A forgotten town near the Turkish-Armenian border connects Orhan Pamuk and the Liberation of Bulgaria
Issue 51-52, December 2010 - January 2011
by Minka Vazkresenska; photography by Anthony Georgieff
The restaurant owner assigns some task to his helper, who disappears into the cold rainy night of Kars. Soon the boy is back in the warm, low-ceilinged room. A chinking sound is heard from within the opaque nylon bag he's holding and the two sneak into the kitchen. After a minute or two, the owner reappears, and with a genial gesture puts on the table the beers the boy has bought from the nearby grocery. They are wrapped in napkins.
While wandering around Kars, Ka, the protagonist in Snow, the 2002 novel by Orhan Pamuk, often drops by local restaurants to drink raki. However, ordinary tourists with no friends in the town would be hard put to find a place that is içkili, or licensed to serve alcohol. Luckily, some owners of içkisiz, or non-licensed, don't mind serving a bottle or two, but take care to sheathe it in a napkin.
Snow, or "Kar" in Turkish, won literary fame for Kars. There are, however, few tourists who come with the sole purpose of seeing the town, most staying only for a brief night before proceeding to Ani, Armenia's abandoned medieval capital. Kars is the nearest town to the surreal sight that this ancient city presents of half-destroyed cathedrals with gaping domes which stand on one of the banks of the heavily guarded border river Arpa Çayı.
Kars is much harder to reach than Paris, and Orhan Pamuk is not Dan Brown. This explains the absence of groups of literary tourists, armed with a map and a book, walking along Inönü Cadısı and Faikbey Cadısı, the streets mentioned in Snow, in an effort to retrace Ka's wanderings. It is the locals who climb upon the fortress above the town to bow before the türbe, or tomb, of Celal Baba, feast their eyes on the panorama spread out at their feet and munch sunflower seeds.
If we discount its role as a literary setting, Kars has another feature it is famous for – this border town is known as the coldest place in modern Turkey. Its winters are long and severe, and snowdrifts blanket the roads leading to it, severing the town from the rest of the world for days on end.
Despite its inclement weather, Kars was a craved military goal in the Middle Ages. It had been one of the stops on the Silk Road, but its significance started to dwindle when the flow of caravans ceased. The town re-appeared on the military maps again in the late 18th Century, when an ambitious Russia realised its importance for controlling another road – that connecting the Caucasus and Asia Minor.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers