Middle East 2012 Turkey

Erzurum, Turkey: An Unexpected Architectural Masterpiece

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.

Mountains at Dawn
I looked out the bus window at dawn to find this amazing sight!

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.

First impression of Erzurum? Kind of drab…

Cifte Minareli Medrese” she said, and I was well on my way.

Erzurum Street Scene
After some breakfast, I discovered this charming street scene

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.

Medrese Minaret
The blue-tiled minaret of Cifte Minareli Medrese (Madrasa)
The back view of Cifte Minareli Medrese

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.

Old House
An old-fashioned house in Erzurum

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.

Tombs off in the distance

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?

Urban Renewal
Some of the torn down buildings near the tombs

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.”

One of the three tombs

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).

An Ottoman-era Madrasa with a beautiful pattern on the minaret and carvings around the entry-way

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.

A decaying old building

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!


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

12 replies on “Erzurum, Turkey: An Unexpected Architectural Masterpiece”

Funny how the places we don’t necessarily plan on visiting turn out to be the ones we remember the most fondly! And it just goes to show that they don’t always have to be beautiful places either; the people are what make the impression more than the sights, I often find.

Totally! That’s actually what really sold me on Iraq. Not the scenery, as it was kind of drab for most of my trip. Not the sights, as there isn’t much to see. But, oh, the people are just unforgettable! In Erzurum though it was a mix of people and the great architecture!

The problem with careful planning is that inevitably a wrench will get thrown in somewhere along the way, forcing you to make some decisions at the last minute… I’d much rather go with the flow and see where things take me!

Agh, I love it when things like this happen! I didn’t make it to Erzurum when I was in Turkey, but I remember my jaw constantly dropping as I walked around Malatya – hello, the mosque in the city centre changes colour at night! And Iasi in Romania totally shocked me. I was expecting an ugly border city, but it was gorgeous.

Ah see I didn’t make it to Malatya but I felt like that was most of my trip to Turkey. I’d walk into a place and my jaw would drop. Sure, there were some exceptions and some disappointments here and there, but they were by far the rarity! It’s better to have no expectations going into a place so you can be impressed by what you’re finding! 🙂

I kind of hate touristy places so I generally try and avoid them like the plague. Didn’t make it to Cappadocia or Ephesus and I’m ok with that. Few people venture to the East and I really loved it!

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