Ghosts of Borderland

Kars, Turkey – It was a 15-foot stone monument, and it stood in an empty field in northeast Turkey. For miles in every direction there was nothing but grass and cows and the whistle of cold wind. And somewhere beyond that was the Armenian border. In the front seat, my driver turned around to explain that the monument had been erected for the victims of the 1918 genocide. That’s surprising, I thought aloud, since discussion of the Armenian genocide is generally taboo in Turkey. My driver looked at me and his round face twisted slowly into a mash of bewilderment and anger. No, he said with punctuation, this monument is for the Armenian genocide against the Turks

The weight of the past hangs heavy in northeast Turkey. Here is a place and a people to whom history has happened with undue frequency. Russians, Ottomans, Persians, Armenians, Turks—at one time or another they all planted their flags in this soil. Each in their time claimed the land as their own and in some way contributed to the atrocities that the people living here have suffered. But as I scanned the horizon I could see little worth fighting over besides some poor four-legged beasts chewing grass. In that context, the past conflicts seemed almost silly. And yet millions had died from those conflicts. This was a region with a complicated and sometimes horrible past that I was struggling to understand it.

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Photo: The plaque reads, “This monument is put up by the Kars Governorship on the 1992, in memory of our innocent civilian people who had lost their lives during the Armenians’ trial of wiping the village of Subatan of [sic] the map.”

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I arrived in Kars several nights earlier on a long journey from Dogubeyazit near the Iranian border. Kars’ city streets were dark and empty, and I was unusually disoriented when my dolmus deposited me downtown at 10pm. I walked past shuttered storefronts and down long, unlit streets that by day could just as well have been back allies as main thoroughfares. When I eventually found a hotel, it was booked. As was the second, and the third. The last of the three was little more than a spare lobby with an old man sitting on a stool beside a landline phone. He spoke no English but picked up the receiver and handed it to me. On the other end someone explained in very good English that there was a room available—it was a bit expensive and had no running water, but it was vacant. I recognized the voice as the clerk from the second hotel, and I began to feel a bit like a rat in a maze. I politely declined and walked back out into the town’s cold, empty streets.

Shortly after, I was peering into the warm interior of an empty restaurant when a man approached me and introduced himself. Erdem was a guide and offered me his services during my stay in Kars. He gave me his phone number and then recommended that I eat at the restaurant and then go to his hotel. He pointed to it far down the road. Half an hour later I stood in the lobby where a young boy confirmed that they had a room available. I agreed to take it, but before retiring for the night I asked if I could use the phone to make a local call. Anticipating my request, the boy behind the counter smiled and reassured me that Erdem would be at the hotel in the morning to meet me. I hesitated, because I hadn’t mentioned Erdem, and yet he knew that was who I wanted to call. Already I could see that Kars was a very small town.

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Photo: Kars by night.

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It was in Kars that I discovered my love of border towns. Like the frontier towns of the wagon west, dusty and empty, border towns are often remote places where strange characters mingle, drawn briefly into a common orbit by their peculiar trades. These are places where everything is happening when nothing is happening at all. Everybody is out, but nobody is going anywhere. I assumed that each person I saw scurry across Kars’ empty streets was hurrying to some windowless backroom to consort over interesting and illicit border trades. Or perhaps they were preparing to welcome their latest visitor with a giant pyre a la Wickerman. Then again, it was equally probably that they were actors on the set of a manufactured village, like The Truman Show. In border towns, intrigue is industry. And Kars had an added level of intrigue as the setting for the book I was reading: Orhan Pamuk’s eponymous novel, Kar (which, coincidentally, begins with a writer arriving in Kars by bus and checking into a hotel).

Kars struck me as the quintessential border town. This might seem odd at first, given its location 50 kilometers from the nearest border. In fact, Kars isn’t on a border at all, but it might as well be. That’s because in eastern Turkey distances are at once huge and irrelevant. As one local pointed out, a hundred kilometers might as well be “the next town over,” and the border can always be described is “that way.” More to the point, at one time or another Kars had fallen on either side of this shifting border. If Kars is not a border town, it’s only because the border here has historically been a very, very wide thing.

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In the morning I left my bag at the hotel and made off for the ancient site of Ani. Erdem pulled up in a tiny car with three other foreigners he’d located in town, and the five of us drove east out of town. It was then that we passed the monument in those long, bare fields and stopped briefly to read its plaque. Fifteen minutes later we reached the end of the road and a ten-meter wall stretching off into a broad empty plane. It was sunny, cool, and quiet, and when I slammed the car door I imagined the sound reaching the small blades of grass two hundred meters away. We purchased tickets from a small stand and walked down a short pathway to an entrance. Passing under the tall gate, we finally arrived in the once-great city of Ani. And the “the city” was in ruins.

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Photo: The landscape around Ani is a spare contortion of rock surrounded by large, flat distances. And then the Armenian border.

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Photo: Ani’s great outer walls, sieged so many times, still stand.

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Photo: Portions of the wall have been peeled, revealing layers of construction that trace its history like the bands of a tree.

The great arc of Ani’s history spans more than a millennium, beginning with its founding sometime around the 5th century. In 961, when the ascendant Armenian Kingdom controlled this region, Ashot “the Merciful” moved his capitol from Kars to Ani. Trade was heavy in the region, and within a century the populationgrew to well over 100,000, putting Ani in league with Cairo, Constantinople, Cordoba and other great cities of the period. But in the centuries that followed its fortunes waned as Ani suffered repeated attacks by every passing army. Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Georgians, Mongols, Persians, and Ottomans all took a turn. By the middle of the 18th century, collisions between the competing Ottoman and Persian empires finally caused the city to be abandoned completely. And this place returned to simple borderland.

To some observers, Ani is not much to look at. Within the walls, where the city once stood, visitors find little more than a blanket of rolling fields. A half-dozen scattered, old stone churches stand on the bleak horizon, black and hardened like burnt ants. The buildings—not quite ruins—are made small by the vastness around them. The old city is hemmed-in on three sides by the cliffs of a deep gorge, and lifted up slightly to offer a perspective on the the bleak plane around. On the other side of the gorge, wire fencing and a watchtower mark the frontier with Armenia. At the bottom, a cluster of wild horses grazed slowly. The place had a feeling of being frozen in time.

Ani’s churches give the place a graveyard air that is apocalyptic in the deepest sense of the word. Each one stands in a lonely space surrounded by upturned foundation stones and unruly grass. The empty structures—often crumbling or covered in cheap, wooden scaffolds—tilt and crumble like headstones in an unkempt cemetery. One in particular stands out as the empty half-shell of a round church. The 11th century Christ the Redeemer church was struck by lighting in the 1950s, and the force literally split the thing down its middle in a gruesome and weirdly perfect way. Perhaps more than anything Ani looks and feels like a battlefield or place where some wild storm has recently occurred. It is a stunning rebuff to the ambitions of humanity and a reminder of the impermanence of man.

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Photo: The 10th century Ani Cathedral has awesome Gothic qualities that predate the style by several centuries. Its dome collapsed way back in 1319.

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Photo: Menüçehr Mosque. The metal roofing here is the only significant protection I observed on any of Ani’s structures.

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Photo: The 11th century Church of the Redeemer, freakishly split by lighting in the 1950s.

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Photo: The Church of Saint Gregory of the Abughamrents, under popsicle-stick scaffolding.

Ani is situated in a political context that is equally electric. More divisive than the battles that ravaged this place centuries ago are the events that befell the region during World War I. This was the location of the twentieth century’s first genocide, when the Ottoman Turks carried out the destruction of 1.5 million Armenians living in Eastern Turkey. To this day the Turkish government hotly contests that these events occurred, and referring to them as “genocide” is a criminal act under Turkish law (in 2012, the Turkish government threatened sanctions against France for recognizing it as such). And while the violence between Armenians and Turks was far—indeed,very far—from symmetrical, Erdem was right when he pointed out that Turks too have at times fallen at the hands of Armenians, a fact that has lengthened and deepened the dispute.

A century later, Ani straddles the border between these two countries. The seat of Armenia’s greatest historical precedent, lying just inside Turkey—in a sense, it is a finger in the eye of the Armenian government. The Ankara has often neglected or actively erased Armenian heritage (converting historic churches into mosques, for instance, as in Kars), and some see this as the case in Ani. Its churches crumble, largely exposed to the elements, while a protective roof covers the sole mosque. Near one church I saw pilgrims—Armenian or Orthodox Greek, I guessed—carrying off old building stones as treasure, unchecked by any kind of security. Gradually, these practices will erode this city and displace any ghosts that still live here. If Ani is not dead, it is dying.

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Photo: The curiously-topped Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents (also pictured in the teaser pic at top).

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That afternoon Erdem dropped me back at my hotel, where I was determined to rest. Almost four months after leaving my hotel in Montmartre, it was a rare luxury to sleep in a room all my own (rooftops or shared dorms were the norm). This was an occasion to treat myself to one of my favorite travel pastimes. Before leaving large cities with good internet connections I would download movies to my iPhone, and on nights like this I would tuck myself in under a warm blanket—bottle of red wine and cheese—and watch a good old American movie on my tiny telephone screen. My luck, this room was outfitted with a small television, and on channel 13 I found Jack Black on a jungle island capturing a massive King Kong. I lay at the foot of the small television—tired, but happy and engaged—and contentedly soaked up some pleasantly frivolous Americana.

In the morning I rushed past bustling fruit and vegetable markets to a small bus station where I hopped aboard a waiting dolmus. Packed with shepherds and peasants, it sped north along empty roads as the land rolled up into hills. In the next town I switched to a bus packed floor to ceiling with a large Turkish family and all their possessions, which we deposited an hour later at a small, dirt-road cottage near the Georgian border. After an hour or more of delay, we all climbed back into the bus for the final leg to the border. By nightfall I would arrive in Georgia, but crossing this wide borderland was going to take a very long time.

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