in 1319. More can be found out about Ani by following the link HERE
We wander along the grassy tracks that weave between the ruins and are amazed at how crisp and clean cut many of the buildings still are. The ochre red of the masonry contrasts intensely with the blue sky, and the dazzling light throws everything into a sharp and vivid contrast. Although the air is cold, especially in the chill wind that blows from the east, the sun is gathering strength, and in the sheltered areas we bask in the spring sunshine, listening to the birds and hearing the echoes of distant times.
Although the larger churches are still visible, many are in a state of disrepair, however, the beautiful architecture and dazzling frescoes that once adorned these places of worship, are however still discernible over 700 years later.
How splendid they must have been in their heyday.
After a full morning of walking, wandering and scrambling in amazement around this incredible open air museum, I let my companions wander off to look at something on the western edge of the site, and I settle myself in the tumbled blocks of stone that lie at the foot of the city walls. The place is still quiet, no-one really gets going here till after lunch, so I take advantage of the alone time to carefully listen to the call of the birds of prey that are common here, and to the smaller birds that hop amongst the long grasses; I turn my face to the sun, and quietly drift into the in-between place.
In my minds eye, I see the caravans from far distant lands, crossing the bridge over the Akhurian river gorge, bringing silks furs, jade and porcelain from China, bound for Asia Minor and Europe.
I hear the tread of the feet of thousands; the rich and the poor, kings and beggars, the holy and the damned all walking this ancient road, bringing, taking, looking and searching… all seekers, in their own way, as I am too… standing in this place between worlds, the artery that flows between East & West.
In Ani, the stark open landscape inspired a reverence and awe in us, and we wandered amongst those houses of god feeling a connection to spirit that was not aligned to any religion. The expanse of the sky and the endless empty landscape put the work of man into a sharp perspective, and I found it interesting to see that of all the buildings that must once have been there, really only those bridges between worlds, the churches built to connect man with god, have survived…. a task that they still do to this day.
Our fellow traveller Mert summed it up in one sentence:
“I could worship any god, in a place like this”
I found another blog whilst researching, and there are some really good photos there, taken with a much better camera than I, so if you want to see more of the fantastic views and buildings in Ani, I suggest that you take a look!
Thanks to Sam, for her photograph of me walking in Ani!