Trabzon, Kars, Ani to Van

In 1999, we visited Trabzond at the start of a 5 week trip to Turkey, and Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo series still was fresh in my mind. Today, travelers require intense mental effort to conjure the glorious past from the current grimy industrial port of Trabzon, with its Russian flea markets, Russian prostitutes, fly-blown markets and dilapitated bridges . Several parks with pleasant tea shops and mosques are worth a visit, especially the Aya Sophia, standing on a bluff overlooking the Black Sea.

Travelers to Trabzon

Dorothy Dunnett's amazing combination of devious plotting with historical accuracy concentrates on the barely known period just after the the Ottoman's conquered Constantinople. The remnants of the Byzantine court fled to a far corner of the Black Sea where shifting alliances and treachery gives Nicolo his chance. Modern travelers can still conjure the bittersweet search for the past:

In the recesses of his imagination everyone, I believe , must carry secret map given him in childhood with the sites of treasure trove marked upon it where the rest of the world sees only a town s name, and to travel is to try and reach these sites, pickaxe in hand, hoping against hope for the ring of its blade on the buried casket. .. Unfortunately, modernization, in all but a handful of countries rich enough to afford nostalgia, consists in pulling down just about very thing that the tourist from those few rich countries would like to see, and in putting in its place, all that interests him least about the provincial cities of his own land.The truth is that few individuals have ever traveled, in modern times, to see what other countries are like nowadays; in general people travel in search of traces of past eras and they have in consequence almost always been disappointed by what exists when they get there.The disappointments are brought about by the mis-preparation of your mind for what really exists; yet it's the mis-preparation the treasure trove buried in your mind under certain place-names in early days which draws you on to travel in the first place. Perhaps if I'd known what it's really like in most of Trabzon nowadays, I wouldn't have come. Only by not knowing, by refusing to listen, by insisting on setting out with pickaxe and secret map, can you hope to find Trabezond.    Journey to Kars - Philip Glazebrook

A short drive took us to a trail that steeply climbed to the Sumela monastery which clings to the mountainside . Inside its chapel is decorated with ancient frescoes, with faces pcked and scarred by centuries of iconoclasts, both Christian and Islamic.

Erzerum, Kars & Ani

We then moved inland to Erzerum, much reduced now from its medieval status as an educational and trading center. The distinctive Seljuk architecture can still be examined in the Ulu Cami and the medressehs. From Erzerum we drove to Kars, visiting the medieval Armenian town of Ani, This is mountain scenery of the most magnificent variety. At Kale stands an old blackened castle in a desperate pass, the rushing river between sheer rock walls, the wild sharp mountains upreared against the sky. From the heights above Torut, in the very matrix of mountains, such a wilderness of peaks and winding valleys as I never saw before lay below us, threaded with rivers gleaming up through the smoky, cloudy light of the evening . This is scenery for the hand of the illustrator, and the vocabulary of the narrator, to work upon until they produce together a volume which will satisfy the romantic expectations of the armchair traveller. Here the crags 'beetle', the cliffs, 'frown' , the heights are 'dizzy', chasms 'yawn', and the rivers are all 'cataracts'   Journey to Kars Philip Glazebrook

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    Igdir is a small town, dominated by Mt. Ararat. A lenticular cloud is forming on this peak of almost 17,000', the mythical ///book-noahs-flood//// final resting place of Noah's ark that straddles the Iranian and Turkish borders.

    22 May . We drive towards Iran, stopping at the Beyazit Mosque, built in 1512, for an overall view of the Ishak Pasha Palace. From afar it's a magical looking castle, set on the side of a hill. Up close, it's a disorienting array of architectural styles , designed by its eccentric owner. A wild pastiche of Seljuk, Armenian and Georgian styles leads to an  incoherent overall effect, but from a distance the silhouette on its ridge makes for great postcards The castle dominates the road below, part of the ancient Silk Road route going thru Iran and farther east.

    That night we stay at the Sim-Er Hotel with wonderful views out to the broad white slopes of Ararat. It's out of season, and the hotel has neither heat, no hot water. We played bridge in front of a wood fire in the main room, at times wondering if we could buy some of the furniture to keep the fire going. Ararat clouded over in the evening but was clear again by breakfast, a rare view

    Early departure to Van. The vast plain of Chaldiran holds Ararat in view. There's little to see, but this area is historically rich, being fought for by various empires for over 3000 years . On 23 August 1514 a battle was fought here, between the Ottoman Empire over the Safavid Empire of Persia. The victorious Ottomans temporarily captured the Safavid capital of Tabriz, but were unable to hold it But it did it establish the border between the two empires, which later became the boundary between Turkey and Iran today. Tabriz the former capital became a frontier city, strategically too close close to the Ottoman enemy. That became a big factor leading the Safavids to move their capital to Qazvin, in the mid-16th century, and later to Isfahan, in central Persia, in 1598. This wasn't the first time a major battle was fought here - it was also the site of one of the first large chariot battles as the Hittites conquered this area in the 16th century BCE

    Farther south, we entered the town of Van Once the capital of Ancient Urartia, Van dates to the times of Gilgamesh and the Great Flood. Other legends place the Garden of Eden here. Our first stop is Van Kalesi, (ancient Tushpa), an 10th - 8th centuryBCE Urartu fortress stretching along a hilltop. The lower walls date to the 16th - 19th centuries. . Good examples of cuneiform inscriptions on the temple ruins and a well-preserved cistern dating from 700 BC can be found there.

    Next was Cavustepe to see the remains of the 8th century BCE capital of the Urartian Kingdom. Built by Sardar II, it was held until the Urartians were conquered by the Cimmerians and Scythians. The outlines of the defensive walls are clearly seen, stretching along the low hills, dominating the major roads that still run below it. Storage chambers still contain wheat that's 3000 years old. A cuneiform inscription, loosely translated, reads "I did this! Mess with me or my work and my god-pals will kill you"

    At the end of the fortress is the citadel, carved out of rock with cisterns to sustain a siege. The ceilings are 4 feet thick, then rock carved and hollowed out below.

    Just outside the city, to Aktamar Island sits with and its beautiful 10th century Church of the Holy Cross. We hired a small boat to take us out to the island. The architecture again is a mix of Seljuk, Armenian and Georgian styles, with fantastic Bible stories carved in relief as bands around the church. The interior is less impressive - the once beautiful frescoes are now washed out, defaced or vandalized, as at Ani.

    The mountains of Chandir Dagi rise at the other end of the lake, and outside a small graveyard presents expas of the blue-green lake.

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