Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kars at Cultural Crossroads?

Kars, at Turkey's border to the Caucasus, is today mostly known as the place where Pamuk's novel Snow takes place, among raging snowstorms and conflicts between the modern and the tradtional. Kars is a contrast and a crossroads - a natural anomaly in current Turkey, where it roughly symbolises "the back of beyond." Pamuk's hero Ka obviously alludes to Kafka's Joseph K - the lonely male hero entwined in a chaos of events beyond his control, which rules his life and actions. The Turkish name of the novel Kar (snow) carries that reference as well as a pun of the city name.

The real Kars lies beyond the rapid development and increasing growth of modern Turkey, but is also at the centre of its historical identity crisis and rolling borders. Pamuk's Kars bears an important likeness to reality: The situation for women appears depressing. Despite the open-minded girls that address you in English in the streets, women's organisations active in the region speak about staying customs that makes one think of the historical and mythical Caucasian bride robberies. That the city has received a university, in Turkish called the "Caucasian," naturally instills much hope for the future, regardless of evident poverty and barren highlands.

Citizens themselves speak about how local economy would benefit from opening up the border to Armenia, with an injection to local businesses as an expected effect – a northeastern parallel to Gaziantep's rise to the position of industrial hub of southern Turkey, focussing on border trade with Syria and beyond. The border to Armenia has only been kept open during 1991-93, viz. after the fall of the Soviet Union but before the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabağ conflict. Turkish-Armenian relations are infected by the echoes of history. Attempts made at regional integration, e.g. within the area of infrastructure, containing both railway lines and pipelines common between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, are apparently formed to circumvent Armenia. That it is easier to step closer to Georgia is illustrated by the fact that Turkish Airlines this year opens a domestic route to Batumi, whose new airport has been constructed by a Turkish company, in order to serve the northeastern provinces of Turkey.

Beyond Kars – literally on the border to Armenia – is Ani, a medieval city in ruins of magnificent proportions, which previously was an Armenian capital and a trade centre of importance along the Silk road. The city, during its height, was challenged only by Constantinople in power and splendour. Here the name of the princely family Bagrationi – so familiar in Russian history – still echoes, even though Ani in the course of history changed hands between Armenian, Georgian, and Seljuk rule, before the hordes of Timerlane finally laid the city in ruins at the end of the 14th century. Ever since, Kars has been the regional hub. Today, the main threat to Ani paradoxically emanates from Armenia. The quakes and splinters from a quarry on the Armenian side of the border allegedly threaten to damage and destroy remaining cathedrals, with Turkish protests as a consequence.

The architecture, culture, history, and art of Kars are characterised from having been molded over the centuries at the crossroads of three empires – the Russian, the Turkish, and the Persian – which in different ways are still present. Georgian, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish influences are visible in the underlayer of these. Carpets and rugs bear resemblance to the Caucasian, and the Tula samovars still simmer in the cafés. The modern city plan is clearly Russian, as the city belonged to the Russian empire during 1878-1921, when there was an ambition to build a "petit Peterbourg" at the foot of the Caucasus. Straight boulevards lined with proportionate Russian 19th century architecture still remains an emblem of Kars. Above the city, the castle dating back to the Bagrationi era hovers. Beneath it, the mossy Armenian cathedral of the Apostles soars aloft, saved for posterity as a mosque, with iconostasis remaining and the addition of wall-to-wall prayer carpeting.

With Russian rule from 1878, the modern history of Kars was begun. Having been a century old bone of contention between the Ottoman and Russian empires, with recurrent Russian sieges and conquests in 1807, 1828, and 1855, Kars eventually was awarded Russia due to the San Stefano peace agreement concluding the 1877-78 Turco-Russian war. Thus, the Turks were driven out of the region until the Russian revolution.

In 1892, the population of the Kars region consisted of 24% Turks, 21.5% Armenians, 15% Kurds, 14% Azeris, 13.5% Greek, 7% Russians, and 5% Turkmen. After the 1918 peace of Brest-Litovsk, Kars faced turbulent years. At first, the region befell the Southwest-Caucasian Republic, only to be occupied by the Democratic Republic of Armenia in 1919. By the 1920 Turko-Armenian war and the Alexandropol agreement, Kars was returned to Turkey. Still, before the ink had dried, the Bolsheviks conquered Armenia and the Kars issue was yet again unresolved.

It was only by the 1921 Kars agreement, between the RSFSR and the even younger Turkish Republic, that the border was finally regulated and Turkey regained its reign over the region. In the light of history, it was an agreement between two in many ways strikingly similar new regimes that had been made: Revolutionary Russia and Republican Turkey – both infant states after the imperial downfalls caused by WW I. That this legacy is still cherished is evident by the fact that the train wagon, in which the Kars agreement was signed, still remains in the city, as a memorial to the imperial struggle over the region. A question of interest in this context is how Turkeys' and Soviet Russia's obvious ability to enter into international agreements (for Turkey this might actually have been the first as the Republic was formally proclaimed several years later) influenced world perceptions of the growing capacities of these new states.

The loss of Kars for long remained an open wound in Soviet self-image. After WW II, Stalin thus prepared to reconquer the region. He was prevented in this ambition only by the determined veto of Churchill.

Kars forms part of current Turkey, but still remains in its periphery. Gradually, the city sets its imprints on the mental map even beyond the literary legacy of Pamuk. Last autumn, it hosted an international film festival on a European theme. The city takes part in cross-border cooperation activities in the Caucasus and within the Black Sea cooperation. In today's dynamic Turkey, Kars might perhaps find its own way to link its multi-faceted historical heritage to the challenges that future brings.

Text: Vilhelm Konnander & Josa Kärre
Pictures: Josa Kärre

1 comment:

Maral said...

Dear Vilhelm,

You have a very interesting blog, good work. I also wanted to thank you for stopping by and commenting at my posts (in my blog). I don't know why your post didn't show up at my blog, but to answer your question about the background music of "The Armenian Affairs", it is an old Armenian folk song, it's titled "Groong".

Keep Up The Good Work
Yours sincerely,