I wasn’t planning on going to Erzurum. That is, until I found myself unable to get a bus from Amasya to my intended destination, Kars for the next 2 days thanks to gender-segregated bus seating… I looked at a map of Turkey and thought to myself, “hmmmm…what’s close to Kars?” Erzurum proved to be the answer.
So my only purpose in going to Erzurum was to get a bus on to Kars, but why not take a quick look around? From the outskirts by the Otogar (but station), the town looked quite drab. Modern apartment buildings that looked exactly like each other lined the streets as I found my way to a computer shop, where a friendly associate helped me buy a new charger for my computer that I so-desperately needed and pointed me in the right direction.
“Cifte Minareli Medrese” she said, and I was well on my way.
Before too long, my jaw dropped suddenly in amazement of the sight ahead of me. A black stone structure with twin minarets surrounded in scaffolding. This was what the sales associate described, a stunning Madrasa (Muslim school) dating back to the 13th century, hardly old by Turkish standards, with incredible exterior detail. Its minarets covered in bright blue tiles that sparkled in the morning sun.
I was standing there admiring the handiwork when a man approached me, asking in unusually perfect English where I was from. This fellow, I’d come to learn, was Kurdish, the first of many I’d encounter as I worked my way towards the part of Turkey where Kurds form the majority and into the fully Kurdish controlled-Iraqi Kurdistan. He told me that he was more comfortable speaking German than English thanks to his years spent in Munich as a political refugee during the 1980’s when the Turkish government harshly cracked down on the Kurds and their desire for their own state.
How was Kurdish life now, I asked my new friend? Better, he told me, but still not terribly easy. In Erzurum, which is only 30% Kurdish, the government makes it somewhat difficult to own businesses (he ran a carpet shop…do note that I visited prior to the recent cease-fire between the Turkish Government and the Kurdish rebels).
I bid adieu as I wandered behind the Madrasa to explore some strange stone structures off in the distance. These were tombs, Uc Kumbetler (literally, 3 tombs), dating back to the late 13th or early 14th century. These were unusually round with conical-shaped roofs.
The surrounding area, though, was odd. Houses that were hardly together and fields of debris lined the half-empty lots. It was an eerie sensation to walk through, as if some strange destruction had come through town. An earthquake perhaps? Or tornado? Do they have tornadoes in Turkey?
No, it was an “improvement project,” my Kurdish friend explained later. The government was tearing down the houses to create a plaza linking Cifte Minareli Medrese to these tombs and only a few holdouts remained. It reminded me of the “eminent domain” fights back home in New York City, causing a family to lose its home for the purpose of a supposed “greater good.” When I asked how they could do something like that he replied, “The Turkish government does what it wants.”
Erzurum is more religiously conservative than other places I’d been in Turkey thus far and, as the Call to Prayer came over a loudspeaker, which I’d come to appreciate a great deal throughout my travels in the Middle East, people ran towards the mosques in droves! I even saw some women wearing burqas (full body coverings), a first for my time in the any of the Muslim countries I’d visited thus far (Egypt and Jordan).
As I meandered back to the bus station to head to Kars, I was taken by a few more architectural gems along the main road, including a particularly notable Mongol-built Madrasa-turned-museum with some incredible carvings in the entry-way (pictured above). I thought about how glad I was that I’d stopped in Erzurum and about how incredibly nice the people were.
From a very jovial Lokanta (cafeteria-style eatery) owner who was keen to help me into my backpack to a waiter at a later restaurant to this Kurdish carpet shop owner and even back to that nice lady at the computer store, Erzurum had left an unexpectedly positive impression in my mind, one I’ll cherish for many years to come!