Russia has fascinated me since I made my very first visit to the country in June 2007, at the very start of this Odyssey. Its huge territory presents almost limitless opportunities for exploration in wild, pristine and sparsely populated environments which stretch from the borders of the EU to the Pacific Ocean. The Russian people are also a great draw for me; free-spirited, highly cultured and intrinsically welcoming, a pleasant juxtaposition of European and Asian qualities and a fascinating mix of races from across Eurasia. Russia is a country which offers a scale of travel and a depth of immersion which in my experience is unmatched. Having made more than ten individual trips to Russia, mostly in 2010-11, I had plenty of experience of the country, yet I craved for more; specifically to make journeys to the far north and later far east (and back); journeys which would occupy the next four years of my free time.
The first of these would be the main focus of my 2015 journey. After entering the far south of Russia from Azerbaijan, this stage would take me right across European Russia to its eastern boundary in the vast wilderness of the North Urals, then north to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Between these natural boundaries I would stop in some of Russia’s most ancient cities, before turning my attention to the beautiful landscapes and twenty-four-hour daylight of the country’s far north and completing a completing a ten thousand kilometre journey across Russia’s European heartland on the Estonian border.
On the 25th May 2015 I cross the Samur River and after a friendly but rather lengthy process at customs, I start my trip across Russia in the Republic of Dagestan, one of my very favourite parts of the country. I pass the glorious Sassanian-Persian Naryn Kala Fortress above Derbent and arrive in the capital Makhachkala in the early evening, to a warm welcome from my old friend Bagdat, with whom I had stayed on my first visit to the region in 2010. The transmission of the truck has been making ominous noises ever since entering Turkey and so I decide to take it to a mechanic, where it is diagnosed with a worn clutch disc. Though the underlying reason seems to be general wear in the transmission, something which cannot be quickly rectified here, a new clutch disc will make a temporary cure. With the help of Zaur, whom I befriend at an auto parts store, a new clutch is quickly flown down from Moscow, being carried for a small fee by a passenger using an efficient system which is typical of the pragmatic approach Russians take to solving problems, a breath of fresh air coming from over-regulated Western Europe.
Whilst waiting for the clutch disc to arrive, I spend a few days in Makhachkala, which is an interesting blend of ancient Asian tradition and modern Russia; where I can sit with Bagdat’s cousin and two of his friends knocking back vodka while veiled women pass in the street outside. Makhachkala, and Dagestan as a whole, has become much safer since my last visit (when I witnessed a long gun battle in the streets) thanks to the ‘liquidation’ of many militants in security operations before the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi, and a general exodus of others to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq. I hang out at the National Museum, where Bagdat works, and once again enjoy the company of his colleagues; wisened older men who lived their lives in the Soviet Union and wear their different national identities distinctly but lightly; another feature of Dagestan which I find rather endearing. There’s Magomed, a chain-smoking engineer, one of the museum’s craftsmen, with his love of the Beatles and all things German, and Temur, who with obvious tragedy and a touch of apprehension from his colleagues tells me that his two sons disappeared three years ago after quitting their jobs and getting involved ‘in something’. Both seem finely tuned to the museum’s old workshops and their rather frustrated intellect and camaraderie reminds me strongly of the descriptions of the Moscow sharashka in Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle.
Soon enough it’s time for me to move on; to say farewell to the gentlemen in the museum, thank Zaur for his help in finding a new clutch disc so quickly, to thank Bagdat and his mother for their generous hospitality, and begin a long journey northwards. I drive roughly parallel to the coast, initially re-tracing the route I took in 2010, but just past the brandy producing town of Kizlyar I turn westwards onto a quiet provincial road across the flat pre-Caspian steppe, passing through the outpost town of Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk and then crossing into Stavropol Territory where the land abruptly improves and I find myself passing small but prosperous looking farming communities; I am back in Russia proper. Just beyond the town of Neftekumsk I stop for the night, but my hopes of spending a cool night on the back of the truck sleeping under a star-filled sky are dashed by the numerous mosquitoes which buzz all around me as soon as I step out of the car; an annoyance which will become ever worse as I move northwards.
In the town of Budyonnovsk I turn northwards once more through huge fields on a road lined by flowering trees and I’m impressed by the scale of agriculture which seems to be thriving here in Russia’s southern steppes. As I reach the Kalmykia Republic the quality of the land deteriorates once more and I’m again struck by the heavy set faces of the Kalmyks, an unexpected sight in what still seems like provincial Europe. In the afternoon I stop in Volgodonsk, a pleasant-looking small town located well away from any major highway and where little appears to have changed since Soviet times. The city is located on the southern edge of the Tsimlyansk Reservoir on the Don River, at the northern end of which starts the Volga-Don Canal which links the two great rivers of European Russia and thus the Caspian and Black Seas and also gives Volgodonsk its name. In a territory as large as Russia, rivers have always been a key means both for control and communications, and for trade, and it was along the rivers that the early Varangian (Viking) controlled state of Rus’ was established in the ninth century, operating the Volga Trade Route which connected northern Europe to the Caucasus and even Abbasid Baghdad.
On my way out of town, I stop at the Don River and watch a ship passing through an ornate, Stalinist-era lock, part of the Volga-Don Canal system, before continuing my northward journey on a small back-road eventually joining the M21, which I take briefly before turning north once more in Surovikino and soon stopping to camp, again having to take refuge in the car from the voracious mosquitoes. The following day, I re-cross the Don in Serafimovich and notice an immediate change in the landscape; from the endless rolling farmland of southern Russia, dotted only occasionally by small villages beyond the fields, to a more varied landscape with small stands of pine forest, sandier soil and linear villages of pretty wooden houses lining the road.
Despite this change, I am still in an area outside of the ancient heartland of Russia, an area which even after the withdrawal of the Golden Horde in the fifteenth century, was a frontier region used by raiding groups of Crimean Tatars and Nogays who would prey on the southern flanks of the country. After joining the busy M6, I stop in the afternoon in Tambov, a city established in the seventeenth century as border fortress against Tatar raids, later to become a provincial trade centre. I’m hosted in Tambov by Olga, a photographer who lives with her brother, and who takes me out in her car for a tour of the city. Tambov is a pleasant place, far enough from Moscow to retain a pleasant provincial atmosphere, but with sufficient infrastructure to avoid being a neglected backwater. We drive around taking in the city’s modest sights until we reach the central square with its Eternal Flame Monument to those killed in the Great Patriotic War, when a roiling mass of black cloud suddenly breaks into a heavy summer storm.
Tambov is around 450 kilometres south-east of Moscow, a city which emerged from the chaos of the thirteenth century Mongol invasion to later become the centre of a new Russian state, and remains by far the most important city in modern Russia. I however head northwards on small roads towards some of Russia’s oldest cities, glad to avoid Moscow’s wearying sprawl and traffic by doing so. I pass through faded small towns and depopulated villages, often with old churches still in ruin after the neglect of the Soviet period, their whitewash and plaster slowly peeling away to leave a damp brick shell. I cross the wide, slow Oka River and stumble by accident into the beautiful small town of Kasimov, with a charming unmodernised centre whose main street runs straight to the large nineteenth century Assumption Cathedral. Later in the afternoon I stop in Murom, one of the very oldest cities of Russia, first listed in the Primary Chronicles, the earliest history of the Eastern Slavs, in 862 CE.
Murom harks back to the times of Kievan Rus’, when it is believed that Varangians (Vikings) from what is now Sweden came to rule over the Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples of northern-western Russia, soon integrating and spreading southwards to Kiev. There they would establish Kievan Rus’, the first Eastern Slavic state, a loose federation of principalities such as Murom, which would last until the Mongol invasion. Culturally, Kievan Rus’ is the ancestor of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus however, the origins of the modern Russian state are very much Moscow-centric with only distant connections to pre-Mongol Kievan Rus’. Murom is interesting for having been on the eastern-most frontier of Kievan Rus’, a border with the uncharted territory of the native Finno-Ugric tribes, locally the Muromians. Today Murom is a pleasant enough provincial town, though following heavy destruction in Soviet times, there is scant evidence of its historical importance and I’m soon driving out of town to spend another night camping in the truck to avoid the voracious mosquitoes.
In the morning I pass through the regional capital of Vladimir, which I regard as one of Russia’s most beautiful cities, but stop only in the adjacent village of Bogolyubovo. Here, well beyond the heavy traffic of one of the country’s main highways, alone in the swampy fields along the Nerl River is the twelfth century Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. Elegantly slender, with the beautiful proportions of an early, strongly Byzantine-influenced cross church, but crowned with the later addition of a traditionally Russian onion dome, the Church of the Intercession ranks immediately alongside the similar Cathedral of Saint Demetrius in Vladimir, which I visited on a snowy December morning four and a half years ago, as one of my favourite pieces of Russian architecture. The immediate surroundings of the church, a wild, unkempt grassy landscape of ox-bow lakes and willow trees makes for what to me is an almost perfectly Russian scene.
I’ve entered the region known historically as Zalesye, which came to prominence in the twelfth century following the decentralisation and decline of Kievan Rus’. The name ‘Zalesye’ literally means ‘beyond the forest’, referring to the swathe of forest which separated it from the other successor states such as the Republic of Novgorod to the north-west, or those further south around the Don. Once the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, today it’s a beguiling region with small farming villages built around ancient whitewashed churches. Amongst the rolling fields are towns such as Yuryev-Polsky; clearly once of some importance but now a real backwater and those which have managed to fare a little better into modernity, such as Pereslavl-Zalessky, where I make my next stop. Located on another major highway, Pereslavl-Zalessky is busy with Muscovite tourists who come to enjoy the town’s historic atmosphere and location on the shores of Lake Pleshcheyevo. It was here that one of Russia’s greatest heroes was born in 1221; Alexander Nevsky, who would lead the country through wars with western invaders and eventually submit to the Mongols of the Golden Horde, preserving medieval Russia; something for which he was canonised in the sixteenth century by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nevsky’s youngest son Daniel would go on to found the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the late thirteenth century; transforming it into the city which would forever eclipse these more ancient cities of the early principalities of Rus’.
Not far north from Pereslavl-Zalessky is the very ancient city of Rostov which, like Murom is among the oldest in the Russian heartland, having first been mentioned in 862 CE, but which is much more attractive and is perhaps my favourite in the region. I stop outside the large brick kremlin (fortress) and walk to the shore of Lake Nero, where I’m greeted by a vista of exquisite beauty in this seemingly endless landscape of grass, lakes and hills. It’s a scene which so perfectly encapsulates rural European Russia; understated, timeless, unspectacular though soul-stirringly beautiful; a live view of a Russian watercolour looking across the limpid waters of the lake towards the silhouetted domes of the Monastery of Saint Jacob and the low, rolling folds of Russia beyond. Rostov’s seventeenth century Kremlin is exotically beautiful, almost kitsch in its fairytale proportions; a picture-book image of onion domes and (largely decorative) defensive towers which stand over the the city’s quiet streets and still-active trading arches, all giving Rostov a very pleasant small-town atmosphere.
I stop for the evening in Ivanovo which, unlike its neighbours, is a city lacking any historical allure; a city of textile factories fallen on hard times and capital of a region which is very nearly the poorest in the entire country. The following day I drive north and in the picturesque town of Plyos, famous as the retreat of Russian landscape painter Isaac Levitan, I meet the greatest river of the Russian heartland; the Volga. Together with the Don and Dnieper, these three rivers are of great importance in Russian history; firstly as the very conduit along which the nation was established and later as a means to connect and control a large, sparsely populated territory. I drive up the Volga, stopping next in the city of Kostroma, which sits on the mighty river’s left bank. On the edge of town, sitting beyond the wide junction of the Kostroma River with the Volga lies the fourteenth century Ipatievsky Monastery, an important landmark in Russian history. It was here, in 1613, during an interregnum of foreign domination and famine known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ following the demise of the Rurikid Dynasty (descendants from the original Varangian rulers of Rus’) that the first Romanov King, Mikhail was crowned, seeding the royal line which would transform Russia into an empire and rule the country until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Kostroma has a delightful, preserved eighteenth and nineteenth century city centre radiating out on spokes from the central Susanin Square, named for a semi-legendary martyr who is said to have refused to reveal the hiding place of Tsar Mikhail to the Polish-Lithuanian occupiers of Russia at the time and was tortured to death in punishment. Amongst the grandiose, pastel-coloured administrative buildings are a distinctive fire-watch tower and a very nicely preserved, though rather quiet, example of city trading arches; a typically Russian marketplace which has often disappeared in Russian cities. I spend the day strolling around Kostroma; visiting an art museum, then walking down through a shady park to the river. It’s a perfect early summer day and whilst a few weeks ago the last dirty remains of the winter snow would have been lying around, now the city is at its most beautiful with all plants in bloom and people out in the streets. The temperature is in the mid-twenties and the sky is a cloudless deep-blue for the whole day; the start of the long, wonderful Russian summer. Down on the Volga, locals are enjoying the weather on a sandy riverbank, an excellent inland beach, where one can lie in the sand as the Volga slowly moves past on its way to the Caspian and feel quite detached from the stream of traffic crossing the city’s road bridge from the south. By late afternoon I am slightly regretting having to leave, feeling that Kostroma is one of Russia’s nicest cities.
It’s not far from Kostroma to Yaroslavl, my next stop on the Volga. Founded as part of Vladimir-Suzdal, then becoming capital of its own principality, before being merged into the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the fifteenth century, Yaroslavl is the largest of the ancient cities lying to the north-east of Moscow, in an area (incorporating Zalesye) known as the Golden Ring. I’m hosted in the city by Roman, a local small businessman who works from home and who shows me the UNESCO World Heritage-listed centre of the city after dark. Yaroslavl has a centre filled with parks and churches but, perhaps due to its greater size, does not quite have the harmonious feel of Kostroma. I spend all of the following day strolling in Yaroslavl, visiting a wealth of churches, most spectacularly the Church Of Saint Elijah The Prophet, which sits in a large square and has a distinctive tent-style steeple and wonderful frescoes. What I most enjoy finding in Yaroslavl however is something in my experience very unusual in Russia. On the Volga Embankment is a tranquil, tree-lined street of tall beech trees and quality housing; not choked with traffic or filled with the vulgar black SUVs of local ‘biznesmen’ who ruin the area with crass cafes and boutique shops. Here instead is a slice of European sensibility; a genuinely pleasant, liveable centre to the city, with the cupolas of various churches visible in the gaps between elegant apartment buildings.
From Yaroslavl I continue up the Volga as far as the pretty city of Rybinsk, where I drive across the Volga on an attractive iron bridge and turn north. Here, driving along the bank of a large reservoir on the Volga, the landscape changes noticeably; gone are the fields and ancient cities of the Golden Ring region, replaced by dense forest, lakes and villages of wooden houses; I am beginning to enter the wilds of the Russian North. It’s a very tranquil and pleasant drive, though in the afternoon I find myself passing through the noxious city of Cherepovets where the air is so polluted with industrial fumes that I have to wind up my windows whilst stuck in traffic. It’s not long however before I’m back on a minor road, heading north through more forests and swamps and occasional fields, towards the ancient city of Belozersk which I explore in the morning after a night camping. Belozersk is, along with Murom and Rostov, one of the oldest cities in the Russian heartland, having also first been mentioned in 862 CE, but feels far removed from its contemporaries. Now effectively a large village with a feeling of being rather distant from central Russia and with a slight air of timelessness, I immediately like the place. Especially fine is the view from an ancient settlement mound across the rooftops of Belozersk towards the misleadingly named ‘White Lake’ whose waters are a tannin-rich, dark, reddish-brown; a sure sign of having entered the North.
After a walk along the lake-shore, whose sandy beach is scattered with driftwood, watching distant ships crossing the lake, which is part of the Volga-Baltic waterway, I head east on an unsurfaced road, taking a free ferry across a narrow reservoir to the town of Kirillov. Soon after coming under the control of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the end of the fourteenth century, these remote northern territories of the Russian heartland became a refuge for monasticism, and their remoteness has seen them escape many of the ravages of Russian history. The first of two monasteries is the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Kirillov itself, picturesquely set on the banks of Lake Siverskoye and notable for its huge defensive walls with distinctive towers. A few kilometres away in the village of Ferapontovo is the second, Ferapontov Monastery which is less architecturally vibrant than Kirillov, but contains a collection of magnificent frescoes. Painted by the Russian master Dionisius in 1495-96 and quite staggeringly complete and unmolested, the frescoes cover every wall and roof in the interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity, making it the last medieval church in Russia with intact frescoes.
In the late afternoon I drive to the regional capital of Vologda, where I am hosted by Sveta, who lives alone and works as a theatre set designer. Vologda became rich during the sixteenth century, based on passing trade between Moscow and the port of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea, which for a long time was Russia’s main sea port. With the establishment of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic coast in the eighteenth century, much of this trade was diverted and Vologda declined. With improvement in infrastructure however, the city’s fortunes later recovered somewhat and around the central Cathedral Square Sveta shows me several fine examples of coloured wooden merchants’ houses with finely carved decorative window frames known as nalichniki. Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, Vologda was Russia’s diplomatic capital, away from the ravages of the First World War, and it is perhaps for this reason that the city received one of the very first statues of Lenin, in 1925, which still stands. Unlike any other of the many Lenin statues I have seen, here Lenin is life-sized, showing just how small he was.
From Vologda it’s a long drive east towards the Urals, passing a swathe of very sparsely populated territory, rather forlorn-looking villages and towns dependent on the timber industry, using a road which in places is newly built and at one point swarmed by hornets, making me keep the windows shut and suffer the summer heat. It’s well after dark when I reach my next destination; the city of Kirov, where I am hosted by Zhenya, who calls himself Jack in English. Jack is one of a community of low-budget Russian travellers who return to Russia only for long enough to scrape together a little money doing informal work, before taking the road once more on long journeys hitch-hiking, camping, Couchsurfing and trying to make a little money in order to extend their travels for as long as possible.
Kirov feels again different from any of the cities I have recently visited; a large, mostly unattractive industrial city which feels a long way from anywhere else and was indeed historically a place of exile. Known formerly as Khlynov, then Vyatka, the city was renamed in honour of Bolshevik leader Sergey Kirov, who was born in the town of Urzhum south of Vyatka and murdered (in Leningrad) in 1934. Kirov was the human face of Bolshevism; a charming, handsome man amongst ruthless (often criminal) contemporaries. Whilst there is no concrete evidence, it is likely that Kirov was murdered by the most ruthless of the Bolsheviks, Stalin, who saw Kirov’s popularity as a threat. Allegedly a close friend, Stalin publicly mourned Kirov’s tragic death with great fanfare and used the event to set off his Great Purge of the Bolshevik Party, staging show trials which swept up hundreds of thousands of Soviet Citizens on flimsy or absurd charges, to be incarcerated or summarily executed. Poor Kirov still stands beaming benignly on his plaque; a monument to one of the darkest periods in Russian history, a tragedy which sits rather awkwardly in modern Russia, with many deliberately trying to forget or wilfully deny the dark events of Stalin’s rule, while the tyrant is slowly being rehabilitated by the current regime.
From Kirov it’s another long drive, this time north into the forested wilderness of the Komi Republic where I stop in the low-rise capital Syktyvkar. I’m hosted in Syktyvkar by Isa, who is delighted to have a guest in such a far-flung spot and introduces me to a number of her friends. My reason for stopping in the city is however to put the truck in a secure car park and prepare myself for a journey to the remote primeval forests of the North Urals.
My journey to this outpost in the taiga has taken me across much of European Russia, across the most ancient heartland of the country, through some of the country’s most pleasant cities. From here however the nature of my journey will change slightly, as I start to explore the great northern wilderness, up to the Arctic Circle and Barents Sea.
Upon returning to the UK back in November 2014, I had put the truck in storage and within days was flying to start a new job, my first in almost eight years. Although this necessitated basing myself a singularly charmless part of northwestern Europe, the job as a geoscientist for a large energy company offered the possibility of relocating internationally in the future and, of course, a chance to replenish my bank balance after years of travelling. Most appealing in the short term however, were the generous holidays and so after less than six months in the position, I was able to use my annual leave to make a trip of almost nine weeks, focussing on a return to Russia to make a south-to-north journey across the country. After taking the truck out of storage, I departed from the office car park on the afternoon of the 8th May 2015, stopping with my cousin in Jena, Germany, then continuing the next evening, roughly retracing my route from November of the previous year to the Turkish border.
This first stage of my 2015 journey would take me rapidly across northern Turkey, weaving between the dramatically beautiful Black Sea coastline and the rugged interior of northern Anatolia. Then, from the striking mountains of Turkey’s north-east, once part of an ancient Georgian kingdom, I would enter Georgia, climbing from the Black Sea to drive across the country into Azerbaijan and on to the shores of the Caspian from where, after a brief trip into the eastern Caucasus, I would enter Russia.
I cross the Turkish border at Kapikule on the afternoon of the 11th May 2015, driving across the rolling landscape of Thrace towards the bottleneck that is Istanbul. I’m sucked into the fast-moving traffic of the city’s sprawling western suburbs where I make good progress towards the centre but miss a critical turn which would have taken me to the ferry port in Sirkeci, and instead get lost in heavy traffic just north of the centre. I make my way into the gridlock approaching the Bosphorus Bridge, and emerging some time later on the city’s Asian side, become lost again in the back-streets of Kadıköy until I realise that the name ‘Çevreyolu’ refers to the main road I have been searching for rather than a city unmarked on my maps, and finally exit Istanbul late in the evening, heading east into Anatolia.
On the following day, the road takes me through beautiful forested hills, passing the turning south to the capital, then leaving the main highway to stop in the beautiful town of Safranbolu, which nestles in a small gorge and has a preserved centre of white-washed Ottoman-era houses with wooden window frames and terracotta-tiled roofs. Safranbolu is something of a tourist town, popular mostly with domestic tourists, but it’s out of season and with the pleasant warmth of early summer and cloudless deep blue skies, it makes a wonderful place to stop and rediscover one’s senses after months of appalling weather in the blandness of Western Europe.
From Safranbolu I drive north, crossing the rolling slopes of the Pontic Mountains which are richly covered in dark pine forest with contrasting patches of bright lime-green from beech trees newly in leaf. Perched on some of these slopes are rustic half-timbered houses above small clearings and villages where time passes slowly; where the elderly sit under shady trees and dogs doze at the roadside. I join the D010, the coastal highway, and above the town of Amasra get my first dazzling view of the Black Sea. I stop for a moment at the Kuşkayası Monument, hewn in the first century CE from the native limestone and consisting of a now headless Roman eagle and headless Roman figure who may have been the emperor or provincial governor.
Having long been cut off from the interior by the Pontic Mountains, with access far easier by sea than by land, the Black Sea Coast has a history somewhat distinct from the rest of Anatolia. A prehistoric crossroads between the Mediterranean world, the Eurasian Steppe and the Caucasus, the earliest history comes from the Greeks, who named it the Euxine or ‘hospitable’ sea and settled what is now the north coast of Turkey starting in the early first millennium BCE. These coastal colonies of the Ionian Greeks (centred on what is now Turkey’s Aegean Coast) would become part of local kingdoms; Bithynia in the west and Pontus in the east, spreading around the coasts of what is now Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. In the first century BCE these were combined and incorporated into the Roman province of Bithynia and Pontus, and it is from this period that the Kuşkayası Monument dates.
Amasra is a charming small town whose harbour is surrounded by Byzantine and Genoese fortifications, but I stop only for a brief walk before continuing eastwards. The coastal highway is stunningly beautiful, at times narrow where it hugs the cliff-tops with views along indented bays, then dropping down to quiet seaside towns such as Cide, with its long, empty pebble beach at the foot of a dramatic coastline. Further east, the road climbs once more into the fragrant forest of the mountains’ lower slopes, giving magnificent views over the gleaming turquoise of the Black Sea, which here I find even more picturesque than the usually deforested coastline of the Mediterranean. After an overnight stay in the town of Ayancık, on the following morning I reach the small city of Sinop, located on a large headland forming the northern-most point of the coastline.
Sinope was founded as a Greek colony in approximately the seventh century BCE and would go on to become one of the capitals of the pre-Roman Kingdom of Pontus, ruled by the Persian Mithridatic Dynasty who are thought to have descended from the Achaemenids. Somewhat larger than Amasra, I find Sinop an immediately likeable place with its compact, walled centre and beautiful harbour, gently busy with fishing boats and with a magnificent view back towards the emerald-coloured mainland as a backdrop. In the afternoon I drive inland, through a winding valley dotted with rice paddies and brush-like poplar trees, climbing to the city of Amasya. Also a capital of Pontus, and birthplace of the Greek geographer Strabo, unlike Sinop, Amasya was a place of importance well into Ottoman times. Situated on the banks of the Yeşilırmak River in a scene which reminds me somehow of Kabul, Amasya retains an elegant, if slightly over-restored river-front of Ottoman houses. Above this rise almost sheer cliffs which in the third and second centuries BCE were carved into the necropolis of the Pontic royal family, in a tradition similar (though less elaborate) to their Achaemenid forebears in central Iran.
I drive initially east from Amasya, then turn north and cross the Pontic Mountains once more via the Eğribel Pass, where in places there is still more than a metre of snow along the road-side, dropping through a steep limestone gorge and more thickly forested mountains, down to the coast just east of Giresun. This eastern stretch of the Black Sea Coast is very much more developed than that which I have passed through so far, and the coastline less attractive, but the views eastwards towards the snow-capped mountains near the Georgian border are captivating.
By late afternoon I reach the city of Trabzon, the most famous of Turkey’s Black Sea cities. Also founded by Greek colonists in the eighth century BCE, the city’s heyday would come long after, as seat of the Empire of Trebizond, a successor state of the Byzantine Empire following the disastrous sacking of Constantinople by the Latin (Roman Catholic) Fourth Crusade in 1204. Later in the thirteenth century Trebizond would become fantastically wealthy as a result of trade routes across Anatolia being pushed northwards by the Mongols, with Venetian and Genoese merchants (such as Marco Polo) receiving goods from the Silk Road in the city’s port. Trebizond was a place of luxury and high culture; an oasis with a mainly Christian population in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1461, who in overthrowing Trebizond, put an end to the Byzantine Empire and a tradition which had started with the Romans almost 1500 years earlier.
There are few outward signs of this historical richness in modern Trabzon, but in a park planted with palm trees at the side of the coastal highway one finds the thirteenth century Hagia Sophia Church, far more restrained than its namesake in Constantinople but nevertheless a beautiful piece of late Byzantine architecture with well restored frescoes, thankfully still on display despite the church recently being controversially reinstated as an active mosque. Following the Ottoman takeover, Trabzon’s Pontic Greek community slowly declined as a result of voluntary emigration and conversion. Imperial Russia, which had long coveted the southern coast of the Black Sea, launched numerous wars with Ottoman Turkey in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the region’s Christian population frequently supported the invading Russians. These actions no doubt contributed to the atrocities committed against Christians in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire, with Trabzon witnessing the deportation and genocide of Greek and Armenian populations as part of a greater tragedy which was replayed all across central and eastern Turkey.
The Pontic Mountains have been a refuge for monastic Christianity since the beginning of the Byzantine period, and I stop on my way south at the gorgeously located Sumela Monastery, said to date originally from the fourth century, which clings iconically to an almost sheer cliff in a steep, forested valley of the Pontic Mountains. To my dismay, the approach to the monastery is thronging with tourists, to the point where I consider leaving, but I persevere. Entering the inner courtyard of the monastery, behind the facade of the dormitory and refectory which are visible from the valley below, one enters a small courtyard in the shadow of the overhanging cliffs, out of which the original Rock Church has been partly carved. Both exterior and interior of the Rock Church are densely covered in frescoes, including a huge Christ Pantocrator on the cave-ceiling within, though there is plenty of evidence of vandalism and graffiti (much of it in Greek script) dating from after the monastery was abandoned in 1923 upon the deportation of the Greek population.
Leaving Sumela, I continue inland, crossing the Zigana Pass and driving south-eastwards into the mountains and treeless steppe of the interior, towards the city of Erzurum. Despite years of overland travel in Eurasia, this is my first visit to a city which lies firmly on the Great Eurasian Overland, lying on the main route between Istanbul and Tabriz. I’d long imagined that Erzurum to be another bland and shambolic Kurdish city, but I soon find this to be quite wrong. I’m hosted by Ahmet, a Kurdish student who introduces me to a group of his friends, who take me out to eat the city’s famous Cağ Kebab, a horizontally rotating Döner Kebab which apparently originates from Erzurum. We then walk briefly around the city centre before retiring to a low-ceilinged tea house, where we recline on cushions for all-male conversation in an atmosphere thick with tobacco smoke.
Erzurum is located on a windswept grassy plain flanked to the north and south by rows of snow-capped mountains and feels somewhat depopulated, with what appears once to have been the centre now mostly a collapsing expanse of old buildings, derelict or half-demolished, surrounded by a jumble of bland modern apartment blocks. In amongst this however are a clutch of glorious medieval monuments, such as the imposing bulk of the fourteenth century Yakutiye Madrasa dating from Ilkhanid times, which manages to juxtapose brutal, militaristic bulk with fine and intricate decorative detail. Inside the former seminary, now an art museum, the stonework is magnificent with graceful stone arches and an ocular skylight surrounded by finely carved muqarnas (corbels).
Driving north out of Erzurum, one crosses a high grassland plain grazed by cattle and backed by snow-streaked mountains, a beautiful scene which must have stirred the souls of the nomadic Turks and Mongols who arrived here from the steppes of Central Asia and made Erzurum their home. Soon after crossing a low pass the landscape changes dramatically to the steep rocky valley of the Tortum River, planted with walnuts and poplars and irrigated by milky glacial streams. This also marks what was historically a cultural boundary, into a region which is regarded as an ancestral homeland by the Georgians. These valleys of north-eastern Turkey were part of the ancient Georgian Kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis, which would become part of the Achaemenid, Roman, Byzantine, Sassanian and Arab Empires. It was in this region north of Erzurum, then the Principality of Tao-Klarjeti, that the roots of a unified Georgian state would emerge in the early ninth century CE. It was here that the Bagratid Dynasty (who also contributed leaders to the Armenian line) established a Georgian prince, the descendants of whom would oversee a cultural flourishing of Tao-Klarjeti in the late tenth century, then in 1008 under Bagrat III the establishment of the first unified Georgian state and an end to centuries of power struggles.
Today the remains of this cultural high period of Tao-Klarjeti, built during the reign of King David III in the tenth century lie in various states of ruin in these beautiful valleys of the southern Pontic Mountains. I start by visiting the large and well preserved church of Khakuli, now a mosque, in whose cold interior I listen to a man reciting verses from the Quran. Nearby, the even larger but ruined cathedral of Oshki stands in the middle of the village of Çamlıyamaç, its broken roof allowing in alternating rain showers and shafts of sunlight to illuminate its exquisite stonework. Further north, above the Oltu Valley is the church of Ishkhani, but its clumsy restoration by Turkish authorities has rather robbed it of both poignant dereliction and its original grace. The fourth and final church which I visit is however my favourite; situated further to the east in the Çoruh Valley, reached up a steep unpaved road beyond the village of Dörtkilise, the monastery of Otkhta sits in dignified ruin seemingly almost consumed by burgeoning spring-time vegetation like a Christian Angkor Wat, sitting alone among a few garden plots and vertical scenery. The interior of Otkhta, whose walls retain traces of frescoes, bears the definite smell of livestock and its a rather ignominious fate for such a glorious building, but such is the history of cultural decline across much of eastern Turkey. As the balance of power shifted around the borders of medieval Georgia, it would become once more fractured and a vassal of regional empires in the fifteenth century. The region of Tao-Klarjeti would be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in 1545 and aside from a forty-year period of Russia rule, would stay under Muslim rule until the present day.
I spend the night next to Otkhta, and in the morning continue along the beautiful Çoruh Valley, dotted with ruins of ancient Georgian castles. Turning north just after İspir I climb into a winter landscape of blinding white snow, crossing the 2650 metre Ovit Pass and descending through the beautiful İkizdere Valley, where villages of wooden houses cling to the steep grassy mountainsides, then descend to the balmy warmth of the coast through striking, lime-green tea plantations near Rize, where I turn eastwards once more towards the Georgian border. This far-north-eastern region of Turkey is home to yet more minorities; the western Georgian Laz People, thought to descend from the ancient Colchians, and the Hemshins, highlanders thought to be descended from medieval Christian Armenians. It’s late afternoon by the time I reach the Georgian border crossing at Sarp and less than an hour later, I’m in Sarpi, Georgia, watching a beautiful cloudless sunset over the Black Sea.
I stop in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, for three nights, taking a break from the rather brisk pace of travel I have kept up on the trip so far. Batumi was established as a Colchian-Greek colony but has no outward signs of age, and currently has the air of an out-of-season tourist resort with a seafront of bold, modernist buildings, an unremarkable pebble beach and a mixture of new and old architecture; a far cry from the exotic beauty of Abkhazia or some parts of Crimea, but a pleasant place to spend two relaxing days nonetheless. The Georgians here are as I remember them; driving around town flat-out in ailing European cars, but are otherwise strangely unobtrusive and the air of progress and change which I have noticed on previous visits to Georgia seems somewhat diminished here.
One real highlight is Batumi’s magnificent Botanical Garden, established in the nineteenth century by a Russian botanist and located a few kilometres north of town, which I visit on my second day in the city. The gardens consist of glowing hillsides of species from across the world, though those from East Asia and North America are the most vividly beautiful; giant magnolias and sequoias, rhododendrons, azaleas, japonicas, cedars and palms, all looking out across the limpid blueish waters of the Black Sea on a day when sea and sky merge seamlessly at the horizon and the verdant green hills of Georgia stretching off into the haze to the north look like something of an Earthly paradise.
Batumi is in fact the capital of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic, commonly known as Adjaria, which spreads up into the Lesser Caucasus Mountains behind Batumi and along the Turkish border. The Adjarans were once subjects of the Ottoman Empire and were distinguishable for having adopted Sunni Islam, though nowadays the majority of Adjarans are Orthodox Christians and the environs of Batumi look no different from anywhere else in Georgia. I leave Batumi and drive west, climbing away from the Black Sea for the last time, into the Adjaran hinterland. As I climb up the Acharistskali Valley I pass attractive, sprawling villages with large stone hoses perched on steep hillsides above neat garden plots, in places almost idyllically beautiful with views over the yawning valley. In the town of Khulo I notice for the first time a large mosque with an Ottoman-style minaret (no doubt funded at least in part by Turkey), which looks somehow odd against the rural Georgian landscape, but I suspect that religion is worn lightly by the region’s inhabitants. Beyond Khulo the road climbs above the level of permanent settlements into a landscape which seems only recently relieved of its winter snow-cover, and I stop on the Goderdzi Pass at around 2000 metres elevation to watch a cow-herd trail his cattle up the steep grassy mountainside in front of me, with a stupendous backdrop of still snow-capped mountains to the north and the wooded valleys of Adjaria far below.
Once over the pass it’s a long and rather less scenic drive through central Georgia, dropping down to Akhaltsikhe and then on via Borjomi to Mtskheta where I stay for a night with Gerhard and Julia, with whom I had stayed several times last year. I continue the following day, taking the bypass around Tbilisi and crossing out of Georgia and into Azerbaijan on the main road to Baku. I’m a little disappointed at the Azerbaijani border to notice that (in contrast to my two previous experiences entering the country) it is visibly corrupt, with money and bottles of drink changing hands between passengers and the customs officers, who seem like the typical half-educated idiots of a police state. My negative impressions are furthered when, not long after driving away from the border, I’m stopped by traffic police for some farcical traffic infraction and made to hand over some cash in the back of their patrol car. Whilst neighbouring Georgia and Armenia have moved firmly on from the Soviet period and opened up to the outside world, it is Azerbaijan, by far the richest of the three countries, which remains mired in the insular mentality and shameless corruption which marked the era of the Soviet collapse.
I reach the city of Ganja after dark, which has the slight Potemkin-esque atmosphere of a large city in a dictatorship; the statue of First President Heydar Aliyev and accompanying museum, the de-Sovietised City Administration Building set in a vast square, a limited range of shops along a paved and well-lit main street, but otherwise no real civic investments and dark back-streets of broken roads and shabby housing. As ever though, the people of Azerbaijan are extremely friendly, and curious to meet a rare foreign visitor. After eating a kebab and having a short walk around Ganja, I leave, and after some difficulty navigating the totally unsigned city streets I return to the main highway. Managing to avoid any further encounters with the police, I reach Yevlakh and turn south, stopping for the night just before reaching Barda.
Barda, formerly known as Partav, was once the capital of Caucasian Albania, a historical kingdom whose territory covered much of modern Azerbaijan and of which much remains unknown, including the kingdom’s origins and even its endonym. Like other Caucasian nations it was a vassal of larger regional empires (usually Persian), and has recently become the rather unfortunate subject of Azerbaijani historiography which falsely claims much of the region’s Armenian heritage as being ‘Caucasian Albanian’ in an attempt to refute the historic presence of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhchivan.
I reach Barda early the next morning and watch a sleepy provincial town come to life, with butchers cutting up carcasses on the street-sides, children fetching bread and women sweeping with hand-made brooms. Following the Arab takeover of Persia in the seventh century, Barda retained its importance as a centre of trade but was subject to raids, most curiously by the Varangians of Rus’ in 943, who occupied the city until being forced to return by an outbreak of dysentery, but more seriously by the Mongols and Timur who devastated the city. I make my way to Barda’s only surviving monuments; a fragment of ancient mud-brick wall allegedly of Albanian age, and the beautiful tomb tower of Akhmad Zocheybana which is covered in turquoise-tile Kufic faïence and undergoing a much-needed restoration. I also look into the rather plain nearby Imamzadeh (Shia shrine), built by the same architect as the now derelict mosques of Shushi and Agdam in Nagorno Karabakh which I had visited last year. I watch pilgrims process anticlockwise around the green-cloth covered tomb of an ancient holy man; an example of the public revival of Iranian-influenced culture of shrine-visiting.
I leave Barda heading southwards and begin to deeply enjoy rural Azerbaijan, which grinds along to an ancient routine. Men on foot or on horseback herd sheep and cattle over the flat plains made green by the water of the Aras, brought in brown torrents by a system of irrigation channels. The air has the scent of woodsmoke and the herb esfand which is burned to war off the evil eye, and this, together with the lumpy Soviet-era roads give me the strong sensation of being in Central Asia. Always off to the west are the misty, greenish mountains of Karabakh, the loss of which weigh heavy on the heart of Azerbaijanis. Road-signs are still in place for destinations such as Füzuli and Agdam which have been razed to rubble, and others such as Khojavand (Martuni) and Khankandi (Stepanakert) which are firmly settled by ethnic Armenians. Even the buses still show destinations in Nagorno Karabakh, despite them lying totally out of reach beyond a tense cease-fire line.
The road reaches its southernmost point around the town of Bahramtepe, close to the Iranian border, then turns north-eastwards towards the capital, becoming busy with slow-moving lorries and leaving behind the irrigation canals, passing through a number of dull towns in the dry landscape. Later, a range of parched dry multicoloured hills come into view in the hot, dry air and the landscape is dotted with nodding pumpjacks. In the afternoon I re-join the main highway, here a new dual carriageway which is woefully lacking in exits, no doubt making life difficult for those who live alongside it, though in a country as corrupt as Azerbaijan these people clearly matter little; the road is for the benefit of the rich cadres and cronies of Baku. After a detour and some backtracking thanks to a total lack of signposting I reach the petroglyph site of Qobustan which has a distinctive set of humanoid figures with strange frog-like legs; interesting but somehow less spectacular than the remote rock-art sites of Central Asia and Mongolia. On my way out I stop to look at a lone stone in a barren landscape, unremarkable but for having been inscribed in Roman times; the easternmost Roman inscription ever found.
Rejoining the main highway, I bypass the centre of Baku, which I had found to be a vulgar and ostentatious city on my visit in 2010, and head instead for the chaotic roads of the Absheron Peninsula, much of which is now a sprawling extension of the capital. I drive onto the beach in the northern suburb of Pirshagi which is apparently a popular holiday spot, though the less-than-clean sand is backed by a goat-grazed wasteland of litter and sewage. The sunset view across the turquoise water of the Caspian towards the eastern edge of the Caucasus Mountains is however magnificent, and I decide to stay for the night.
The Absheron Peninsula presents a truly blighted-looking landscape; dismal parched ground with putrid salt lakes, an ever-present bitter, sulphurous stench in the air, and sprawling formless towns choked with heavy traffic on pot-holed, poorly-planned roads. Absheron is however a land rich in hydrocarbons, which spew naturally from the brackish earth. The peninsula’s oil has been exploited for well over a thousand years, was the focus of Eurasia’s first oil boom, and was one of the prizes Hitler sought when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. I visit a few sights relating to this natural abundance of hydrocarbons, firstly the Ateshgah or ‘fire temple’ in Surakhani which seems to have been built in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries by Hindu immigrants from India around a (now exhausted) natural gas flare, and is recorded as having been worshipped by Sikhs and Zoroastrians as well as Hindus. I then drive northwards through a forest of oil derricks to a curiosity known as Yanar Dag, where a burning flare of natural gas escapes along a short section of exposed sandstone. Most interesting however is a particularly desolate area nearby, where oil streams from a natural seep down a hillside. I walk up to the top of the hillside and see a landscape cratered by the remains of hand-dug oil wells dating from the nineteenth century, before the invention of modern drilling techniques, when oil was exported to Persia. From this vantage point, across the wasteland of Absheron is the modern skyline of Baku, now rich from oil produced by offshore fields under the Caspian.
Heading north through Sumqayit and leaving the Absheron Peninsula, the land starts to green once more as I climb slowly inland, passing through the attractive town of Quba on the Gudyal River. The road out Quba steepens immediately, entering beautiful beech forests popular with domestic tourists, who ruin the tranquillity with blaring low-quality music and piles of litter. Not far beyond however, the road leaves the villages and begins to climb steeply into the highlands, a spectacular landscape of flowing, treeless emerald hillsides grazed by great herds of sheep, with distant views of the snow-capped eastern peaks of the Caucasus. I stop at the end of the road, in the village of Khinaliq, which sits at an altitude of around 2100 metres. Although some modern buildings have cropped up, much of the village consists of traditional dry-stone houses, some terraced one above another, looking very much like a Dagestani aul (fortified village). Khinaliq is a very ancient settlement and its pale-skinned people speak their own language, which may even be a language isolate. I walk around the very friendly village enjoying the fresh air and magnificent views to cloudy mountain peaks, walking on ancient trails between the stone houses against whose walls are often stacked large piles of dung patties, an essential fuel source in this totally deforested corner of the Caucasus.
The beautiful mountain atmosphere and friendly villagers make me wish I could stay some time in Khinaliq, but I’m limited by customs restrictions to seventy-two hours in the country with the truck. I camp nearby however, on the broad bed of the Gudyal River, looking up the valley towards the mountains on the Russian border. In the morning, after a few hours relaxing and admiring the scenery, I descend once more to Quba and have a quick look around. It’s a pleasant place with unfailingly friendly people, like everywhere I have encountered in Azerbaijan, but the real point of interest for me is the town of Qirmizi Qasaba, lying on the far side of the river. Qirmizi Qasaba is inhabited entirely by Mountain Jews, thought to be descendants of Persian Jews who themselves were descended from the ancient Israelites who were exiled to Babylon by the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE. Escaping persecution, the Mountain Jews began to move to various isolated valleys of the Caucasus in around the fifth century CE where they have lived ever since. In the nineteenth century they escaped the rules of the rest of the Russian Empire which forbade Jews from farming and were even in some cases spared by the Nazis in the Second World War, who were unsure as to whether the Mountain Jews were ‘Racial Jews’.
Today Qirmizi Qasaba is one of the last strongholds of the Mountain Jews and, although not populated by Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, could be regarded as the world’s last shtetl. It’s perhaps slightly tidier and wealthier looking than the rest of Quba, but only the unassuming Grand Synagogue hint at the town’s unique demographics. The inhabitants too look and dress little different from other Caucasians, but they retain their own language, Judeo-Tat, a Semitic influenced form of Persian.
My seventy-two hours in Azerbaijan is coming to a close, and so I make the final drive north through a string of villages on the undulating plains between the mountains and the sea, to the customs post at Samur. Only recently made a multilateral border crossing, I approach the border with some trepidation; after all this is the border between one of the world’s most corrupt countries and the most corrupt region of Russia. However, after a thorough search I’m free to proceed across the Samur River on a boxcar bridge which reminds me of crossing the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, somehow making the crossing seem more momentous than it really is.
I’ve greatly enjoyed my journey from the Bulgarian border to the Samur River; the astoundingly beautiful and historically interesting Black Sea Coast of Turkey; yet more beautiful landscapes in Georgia, and then a second transit across ‘mainland’ Azerbaijan, a country which though wealthy from its natural resources, is visibly held back by corruption when compared to its neighbours. I would like to spend longer in the country but am held back from doing so by restrictive bureaucracy, which shows how little interest the government has in welcoming foreign visitors. Whilst the people of Azerbaijan are perhaps the most friendly in the South Caucasus, I still cannot bring myself to like the place quite as much as I like Armenia and Georgia.
What has also been apparent to me on this trip is that my pace of travel has been slightly too rapid, and so I look forward to the next stage of the trip, moving slightly more sedately across the vast tracts of European Russia, all the way to the Barents Sea, well above the Arctic Circle.
Having crossed much of Turkey on the way from the Iraqi border in the far south-west to central Anatolia, I arrive in the capital, Ankara. The last two weeks of my 2014 journey will take me from here across western Turkey, past monuments of the semi-legendary Phrygians, then through three former Ottoman capitals; attractively sited Bursa; Istanbul, one of the very finest cities in the world and Edirne on Turkey’s frontier with the EU. Whilst not as ruggedly beautiful or culturally varied as the country’s east, this short journey across Turkey’s modern, western face would reveal much of the history of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, which together stretched from Antiquity until the early twentieth century.
It’s the 2nd November 2014 as I enter Ankara from the east on a cold, clear night, driving across the city centre to the home of my friend İnanç. I first met İnanç more than seven years ago at the very beginning of the Odyssey when he hosted me for a few memorable days in Almaty, Kazakhstan where he was working as a construction engineer. Following several years working in Kazakhstan and Russia, then travelling, İnanç has recently returned to his parents’ home in Turkey and will now be my host in his native Ankara.
Ankara is an ancient settlement and was known to the Hittites and Phrygians, but it was during Roman times that the city flourished, lying in the heart of Anatolia at the junction of north-south and east-west trade routes. In Ottoman times it languished as something as a backwater, but it would be made the base of an interim Turkish government by Mustafa Kemal during the Turkish War of Independence, when the Allied Powers sought to partition the Ottoman Empire among themselves. Following his victory, in which he retained the Ottoman territory in Anatolia to form the new Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal made Ankara its capital in 1923.
We start late the following morning and head for the centre of the city, which is filled with government buildings, company headquarters and bustling streets of commuters. It’s an attractive and well-organised place but is very clearly a modern, purpose-built capital, without the romance or beauty of Istanbul. Overlooking the centre of town is ancient Ankara Castle, and we walk up steep steps through vivid yellow horse-chestnut trees and pass through a gate in the castle walls which seem to have been repaired at some point with what look to be recycled Roman gravestones. From the top one has a wonderful view over the winding streets of Ankara’s old centre, a sea of terracotta-roofed houses rather like an up-scaled Anatolian village.
In the afternoon, we walk across the centre to visit the mausoleum complex of Turkey’s founder, which is known as Anıtkabir (Memorial Tomb). When the victorious Mustafa Kemal set up the modern Turkish republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, he introduced stringent political, economic and cultural reforms, forging a republic based on secularism and nationalism rather than religion. In 1934 he was given the name Atatürk (Father of Turks) by the Grand National Assembly and was central to the progress and identity of this young nation state. It was mostly after his early death in 1938 however that his name and portrait, with high hairline, piercing blue eyes and upswept eyebrows, was turned into something of a cult of personality which very much persists to the current day, even with the country currently seeming to fall back towards religious conservatism.
One approaches Anıtkabir through a large manicured park along the Road of Lions with replicas of Hittite Lions representing power and peace, from a pre-Islamic, Anatolian civilisation whose borders were similar to those of modern Turkey. One then reaches the huge Ceremonial Plaza whose perimeter is lined with long, colonnaded galleries and whose floor is an expanse of polished stone drawing the eye to the imposing Hall of Honour, the actual mausoleum of Atatürk which sits on a stepped pedestal like a modernist temple. In the plaza mill tourists, groups of schoolchildren and troops of guards but the human form is dwarfed by its size and the vertical pillars of the mausoleum behind which is draped a huge Turkish flag. Inside are exhibits from Atatürk’s remarkable political career but his tomb, in a forty ton sarcophagus, is not on public display. In the evening, I am invited by İnanç and his parents to a large family gathering and end a great day in the company of his extended family eating excellent food and wishing I could speak some Turkish.
In the morning we head back into the city centre to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. Here, in one of the best museums I can remember visiting, one finds a plethora of artefacts from archaeological sites and ancient buildings across Anatolia. Most impressive are a collection of Hittite bronzes, particularly the distinctive ‘sun discs’ from nearby Alacahöyük. There are also Bronze Age female fertility idols, Hittite pottery, Phrygian earthenware, reliefs from the Neo-Hittite and Assyrian Empires, a carving of Assyrian King Mutallu and Urartian ivories, among many others, which keep me rapt in the museum until closing time. One sees touches of these ancient civilisations across modern Ankara, such as the large Hittite Sun Course Monument in Sihhiye Square, depicting a stag with stylised horns seen in Bronze Age petroglyphs as far away as Mongolia. Before leaving Ankara, I pay a visit to another friend, Ezgi, a course-mate from my Masters degree in London who now works for the state oil company. A native of Istanbul, she tells me she finds Ankara rather dull and provincial, a far cry from vibrant Istanbul.
İnanç and I leave Ankara together, heading south-west out into the beautiful Anatolian countryside on a mild and cloudless day. We pass Polatlı, close to the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion, home of the legendary Gordian Knot. Tied by farmer-come-king Gordias, an oracle had foreseen that the knot would be undone by a man destined to become king of all Asia and it was supposedly sliced open by Alexander the Great on his march east towards Persia. We turn off the highway and onto small provincial roads, stopping in the town of Çifteler for lunch at a lokanta (canteen) and continuing to the village of Yazılı. Set amongst soft outcrops of yellow limestone, overlooking a small wooded gorge, Yazılı lies just below the Midas Monument, perhaps the best preserved of all Phrygian sites. The Phrygians had a kingdom here in south-central Anatolia during Antiquity, but their origins go beyond the limits of history and into legend, such as that of the Knot, or of King Midas, son of Gordias, who turned to gold anything which he touched. The Midas Monument is in fact attributed to a historical, eight century BCE King Midas and is a rock-hewn sanctuary, thought to have been dedicated to the Phrygian Mother Goddess Cybele, who would later be adopted into the Greek and Roman pantheons. The sanctuary is imposing in size and beautifully carved with geometric patterns and an inscriptions in the striking Phrygian script, but nothing remains of any goddess. Around the beautifully located site are several other carved sanctuaries and altars, though they are heavily weathered; but it’s a nice day to walk around the beautiful hillsides in peace. On our way back to the main road we pass two further Phrygian sites: Areyastis, a similar rock-hewn sanctuary with very clear inscriptions, and the rock-cut tomb of Gerdek Kaya, with two Doric columns, reminding me that I am edging closer to Hellenic World and Europe.
We stop after dark in the city of Eskişehir, which İnanç tells me has one of the highest standards of living in Turkey and a large student population. It is also where İnanç wishes to settle and start up a business with a friend. There’s certainly a degree of European order and calm, but I don’t intend to stay, so after a drink in a café, we say goodbye once more. I continue west, passing close to the town of Söğüt where in 1299, Osman, leader of a tribe of nomadic Turks, founded in somewhat unclear circumstances what would become the Ottoman Empire. The road then crosses a mountain range and I descend into a broad valley in which lies Turkey’s fourth-largest city, Bursa.
I am hosted in Bursa by Füsun, a research assistant who lives in the city’s western suburbs. On top of the experience of being hosted by a young (and very attractive), single woman living alone, I find myself experiencing considerable culture-shock as I wait at a metro station in this modern suburb, in the middle of a frantically busy six lane highway. I am now truly in Turkey’s modern west and the contrast with the small, chaotic and conservative cities of the east is quite breathtaking. However, after taking the metro to the city’s ancient centre, I am reassured that beyond the modernity, Bursa, the first true capital city of the Ottoman Empire, retains its centuries-old character, a juxtaposition which for me is amongst Turkey’s greatest draws.
I start my exploration of the city in the busy central bazaar area, centred around the late fourteenth century Grand Mosque, an example of early, Seljuk-influenced Ottoman architecture. Inside the mosque is a central ablutions fountain illuminated by a large ocular skylight; a pleasant change from the usual artificial lighting. The mosque is however more than just a place of worship, forming part of a külliye, a typically Ottoman institution which includes school, hospital, kitchen and communal baths into a single religious and charitable complex. One might at first imagine that the nomadic Turkish tribes raiding and laying siege to the fringes of Byzantium would have been a group of half-savage horsemen, but this is clearly completely at odds with the glorious works of civil architecture which they soon erected in their capital and the speed with which they synthesised elements of civilised Byzantine culture. Not far from the mosque are several arcaded shopping centres and khans (caravanserais), my favourite being the Koza (silk) Khan whose open courtyard, once a medieval marketplace is now a wonderful café where one can sit amidst tall çinar (plane) trees and take respite from the busy streets of the bazaar. On the upper floor, in small, cell-like chambers which would once have housed travelling merchants, real businesses remain; traders and insurance agents; small, smoke-filled offices with suited men, sipping tea from tulip glasses and thumbing tespih (rosary beads) under yellowing portraits of Atatürk.
Away from the immediate bazaar area are several more mosques, tombs and külliye which seem popular with visitors from across the Islamic World, though nowhere does Bursa fell like a tourist trap. Walking up steep streets in the southern part of the city centre, I see the beautiful, green mountains on whose flanks the city has been established and finish the day by walking through the district of Tophane, which has many pleasant corners and a clutch of preserved nineteenth century, wood-framed Ottoman town-houses amid the usual twentieth century concrete.
I leave Bursa in the morning, driving down to the Sea of Marmara and around the shores of a long inlet, through the city of İzmit which was devastated by an earthquake in 1999 and onto the D100, Turkey’s main east-west highway. As the road widens and the traffic thickens, I am drawn through concrete satellite towns into the outskirts of Istanbul, one of the world’s largest and in my opinion also finest cities. I park the car beneath an apartment complex belonging to a friend-of-a-friend and continue by metro, crossing first the Bosphorus into Europe (back for the first time since crossing the Ural River in Kazakhstan five months ago), then the Golden Horn, into the district of Fatih, the historic heart of the city where I have hired a hotel room for five nights. In the evening, I am joined by Lia with whom I had spent two weeks in Georgia, back in August.
We are based in the neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, in the very heart of the historical Istanbul where in around 660 BCE Greek settlers from Megara founded the city, then known as Byzantion (Byzantium). It’s just a hundred metres from the hotel to the sea shore and here one starts to appreciate the city’s location; astride the narrow strait which separates Europe from Asia and is the only access route to the Black Sea. No matter the man-made wonders of Istanbul, one is always drawn to the gleaming waters of the Bosphorus which, even in this age of cheap aviation and private cars, still teems with passenger ferries as well as container ships, tankers and fishing boats. This strategic location is the basis of the city’s success, controlling the flow of people and goods between Europe and Asia; a location which made it the continuous capital of an empire for very nearly sixteen centuries.
As the Roman Empire went into terminal instability and decline across Europe, the Emperor Constantine emerged as its sole ruler in 324 CE and moved the capital to Byzantium in 330, which became known as Constantinople. Thus started the shift from Rome (where the Western Roman Empire would collapse in the fifth century) to the east. Constantine legalised Christianity and built up Constantinople into the great city which it continues to be. This old heart of Istanbul, now known as the district of Fatih, corresponds to the old walled city and we begin by walking a route following the ancient Sea Wall along the Propontis (Sea of Marmara), rounding the promontory which separates the Bosphorus from the Golden Horn, below the ancient hill of Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point) where the first Greek settlers founded the city and where the Topkapı Palace now stands, for centuries home of the Ottoman Sultans. Around here the walls give out, lost below centuries of construction and reconstruction and we reach the waterfront neighbourhood of Eminönü, the city’s most important ferry dock. Turning inland up Atatürk Avenue, we climb and pass one of the city’s greatest secular Byzantine landmarks, the Valens Aqueduct, built in the fourth century to supply Constantinople with water and through whose arches the endless traffic of modern Istanbul still passes.
Heading roughly north, we pass the beautiful Ottoman-era Fatih Mosque, with its türbe (mausoleum) of Sultan Mehmed II, founder of Ottoman Istanbul. We wander through the adjacent bazaar and descend steeply downhill through the traditionally Jewish neighbourhood of Balat, where there is far less traffic and where children kick footballs in the narrow, cobblestone streets which seem to be in the perpetual shade of overhanging pastel-coloured buildings. We’re soon back at the Golden Horn and pick up the city walls once more; this time the Wall of Blachernae which still carry the Byzantine name of this district. Today it’s a rather run-down area which still has the occasional wooden Ottoman-era house, often derelict with boarded windows, remnants of the twentieth century decay of the great empire. We emerge from the walls at Eğri Gate and find ourselves on the edge of ancient Constantinople, walking through a quiet park at the base of the Theodosian Walls. These defensive walls were built in the late fourth century in the time of Emperor Theodosius who made Christianity the state religion of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople the most important city in Christendom. We climb the walls for a fantastic view across the city; over the roofs of the streets we have just walked through, across the Golden Horn to the district of Beyoğlu and up the Bosphorus to the skyscrapers of Levent, Istanbul’s modern business district. Finally we re-enter Constantinople through Edirne Gate and make our way back to the hotel.
The next day, we set out to look at Istanbul’s Ottoman endowments which, after the Bosphorus, are surely the city’s most distinctive feature. After the Byzantine Empire reached its zenith in around the sixth century, when it controlled much of southern Europe, the Levant and North Africa, it experienced cycles of decline and recovery; weakened by war with Sassanid Persia, invasions by the Arabs and the loss of much of Anatolia to the Seljuk Turks. After a recovery in the twelfth century, Constantinople was plundered and temporarily occupied by Venetian-led Catholic crusaders from Western Europe, which led to terminal fragmentation and decline. As the newly emerged Ottomans established themselves in the fourteenth century, they conquered Byzantine territory in Anatolia and the Balkans, surrounding the by now ailing and depopulated capital. Finally, in 1453, under Sultan Mehmed II, ‘The Conqueror’, the Ottomans took the city, bringing to an end the Byzantine Empire, and swiftly began to build Constantinople up into a magnificent imperial capital once again; a new centre of the Islamic world.
We walk up through the old streets of Sultanahmet to one of Constantinople’s oldest thoroughfares, now the tram line running down to the Golden Horn, where the rather battered remains of the Column of Constantine mark the site where the city was founded almost 1700 years ago. Nearby is the mosque of Gazi Atik Ali Pasha, dating from the reign of Sultan Beyazid II, son of Mehmed the Conqueror and behind that, the entrance to Istanbul’s ancient bazaar. We walk past ancient khans on streets worn smooth by the passage of feet but almost empty on a Sunday, up to the Third Hill on which is located Istanbul’s largest and most impressive Ottoman Mosque. Built by the legendary architect Mimar Sinan, a Janissary (Christian slave conscript) of most likely Armenian descent, the Süleymaniye Mosque is a külliye built for Sultan Suleiman, a stunningly intricate structure with four piercing minarets, distinct from, but clearly owing many architectural elements to the Byzantine Hagia Sophia. Known as ‘The Magnificent’ or ‘The Law-Giver’, Suleiman oversaw the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to its greatest extent; from Hungary to Persia and south to Egypt and the Hejaz, and forged a truly multicultural empire, welcoming Christians and Jews as well as Muslims to settle in his illustrious capital.
We walk back towards Sultanahmet in order to make a comparison with the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is of very similar design, having been built by a pupil of Sinan; slightly smaller, but with a more decorative interior. Facing the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built for Sultan Ahmed II, who oversaw an Ottoman Empire which struggled to keep its new dominions and had reduced in size since the time of Suleiman. He is also notable for having eliminated the repugnant practice of fratricide within the royal family, though this reform would open the doors to shorter, more contested reigns of future sultans, which ultimately compromised the strength of the empire.
Crossing the Golden Horn, we leave old Constantinople, coming to the more modern district of Beşiktaş. Walking along Chamber of Deputies Avenue, planted with beautiful mature plane trees between which are strung large Turkish flags, which flutter above relentless traffic, one comes across the Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque. The seventeenth and early eighteenth century seem to have been a time of relative stability for the Ottomans, but by the end of the eighteenth century, cracks were starting to appear. The empire, once made strong by expansionism and an unbeatable military, was falling behind more modern European empires. A time of reforms was ushered in, known as Tanzimat and the Dolmabahçe Palace was a move away from the old ways. Built by an Armenian architect, the style is recognisably Ottoman but with clear contemporary European touches of Baroque and Rococo. The project was however ruinously expensive and contributed to the near bankruptcy of an empire which by the late nineteenth century had become riddled with corruption. Siding with the losing powers in World War I, the Ottoman Empire came to an end with the indignity of division between European powers, the disgrace of widespread ethnic cleansing and the total dissolution of the dynasty by Atatürk upon the founding of the Turkish Republic.
Walking inland from the palace, we enter some of Istanbul’s most upmarket areas in Beşiktaş and Şişli, with streets of boutique shops and expensive imported cars. The streets narrow and steepen as one moves westwards, back into Beyoğlu where we eventually reach the huge expanse of Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul. We turn onto İstiklal Avenue which runs back down towards the Golden Horn and is thronging with strolling families, couples and groups of youths. These are the generations enjoying Turkey’s twenty-first century prosperity, removed from the decay and humiliation of the fallen Ottoman Empire, the turmoil of the twentieth century and, perhaps, the hüzün (melancholy) which Orhan Pamuk describes as being innate to the city’s population in his seductively melancholic, semi-autobiographical novel, Istanbul: Memories and the city.
On our third day in Istanbul, we take a tour of the Bosphorus, a trip peddled by almost every tout in the city, but which is genuinely enjoyable and gives an impression of Istanbul’s setting which one cannot get from walking around the disjointed districts. We set off in the morning from Eminönü onto a Bosphorus buzzing with ferries packed with Monday-morning commuters; only in Bangladesh have I seen busier ferry traffic. It’s a real pleasure to sit back and watch Istanbul pass; the waterfront of Beyoğlu, crowned with the conical-roofed Genoese Galata Tower; the ferry port of Karaköy; the late-Ottoman style Cihangir Mosque; the Dolmabahçe Mosque and waterfront Palace, a tremendously elegant building which can only really be appreciated from the water. Then comes the Neo-Baroque and Ottoman fusion of the small but very fine Ortaköy Mosque, whose white stone exterior gleams in the morning sun which has come out, now that we’ve left the pall of smog hanging over the city centre. The mosque is however now dwarfed by the nearby Bosphorus Bridge, the first bridge to link the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, which opened in 1973.
Beyond the first bridge the European shore becomes less densely populated but is dotted with beautiful yalıs; waterfront mansions dating to the Ottoman-era, owned by rich families as a getaway from their urban konak homes. Next is the fortress of Rumelihisarı, the ‘Strait Cutter’ castle built by Mehmed The Conqueror at great speed in 1452. Together with the older Anadoluhisarı on the opposite, Asian shore of the Bosphorus, the fortress created a vital pinch-point to cut-off all supplies to helpless Constantinople, which had long been surrounded by Ottoman territory. We pass under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the second to cross the Bosphorus, which opened in 1988, then cruise along the shore to the dock at Sarıyer, which looks as if it were a quiet village until relatively recently. Crossing towards the Asian shore, we leave metropolitan Istanbul and are deposited in the fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı; an attractive clutch of waterfront homes set under a promontory. Walking up to the head of the promontory, one finds the Ottoman Yoros Castle, long fought over by the Byzantines, Ottomans and Genoese and which commands a fantastic view towards the entrance to the Black Sea where a steady stream of container ships and tankers are heading towards the ports of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and northern Turkey. Back on the ferry, the return journey takes the same route, this time in the lengthening late afternoon sun, and as we near the Golden Horn we are treated to a heart-stopping view of Istanbul’s unmistakable skyline; low-rise buildings spread across the soft European hills, dotted with the needle-like minarets of the imperial Ottoman mosques. As the sun lowers itself behind the New Mosque in Eminönü, conceived by the scheming wife of Sultan Murad III with the intention of diluting the predominantly Jewish population of the surrounding neighbourhood, we are presented with an almost impossibly romantic view, and I am left with little doubt that Istanbul has the finest skyline of any city.
Each time I am in Istanbul I feel drawn to the Bosphorus and find myself taking ferries across it with no specific destination in mind. Thus in the evening, despite having spent most of the day on ferries, we take another across to the dock at Kadıköy on the Asian shore. We decide to walk north to the beautiful imperial railway station at Haydarpaşa which was built by German architects at the start of the twentieth century as terminus of the Hejaz and later Baghdad Railways, at a time when both were part of the Ottoman Empire. With echoes of a German schloss, the station is a distinctive landmark on the city’s Asian shore, but alas all train services to Haydarpaşa were suspended last year as part of the modernisation of Istanbul’s transport system. Here, I find myself feeling my own sense of Istanbulite hüzün; for the now silent platforms of the station, with its fallen imperial grandeur; for the cessation of long overland rail services; for the fact that both Mecca and Baghdad are practically inaccessible these days, but most of all for the intense nostalgia which overcomes me at revisiting the place where, as an inexperienced youth, I set off on the sweaty evening of the 26th June 2003 aboard the Fatih Expressi to Ankara, thus beginning a life-changing journey across Asia.
On our fourth and final day, we focus on the attractions in the very heart of old Constantinople, which is dominated of course by the Hagia Sophia. Built in 537 CE, it was the showpiece of the Byzantine Empire and an unprecedented architectural achievement, remaining the world’s largest cathedral for very nearly a thousand years. The Hagia Sophia, or ‘Wisdom of God’ was the standard-setter of Byzantine architecture and has influenced thousands of churches which have come after it. From the exterior, the numerous reinforcements made over the years following damage by earthquakes and the addition of four incongruous Ottoman-era minarets rob the structure of some of its grace, and the building, now a secular museum, crawls with tourists, but the interior remains breathtaking. One enters from the old Imperial Gate, which in the past only the Byzantine Emperors, God’s representatives on Earth, could have used. In the tympanum of the entrance is one of many beautiful mosaics, showing Christ Pantocrator, the eternal, omnipotent judge of humanity, with a prostrating emperor at his feet. Other figurative mosaics inside, restored from their cover of plaster from Muslim Ottomans, represent some of the finest examples of Byzantine post-iconoclastic art. The internal space has been added to many times over the years, including conversion to a mosque, which gives it an unintended eclecticism, but one cannot fail to imagine the awestruck visitors entering the church in Byzantine times, when Hagia Sophia was the eye of the world, the very heart of Christendom. One such group would have been the envoys of Prince Vladimir in Kyiv, who were dumbstruck by the Hagia Sophia’s grandeur and brought back the Byzantine rite which led to the conversion of Pagan Rus’ in 989. When, in 1453 Mehmed The Conqueror entered the Hagia Sophia (after defeating and beheading the childless last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI), he ordered its immediate conversion to a mosque, thus ensuring that the building remained an active centre of worship.
Next, we walk to Istanbul’s famed bazaar, which must have been the focus of activity for even longer than the Hagia Sophia. Here however, I reach my saturation-point of the herds of dawdling tourists; it is clear that the beautiful covered bazaar is no longer part of living Istanbul but an emporium only for the selling of trinkets to tourists and I leave quickly. There is nothing of the real civic ambiance of the great bazaars of Iran. Similarly, walking through the gardens of the Topkapı Palace, famed for the imperial Harem designed to produce many dynastic offspring in the fratricidal society of the sultans, I balk at the tourist hordes waiting to shuffle through the palace. In the evening we stroll in what once was the Hippodrome and is now a square of the same name, marked by two obelisks; one of Ancient Egyptian origin and the other, slightly cruder, Byzantine. The view here, looking across a small park to a side view of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was among my first, and lasting view of Istanbul in 2003. I feel that on this trip, I’ve seen far more of the city’s great depth of history, but in such a multifaceted metropolis I am very aware that this is a somewhat superficial view, and fully expect to make further journeys in future to this amazing, enchanting, timeless city.
Lia flies out in the morning and in the afternoon I cross back to the Asian side to retrieve the truck and drive to the car ferry at Harem in the Asian district of Üsküdar. As I cross the Bosphorus one final time, the sun dips behind grey clouds, reflecting my mood with the upcoming return to dismal Western Europe. Landing at Sirkeci at the foot of the Topkapı Palace is one final romantic vision before I join the frantic traffic. Istanbul’s ugly modern suburbs sprawl for many kilometres, but by late afternoon I’m driving through the undulating fields of Thrace, towards the second Ottoman capital, Edirne. Known to the Byzantines as Adrianople, Edirne was in Ottoman hands long before Constantinople, as the empire moved west from Bursa across the Dardanelles and into Balkan Europe. I’m hosted in Edirne by Gökhan, an ebullient, charismatic student and ardent womaniser who seems to spend far more time luring his female classmates to his apartment than any form of studying, but is a very entertaining host in this grey corner of Europe. I would saddened to hear, eighteen months later, that Gökhan died of a heart attack, aged just 26.
Edirne would have been a multicultural city in Ottoman times and today it remains somewhat so, though it now suffers as a border city, choked with lorry traffic and visited more by Bulgarian and Greek shoppers than tourists. Edirne’s centre reminds me already of Eastern Europe with pastel-painted houses, the Grand Synagogue of a mostly departed Jewish population and a general air of fallen empire; a backwater compared to Istanbul. To the west of the centre is the beautiful Gazi Mihail Bridge and külliye but instead of being at the heart of civic life as elsewhere, here the fine mosque is surrounded by a few village houses and muddy, bare fields.
All this however pales in comparison to Edirne’s centrepiece; the Selimiye Mosque, built in the time of the rather inglorious Sultan Selim II. This mosque was Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece, from the ‘Master Stage’ of his long career; larger and more graceful even than the Süleymaniye Mosque of Istanbul. Without a prominent hill-top setting, the mosque’s size is deceptive from the exterior, but the interior is truly staggering. With no tourists around, I sit on the carpet of the mosque and am humbled by the huge, pillar-less internal space, which reduces a human figure to insignificance. The Selimiye Mosque is one of the great achievements of Islamic architecture and I spend quite some time silently admiring it, filled with a touch of the awe that I first felt in the beautiful mosques of Iran, on that first trip across Asia which started just down the road in Istanbul.
I have a rest day in Edirne before saying farewell to Gökhan and driving the last twenty kilometres to the Bulgarian border, where I make an unceremonious exit from Turkey.
I return via Bulgaria, a country which surprises me with its beauty and which looks far more like parts of the Former USSR than any other of the Eastern Bloc countries, and where I stay for a night in Sofia with Ivailo, a Bulgarian I had met two months earlier in Yerevan. Then it’s north across the Danube to the quite shocking desolation of western Romania and into Hungary where the bland, over-regulation of the EU starts to show. I break the journey home with stops in Munich, Homburg and Leuven, finally crossing the Channel and returning to my childhood home in Kent on the 23rd November 2014, more than five-and-a-half months after departing, having covered 33,371 kilometres.
The final stage of my five-and-a-half month 2014 journey would take me diagonally across Turkey on a journey of more than three thousand kilometres, from the Iraqi border to the edge of the EU. Having only previously explored the predominantly Kurdish Armenian Highlands of the country’s east, I would now embark across several distinct regions of the country. The first part of this stage would take me from the hazy plains of Upper Mesopotamia, with their remnant population of Assyrians and Arabs through the tense, unofficial Kurdish capital of Diyarbakır then turn north into the rolling mountain landscape of Anatolia. Here I would see what strikes me as the Turkish heartland and glimpse layers of history from the most ancient Anatolians; the Hittites who centred their empire in Hattusa; the Eastern Roman buffer state of Commagene and the glorious architecture of the Seljuks, ancestors of modern-day Turks, before stopping in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
It’s well after dark on the 23rd October 2014 as I cross the Habur River into Turkey, quickly passing through customs and arriving in the city of Cizre, located on the Tigris alongside the Syrian border, a little more than an hour later. Cizre is an ancient city, historically the gateway between the mountains of Armenia and the plains of Upper Mesopotamia. It is regarded in the Islamic tradition as the city founded by Noah at the foot of Mount Juda, where the Ark came to rest. Until the twentieth century Cizre would have been a polyglot city, located in the Assyrian Heartland with populations of Assyrians and Armenians. However, the Armenian and Assyrian Genocides of 1915 decimated these populations and has left the population predominantly Kurdish. The Kurds also have their grievances with the repressive Turkish State and there is a palpable air of tension in Cizre. Earlier in the month, riots broke out which saw at least thirty-five Kurds killed by Turkish security forces and as I stop in the city’s main street, I notice an abundance of Cobra infantry carriers belonging to the Jendarma, the Turkish paramilitary security and law enforcement force.
I’m hosted in Cizre by Şeyhmus, a local English teacher. We meet in the city centre and have some tea in a university chaikhana (tea house) before retiring to the family home, which sits away from the street in a gated courtyard, away from the eyes of the Jendarma. Early next morning, Şeyhmus and I visit Cizre’s twelfth century Grand Mosque, a rather squat building made of ancient stones but topped by a distinctive, tapering and slightly crooked brick minaret, reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. We then proceed to Şeyhmus’ school where, after meeting numerous classes of excitable Kurdish children, and breakfast with his fellow teachers, I say goodbye and begin my journey westwards.
The road climbs briefly out of Cizre, tracking the edge of the Mesopotamian Plain onto an upland area known in the local Syriac language as Tur Abdin; a rocky, scrubby landscape dotted by Assyrian villages of attractive yellow limestone houses. Although the Assyrian population was decimated by the genocide of 1915, it was in Tur Abdin that the Assyrians put up a successful resistance to the bands of Kurdish irregulars armed by the Ottomans and sent to murder and expel Christians from Ottoman territory. This is therefore the only region of Turkey where Assyrians continue to live in their ancestral homeland, though they remain the subject of government harassment. I stop at the Mor Gabriel Monastery, established in the late fourth century BCE making it the oldest Syriac Orthodox Monastery in the world. Still active, Mor Gabriel has weathered the Mongols, Tamerlane and Ottomans and remains a delightfully tranquil sanctuary in this troubled region.
It’s a perfect autumn day and a real pleasure to drive through the quiet villages of Tur Abdin. I stop first in Anıtlı (known as Hah in Syriac), a village of fortified stone houses with the gorgeously carved, fifth century Mother of God Church. Nearby İzbırak (Zaz in Syriac) presents an imposing view over the plains of ancient-looking yellow stone buildings etched against the piercing, cloudless blue sky. Sadly though, on closer inspection, one can see that much of the village is abandoned, its population having withered during the course of the twentieth century.
The city of Midyat marks roughly the western extent of the Assyrian villages of Tur Abdin and I spend the afternoon exploring the winding back-streets of the Old City, elegantly built from local yellow limestone and dotted with old churches and fine houses, though some show signs of neglect, most likely due to their owners having emigrated. It is nevertheless a clear change from the Kurdish east of the country where settlements are almost invariably shabby, charmless and sometimes rather squalid.
My destination for the day is the city of Mardin which I reach in the evening. Famed for its beautiful yellow limestone houses which spread picturesquely up a steep hillside, Mardin attracts domestic and international tourists and has something of a modern, dynamic air. I’m hosted here by Erbil, a Turk from the west who works as an engineer for the Turkish Army and lives in a small, cavernous house in the heart of the Old City. Mardin in some respects looks a little like Midyat and has a number of churches, but it is the Islamic architecture of the city which is most striking. As the final capital of the Artukid Dynasty, one of a number of Turkic dynasties who arrived from Central Asia and began the Turkification of Byzantine Anatolia, Mardin was richly endowed with fine medieval architecture. I spend an entire day walking through the narrow and atmospheric alleyways and back-streets, encountering several of these magnificent edifices such as the fourteenth century Şehidiye Madrasa (seminary), whose minaret soars above the city’s rooftops, overlooking the hazy fields of the Mesopotamian Plains. Others include the imposing Zinçiriye Madrasa, another fourteenth century Islamic seminary with a magnificently carved portal and fluted, segmented dome. The twelfth century Grand Mosque, one of the oldest in Anatolia, is marked by its square-based minaret of finely carved local yellow stone, which overlooks the narrow lanes of the bazaar, beautifully scented by the fragrances of Mardin’s famous hand-made soaps. Mardin quickly becomes perhaps my favourite small city in Turkey.
I leave Mardin the following morning, heading south onto the plains of Mesopotamia, passing the fifth-century Mor Hananyo Monastery, seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church from the twelfth century until 1933. The view back to Mardin’s steep streets soon recedes as I head towards the Syrian border, stopping at the ruins of Dara. Dara was a fortress of the Byzantine Empire situated on its eastern border with Sassanid Persia and site of the Battle of Dara in 530. Today the site is in ruins, but an intriguing cave-necropolis remains, as do several water cisterns, though the tranquillity of the site is rather ruined by persistent begging of a pack of Kurdish urchins from the nearby village.
Joining the highway from Dara, I am driving exactly along the Syrian border; in places the barbed wire fence is just metres from the road. Beyond is a country of which I have very fond memories of visiting in 2006, though which is presently embroiled in a brutal civil war. In Nusaybin I head north, climbing back onto the Tur Abdin Plateau, passing through Midyat once more and descending to the Tigris River in the poignantly beautiful town of Hasankeyf. The legendary Tigris, which flows down to the fertile plains of Iraq and nurtured the origins of human civilisation, has carved steep cliffs in which caves were carved by Hasankeyf’s earliest inhabitants. Today the archaeological site is off-limits for ‘safety’ reasons, but amongst the scruffy buildings of the modern town are more endowments from the Artukids, who made Hasankeyf their first capital, such as the El Rizk Mosque with its ornately carved minaret, now topped by a stork’s nest. The valley below is very picturesque, with the turquoise Tigris watering stands of green trees in a powdery-grey, dry landscape; a scene which reminds me of the valleys of northern Pakistan or Afghanistan but one which sadly will soon disappear, to be flooded by the Ilısu Dam sometime in the next few years.
From Hasankeyf I roughly follow the Tigris west through Batman, passing working pumpjacks and fields of ripe cotton to Diyarbakır. Considered the unofficial Kurdish capital of Turkey, I first passed through Diyarbakır in 2003 on my first overland journey across Asia and remember being driven around a hot, shambolic city by an Air Force pilot whom I had met at the bus station. Today, I arrive in the western suburbs of a vibrant, buzzing city very different from that which I remember. I meet my host Ferhat, a Kurdish logistics manager recently returned from working in Istanbul and Antalya in the west of the country, who proceeds to show me his home city. We eat the best lahmacun (a ubiquitous Turkish type of pizza) I would ever taste in Turkey, then move on to have coffee in a café filled with a young, intellectual-looking crowd. After this, we move into the Old City, which is heavily policed by the Jendarma in infantry carriers, water cannons and assault vehicles. There’s a palpable sense of tension in the air and as we walk through the bazaar; trade has wound down for the day, but we watch a mob starting to form around a thief, filling the streets with shouts and crowds of onlookers. Ferhat takes me to the beautifully restored, black basalt Deliller Khan (caravanserai), an ancient traders’ inn now converted into an allegedly Armenian-owned hotel and restaurant, where we sip a good red wine made by local Assyrians; a pleasing sign of latent cosmopolitanism in this ethnically cleansed land. Inside is a well heeled crowd, many couples and groups of women who Ferhat tells me are most likely students from the west of Turkey. On our way back to the truck, we pass through the Old City walls and my eyes start to sting slightly. Ferhat soon sniffs and tells me there is tear-gas in the air: something is going on, and two youths coming from the opposite direction confirm there is some trouble, and that police have barricaded the streets. By the time we reach Ferhat’s Mother’s smart new apartment on the western edge of the city, I’m deeply impressed by the contrasts I have seen in just one evening in Diyarbakır.
I spend the whole of the following day with Ferhat exploring Diyarbakır, which feels slightly calmer in daylight. I’m drawn to the Old City, which is surrounded by imposing black basalt walls several kilometres in length and largely intact, making Diyarbakır a rare example of a preserved, walled medieval city. In a central street, lined by khans and ancient shopping arcades, is a central square where men sit at small tables drinking tea and playing backgammon. Much of the central city architecture consists of black-white banded architecture reminiscent of Umayyad architecture of the Middle East. The eleventh century Grand Mosque, which sits behind the square, is an eleventh century Seljuk structure executed in black basalt, but incorporates two tiers of arcaded Corinthian columns taken from an earlier Roman theatre during a twelfth century reconstruction, which reminds me somewhat of the Grand Mosque of Damascus.
In the east of the Old City is a small Christian Quarter, and we visit the Assyrian Mor Petyun Church and Armenian St Giragos Church; both made from local black basalt and both having an ever decreasing congregation. In the afternoon we scale the city walls for views across the city and surrounding countryside, but as we walk towards the western edge of the walls we enter a slum area; there are signs of drug use around and when walking in the narrow streets below the walls, I get a sense of not being absolutely safe; something which happens so rarely in Asia I can only remember one similar instance, in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Diyarbakır is indeed in some ways the centre of the Kurdish insurgency and was off-limits for security reasons during the 1980s. Operations and land expropriations by the Turkish government continue to target these areas in order to counter ‘terrorism’. In the evening, Ferhat and I sit out on his mother’s balcony, watching the light fade over the city. Like all Turkish Kurds, Ferhat is distressed by the treatment of his fellows in Turkey, though like most whom I have met, he does not desire a separate Kurdish state, simply recognition and equality in his home country where, until 1991, Kurds were described officially (and erroneously) as ‘Mountain Turks’ and where it remains illegal to teach Kurdish in any school. Unlike Assyrians and Armenians however, the position of the Kurds must inevitable improve, if for no other reason than force of numbers. Kurds currently make up around a fifth of the Turkish population and have a far higher fertility rate than Turks; as is perhaps well demonstrated by the sea of new apartment buildings in this affluent suburb of Diyarbakır.
Leaving the Tigris Valley, I continue my westward journey to the junction town of Siverek and south, back to the fringes of Mesopotamia, towards the city of Şanlıurfa. I stop short however to visit one of the world’s most intriguing archaeological sites: Göbekli Tepe. Located on a prominent hill, Göbekli Tepe dates back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, from which time there are numerous sites across the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. What makes Göbekli Tepe special however is the unearthing of what appears some kind of temple, used for social and ritual activities, dating to the tenth or ninth century BCE, greatly predating the cities of Lower Mesopotamia. Göbekli Tepe therefore challenges the dogma that the construction of monumental complexes would only be possible by civilised, settled societies and not the presumably hunter-gatherers who must have constructed the site. The main excavations consist of five circular pits, seemingly randomly arranged, each with T-shaped megaliths set radially around the pit edge. Many of the megaliths bear reliefs of animals, more finely carved than the rock art which typifies the period and the largest, which stand around five metres tall, show what looks to be a highly stylised human figure. The arrangement of stone circles reminds me of other megalithic temples but the carvings are unprecedented and fascinating. The meaning of the carvings, the precise function of the site and the means by which an apparently unsettled society made such a complex are a mystery. There are numerous un-excavated sites nearby which appear to have similar T-shaped megaliths, which makes one wonder how many more, potentially older, Göbekli Tepes there might be.
I find Göbekli Tepe a deeply thought-provoking, even moving experience. To look back more than ten thousand years to what is perhaps one of humanity’s earliest complex constructions makes one think how young human civilisation really is, and that despite the gruesome recent history and troubled present seemingly driven by barbaric nationalism, humanity has progressed hugely in what is, relatively, a very short period of time.
I make my way into Şanlıurfa, known simply as Urfa, later in the afternoon and join my hosts, brothers Emin and Mustafa, two Arab Turks who hail from very close to the Syrian border. Urfa is an ancient city, officially founded by the Seleucids, who named it Edessa, but perhaps far older. Emin and Mustafa take me on a tour of Urfa in the evening, around the busy streets and to the holy shrine known as Abraham’s Pool. Urfa is one (somewhat unlikely) candidate for the Biblical city of Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of Abraham, and local tradition has it that King Nimrod immolated Abraham here on a funeral pyre, only for it to be turned by God into water, with the coals becoming fish in what is now known as Abraham’s Pool. On the way back home we pick up a künefe, an originally Arabian, rich cheese pastry soaked in syrup and served hot, which makes a nice end to a great day.
I spend the whole of the following day walking around Urfa. The city has a strong Middle Eastern flavour, with many Turkish Arabs and Arab visitors, but it is undoubtedly Turkish. I particularly enjoy the rich bazaars which remind me further of the Levant, narrow, labyrinthine streets and attractive urban architecture of arcaded shops and two-storey caravanserais built from white stone.
Urfa is my last stop in Mesopotamia and I leave the city on a rainy morning, heading north and closing a loop back to Siverek, then quickly west to catch a ferry across the Euphrates, passing by a new bridge which is just a few metres short of completion. On the right bank of the Euphrates I am immediately in the Taurus Mountains, under the slopes of Mount Nemrut, on the summit of which one finds one of Turkey’s most iconic sites. This region was once part of the Kingdom of Commagene, a small state which emerged from the disintegrating Seleucid Empire and lay on the border of Hellenistic and Persian civilisations, itself a mixture of Greek, Armenian and Persian influences. The most famous king of Commagene, Antiochus I Theos, built a mountain-top sanctuary here in 62 BCE consisting of a pantheon of huge, seated gods (including himself) from the syncretic religion of Commagene.
Back in 2003 I had wanted to visit Mount Nemrut, but being without my own transport and failing to find any other travellers in the fly-blown town of Kâhta with which to split the cost of a tour to the summit, I left disappointed. Today the weather is bad, but I fulfil this frustrated ambition from eleven years ago, driving myself up a paved road to a large car park at around two thousand metres elevation. It’s out of season and I have the site almost to myself, which certainly makes up for the overcast weather. After a short walk, one reaches the ruins of King Antiochus’ sanctuary, surrounding a scree-covered summit which is thought to cover his tomb. The statues must have been a stunning sight when complete, but at some point in history unknown iconoclastic zealots have systematically beheaded them, leaving the heads surreally detached on the stony mountain slopes. Nevertheless, the carved features of the heads remain well preserved and show figures representing Greek, Armenian and Persian mythology; Heracles (Hercules), Apollo, Zeus-Oromasdes (a Greek-Armenian hybrid); Persian-style eagles and lions, Tyche, the goddess of Commagene and of course Antiochus I Theos himself.
I descend the mountain on small roads to the west, stopping at Arsameia, site of a funerary monument to King Mithridates I Callinicus, son of Antiochus I Theos, which contains a stunning relief of Antiochus shaking hands with the god Hercules. I stop again at the Karakuş Tumulus, burial site of female members of the Commagene royal family, from where I get a final glimpse of the Euphrates as darkness falls. I then drive south through Kâhta, which seems far less squalid than I remember it; west, through Adıyaman and round, climbing northwards into the Taurus Mountains on a traffic-choked road, crossing a low pass and driving into the night through persistent rain. I stop finally and sleep in an apricot orchard near the city of Malatya, where I had spent a night in 2003. Continuing north, I spend the morning driving in a ruggedly beautiful, autumnal landscape of mountain valleys on good, quiet roads and at around lunchtime stop in the charming town of Divriği.
Since leaving the surroundings of Malatya this morning, I have realised that I am seeing yet another side of Turkey; not the Kurdish east or the plains of Mesopotamia, but Anatolia proper, the Turkish heartland. All around are poplar and apricot trees in vivid autumnal yellow and orange. Instead of the squalid villages of the east with their mostly style-less concrete hovels, here are villages of individually-built houses with attractive terracotta tiled roofs. Divriği seems to embody all these changes in character, and I find myself instantly liking the place.
Although founded by heretic Armenians in the ninth century, Divriği is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Grand Mosque and Darüşşifa (hospital), a thirteenth century complex constructed by the local Mengüjek House of the Seljuk Dynasty, and is among the most beautiful buildings in Anatolia. The portals of both mosque and hospital are densely covered in highly elaborate carvings, an unrestrained riot of artistry which combines geometric designs with huge flowers and even a two-headed bird; certainly the most expressive Islamic sculpture I have seen, though I suspect the mason would have been of Armenian origin. In contrast to the extravagant portals, the rest of the building has the solid, militaristic bulk typical of Seljuk architecture, but somehow the two styles offset each other to great overall effect.
As I arrive at the complex, a loud and poetic azan (call to prayer) fills the valley in which the town sits and men, mostly wearing dark blazers, begin to congregate to hear the Friday noon sermon, despite the unrelenting rain. As the men begin to pray, I enter the Darüşşifa which is just as impressive inside as out, with a beautifully vaulted ceiling, carved pillars, a central fountain and cantilevered staircase leading to an upper level separated from the main hall. Despite being relatively newly arrived from the nomadic steppes of Central Asia, it is clear from buildings such as this that the Seljuks were no barbarians and quickly established the infrastructure of civil society. Once the sermon has ended, I move next door into the mosque which has a large open prayer area between huge pillars supporting a finely moulded dome. As the last of the locals file out, I am left in the cool, calming mosque with only the mullah in the corner, kneeling and reading a Quran, deeply in thought.
Down in the town centre I am further delighted by a compact bazaar with cobblestone streets strung with vines. Despite the pouring rain there is plenty of activity in town, with men standing in doorways and under roof eaves chatting and smoking. Women are also far more prominent than in the towns of the east, usually uncovered, out having tea together in restaurants, driving cars and shopping. Divriği feels to me like my first real Turkish town, here in the mountains of Anatolia.
By mid-afternoon, with the rain still coming down, I leave Divriği and drive north on more beautiful, winding roads to meet one of the country’s main west-east roads and turn west to the regional capital of Sivas. Known to the Romans as Sebasteia, Sivas was a regional capital of the Byzantine Empire, was the first major city to be taken by Turkic tribes arriving from the east and was later incorporated into the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in 1174, periodically serving as its capital. Later, under the Ottomans, Sivas would lose its historically important position but remains today as a pleasant and unpretentious provincial city well endowed with some of the finest examples of Seljuk architecture. I spend a morning walking around the centre of Sivas in the cold, incessant rain admiring the beautiful medieval madrasas. Particularly pleasing is the city’s central Seljuk Park containing the Çifte Minareli Madrasa with its twin, needle-like minarets; facing this, the extremely fine carvings on the facade of the Şifaiye Madrasa which now operates as a restaurant, and beyond this, the stubby but imposing Buruciye Madrasa with a beautifully carved portal, now a chaikhana. Whilst none of these is quite as fine as Divriği’s Grand Mosque and Hospital, their location in the centre of a modern-day city gives them a wonderful sense of continuity of the original Seljuk civic designs.
I leave Sivas in the afternoon, heading west. With now more than thirty six hours of continuous rain and temperatures in single figures at night, the balmy warmth of Mesopotamia seems a long way off. I drive into the night, leaving the main highway in Yozgat and stopping for the night in a field just outside of the village of Boğazkale. Long before the Seljuks or Byzantines, in the second millennium BCE, the Hittites rose from somewhat obscure origins to build the first Anatolian empire; contemporaries (and rivals) of the empires of Assyria and Egypt. The Hittites, speakers of the earliest identifiable Indo-European language, controlled an empire which at its zenith in the mid fourteenth century BCE controlled much of Anatolia, Upper Mesopotamia and the Levant, but rather mysteriously disappeared in approximately 1200 BCE. Boğazkale lies alongside the ruins of Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites, surrounded by a rolling Anatolian landscape of fields, hills and oak forests.
I start the day in the Hittite sanctuary known in Turkish as Yazılıkaya, where in a small rocky canyon at knee-height, two thirteenth century BCE friezes depict processions of deities in distinctive Hittite dress; males deities on one side in short skirts, pointed shoes and tall, horned hats and females on the other in long skirts, wearing crowns. Beyond the friezes are further, better preserved carvings showing twelve gods of the Underworld; an odd, armless representation of the god Nergal from the Babylonian pantheon who is mentioned in the Old Testament, and a carving of the god Sharruma (borrowed from the Hurrian pantheon) and Hittite King Tudhaliya IV who may have been be buried here.
Down on the valley floor lie the remains of the city of Hattusa itself, with Cyclopean walls enclosing an area of almost two square kilometres, which would have contained numerous temples and a central citadel with the royal residence. There is however little to see beyond foundations, although the city walls, dating from the fourteenth century BCE still retain a number of gates named after the carved figures which guard them. Most impressive however is the thought that with a population of perhaps forty or fifty thousand, Hattusa would once have been one of the world’s largest cities.
Leaving for Ankara, I take a detour through the small town of Alacahöyük, which sits next to an excavated höyük (settlement mound) and has been continually inhabited since the Bronze Age. Besides an impressive Hittite gate very similar to those of Hattusa, the site is notable for a collection of graves of the Hatti, the oldest recorded Anatolian civilisation, cultural forebears of the Hittites who lent their name to Hattusa and left fantastic bronze and gold artefacts with the dead which they buried.
As I drive the final stretch of highway towards Ankara in the evening, I realise that Anatolia is something of a new region of Eurasia to me; one that is very different from the eastern region of Turkey with which I am more familiar, and with its soft, rolling landscape, rich history and attractive villages, is an area I look forward to further exploring.
The rugged Zagros Mountains of north-western Iran and northern Iraq are part of the greater region of Kurdistan, homeland of the Kurds. Whilst in Iran the Kurds are a marginalised minority, in Iraq the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controls a swathe of Iraqi territory autonomous from the Baghdad government which has remained peaceful and secure whilst much of the rest of the country has descended into chaos following the 2003 US-led invasion. Historically, these mountains on the northern fringes of Mesopotamia have been at the heart of Assyria, the ancient empire of the indigenous Assyrian people, one of the world’s earliest civilisations. Today the Assyrians are a minority whose religious distinction as Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim region sees their renewed persecution from the barbaric actions of ISIL, who present an existential threat to the descendants of a culture which dates back perhaps as far as the twenty fifth century BCE.
It has long been a dream of mine to visit Iraq, but due to security issues and visa restrictions, much of the country remains off limits. In June 2014 however, the Peshmerga (Kurdish security forces) had seized control of the city of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city long fought over by its Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab inhabitants, giving me the opportunity to visit a large Iraqi city beyond the usual borders of the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Whilst the region has some beautiful scenery, it would be the surprising cultural diversity that made the strongest impression upon me; a patchwork of nations including Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmens and Arabs. The people I met would welcome me with extraordinary generosity and often share deeply profound experiences of life in this troubled region, against a backdrop of nearby war and humanitarian crisis. It would be an unforgettable insight into modern-day Kurdistan and Assyria.
In the afternoon of the 4th October 2014, I cross the Aras River from Armenia into Iran at Nordooz. I have a strange sense of detachment as I drive down-river along the Aras on the calm Iranian side, seeing first the barricaded border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, then the transition from populated Armenia to the destruction and abandonment of Nagorno Karabakh. I camp near the roadside overlooking the river and the depopulated territory I had been driving through two days earlier. Not a single light breaks the darkness. In the morning I continue, passing the beautiful bridges at Khoda Afarin; one dating from the twelfth century, now a beautiful ruin and a later, thirteenth century bridge with fifteen stone arches which is intact but sealed off with barbed wire. On the far side lie the ruins of a village and no sign of life. I pass two more modern bridges on my way downstream until, just before the town of Aslanduz, I have an intriguing view from a hillside down to the distant trenches of the front-line, where Armenia and Azerbaijan face each other across abandoned farmland.
I stop with a friend in the city of Tabriz which shines in the clear late-summer sun against a backdrop of flame-red hills. On the one hand it’s nice to be back in Iran, in a large, culturally rich and well-functioning country; on the other hand I am starting to tire of it; the oppressive uniformity of modern life, the terrible standard of driving and the feeling of a population whose freedom of expression is repressed by theocratic rule. It’s time to move on.
I leave Tabriz heading north-west, wishing to take a final look at Mount Ararat before I leave the region. It’s after dark when I re-join the Aras River at Poldasht and drive up toward the extreme north-western point of Iran at Bur Alan where I camp amid volcanic boulders. I wake at dawn to a magnificent view of Ararat’s twin peaks, wreathed in wisps of morning cloud under a full moon. Continuing on a road which winds through fantastic recent lava forms that look like giant sheep droppings, I pass an army post at Bur Alan. It looks like somewhere I shouldn’t be but I pass unnoticed and start climbing up straight towards the peak of Lesser Ararat, looking back at views across four countries; Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan where the tooth-like volcanic plug of Ilhan Dağ stands as a distant sentinel in the morning haze.
I cross the flank of Lesser Ararat and drop down to the shabby town of Bazargan, Iran’s principal border crossing with Turkey and the point at which I first entered Iran, as a backpacker, more than eleven years ago. I spend the day driving south, partly retracing my route from last July, and by late afternoon I have reached the city of Urmia. I want to find a place to camp and so drive out to the town of Golmankhaneh; once a port on the shore of Lake Urmia, but now poised on the edge of the salt flats which are all that remains of the lake. Here starts a rather pathetic episode of Iranian xenophobia and paranoia; seeing that I am a foreigner, two local men retreat and call the police; I am held at a local sports club until the police arrive. I am quizzed by a dim policeman, then after searching the car and generally wasting time, I am escorted back to Urmia and released. Such hysterical encounters are my least favourite experience in Iran.
Urmia is an ancient city which may date back to Urartian times, but it is historically notable for its Christian population. Although depleted by the spill-over of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides from Ottoman Turkey in 1914, the city remains something of a centre of Christianity with communities belonging to the Assyrian (Chaldean) Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Assyrian Protestant Church and Armenian Orthodox Church. I spend a very pleasant morning strolling around Urmia, visiting the various churches. At the Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral I speak the caretaker who is keen to show me around and explains that despite many Christians having left Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Christian community is free to observe all festivals and to use alcohol; only the supply of alcohol to, or the conversion of Muslims is forbidden.
Nearby, the St Mary’s Church, belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East, claims to be one of the world’s oldest churches, having been founded by three Zoroastrian Magi (the Three Wise Men) following the birth of Christ, on the site of an older Zoroastrian temple. The church looks modern from the exterior and the interior, which includes a stone-walled grotto-like shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary looks equally recently restored, making such grandiose claims rather hard to believe in. Here however I meet an Assyrian congregation following their Friday-morning gathering and speak to Ugin, the English-speaking son of a priest who tells me that his family speak Syriac at home and who is one of a population of approximately five thousand Assyrians in Urmia. It’s interesting to meet someone who is ethnically and linguistically a direct descendant of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
I leave Urmia in the afternoon and drive southward, past the tragic remains of Lake Urmia; desolate, white salt-flats as a backdrop to the agriculture which has caused the lake’s downfall by syphoning off water from the rivers that feed it. Beyond the southern edge of the former lake, the land rises as I climb towards the province of Kurdistan, dropping past the city of Saqqez where I camp for a night. As I drive deeper into Kurdistan the following day, the scenery becomes ever more rugged with craggy mountains, under which forests of chestnut and scrub-oak are dotted by donkey paths and occasional mud-topped footbridges over rushing torrents of mountain water. My final stop in Iran is the friendly city of Marivan, where Maciej and I had stayed for a night back in early February 2009 and which now, in late summer, seems far more inviting than the cold and slightly rough-feeling town I remember. I am hosted by Hiva, a local Kurd who immediately feels like an old friend and whose unseen mother prepares for us one delicious meal after another.
North-east of Marivan the road takes me past Lake Zeribar whose gleaming blue water backed by forested mountains almost gives it an air of Kashmir, and soon arrive at the Beshmaq border crossing. I pass through a throng of lorries, mostly transporting fuel, but after a short wait I’m stamped out of Iran with little fuss. The Iraqi side of the border is calm and very friendly and after paying a customs fee of around twenty US Dollars I’m on the road, thrilled to be in a new country and to finally be in Iraq, even if my entry stamp is only good for travel in areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
I’m driving through an area of beautiful rolling hills, now golden with dry grass but dotted with pine and oak trees. The road is in excellent condition and driving standards seem to be higher than in Iran. There are even men in high-visibility jackets collecting litter from the roadsides. I cross a low pass and enter a long, wide valley; a beautiful drive in the warm, late-afternoon light. I aim for the tell (settlement mound) of Bakr Awa which is one of hundreds which may be found in Iraq; millennia-old piles of the detritus of early human settlements, a reminder that one is in the cradle of civilisation. I try to camp near the tell but am moved on by locals, sighting security concerns, and so sleep in a ploughed field a few kilometres away, just out of sight of the nearby city of Halabja.
Halabja is a rather nondescript provincial city infamous for the 1988 Halabja Chemical Attack, which killed between 3200 and 5000 people and left many more injured. It is the most deadly chemical attack in history which targeted civilians. Carried out by Saddam Hussein and other members of his Ba’athist government during the last months of the Iran-Iraq War, the attack aimed to destroy Kurdish resistance against the Iraqi Army and was also part of the wider, genocidal Anfal Campaign, which aimed to ‘Arabise’ northern Iraq by eradicating Kurdish settlements.
I drive into Halabja in the morning and head straight to the Halabja Memorial Monument, a modern building in the shape of a gas plume from a chemical bomb, which houses a deeply moving museum complete with dioramas and photographs of the appalling scenes witnessed on the city’s streets on the 16th March 1988; scenes of whole families killed by gas, of lifeless, chemically-burned bodies; a city where life had been wiped out and time seemed to stand still. The attacks drew a muted international response at the time, as Western countries and especially the United States who were supporting Saddam in his fight against the Iranians, falsely blamed Iran for the atrocity.
There’s little else to see in Halabja and in the afternoon I make my way north again to the junction town of Said Saddiq, from where I turn west towards the regional capital, Sulaymaniyah.
Sulaymaniyah is a bustling city of bazaars; thoroughly modern and rapidly growing. It is my host Baderkhan however who makes my stay here truly memorable. Half Kurdish, half Arab, Baderkhan is one of the great-grandsons of Mahmud Barzanji, who led a number of uprisings against the British Mandate in Iraq and in 1922 pronounced himself King of the Kingdom of Kurdistan, based in Sulaymaniyah; the closest the Kurds have come to an independent state in recent history. I meet Baderkhan in his pharmacy shop and after a lunch of kebabs he shows me around the city’s thronging bazaars which, while lacking the ornate elegance of those in Iran, have every bit as diverse a collection of goods on sale. Money-changers sit at the street-side with many thousands of dollars of cash just placed on a low table. I see a local cinema which openly shows soft-porn. Alcohol is freely on sale and Baderkhan tells me it is customary to drive up into the hills above the city and drink in one’s car; though drink-driving is frowned upon on weekdays. Further up, couples engage in romantic trysts; all with no harassment from the police. Sulaymaniyah is clearly pretty liberal by regional standards and it’s a refreshing sense of freedom after the cloying religious-authoritarianism of Iran.
After exploring Sulaymaniyah’s bazaar, Baderkhan drives me around town in his brand new Toyota Landcruiser, and I glimpse the lives of the city’s liberal youth, who entertain themselves in bars and fast-food restaurants. I meet Shevan, a political science graduate who now works for the Kurdish security agency. Brought up in a secular family, he now claims to be Zoroastrian and is clearly pro-American. He tells me that the Americans have done a lot for the Iraqi Army, but that the Iraq’s failed to take advantage of their training. What’s the future for Iraq, I ask? “There is no solution for Iraq; the country will be at war forever”.
In the morning Baderkhan takes me to the infamous Amna Suraka (Red Prison) where Iraq’s secret security service, the Mukhabarat tortured and imprisoned members of the local population until it was stormed by Kurdish forces during the Gulf War in 1991. Outside the bullet-pocked building are tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and trucks hastily abandoned by the Iraqi Army in 2003 when the Second Gulf War broke out. The prison is now a museum of the Anfal Campaign. After entering, we walk through the ‘Hall of Mirrors’; 4500 lights (representing the number of villages said to have been destroyed) illuminate 182,000 shards of broken mirror, which represent the death toll. I see that Baderkhan is visibly moved by this. Although he now lives a very comfortable life, his family were greatly affected by Anfal. Despite Baderkhan’s father being an Arab, the family decided to leave Baghdad in 1991 when the Americans invaded and came to Sulaymaniyah. When Saddam began to attack the Kurds he, his mother and sister were forced to flee across the mountains with thousands of others and lived in a refugee camp in Marivan, Iran. “I opened my eyes under a canvas tent” Baderkhan tells me, with damp eyes. Beyond the hall there are gruesome waxworks of prisoners undergoing torture, with the cells left as they were found in 1991. Finally there is an exhibition on Kurdish history and culture, including a life-size figure of Barzanji, Baderkhan’s great-grandfather, which he avoids making eye-contact with.
Sulaymaniyah’s archaeological museum contains tantalising artefacts of the Mesopotamian civilisations which were based south of the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan; areas sadly beyond the limits allowed by my entry stamp. Amid various Sumerian tablets is an original bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest surviving work of literature, written in cuneiform, an alphabet used for more than three thousand years in Mesopotamia. There are also Sumerian statues, Akkadian bronzes, ivory inlay-work from Nineveh and a balbal (menhir) from the Turkic-era. Seeing such artefacts whilst standing in Iraq only heightens my resolve to one day find a way to visit the south: ‘Real Iraq’.
On my last day in Sulaymaniyah, Baderkhan drives me up into the hills to the east and north of the city, through rolling countryside which still appears somewhat depopulated; the legacy of Anfal. A road leads up a beautiful valley to a steep cliff-side where local legends describe a cave where a common man lived with the kidnapped daughter of a noble. Qizqapan is actually a sixth century BCE rock-hewn tomb whose facade depicts two men facing each other over what appears to be a fire altar. There are other flourishes of pre-Zoroastrian iconography including what looks very much like a depiction of the Mazdanic God, Ahuramazda as well as two carved ionic columns. Who exactly the figures are is not known but the larger figure may be the Medean King Cyaxares who turned the Medean Empire into a regional power at the expense of the Neo-Assyrian Empire; part of a transition of regional power from Mesopotamia to Persia which continued into the modern age.
After lunch at an Italian buffet, it is time to part ways with Baderkhan, who has spent most of the last three days escorting me around his home-town and making what would have otherwise been a fairly unremarkable city into an unforgettable experience. We part as friends with me vowing to return one day to see the South.
My next destination is the city of Kirkuk. Not technically part of Iraqi Kurdistan, I am only able to visit the city since its peaceful takeover by the Peshmerga in June of this year, though there is no guarantee that I will be allowed through the checkpoint on the road from Sulaymaniyah. Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city with Kurds, Arabs and Iraqi Turkmens (descendants of Ottoman Turks, not Central Asian Turkmen) making up the majority of the population and all vying for supremacy in the city and oil-rich region which surrounds it. With a history of inter-ethnic violence and several bombings in recent years, Kirkuk is a place which Kurds in Sulaymaniyah have advised me to steer clear of, but having made contact with Arshed, a local Kurd who will host me for two days, I have decided to take advantage of what might be the only chance I get to see ‘Real Iraq’ for quite a few years.
It’s well after dark as I slip unnoticed through the checkpoint into Kirkuk Governorate and soon I see the lights of Kirkuk sprawling on the plains beyond. I with his meet Arshed on the busy main road and he escorts me into the winding city streets where he lives with his parents. His family are extremely welcoming and immediately ply me with food, eaten on the floor in traditional style. Outside, warm air masses from Mesopotamia clash with cool air from the Zagros and create a magnificent storm with an intensity which Arshed’s family have never seen. I have a sense of primal excitement; of breaking new ground into a region unknown to me and very rarely visited by other travellers.
In the morning, Arshed takes me out to explore Kirkuk. We start in a Turkmen bakery eating kahi, syrup-soaked pastry and börek, meat-filled puff pastry while another violent storm turns the street outside into a torrent. Turkmen, Kurdish and Arab customers all patronise this obviously popular breakfast spot. Once the rain has subsided, we make our way to the city centre which is clustered around an ancient citadel. With chaotic traffic, pot-holed roads, long, chaotic bazaars and shocking amounts of litter on the streets and choking the foul-looking, reed-lined Khasa River, Kirkuk reminds me strongly of my old home in Hyderabad, Pakistan and seems a world away from the clean streets of Sulaymaniyah. I immediately like the place. We are joined by Arshed’s friend Mahmud and after a brief discussion with an initially reluctant security guard, we are allowed to freely wander around the citadel.
Kirkuk’s citadel is built on a tell thought to date from Assyrian times, and contains a number of intriguing buildings; a rather plain, twin-domed mausoleum attributed (not uniquely) to the Jewish prophet Daniel; the Ulu Camii with an ancient brick minaret, a Chaldean cathedral which has been comprehensively destroyed and a number of beautiful merchant’s houses which appear to have recently been restored, then left to decay once again. By far the most beautiful however is the squat, tower-like mausoleum of Buğday Khatun, a fifteenth century Aq Qoyunlu (Tureen) princess; evidence of the long history of Iraq Turkmen who regard Kirkuk as their cultural capital. Arshed and Mahmud explain that under Saddam, the Citadel was deliberately destroyed in an attempt to ‘Arabise’ Kirkuk. As we finish our tour of the citadel at mid-day, we hear the city’s mosques come alive with the call to Friday prayer, followed by what sound like fiery sermons.
In the evening we meet Arshed’s cousin Diyar and drive to the edge of the city to get a distant view of the oil-fields which make Kirkuk such a strategic prize in northern Iraq. Back in the city we visit the Rahimawa Bazaar, eat excellent falafel and then retire to a street-side sheesha bar for a smoke, watching the locals grill fish on charcoal braziers. Perhaps fifty metres from the cafe is a distinctive pattern of ballistic damage to the road surface; evidence of a recent bomb attack. A little further down the road is the site where Diyar’s brother was killed by a stray bullet when the US Army shot dead an old man driving a pickup who failed to stop at a checkpoint. I’m once again struck at what raw lives people live here in Iraq, the damage done by years of oppression and war which belies their great generosity and friendliness, and how I, thankfully, have no personal experience with which to compare it. Exactly three years after I reach Kirkuk, the city would be taken back by the Iraqi Army and many Kurds, including Arshed and Mahmud, would feel compelled to leave for their own safety.
As I leave Kirkuk I see signs for destinations in the south which I dream of visiting; Baghdad, Mosul, Tikrit, but all are off-limits – not to mention extremely dangerous – for a foreigner to visit. I drive north, back towards Iraqi Kurdistan proper, entering Erbil Governorate after considerable questioning from a suspicious soldier at the highway checkpoint. Erbil may well be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and from afar its citadel, perched on a thirty-metre high tell which might be more than seven thousand years old, evokes some of the magic of Aleppo (my favourite city). On closer inspection however, it is but a shell with little of Aleppo’s charm, and the surrounding city is disappointingly bland and modern-looking. As well as being the seat of the KRG, Erbil is also the headquarters of the Assyrian Church of the East and in the district of Ankawa are two cathedrals, now tragically thronged by refugees displaced by ISIL from their homeland in the nearby Nineveh Plains. Nothing however really hints at the city’s great age, perhaps due to it having been a backwater of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and after one day looking around I am ready to leave.
From Erbil I head north-east, back towards the mountains on the British-made Hamilton Road which winds up to the Iranian frontier. I however stop in the town of Soran; a bland modern settlement whose population is mostly made up of returned Kurdish refugees whose mountain villages have been destroyed during Anfal. I’m hosted here by Oliver, an erudite British expatriate teaching in the local university; a cherished opportunity to speak at length with a native English speaker passionate about the region. I spend a day driving around the local area which is in places dramatically beautiful. Just below Soran a side-road climbs steeply into the rugged mountains with magnificent views over the Hamilton Road and up the narrow cleft of the Rawanduz River, which looks like small, grassy Arizonan canyon. Climbing further to the east, there are more beautiful mountain landscapes, but once again the legacy of Anfal is clear; there is an odd feeling of depopulation and any villages one does come across are modern and charmless, marred by the sight of blue plastic tarpaulins.
I leave Soran heading northward along a ridge of dramatically uplifted rock, turning westwards and crossing a low pass to drop to the valley of the Great Zab River, a major tributary of the Tigris. It’s a beautiful drive, following the wide, muddy river upstream until it turns northward into Turkey, to the rugged and restive mountains south of Hakkari through which I had passed almost three months earlier. I imagine the green and inviting mountains to the north of the river to be the base of Kurdish guerillas who occasionally prey on the Turkish military.
Shortly after leaving the Great Zab, I reach the striking town of Amadiya. Situated on a flat-topped mountain which juts from the surrounding valley, Amadiya must long have been settled and was part of Assyria in the third millennium BCE. In addition to its location, the town is also attractive in its own right, unlike the typically bland, modern settlements around it. With neither significant traffic nor squalor in its narrow, ancient streets, it’s an attractive place to stroll for an afternoon, amid a friendly population of Assyrians and Kurds.
In the evening I continue towards the regional capital of Duhok but turn south just before reaching the city on a road which will lead down to the Nineveh Plains around the troubled city of Mosul. I’m a touch nervous about entering this region as ISIL are currently advancing ever closer, but it might be the last chance to witness the region’s indigenous, non-Muslim communities. I camp at a low pass just above the road and spend an uneasy night punctuated by the eerie flickering of an unseen gas-flare, the distant thumping of artillery fire and the nearby calling of jackals.
After a somewhat uneasy night I descend through beautiful, spine-like ridges of craggy hills, the last undulations which precede the hazy plains of Nineveh and Mesopotamia. Up a scrubby side valley of olive trees I reach the village of Lalish; sacred to followers of the Yazidi faith and home to its holiest shrine; that of the hermit and saint, Sheikh Adi.
The Yazidis are a small ethnic group similar to but arguably distinct from the Kurds who follow a somewhat mysterious and often misunderstood monotheistic religion. Yazidis believe that an indifferent God created a barren and violent Earth and placed it under the care of seven holy beings or angels, chief of whom was Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. The likeness of Melek Taus to Iblis or Satan in the Islamic tradition has long-fuelled incorrect, sensational and offensive claims that Yazidis are ‘Devil Worshippers’.
For a people who are renowned for being secretive and strictly endogamous, and who have long been maligned and attacked by their neighbours, I am very warmly received in Lalish. After a brief talk with elders I am given an acolyte, Kovan, as a guide, and am told that I may visit all places and photograph whatever I wish. Pilgrims are milling around the shrine, some from the large Yazidi diaspora now resident in Europe (mostly Germany), others such as two Armenian-born Ukrainians who come from Yazidi communities in the Caucasus. Many however are refugees, whose camps line the road and surrounding hills; Yazidis from Sinjar who have been displaced by the savagery of ISIL from their homes around a holy mountain close to the Syrian border.
Kovan and I enter the shrine through a door with a richly carved pediment and relief of a large black serpent, and enter the sanctuary. Here are tombs said to belong to some of the seven Earthly Angels, and central columns are tied with various brightly coloured cloths – representing the colour brought to Earth by Melek Taus – in which pilgrims tie a votive knot, kiss it and touch it to their foreheads whilst saying a prayer. The room is filled with olive-oil lamps and I’m told that 366 wicks are burnt each day. Beyond the sanctuary is the plain grave of Sheikh Adi himself, an eleventh to twelfth century Sufi born in what is now Lebanon who is regarded by Yazidis to be the Earthly incarnation of Melek Taus, and whose grave pilgrims circumambulate in prayer. Elsewhere in the complex are tombs of other, lesser saints, the sacred warm spring of Zamzama, and a room containing ancient-looking amphorae filled with the locally produced olive oil used in the lamps.
I leave Lalish thankful for a fascinating glimpse of a people and religion previously unknown to me, but deeply troubled by the obvious peril which these people are currently facing. Descending further toward the plain, I enter the Assyrian heartland around Mosul and a region which is even closer to ISIL. Created by the chaos and power-vacuum brought to Iraq by the Americans and fuelled by their atrocities, ISIL have spread rapidly across the country in recent months and have unleashed unspeakable brutality against the non-Muslim communities of northern Iraq, effectively continuing policies long perpetrated by Saddam and the Ottomans during the twentieth century. With many Christian Assyrians having fled to Turkey and Europe I fear this could be a final opportunity to visit these ancient communities which are descended from one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
Just before dropping onto the plain, I take a track up to a point known as Khanis where the Gomel River emerges in a wide gorge from the mountains. This is the location of what might have been the world’s first aqueduct, built around the eighth century BCE in the Neo-Assyrian Empire to control the flow of water to cities such as Nineveh. Little remains today except for a damaged relief of King Sennacherib, the eighth-century BCE ruler of Assyria who oversaw the building of Nineveh and destruction of Babylon. Here, close to the edge of Mesopotamia is another taster of the riches of the South, but the sound of artillery fire last night are a clear reminder that now is not the time to visit.
Once on the plains, I’m initially concerned at how close the front-line might be; the situation is changing fast, but I estimate ISIL to be perhaps twenty kilometres away in the haze. I’m put at ease however once I see Turkish and Iranian lorries on the road. My final stop in Iraq is Alqosh, a town of Neo-Aramaic speaking Assyrians who follow the Chaldean Catholic Church, nestled at the foot of the mountains. Although Alqosh is under the control of the Peshmerga and Dwekh Nawsha, the Assyrian militia, ISIL came perilously close just two months ago, causing many of the town’s residents to flee. I make my way up into the hills above town, driving up a tight serpentine road to the seventh century Rabban Hormizd Monastery, a striking catholic hermitage which hangs from a mountainside and looks to be straight out of the Holy Lands. Although there are doors open and even lights left on, the monastery is eerily deserted and the narrow valley channels sounds in from the plain, making the distant artillery fire seem suddenly more urgent.
Returning to the town, I have a brief walk around and find myself in a picturesque cemetery, filled with small, pavilion-like graves with Syriac inscriptions. There’s a nice view over an ancient-looking jumble of boxy, stone-walled homes which cluster around a large monastery. Here I meet Fazel and Sevan, two locals who after initially questioning my reasons for visiting, soon invite me in for tea and fruit. Although many of the town’s residents have fled, some are beginning to return and Fazel is confident that the Kurdish and Assyrian forces can hold on to the town. It’s startling to think that this community is poised on the very edge; staring into the plains at potential genocide.
Alqosh’s old town consists of wandering, narrow streets running between beautiful stone houses; by far the nicest which I have seen so far in Iraq. There are ruins of an eight-hundred year-old synagogue of the Biblical prophet Nahum and indeed, with its Christian, Aramaic-speaking inhabitants, domed churches and occasional palm tree sprouting amongst the stone walls, Alqosh has to me a distinctly Biblical air about it. In better times Alqosh would be a wonderful place to linger, but the ongoing sounds of artillery fire persuade me to leave and make my way towards the Turkish border. Five kilometres beyond Alqosh I join the busy Mosul – Duhok Highway and breathe something of a sigh of relief. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live for months with such an imminent and nearby threat to one’s life, people and culture.
I bypass Duhok on an eight-lane motorway but get into a snarling bottleneck at Zakho, where I stop long enough just to change some money and fill up with diesel before entering Turkey. The formalities on the Iraqi side of the border are long and chaotic, mostly it seems due to my exiting from a different border crossing from that at which I had entered, and it’s well after dark by the time I approach Turkish Customs.
My trip across this region has far exceeded my expectations. I came to Iraqi Kurdistan imagining it to be much like Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran; ruggedly beautiful but culturally bland. Instead I had an insight into a very ancient region on the fringes of Mesopotamia, glimpsed ancient cultures whose very history is being written by current events and heard first-hand accounts from the wonderful people of the region of their raw, often tragic recent history. I came expecting to bypass the historical gravitas of Mesopotamian Iraq, but realised that in this complex ethnic patchwork within the mountains and northern plains, I had very much seen the ‘Real Iraq’.
Following a largely restive week in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, it required a little will-power to get back on the road, and continue this first visit of mine to the country. While I had enjoyed Armenia so far, I was beginning to tire of the numerous fine, medieval stone churches, and had no appetite to be among coachloads of European tourists. I wanted something a little more unconventional and adventurous.
I would find these qualities in the more rugged south of Armenia where (after a final clutch of magnificent churches), I would visit lonely Bronze Age petroglyphs and stunning lakes high in the mountains. More interesting still however, would be my two visits to the de facto independent Nagorno Karabakh Republic, de jure an occupied swathe of south-western Azerbaijan but with a once intricate ethnic make-up more complex than I had imagined prior to visiting. Here I would see both clear evidence of long-standing Armenian occupation (in yet more striking monasteries), but also sneak into areas which historically were clearly Azerbaijani; areas never part of the Soviet-era Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region, and whose towns and villages have been occupied and systematically destroyed by Armenian forces.
This rather sobering encounter with the long-standing conflict in the Lesser Caucasus was a clear demonstration of the deep-seated antagonism between the two communities, and would form one of my strongest impressions of the small country of Armenia, before making a final drive to the country’s southernmost tip, and crossing the Aras River back into Iran.
On the 22nd September 2014 I leave Yerevan after a very pleasant, week-long stay, and with somewhat limited enthusiasm drive east out of the city to the thirteenth century monastery of Geghard. Unlike any other Armenian monastery I have visited, Geghard is partly hewn out of the native cliff-face, and the quality of interior carving is breathtaking and to me hints at the pagan influence in Armenian Christianity. This however is tour-bus country, with elderly European tour groups, English-speaking hawkers and Russian tourists photographing each other. Armenian guides dole out their time-worn spiel, full of national pride, entrancing the diaspora Armenian tourists who relentlessly consume the culture of their ancestors. I’m just waiting for one of the guides to explain that Armenians invented fire.
Very nearby, and part of the same tourist trap is the similarly impressive Garni Temple; wholly Greco-Roman in design, though given an Armenian touch in being constructed from distinctive grey basalt. Garni, thought to date from the first century CE is the only intact Greco-Roman colonnaded structure in the Former USSR, though it was destroyed by an earthquake in the seventeenth century; what one sees today is a fine reconstruction completed during the Soviet-era. I like Garni for being different though, a refreshing encounter with a pre-Christian structure in Armenia.
It’s late afternoon when I leave Garni and I make the mistake of taking the old Yerevan ring-road, which leads through a foul, sprawling, informal rubbish dump covering a hillside beyond the eastern edge of the capital. Shortly beyond, the land has subsided so dramatically that the asphalt has broken up like pack ice; in places, islands of asphalt have totally detached from the road, and skeletons of old houses lean at impossible angles. I finally emerge somewhere near Masis onto the main Yerevan – Meghri Highway, which is being reconstructed and is heavily policed, despite the absence of any road signs. The area is heavily polluted with factories spewing smoke into the air (conveniently close to the Turkish border) and I am glad to turn off the highway after dark and stop for the night in a field just a few hundred metres short of the Aras River, which here marks the Turkish border. I enjoy a cold Kilikia beer in the truck as lightning flashes in the clouds above me. I am just below the seventeenth century monastery of Khor Virap, at the point which is as close as one can get to Mount Ararat – the national symbol of Armenia now – without leaving present-day Armenian soil.
In the morning the view is disappointing; clouds, haze and smog (from the Armenian side) mean that the huge mass of Mount Ararat sits almost invisibly across the frontier. I can’t bring myself to visit the monastery, and so resume my journey, almost as far as the border with Nakhchivan where I had been six weeks earlier. The road then leaves the Aras Valley and climbs towards the mountainous south of Armenia. Dropping into the Arpa Valley, I take a side road and climb up to Noravank Monastery. Despite having had my fill of churches I am genuinely impressed by those of Noravank which have perhaps the most dramatic location of any I have seen in Armenia, sitting below a sheer cliff of flaming red rock. The churches which make up the monastery are also highly notable, with the beautiful, fourteenth century Surb Astvatsatsin Church having an an unusual and intricate colonnaded tambour (drum) and the thirteenth century Surb Karapet Church having carvings of the Holy Mother with Child, and of God the Father, whose beard contains a small bird, and who holds the head of John the Baptist in hand, with a dove (the Holy Spirit) above it.
I proceed briefly further along the Yerevan – Meghri Highway, soon turning north towards Lake Sevan. I make another side trip to the village of Yeghegis, where there is an intriguing Jewish cemetery. Dating from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, very little is known of this Jewish community, and the thirty-odd gravestones, some covered in Hebrew or Aramaic script, were only uncovered in the last century.
By late afternoon I am on top of the Varedenats Pass, where the landscape once again becomes beautiful, rolling steppe of yellow grass, and where one finds the beautiful black basalt Orbelian Caravanserai, a wonderful and complete relic of the Silk Road. Inside the highly atmospheric interior are two arcades of thick stone arches where one can imagine ancient merchants bedding down with their goods, the scene dimly lit by piercing ocular skylights with decorative stone carvings.
Not far from the crest of the pass, the beautiful sapphire-blue of Lake Sevan comes into view again, perhaps my favourite sight in Armenia, and I find a nice place to camp at the lake shore with beautiful views, only slightly spoiled by the great quantities of litter left by local tourists. I look forward to the day when people who regard themselves as highly civilised can refrain from fouling their own surroundings.
The following morning I drive around the southern edge of Lake Sevan, amid wide, open farmland, backed to the south and east by mountains. I stop on a pebbly beach on the eastern edge of the lake and watch a squall come in from the now steely-blue waters, blowing leaves off the poplar trees growing on the lake shore, a sure sign of the approach of autumn. After stocking up on food and fuel in the town of Vardenis, which has something of a frontier atmosphere, I climb eastwards on a surprisingly good road towards the Sotk Pass, which marks the border of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. When applying for my visa back in Yerevan, I had been told that it was forbidden to enter ‘The Republic’ (which is internationally unrecognised, even by Armenia) via the Sotk Pass, but I wish to try regardless. After crossing the pass, which overlooks a huge slope of rubble generated by the Sotk Gold Mine, I descend into the forested hills of Nagorno Karabakh, a dramatic change in environment from the treeless, volcanic steppe around Lake Sevan. At a check post in the Levonaget Valley I’m waved straight through and soon after turn off the road and begin climbing up the Tartar Valley, towards the town of Karvachar (Kalbajar in Azerbaijani).
Nagorno Karabakh has a convoluted and contentious history of control between Armenians (who were undoubtedly first on the scene) and Muslims, the latter becoming vassals of the Persian Empire and progenitors of modern Azerbaijan. Control switched from Persian to Russian Empires in 1820, but a century later, as the Russian Empire descended into civil war, Armenians and the newly formed Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic were at war over control of Nagorno Karabakh. With Soviet control, the conflict froze, and Stalin’s vile gerrymandering of national borders within the USSR saw the creation of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region as an enclave within Azerbaijan. With glasnost in the late 1980s came a softening of the iron fist of the Soviet State and the re-emergence of suppressed nationalism, and as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Nagorno Karabakh War broke out, raging on until a cease fire in 1994. The current status quo sees most of the Soviet-era Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region under Armenian control, together with a roughly similarly-sized area of Azerbaijan which adjoins the Armenian and Iranian borders, linking much of the former enclave to Armenia as the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
This north-western part of Nagorno Karabakh is one such area of occupied Azerbaijan, and after passing the half-abandoned town of Karvachar and climbing further up the valley, I frequently see the remains of houses and small villages; the population of the area has clearly been drastically and deliberately reduced. I camp for the night near some abandoned buildings, sticking to existing vehicle tracks and not straying far from the truck in fear of landmines, though some local cows come plodding through the area in the morning, indicating that the area is most likely not mined. Climbing further, past a sulphurous fumarole, I pass a dramatic cliff of basalt columns covered in striking orange lichen, then climb on steep, narrow switchbacks to the cliff-top village of Tsar. Dozens of destroyed buildings are spread across the hillside – this must once have been a sizeable place – but today just a few buildings remain inhabited. When I ask, locals confirm that Azerbaijanis used to live here. There’s a barrier at the end of the village, but after speaking with some locals, my passport details are recorded and I’m free to proceed. My aim is to follow faint paths which I have seen on satellite maps, to the high altitude Al Lakes, then drive over the mountains back into Armenia.
As I leave the village, I see an old Azerbaijani cemetery on the grassy hills; tall stones beautifully carved with Arabic script against a stunning mountainous backdrop, which although wonderfully tranquil is equally tragic given that the community has long since fled. The track I’m on is very seldom used – little more that flattened grass – and the only vehicles I see are a group of Soviet ZiL trucks which men are filling with cut grass, in preparation for the impeding winter. After some steep climbing I reach a wide, rolling plateau at an altitude of around 2700 metres, and just over two hours after leaving Tsar I catch the first glimpse of the magnificent Al Lakes; first Little Al then Big Al Lake, with a backdrop of the volcanic highlands on the Armenian border, below which is a dark, hardened lava flow reaching to the far shore of the lakes. It’s a magnificent spot, with just a few shepherds in Soviet UAZ vans and a camp of grass-cutters in an otherwise untouched wilderness. There are no signs of any tourists or their litter, and I have the satisfaction to have visited a truly remote area which I have never read anything about, but which has merely caught my eye when perusing satellite imagery of the region.
Surveying the landscape, I see a likely-looking route over the mountains back into Armenia. Initially, I follow some very faint tracks, then must drive cautiously over the soft hills of yellow grass, crossing a small but deep and rocky stream (in which I bash the front axle of the truck) and descending on rough tracks strewn with volcanic boulders until I run into some shepherds on the Armenian side. After confirming that I am on a good path, I descend to the resort town of Jermuk, set amidst beautiful deciduous forest pocked by the first brilliant yellow and orange flashes of autumn but marred by an ugly concrete monstrosity of a Soviet hotel.
Next day, from further east along the main highway, I climb into the mountains once again, back towards the border with Nagorno Karabakh. I take a wrong turn early on, and spend a couple of hours driving aimlessly across steep hillsides, but after considerable frustration retrace my steps and find the correct path, climbing steeply towards the prominent Ughtasar Mountains. After one unnervingly steep ascent on a loose gravelly track, with hair-raising drop-offs on either side, I reach the Ughtasar Petroglyphs at 3300 metres above sea level, which once again I can savour in complete, glorious solitude. The petroglyphs are well worth the trouble taken to reach them; over a wide area, on large, smooth, naturally varnished volcanic rocks are hundreds of pictograms thought to span thousands of years. Many are of long-horned goats, but there also human figures hunting on horseback with bow and arrow, and a beautiful twin ox-plough. There are also more esoteric geometrical patterns and what may be shamanistic symbols, once again impressing me what seems to be a running theme in Bronze Age rock art spanning much of Eurasia.
I spend the night back down near the main road and the following day take in another Bronze Age site known as Zorats Karer. This however is a large complex of standing stones; some arranged in a circle, some extending in linear arms, and some toppled or seemingly randomly located. There are speculations (spurred perhaps by Armenian national pride) that this is a very ancient observatory, which don’t believe in; to me the site resembles a large burial complex, particularly given the presence of numerous cists (slab-sided burial chambers) which can be found across Eurasia, through Kazakhstan and the Altai Mountains to Mongolia. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive and thought-provoking site and I wonder if its proximity to the nearby petroglyphs of Ughtasar is pure chance, or whether there was some ritual significance connecting the two sites.
After a side trip to the impressively located, fortified Tatev Monastery, which overlooks the yawning Vorotan Valley, I return to Nagorno Karabakh, using the ‘official’ border crossing at Aghavno. The road is in near perfect condition, far better than any other I have seen in Armenia, and leads through the Lachin Corridor, another swathe of occupied Azerbaijan, crossing successive ridges and pleasant small towns and villages, before climbing into Nagorno Karabakh proper. Just after sunset I reach the capital, Stepanakert, and I meet my local contact Marut, who helps me find a homestay run by a very kind Armenian family who ply guests with excellent food and endless coffee and sweets.
I walk around Stepanakert with Marut the following day, and find it to be a likeable place; while there are still the odd signs of war, such as bullet-holed apartment buildings and fresh war cemeteries, it is largely unremarkable, with a peaceful, pleasant and safe small-town atmosphere. The town is not unlike others across the border in Armenia, if a touch more Russified, perhaps from having had a large Soviet Army presence, or for once having had a mixed Armenian and Azerbaijani population with Russian as the lingua franca. I very much enjoy the homestay, where I am joined by Will, a British photographer and Ace, the Filipino nurse with whom I had made friends back in Yerevan. One night I am awoken by an odd shaking of my bed, which I initially assume to be from a passing lorry, but soon realise is an earthquake, which turns out to be of magnitude 5.3, located 190 kilometres away in Azerbaijan proper.
Close to Stepanakert is Shushi, which in contrast feels quite tragic. Clearly once an elegant city and cultural centre, Shushi calls to mind war, dereliction, ethnic cleansing and poverty. Among many abandoned and bombarded buildings, two once beautiful mosques, the Upper and Lower Govhar Agha, stand with sentinel minarets of beautiful, red and buff brickwork, poking above the straggling ruins of various other civic and civilian buildings. Neither are of course active, and the balconies of the minarets of the latter seem now to be used only by idle teenagers. There can be almost no prospect for employment in Shushi, and it seems that much of the population is elderly and penniless. Clearly once a beautiful place, I wonder what these old folk think of the age-old conflict, and whether they were really part of it, or just swept-up in the politics of inter-ethnic hatred. One moustachioed old lady rants madly at me as I take pictures of the minarets. Two roguish old drinkers cheerfully ask me for some money for a bottle. Sitting in a pavement bar a little later on, an old man confirms that this was once a beautiful city, then draws my attention to an Arabic inscription outside one of the mosques, and tries to convince me that it is French.
The church of course, has plenty of cash, and Shushi’s Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, recently restored, is one of the largest Armenian churches in the world, here totally at odds with the city’s appearance. On the street outside, a very well turned-out, perfumed priest steps out of a brand-new, black Landcruiser. How he, a man of faith supposedly living a pious life can do so seems to embody the parasitic decadence of organised religion, and the false legitimacy of the clergy. It’s ironic that while Lenin and Stalin helped set up the tragedy which befell Nagorno Karabakh upon the collapse of the USSR, they were never actually able to rid people of the clergy.
It once again takes some effort to leave the homestay and new friends in Stepanakert, but I am excited to break away from the capital region and head east towards the front line, to areas of the republic which I had been told by the lady who issued my visa in Yerevan were ‘not open to tourists’. I drive out of Stepanakert on what would once have been the road to Baku, soon reaching the town of Askeran where the road passes straight through the breached walls of the Askeran Fortress, built by the Muslim rulers of the Karabakh Khanate during the Russo-Persian Wars of the early nineteenth century. Backtracking very briefly, I pass through the small town of Ivanyan, better known by its Azerbaijani name of Khojali and infamous for the massacre of two hundred or more Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian (and CIS) forces in 1992. Today it’s a sleepy place, but a Muslim cemetery on the edge of town (next to what seems to be an army artillery range) stands in testament to its former inhabitants.
I wind north through muddy but picturesque countryside and slowly make my way to Gandzasar Monastery, whose thirteenth century Cathedral of St John the Baptist is the finest church I see in Nagorno Karabakh and the seat of the Archbishop of the republic. With a large, beautifully carved gavit (narthex) and faceted dome on zigzagging gables, located on top of a hill, it is unmistakably Armenian and a clear demonstration of the long-standing Armenian presence in this fractious mountain land.
I cross another range of mountains north of Gandzasar, descending to the edge of the inky-blue Sarsang Reservoir, in the Tartar Valley which I had climbed out of days earlier towards Tsar and the Armenian border. I drive on the rough valley road west to see Dadivank Monastery, nestled picturesquely in deciduous forest on the mountainside. Thought to date from the ninth century, Dadivank is more Byzantine in style than other Armenian churches I have seen, with large stone walls, a terracotta-roofed chapel and thirteenth century frescoes, and is in the process of being restored following apparent damage from now-departed Azerbaijanis.
I spend the night in the hills above Sarsang Reservoir, listening to the howling of wolves, then drive in the morning through tranquil beech forest towards the front line. Martakert, the regional capital is a town which bears the scars of heavy warfare, with destroyed buildings and chewed-up roads, and is a rather ramshackle, unattractive place. From this point onwards, I suspect myself to be in a restricted area without permission, and imagine I will be ejected from the republic or arrested for being here, so I intend to keep as low a profile as possible (which in a foreign-plated, military-beige coloured vehicle is probably not very low).
I have to ask directions to find the only road heading south out of Martakert, such is the state of the city, but very soon I’m rolling down onto the plains on a road which parallels the front line at a distance of a few kilometres. Off to the east, the land recedes from the hills of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan proper, spreading in a hazy flatness towards the Caspian Sea. There’s a swathe of cultivated land along the roadside, out of range of Azerbaijani snipers, and then the trenches of the front line, looking not unlike the Somme, where soldiers have faced each other in a twenty year-old cease-fire, occasionally picking each other off. Beyond that, out of the reach of Armenian bullets, the land reverts to the rich, irrigated fields of southern Azerbaijan and, on the horizon, I can see neat, whitewashed Azerbaijani villages. It’s something of an illicit thrill to drive here.
Heading steadily south, I pass a few ruins; a collapsing memorial to the Great Patriotic War (there seems some rather idiotic irony to a memorial dedicated to an earlier war damaged and neglected due to a subsequent war), an octagonal Muslim tomb and wrecked vehicles, and then Shahbulag Castle, an eighteenth century stronghold also built by the Khans of Karabakh. The road then reaches an intersection; the asphalt veers to the right, back towards Askeran and Stepanakert, but I continue straight to the destroyed city of Ağdam. I am worried to pass a rambling army base just north of the former city, but all I get is friendly waves from bored-looking conscripts and so I continue, bearing for the twin minarets of Ağdam’s nineteenth century mosque, built by the same architect as the two Govhar Agha Mosques in Shushi. I climb the eastern minaret to the upper balcony where once the muezzin would have called the azan. I’m surrounded by quite a moving scene; an entire city systematically destroyed, building-by-building, leaving only piles of rubble, disconnected patches of asphalt and mature trees gradually taking over the old city layout. All the colour of life has left the city – aside from the red, buff and blue of the minaret’s tilework – leaving a doleful monochrome. A plaque outside the mosque simply names it a ‘Persian Mosque’.
Two gruffly friendly men join me at the top of the minaret and ask me what I’m doing, perhaps checking if I’m a journalist, but their suspicions seem soon to be allayed and conversation switches to the truck, and how much it’s worth, and if I fancy selling it. A few of the soldiers are milling around the ruins, but none approaches me. Nevertheless, I don’t stay too long. I find the road south out of town, which passes under a disused bridge for the old Stepanakert – Yevlakh railway, now devoid of rails or sleepers, and a number of other destroyed, presumably Azerbaijani villages. The road turns south east, still tracking the front line, but here there are no ploughed fields to my west, just a wasteland of tracks and destruction. Life returns at the Armenian town of Martuni, which is slightly less shabby than Martakert, but worried that I’ll be apprehended, I push on. I take a turn off the road, west into the foothills, passing through the picturesquely situated mountain town of Chartar which has an excellent new road, and is the liveliest place I have seen since leaving Stepanakert. It reminds me of an Iranian mountain town and makes me think how wonderful a place Nagorno Karabakh might have been, but for the war. I don’t stay long on the main road, but turn south again through villages to reach Amaras Monastery, located on the edge of the hills, overlooking the troubled plains.
Amaras is unprepossessing to look at, but has quite some history; said to have been founded originally in the fourth century by St Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is also said that Mesrop Mashtots established the first school to use his Armenian alphabet in Amaras. The monastery came to be abandoned and by the early eighteenth century was used as a Russian frontier post, and I assume that the formidable stone defensive walls date from this period. The monastery was reclaimed by the Church in the middle of the nineteenth century and the monastery’s sole church dates from this period, its walls now pocked with bullet marks from the recent war. I speak to a gentleman living in a home atop the monastery walls, who offers me lunch and points the way to what used to be the town of Füzuli, across the rolling fields, which he reassures me are free of land mines. It’s a nice drive across the fields, aside from the sight of yet more destroyed villages, but Füzuli has suffered the same fate as Ağdam; scorched earth and rubble, with even the cemetery appearing vandalised, the city unpopulated apart from the odd squatter or shepherd. On the southern edge of town I find a rusted gantry across the road with Soviet-era road signs, which I find highly poignant, for the destinations – Baku, Yevlakh, Ağdam, Füzuli – are either in unreachable Azerbaijan, or literally wiped off the map.
South of Füzuli, I reach an intersection where two traffic police sit in a Russian UAZ, but they pay no attention to me as I continue south towards the Iranian border. The road becomes rough as I start to climb gently into barren rolling khaki hills, and rain starts to fall gently. From Füzuli onwards, all is destroyed; systematically, house-by-house, save for the remains of old bus stops with their bright Soviet-era mosaics showing Azerbaijani folk dancers, and the occasional crumbling and pock-marked war memorial. This was very clearly part of Azerbaijan. Reaching the ruined town of Cäbrayıl, the road becomes an abandoned dual-carriageway partly overgrown with grass, and runs down to the Aras Valley and the ruined junction town of Şükürbäyli. From here, the road parallels the Aras Valley and the hills of Iran are visible to the south, shrouded in low, grey cloud. It’s getting late, and so I pull off the highway, drive through a muddy field where some farmers are just heading for home in a tractor, and camp in a clearing, hidden from the road and just a few hundred metres from the river. Even for someone who enjoys solitude and a sense of distance from crowds and cities, I feel extremely isolated and as I cook dinner and write down my impressions for the day, I watch the lights of the border posts and cars driving on the far side of the river, in Iran, where life goes on as normal.
In the morning, after some difficulty in getting the truck out of my muddy camping spot, I continue westwards and reach the destroyed town of Soltanlı; again, razed completely to the ground. I spot a crude, concrete Armenian chapel on the road out of town, with icons and candles for passing Christians, which I find almost vulgar for its false piety in this land of vicious destruction, coming from a most unchristian, visceral hatred of another race.
In the dull autumn rain, the bleakness of the landscape and utter desolation make for an almost eerie drive along the Aras Valley, as there is absolutely nobody around; not a single car on the road, no shepherd or soldier. This land has simply been taken from Azerbaijan as a buffer zone, and left to decay. But as much as I find the circumstances utterly repellent, at the same time I must admit to getting a certain thrill from being the only person in an entire landscape, effectively driving along my own road. The Akari River, a tributary of the Aras, marks a suddenly lush, green swathe of land, and here I must take a slight diversion northwards owing to a broken bridge, driving on a smaller road which weaves through the rubble and detritus of more razed villages. One such village is Mämmädbayli with the octagonal, conical-roofed, fourteenth century Mausoleum of Yahya ibn Muhammad al-Haj finally drawing the eye to something other than destruction, and harking back to a more civilised time when this was braid of the Silk Road.
Across the Akari, an Armenian population begins to slowly reappear and the land comes falteringly back to life. It’s late morning by the time I reach the town of Mijnavan (Minjavan), with a beautiful main street of mature plane trees masking the squalor and dereliction of the buildings behind. I could return to Armenia along the Aras Valley, heading straight towards Meghri and the Iranian border crossing, but chose to head north, through the ruins of Kovsakan (Zangilan) and along a valley of misty limestone cliffs. I cross back into Armenia at a point near a rubbish dump which is wholly undemarcated, and without any official presence, and slip back onto the Yerevan – Meghri Highway in the town of Syunik, as if I had never been nosing around in the forbidden frontier of Nagorno Karabakh. I stop in the damp and rather dour mountain town of Kapan to eat and change some money, then continue south through filthy mining towns and on through the beautifully forested Zangezur Mountains, which are just starting to turn to autumn colour. The road is slow, choked with Iranian trucks bringing goods into this isolated mountain country and badly driven Iranian cars weaving in and out amongst them, but it’s also highly scenic and I’m content at having seen a good swathe of Nagorno Karabakh without getting into trouble.
Meghri is the final Armenian town and is more attractive than Kapan, and the following morning I make a visit to one final Armenian church, the fifteenth century Mother of God Church which is highly distinctive, if slightly graceless from the exterior. Inside are beautiful nineteenth century murals, including a magnificent scene of the Last Judgement, with vivid depictions of the demons of hell; unlike anything else I have seen in Armenia, though not unlike those of Vank Cathedral in the Armenian district of Esfahan, Iran.
Just beyond Meghri, I’m back in the Aras Valley, directly above the river on a road running along the old Soviet border, which still has an impressive amount of barbed wire separating it from the rocky riverbank. After rather lengthy customs procedures at the Agarak crossing, involving paying yet more fees to the Armenian Customs Office, I cross the Aras and am ready to begin the next stage of the Odyssey, to Kurdistan and Northern Iraq.
I’ve greatly enjoyed my time in Armenia, exploring the modern-day heartland of an ancient people with a breathtaking richness of culture; a people whose history has often been tragic, and who have been chased into an isolated and poor mountain heartland. It has also given me a chance to see for myself the reality of Nagorno Karabakh, one which has slightly changed my opinions. Previously, I had imagined that Nagorno Karabakh was ethnically Armenian, and wrongly ceded by Stalin to Azerbaijan (with the likely intention of fomenting ethnic rivalries). The reality however is more complex; there is clear history of a long-standing Muslim presence in the region; not just on the plains, but in amongst the church-dotted highlands. I can also sympathise more with the Azerbaijani cause, for areas which seem to me to have been undeniably part of Azerbaijan have been occupied, their inhabitants chased out or worse, and all their settlements deliberately destroyed to complicate any possible return. It’s all rather tragic for, in my imagination, Nagorno Karabakh could be a fascinating cultural melting pot and an enthralling destination to freely visit. But such is the reality in the Caucasus; this complex, feuding patchwork of nations and religions, where ethnic strife is far from a modern introduction.
In this second lengthy visit to the region, I feel a sense of completion, having visited every republic both north and south of the great mountain divide. At the same time, I am sure that I will return again.
Through no deliberate design, the small, mountainous country of Armenia was the only of the Soviet Union’s fifteen component republics which I had not visited on my initial four and a half year journey. I had occasionally come across Armenian culture, usually in the form of distinctive stone churches in Iran or Turkey (and also in Syria and Israel on an earlier trip in 2006) and had even peered over into Armenia (then a wholly unknown country to me) from the ruined city of Ani in 2003, on my first trip across Asia. The country itself however remained a small blank in the map which I was keen to fill.
It was therefore with considerable anticipation that I approached Armenia, which would be the first time on this second part of the Odyssey that I would visit a country which was wholly new to me. As I drove around both Armenia and the de facto independent state of Nagorno Karabakh, I would find a landscape of mostly severe volcanic plains, quite different from the lush, bountiful, exotically beautiful valleys of Georgia, but rich with the distinctively beautiful forms of Armenian medieval church architecture. The Armenian people would also stand out, proud of their long though recently rather tragic history, dignified and deeply welcoming despite the obvious poverty which their isolated republic has fallen into since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This first half of my journey through the Lesser Caucasus would take me on a meandering route through the north of Armenia, crossing the church-dotted centre of the Armenian Highlands, through the valleys of the far north-east and down to beautiful Lake Sevan, then across the volcanic Geghama Mountains and up Mount Aragats, modern Armenia’s highest peak. Heading south from here I would enter the real heartland of the country, the Ararat Plain, stretching along the Aras River where distant Mount Ararat hangs beyond the border in the haze above both the city of Vagharshapat, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the nearby modern capital Yerevan where I would break my journey.
I enter Armenia on the 4th September 2014, crossing from Georgia at the village of Gogavan late in the afternoon and soon pulling off the road to camp in a field, watching a storm descend from the mountains off to the east. After at least eight years of having the intention to visit Armenia, I am here, and the view in front of me is much as I had imagined to country to look, based mostly upon my first glimpse from across the Turkish border more than eleven years ago; attractive, rolling steppe and soft, low mountains which now fade into the dark, back-lit storm clouds.
In the morning, after a few errands in the small town of Tashir, I head east across the rolling upland which I had looked out upon last night, crossing a low pass and slowly descending past isolated villages of pink tuff houses, crossing the main road to Gyumri and joining the Akhurian River which here runs parallel to the Turkish border. Driving south on rough, decayed Soviet-era roads I eventually reach the beautiful Marmashen Monastery, on a grassy riverbank of the Akhurian, surrounded by fruit trees. Built of orange tuff, the monastery is centred on the beautiful eleventh century Katoghike (Holy Mother of God) Church, with a characteristically Armenian faceted umbrella roof, and tall niches on its external walls; contemporaneous with the churches of Ani but in far better condition; particularly pleasing to see given the neglected state of Ani’s buildings.
From the monastery it’s a very short drive south to reach the rubble-strewn northern suburbs of Gyumri, Armenia’s second city, where I pass a mixture of bulldozed city blocks, abandoned, half-built apartment buildings and various barracks making up a large Russian military presence, with each of these being symbolic of Armenia’s turbulent recent history.
The 1988 Spitak Earthquake had its epicentre just thirty five kilometres from Gyumri, killed between twenty five and fifty thousand people and came at a time when Gorbachev’s reform in the Soviet Union had lead to a greater expression of nationalism. This freedom however also allowed simmering ethnic conflicts to erupt, which in the South Caucasus republics lead to an outburst of repressed tension and conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in both republics. Internally displaced people had arrived in Armenia at the time of the earthquake, which in addition to the low-quality Brezhnev-era apartment blocks caused a huge death toll from the magnitude seven earthquake.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spelled economic chaos for Armenia (and indeed every part of the Former USSR), but was accompanied by the outbreak of full-blown conflict in the Nagorno Karabakh War, which raged until 1993 and saw Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting over the historically Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh, which was ceded by Stalin to Azerbaijan in 1928. The conflict, in a wider sense, can be seen as part of Russia’s age-old antagonism with the Turks and, with Russia siding with Armenia, gave ample opportunity for Russia to retain a large military presence in this lost territory, strengthening its very sensitive former border with NATO and retaining a toe-hold in the South Caucasus, an area always coveted by the Turks.
Gyumri’s name may be of Urartian origin, but the city is relatively modern and reminds me very strongly of Kars in neighbouring Turkey, with turn-of-the-century houses of black tuff, a feeling of decline and shabbiness, but a pleasant atmosphere nevertheless. Gyumri must once have been a very attractive city, in its former incarnations as Alexandropol in the nineteenth century and Leninakan in the twentieth, but the earthquake and general poverty and decline have all clearly taken their toll.
I leave Gyumri in the early evening through scruffy suburbs of rusting industry, joining the Akhurian River which now marks the sealed border with Turkey. Once out of the city, I am back in the familiar rolling steppes on which the ancient Armenian capital of Ani is located, just across the river. The border region itself has the unmistakable signs of having been one of the sensitive outer borders of the USSR, with T-shaped barbed wire fences, multiple power and telegraph lines, an anomalously wide road which could double as a runway and watchtowers overlooking the gorge of the Akhurian. Ironically, the point on the border exactly opposite Ani is still occupied by the Russian Army and off limits to casual visitors.
There is however a beautiful monument of the Silk Road, a branch of which would have passed through Ani and into modern Armenia, in the form of the eleventh to twelfth century Jrapi Caravanserai; a long, low building missing much of its roof, revealing attractive, heavy arches of pink and black tuff. A little further south, in the pumice-mining village of Anipemza one finds the remains of the huge, fourth to sixth century Yererouk Basilica, one of the earliest extant examples of Armenian architecture. Yererouk is of importance not just for its great age and size, but also for the Greco-Roman influence which can be seen in the five-stepped plinth on which it sits, and the columns and pediments of its entrance portals, giving an insight into the form of early eastern Christian architecture.
I leave the Turkish border area, heading east from the main road, passing through the village of Sarakap on a rough track into the hills, then through Karaberd which appears to be a semi-deserted farming village, dropping into the small town of Maralik on whose eastern edge is a huge, Soviet-era cotton-spinning plant, located improbably far from the source of cotton in Central Asia and operating at a fraction of capacity. In the next small town of Artik, I stop to visit the small, almost pencil-like seventh century Lmbatavank Monastery, which sits overlooking the town on a hillside strewn with broken carved tuff coffins. A simple cross-church, Lmbatavank nevertheless shows the distinctively Armenian dome and slender form, marking a departure from the earliest Greco-Roman and Byzantine influenced churches.
In the nearby village of Harich, I drive up between simple farmhouses to the striking Harichavank Monastery whose main building is an amalgamation of seventh and thirteenth century churches, the latter having a very fine sixteen-sided tambour and faceted umbrella dome, representative of a golden age of monastery building in Armenia. The monastery has a nice, lively atmosphere with a large family group celebrating a baptism service, picnicking in the monastery’s grassy grounds. Walking inside, I catch the end of the service, which seems to be a joyful event with none of the stiffness I had noticed in Georgian church services.
My route then takes me east along the northern slopes of Mount Aragats, Armenia’s highest peak, turning north again and crossing a low mountain range. I stop for a late lunch in the completely rebuilt town of Spitak, close to the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake, before continuing east towards Vanadzor. The road enters the Pambak Valley which is filled with a concentration of moribund, rusting, Soviet-era industry which seems totally at odds with the rugged mountains and small villages which typify the area. Before reaching the city proper I turn north, climbing and entering a tunnel under the Pushkin Pass, so named as it was here that Pushkin encountered the body of Griboyedov, killed in Persia in 1829, being transported back to Russia. Turning east again I drive through more small farming villages, and camp for the night on a grassy hillside overlooking the village of Kurtan, which sits on black cliffs overlooking the Dzoraget Valley.
In the morning I enter the Dzoraget Valley, passing the partially restored Monastery of Hnevank which is picturesquely sited on a forested hill, and descending on a rough, washed-out road to meet the Debed River. The Canyon of the Debed is a major transport artery northwards towards Tbilisi, and is also the site of some of the country’s finest monasteries. The valley’s largest town is Alaverdi, attractively set in a sweeping curve of the canyon and filled with neat rows of Soviet-era pink tuff apartment buildings, but centred around a large copper smelting plant which emits a continuous haze of pollution into the hills above the town. The town centre is like a living scene from an old Soviet photograph, with rows of tatty PAZ buses, rusting cable cars to bring workers down from the in the hills above, and a univermag; or state-run department store; all seemingly unchanged since the 1980s. Overlooking Alaverdi from the south side of the river one finds Sanahin Monastery, centred upon the tenth century Mother of God Church with a large, beautiful, conical dome and a gavit (Armenian form of narthex) containing fine stone carvings and distinctive khachkars (intricately carved memorial stele).
Equally interesting are the lives of two brothers who hail from the small village of Sanahin; Anastas and Artem Mikoyan. Anastas, the older of the two was a Bolshevik who survived the purges of the pre-war years, outlasting Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev to become the longest serving member of the Politburo. Artem was behind some of the Soviet Union’s most successful early jet fighters, and a mothballed MiG-21 sits as monument outside the Mikoyan Museum.
Beyond Alaverdi, heading once more east, I make two side trips; first to Haghpat Monastery, set on a grassy hillside and similar in age and style to Sanahin with very finely carved khachkars but also with a distinctive thirteenth century bell tower. The second is Akhtala Monastery, situated within the ruins of a tenth century fortress overlooking the road as it begins to loop northwards towards the Georgian border. Akhtala’s Mother of God Church, which has lost its dome, is a thirteenth century basilica and was in fact built as a Georgian church. I speak to a nearby shopkeeper who is also the key-holder to the church, and he admits me into the interior where magnificent frescoes cover many of the interior walls; most impressively in the apse where a defaced Virgin Mary sits enthroned above rows of saints.
Beyond Akhtala the Debed Valley opens up as it drops towards the lowest point in Armenia, and when the river swings westwards to demarcate the Georgian border, I continue eastwards towards the border with Azerbaijan. The road turns south once more, crossing successive ridges until it pulls exactly level with the de jure border. Although the border here is not technically disputed, since the Nagorno Karabakh War, its various exclaves and salients have been smoothed somewhat, with each country (though more so Armenia) occupying territory formally belonging to the other.
I stop on the edge of the village of Voskepar where the beautiful seventh century Church of Saint Sarkis sits exactly on the border line. Immediately beyond, in Azerbaijani territory are the ruins of the village of Aşağı Askipara, destroyed by Armenian forces in 1989 and occupied since 1992. It’s a sobering sight, with the ruins of civilian homes dotted on a scorched hillside beyond the intact church; a graphic reminder of the intensity of hatred between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Shortly after there are glimpses of views into Azerbaijani territory, where Mount Göyazan, a striking rock monolith, sits beyond the blue waters of a reservoir, before the road passes the occupied Azerbaijani exclave of Barkhudarly. I leave the main road here, winding into the hills above the village of Achajur, entering beautiful forest and camping under a full moon in a field next to the Monastery of Makaravank, which seems somehow remote from the horrors of the front-line.
In addition to its beautifully serene location, the tenth-to-thirteenth buildings which make up Makaravank Monastery have some of the finest stonework in Armenia, and are all executed in pink tuff or andesite. The main, early thirteenth century Mother of God Church has an altar carved with geometrical and floral patterns very similar to those seen in Persian mosques and mausoleums, and an exterior whose smooth pink stone is delicately carved into window niches, blind arches around a circular tambour, and fine decorative pieces such as the sundial on the southern wall.
Rejoining the main road heading southwards and turning off at the edge of the town of Ijevan, I climb into the hills and park the truck at the edge of a holiday resort which marks the end of the track. I walk into thick, beautiful woodland of oak and hornbeam, dropping after some time into the gorge of the Sarnajur River, which has been carved out of the native limestone. Here one finds a series of natural caves, said to have been inhabited in ancient times and a place of refuge during the Mongol invasions. One of these, known as the Anapat Cave, is richly carved; most strikingly with a large mask-like face which looks almost pre-Columbian American in style, with six human figures standing next to it. Crosses are found carved elsewhere in the cave, but the mysterious portraits are allegedly pre-Christian.
Some distance south of Ijevan, I leave the main highway, which leads to the capital, and turn eastwards, climbing steadily along the beautiful Getik Valley, then south across rolling, treeless grassy hills, finally dropping down in the beautiful late afternoon light to the shores of Lake Sevan. At 1900 metres elevation, Sevan is the highest of three large alpine lakes in the region (Van and Urmia being the others) and its dark blue waters, ringed by mountains, are spectacularly beautiful. I drive a little down the coast, looking for a campsite until I spot a distant promontory. After driving down a dusty track, I have to negotiate a ploughed field, then tractor up a steep grassy hillside in low-gear, but the truck reaches the top without hesitation and I am rewarded with a glorious, solitary campsite above the lake, with panoramic, 270 degree views across its shimmering cerulean waters towards the ridges of the Geghama Mountains to the west. Cooking dinner whilst watching the sun set, I am once again living my dream, using the capabilities of the truck which I have recently spent so much time and effort in restoring.
After a beautiful night sleeping under the stars, I drop back down to the lake, and after a refreshing dip in the water, drive north along the attractive north-eastern shore, which is lined by rows of pines on sandy beaches from where fishermen launch small boats. Rounding the northern tip of the lake, the road leads to the town of Sevan where I stop at the Monastery of Sevanavank. In contrast to my tranquil overnight stop, the monastery is crawling with tourists, trinket sellers, hawkers and beggars. The smell of greasy food hangs in the air and cheap Russian pop music can be heard over the sounds of jet skis on the lake below. It’s rather far removed from the dignified monasteries hidden out in the villages; all the more ironic given that Sevanavank is one of Armenia’s few still active monasteries.
Escaping the tourist circus, I continue down the western shore of the lake which is far less attractive than the east coast with a scrubby, low-lying littoral. I stop at the Monastery of Hayravank, whose interior of orange and black tuff stones is dimly lit by a skylight in the dome of the main twelfth century church, and where I witness a family sacrificing a chicken just outside. Further south I stop at the medieval cemetery of Noratus, where dozens of beautifully carved khachkars and tombstones, some engraved with the objects and activities of the deceased who are interred below, lie in glorious isolation and mostly coloured bright orange by the growth of lichen.
I wish to make my way westwards via the Geghama Mountains which separate Lake Sevan from the central part of the country, and so drive from Noratus up into the foothills, to the village of Tsaghkashen. I stop to ask directions from a house in the village, and as well as pointing out the path ahead, the family fill my bottles with drinking water and hand me a sheaf of fresh lavash; paper-thin Armenian bread, fresh from the oven. A track leads up and out of the village, into grassy hills filled with the summer camps of cow and sheep herders. I stop frequently to ask directions, at one point being invited for a cup of sweet black coffee from by a mother and son who are staying in a wagon high in the hills. The track as such soon disappears however, and I am left crawling through deep ruts and over rocks, and it’s after sunset by the time I finally find a track which heads high into the mountains. I follow the track carefully in the dark until it levels out at just over three thousand metres, then stop and camp for the night.
I wake after a cold but pleasant night on a beautiful, grassy, volcanic plateau, with several soft, ancient cinder cones to the west, whose dark red rocks are in places delicately shaded by green grass. The track ahead soon disappears again, so I climb a ridge on foot and plan my way forward through fields of boulders to the blue waters of nearby Lake Akna, where I hope to find another track running south-westwards to the village of Geghard. Despite crossing trackless terrain, the drive is straightforward but after considerable searching in the vicinity of the lake, I see that there is only one track, leading westwards towards the provincial capital of Abovyan. Descending the rough, rocky track, I pass a string of villages, then drive through Abovyan, by-passing the northern edges of Yerevan. The road runs along the southern edge of Mount Aragats, through a landscape which reminds me of southern Crete, with orchards and fields of parched yellow grass overlooked by volcanic peaks. In the city of Ashtarak I turn north, then take a side road which joins another road winding up the slopes of Aragats, built to service the Aragats Cosmic Ray Research Station, which sits at 3200 metres under the mountain’s southern summit. Reaching the end of the road, I turn and drive a little further beyond the buildings onto a steep hillside and find a place to stop for the night.
In the morning I leave the truck on the mountainside and walk up to the southern summit which at 3888 metres altitude is the lowest and also most accessible of the mountain’s four summits. Ever visible, off to the south are the two peaks of Greater and Lesser Ararat, respectively eighty eight and ninety six kilometres away, in Turkey. The two peaks of this highly prominent, dormant volcano are deeply ingrained in the Armenian soul. For much of history they were the symbol of Armenia (they are even pictured in profile on the entry stamp to Armenia made in my passport), yet for generations they have hovered in the Armenian consciousness as a painful reminder of their tragic history, just as they now hover mirage-like in the haze, tantalisingly out of reach across a sealed border. In less than two hours I am on top of the south summit, looking across a yawning caldera of craggy, beige and chocolate-brown rock, which I have all to myself until the arrival of a somewhat elderly German tour group.
After a lengthy descent, the road from Aragats leads directly to the main Yerevan – Gyumri Highway where I turn west, driving around the southern edge of the volcano towards the Turkish border. I drive as far as Mastara to see the seventh century Church of Saint Hovanes, which has never been significantly renovated and whose bulky, squat dimensions remind me of later Mongol and Seljuk architecture in Persia and Turkey. Grass grows over its broad octagonal dome, echoing its slightly forlorn location in a quiet village, set well back from the highway. I double back for a short way from Mastara, turning south and passing through Talin and the stone fortress village of Dashtadem, leaving the main road and stopping for the night on a rock-strewn volcanic terrace. In this very picturesque spot, I am overlooking the small, restored but unused seventh century Saint Christopher Church which sits on the edge of the ancient lava flows of Aragats. Beyond, to the south, the glacier on the peak of Mount Ararat is just visible through the interminable haze, gleaming in the last of the evening light.
Leaving my campsite after a relatively warm but windy night, I descend the volcanic hills and reach the fertile Ararat Plain, which constitutes something of a heartland of Armenia. I drive on almost empty roads to the Turkish border, climbing a ridge overlooking the red-orange landscape where the Aras and the Akhurian meet. I have a good view up the Aras Valley into Turkey, looking at a road I had hitch-hiked along more than eleven years ago. My reason to come here is that the two small villages on the border, Yervandashat and nearby Bagaran have historically both been capitals of Armenia, and I intend to have a look for any interesting remains. Dropping into Yervandashat, I get the impression that it’s unusual for a foreigner to be seen here and I am soon stopped by a young man in an official-looking car. My fears that I have strayed into a restricted border zone soon evaporate however as I am invited into the home of the mayor, whose nephew and very attractive niece both speak English, and explain to me whilst plying me with coffee and sweet slices of watermelon that nothing survives from this history, though they obviously flattered that I take an interest in it. Whilst Armenians may in some ways be regarded as European, their deep, intrinsic hospitality is undoubtedly Asian in its frankness.
I drive west out of Yervandashat passing the abandoned spur of a highway which in better times would lead to a border crossing with Turkey. Soon villages start to appear more frequently as I enter the irrigated lowlands which spread all the way to the capital. I stop at the Sardarapat Memorial, a striking fusion of Armenian red tuff and Soviet brutalist styles with winged oxen and a thirty-five metre bell tower inspired by medieval Armenian memorial stelae. The monument was constructed in 1968 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Sardarapat, which saw scant Armenian forces fight off the Ottomans, who in May 1918 were sweeping towards Yerevan following the withdrawal of Bolshevik forces from the region. Given that this was just three years after the Armenian Genocide, when Armenians had been effectively exterminated from many of their ancestral lands, a victory here for the Turks could have put an end to the Armenian state altogether, and thus the victorious battle is commemorated as having saved Armenia from being relegated to history books.
From the monument I drive through the shabby regional capital Armavir, continuing east past Metsamor with its elderly Soviet nuclear power station, and stop in the city of Vagharshapat. Here I am hosted by Karine, who lives in a terraced house with a garden on the northern edge of the city, with her father, sister and niece. Vagharshapat is colloquially known as Etchmiadzin as it is home to the Mother Sea of Holy Etchmiadzin, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Church is very much central to the Armenian identity; marking Armenians out as one of the oldest Christian communities. It also marks Armenia as the oldest Christian country, with Christianity having been proclaimed the state religion in the fourth century, with roots claimed to go back to first century apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus (Jude).
Karine, who works in the city as a tour guide, takes me to see the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, allegedly dating from the early fourth century, which would make it the world’s oldest cathedral. Having often been damaged and rebuilt however, the earliest parts of the structure now date from the fifth century, and from the exterior the undeniably beautiful stonework represents a fusion of Armenian styles from throughout the ages. Inside, the cathedral is beautifully decorated with seventeenth and eighteenth century frescoes and houses a museum, though I must admit to being more impressed by the stunningly beautiful girls staffing it, rather than by any of the aged trinkets or robes which Armenian visitors regard with great veneration.
More interesting to me is the nearby seventh century Saint Hripsime Church, an elegant cross church which vies with Georgia’s Jvari Monastery as the archetype for this uniquely Caucasian evolution of Byzantine design. Karine and I enter whilst a service is going on; a robed priest is giving a sermon whilst an acolyte swings a thurible, filling the air of the church’s brooding stone interior with fragrant incense. Once again I notice a rather light-hearted air in the church, with the priest and congregation laughing as a particularly dense billow of smoke engulfs the priest, momentarily interrupting him.
In the evening Karine and I drive out to the ruins of the seventh century Cathedral of Zvartnots, whose original form is unknown, beyond the ground floor of a tetraconch surrounded by a thirty-two sided gallery, which would have looked circular. Some historians reconstruct it with three concentric tiers, like a miniature Tower of Babel, though this would have made it one of the most technologically advanced structures of its day, and might be aggrandised by the Armenian’s great pride in their own history. Whatever the reality, the rotunda of partially intact arcades on Greco-Roman pillars are quite a doleful sight as they catch the last rays of red sunlight lancing through the stormy grey sky.
After two nights in Vagharshapat I say goodbye to Karine, thankful both for her hospitality and her kindness in showing me around Armenia’s holiest city. It’s just fifteen kilometres to the outskirts of Yerevan, the capital, and I drive immediately to the northern edge of the city to visit the Iranian Embassy and the nearby ‘Permanent Representation’ of the internationally unrecognised Nagorno Karabakh Republic. With visa application forms collected, I drive down into the city centre and reach a backpacker hostel where I will base myself for the next week, taking the first real rest since leaving the UK more than three months ago.
My first impressions of Yerevan are of a being a strongly Soviet city, but with distinctively Armenian architectural flourishes such as the use of pink and black tuff as in the provinces. Indeed, Yerevan expanded very rapidly in Soviet times from a provincial town of the Russian Empire to the capital of a republic. Since independence the capital has seen a small decline in population due mostly to economic migration, but also the outflow of ethnic minorities such as Russians and Azerbaijanis. Nevertheless, the city remains home to just over a third of the country’s population and with an influx of remittances from the large and often wealthy Armenian diaspora, the city contrasts starkly with the shabby provincial towns and impoverished villages. Yerevan lacks the raffish charm of Tbilisi and is rarely particularly scenic, but is feels suave, confident, prosperous and happy.
I start my exploration in the city centre, in Republic Square, which is a large, elegant, yellow tuff piece of Soviet Neoclassicism. Here one sees the usual post-Soviet nouveau riche in blacked-out SUVs; senior civil servants and businessmen milling around the central government offices. Walking generally south, I pass through some streets of terraced, late nineteenth century stone houses, then come to a large junction where the architecture is decidedly Soviet. Crossing the road, I enter the pleasant ‘Green Belt’, a strip of urban park which surrounds the eastern half of the circular city centre. Along its pathways of slightly crooked concrete slabs, mostly elderly people are packed on benches sitting, talking and reading newspapers under tall plane trees in what remains an unspoiled piece of Soviet urban planning. I walk much of the length of the park, before descending into the city’s metro system. The Soviet-era metro has a distinct feeling of under-use, with trains far shorter than those which the stations were designed for. Some of the stations are quite elaborately decorated however, particularly the Sasuntsi Davit Station, which has wall sculptures of orange tuff from Armenian folklore. I ride the metro to its southerly terminus, then walk out of the station to find scruffy, sprawling suburbs and plenty of derelict industry, but by chance happen to catch a pair of Russian MiG 29s from the nearby military airbase making manoeuvres directly overhead; a reminder that I am less than fifteen kilometres from the Turkish border, one Russia regards as its own border with NATO.
On another day, I start in the north of the centre at Freedom Square, walking north and climbing up the Yerevan Cascade; a giant stairway with intermediate tiers of carved stonework, an unusual fusion of Soviet Socio-realism and traditional Armenian styles. The top of the Cascade appears unfinished, but after a slight diversion around a derelict building site, one reaches a viewing gallery overlooking the city centre, though Ararat remains illusive in the late-summer haze of dust and pollution. Here a lonely concrete obelisk commemorates fifty years of Soviet Armenia, and steps lead further up to Victory Park and a statue of ‘Mother Armenia’ on a towering concrete plinth housing a museum of the Great Patriotic War; all very much Soviet monuments to a past which I imagine is becoming ever less important in independent Armenia.
The city has a number of museums; sadly the Museum of the Armenian Genocide is closed in preparation for next year’s centenary, but I spend a good few hours in the National Gallery which houses a mixture of Russian, European and Armenian paintings. More interesting however is the Urartian site of Erebuni in the far south of the city. Founded in 728 BCE, Erebuni Fortress, the namesake of modern Yerevan, was an important Urartian city and today houses an excellent museum of Armenian history. The Urartians, a regional civilisation who traded with the Elamites and Ancient Greeks, are regarded by Armenians as being their cultural forebears, with many Armenian legends having apparently Urartian origins. Certainly, the Urartians’ great mastery of stonework seems to have been inherited by the Armenians. Climbing the hill behind the museum are the modest remains of Erebuni, with a few ruined column bases and some Urartian cuneiform inscriptions which an Italian archaeologist points out to me. One last museum I visit is the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts at Matenadaran; a repository of beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a celebration of the Armenian alphabet, the latter of which has been pivotal in the survival of the cultural identity of a people who usually lived as a minority, yet who resisted complete assimilation into the empires of the Persians, Turks or Russians.
Aside from the city’s obvious attractions, I enjoy my time in the hostel meeting various travellers who pass through, one of the highlights of extended overland travel. Armenia is the nearest ‘free’ country which Iranians can visit visa free, and there are a remarkable number of young Iranian men indulging in alcohol and other delights which the city has to offer, often to excess. I meet Sebastian, a Swedish engineer whom I met in Samarkand in July 2011 and who is by chance spending a weekend in the city. I also befriend Ace, a young Filipino nurse living in the UAE who I will later meet again in Karabakh. Thus I spend a week in Yerevan exploring, relaxing, drinking beer and enjoying the company of fellow travellers.
This first part of my journey through Armenia has shown me many of the country’s highlights; its greatest pieces of architecture, largest cities, highest mountain and its natural jewel, Lake Sevan. The second half of my journey through the Lesser Caucasus would take me to the more rugged south, with two separate journeys into the de facto independent Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and a final drive down the spine of the country to the Iranian frontier.