At one time all roads led to Erzurum, a key stop on a great caravan route and a strategic bastion against invasion. Today it is a remote city on Turkey’s Asian frontier with an important history crying out to be discovered. The photographer Brian McKee continues his tour of eastern Anatolia as Scott Redford leads us from Turkic citadel to Mongol minarets in part two of Cornucopia’s Beauty and the East series
Erzurum is a lonely town, but it doesn’t seem to care. It has a superior position and attitude, perhaps owing to its centuries-long role as the guardian of northeast Anatolia against all comers. It sits by itself on a hill in northeast Turkey, its big, broad boulevards whistling with cold in the winter and shimmering with heat in midsummer. It looks north across a broad, treeless plain to the mountains leading to the Black Sea. Just to the south loom the mountains of Palandöken, site of one of Turkey’s earliest ski resorts.
Culturally, topographically, gastronomically, Erzurum doesn’t belong to the Black Sea, it is not part of the Caucasus, and it is isolated enough from the rest of inland Turkey not to feel generically Anatolian. And those broad boulevards, along with extensive rebuilding after wars and earthquakes, have left its monuments curiously marooned in a city whose historical importance is not otherwise revealed. Today, Erzurum is a regional hub, a garrison and university town, perhaps best known in Turkey for its own kind of kebab (and least loved for its weather, unless you are a skier).
Erzurum is on the way to many places: historically it is the major city on the caravan routes linking Trabzon on the Black Sea with the rest of southwest Asia and beyond, via Tabriz in Iran. Indeed most of its monuments are clustered around the Tabriz Gate, which lies in ruins. Another major gate whose name alone remains is the Gürcu Kapısı, the Georgian Gate. Only the Istanbul Gate remains standing. Erzurum is the next-to-last stop on the train from Istanbul to Kars. And for the modern tourist (that’s you and me), it has a cavernous airport, completed a decade ago, on the plain outside town.
Most of its modern hotels are not in Erzurum proper but in Palandöken. However, resist the temptation offered by these better hotels with fully stocked restaurants – you’re here to visit Erzurum, after all, not a charmless ski town five miles outside the city. If you do stay in Erzurum, you trade hotel quality for access: pretty much everything is walkable and the sites are all in the upper town, with only the 19th-century forts on the hill opposite.
The centre of town for the tourist is the 12th-century Ulu Cami, the central Great Mosque. To one side of that is Erzurum’s best-known building, the 13th-century Çifte Minareli Medrese. Behind it, five minutes’ walk away, outside the old Tabriz Gate, in a soulless park, is what remains of a cemetery with three beautiful 12th- and 13th-century tomb towers, the Üç Kümbetler, including that of the legendary Emir Saltuk, founder of the first Turkic dynasty centred in Erzurum, the Saltukids. Five minutes in the opposite direction is the Citadel, with its 12th-century Saltukid mosque and minaret. All these medieval monuments display syncretic elements, blends of Islamic, Turkic, Georgian and Armenian architecture unique to Erzurum.
Given its concentration of historic attractions, this part of Erzurum is strangely empty of touts. There are only a couple of mangy carpet shops catering to the foreign tourist trade. However, there is an abundance of tea shops in between or near the monuments, and below the Citadel. Here, for the price of one cup of tea in Istanbul, you can have three or four glasses of çiçek çayı – “flower tea”, presumably so-called because in Erzurum your normal glass of Turkish tea is served unfiltered, with tea leaves swimming like petals on top. Another Erzurum custom seems to be dying out. Kıtlama entails drinking your tea with a piece of hard sugar between your front teeth. You have to hunt for kıtlama sugar in the market – you can’t expect to find it in a teahouse.
Another five-minute walk, towards the centre of town from the Ulu Cami, brings you to the 14th-century Yakutiye Medrese, built when the Mongols ruled. Today it has been transformed into the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and Ethnography.
Until recently one could walk on to the nearby Archaeological Museum for finds from earlier eras – Bronze Age and Iron Age – as well as displays relating to the late Ottoman wars with the Russians over Erzurum, which led to three Russian occupations. Sadly, it has now been closed indefinitely.
While evidence of the thriving Bronze and Iron Age cultures of northeast Turkey survive in artefacts, there are no standing ruins in Erzurum from before the Middle Ages – in fact from before the 12th century, when the Saltukids set up shop. Here they reigned for over a century until they were swallowed up by the Seljuks, who themselves were swallowed up by the Mongols in the mid-13th century.
The most important Ottoman monument in the city is the Lala Mustafa Paşa Camii, dated 1567 and a work of the great Sinan. There’s also a 16th-century caravanserai, the Taş Han, where you can buy silver jewellery, mostly featuring oltu taşı, the local shiny black jet.
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SERMONS IN STONE
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