Kars city was a destination on my north to east tour of Turkey. Before I left, I excitedly discussed my plans with two Turkish friends. I was going to spend one day in Kars with a tour group, then extend my stay on my own for three days.
The mention of Kars prompted astonished looks on their faces.
“You cannot stay in Kars alone” they said. “You will never come back”
Now at this point, I was concerned. What did they know that I didn’t? Was Kars a center for human trafficking?
Was in the back of beyond, far from civilization?
They continued their concern without answering my question
“Just it is a horrible city and you won’t come back”
Now, knowing my friends and their lack of travel experiences, I asked when they had actually visited the city. It turned out they had never been. Not even anywhere near it! So in my eyes, their concerns were unfounded but I soon discovered they were not the first Turks to think like that. Perhaps it’s the mishmash of cultural and historical identities that puts many people off Kars but this just enhanced my visit to the city.
Kars History With the Russians
Kars has a strong connection with Russia. The Russian empire attacked Kars in 1828 and seized control from the Ottomans but it was a tug-of-war; they lost power and seized it again in 1878. After the First World War, it fell to Armenian rule, then eventually the Turkish republic.
The Russians were not going to give up though and in 1945, attempted to regain Kars through peaceful dialogue. They were unsuccessful. These days, the only Russian connection is seen in architecture style of old buildings, many of which now are under preservation status.
It was suggested to me that I could find out more about Russian presence in the Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Pasa house, however despite three visits to this museum, it was always closed.
The Armenian Historical Connection
Kars is situated a small distance from the border with Armenia and is rarely mentioned in travel guides. This is a shame because it’s the nearest overnight accommodation to the historical 1001 churches. Known as the ruins of Ani, these old Armenian churches are not on the grand scale of other historical ruins like Ephesus, but they are certainly impressive.
The problem is they are in the East of Turkey and most tourism promotion in Turkey is focused on the long sandy beaches of the West. There are also political issues between Turkey and Armenia that perhaps explains the lack of interest.
Apart from a leachy taxi driver, the people of Kars were friendly and welcoming. The younger generations appeared positively enthusiastic and have embraced fashion trends that were evident in tight blue jeans, high heels and logo T-shirts. This was far different from the eastern conservative dress sense that I expected.
There were also a small percentage of locals that stood out because of their facial appearances. Men and women displayed chiselled, clean looks with defining features and piercing eyes. Their skin was a lot lighter but perfectly suited the jet black hair that framed their faces.
It was only a slight difference that first time visitors to Turkey would not pick up on however I had never seen this typical Turkish or Kurdish facial appearance before. Anyone who knows Turkey will also agree that from the west to the east, facial appearances and characteristics do change; the stereotype light coloured hair of Laz people is one example.
I assumed the different facial appearance was because of the historical connections to Russia or Armenia so during a chance conversation with a local stationary shop owner; I questioned the ethnic diversity of the population of Kars. The biggest surprise was that there are many Azerbaijanis in Kars. Some just come over the border to work, while others have Azerbaijan blood in the family history.
The Azerbaijan influences might not be present in history, churches or the architectural style of buildings but it does add another twist to the diversity of Kars to find out they form a large percentage of the population.
Understanding Kars City
I have researched the presence of Russians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds and Turks in Kars. The result is a confusing and intertwining connection throughout a historical time-line full of conflict. These days, it is peaceful city though and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. If anyone tells you not to go to Kars, ignore them. It is not a dark city in the back of beyond. It is culturally rich and a wonderful place to visit.
- Writer Merve Busra Özturk explores the cultural richness of Kars due to it being a border city
- Writer Pat Yale suggests the negative attitude about Kars is because of Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow”. She encourages a visit to the city and has listed things to do
- Plot line for the famous novel “Snow” which is set in the city of Kars