Kars Castle 1877

The Castle (Kale) of Kars stands on an ancient tumescence in the landscape of Eastern Anatolia, overlooking the Kars River. It’s the sort of impressive  eminence you see five hours drive away, down south, in Van Castle: a high place co-opted by the humans throughout history. The humans, in the case of Kars Castle, include, but are not limited to, as legal documents love to say, Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Russians and Mongols. It has seen them all come and most of them go. The (relatively) unlimited list in the Kars area itself, dating back to 1300 B.C. is:

  • Urartian
  • Scythian
  • Kimmerian
  • Persian
  • Roman
  • Arsakian
  • Sassanian
  • Umayyad
  • Abbasid
  • Byzantian
  • Bagratian
  • Seljuk
  • Saltukid
  • Mongolian
  • Georgian
  • Karakonyunlu
  • Aqqoyunlu
  • Ottoman
  • Russian
  • Turkish

Remains of Kars Castle date back to the 12th century but it’s unlikely that this is the backstop, historically speaking. Such naturally high places throughout the world have been recruited by civil, military and religious forces for aeons. Heights are closer to the ethereal, in the case of religions. The utility of commanding heights speak for themselves, in military terms. You are relatively safe from attack and can defend the inner sanctum with many lovely strategies including, but also not limited to, boiling liquids, killing zones and firepower. Commonsense also dictates location – the Kars River below, which partially freezes over in the – 20, anyone? – and more Eastern Anatolian winter. In the flat plains of Mesopotamia, the high places are often man-made – ziggurats and pyramids. As you push into Anatolia, the intricacies of the landscape provide plenty of natural, rocky high places – Göbekli Tepe being just one ancient example.

And I really did drag myself up the winding path to the castle proper, mindful of a saying common in Bavaria: Die Berge von unten, die Kirchen von außen und die Kneipen von innen (The mountains from below, the churches from outside and the pubs from inside). Quite. The view from the top was worth the winded walk but as for what remains behind the walls, there isn’t that much visible, after military events and climate have had their way. Like many ascents, it is the being there at the breathtaking top that is the thing along with the breath retaking descent to, in my case, the fine restaurant beneath Kars Castle. A restaurant where you can eat superb Turkish food without being fleeced, which is not always the case in touristy spots.

But then, Kars isn’t terribly touristy, and could probably benefit from more. With its fine food shops and restaurants and Baltic buildings, it certainly deserves a bit more. Its many masters have all left their mark on it, from Russians and Armenians and Azerbaijanis to Turks and Kurds. On the map, from the Turkish Black Sea border with Georgia, a string of cities naturally guard the passages from the east, from Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan, into Eastern Anatolia: Hopa, Artvin, Ardahan, Kars, Agri, Igdir, Dogubeyazit, Van.

Directly south of Lake Van, you are heading for Northern Mesopotamia, Iraq and the contiguous border between Iraq and Iran, running all the way to the Persian Gulf. But Kars (and Van) are the cities facing Iran, Armenia Azerbaijan and, in the particular case of Kars, Georgia and the Caucasus.

North of Van Castle is Georgia, East is Armenia, far South is Iraq and back West is the great, variegated expanse of Anatolia, scrapped over from time immemorial, pre – Göbekli Tepe. If Turkiye is the bridgehead to Europe, Kars and Van are the historic guardians of the passages from the East, with all their own high places.

And Kars Castle is a reminder of days when these passages were preeminent in world affairs.