Erzurum is a fantastic name, isn’t it? Call it Karin or Arzan ar-Rum and the city does not lose any of its solid feeling. But that’s not the point of our wonderings; the question is “What is this city doing up there in the mountains?” It is not unusual that an eccentric idea strikes the mind of a lunatic, or an ascet, or just a regular dreamer. Erecting a dwelling in what is now eastern Turkey, at an altitude of nearly 18 hundred meters far north from the equator and in a hostile and barren region, surrounded by towering treeless peaks, is hard enough and sounds sufficiently surreal; convincing thousands of people to follow such an enterprise and settle permanently there resembles an art of magic. Who founded Erzurum and what has made people inhabit the city for millenia? These type of questions along with the more prosaic thought of whether we are gonna freeze in motion bother our minds while we slowly progress through a hilly white dessert glowing and twinkling under the cool and feeble sun of December.
A day earlier, partially excited and slightly uncertain, we hopped onto the train at Ankara Railway Station armed with a pair of tickets, a present from an old friend, that although seemed authentic enough hardly qualified as such. Several hours later, sipping tea and playing “tavla” inside the belly of the metal beast, we conclude that we have successfully hitch-hiked the first train of this travel. Galloping over night through a good half of Turkey, we wake up in a land, tributary to Winter, that gives away its soil to snow and ice for more than six months a year. Out of the window, half frozen rivers transport chunks of ice to nobody knows where, while scattered and quiet stony villages break the never-ending frosty panorama only to reinforce the encompassing feeling of isolation. Woolly and fluffy sheep dot the landscape here and there; flocks of magpies and ravens converge to keep each other warm, while perching on opportunistic grey trees that dare growing around. Solitary hawks and vultures sail through the frozen air searching vainly for a confused prey. Still drowsy and while fighting the morning haze off our heads, we silently observe the severe and melancholically solemn beauty of the environment spread in all directions. It’s fairly obvious to us what would drive a traveller’s steps into this region – the reasons lie all around , although in our case the interest was sparkled by Boris’ compulsive daily check of the weather forecast in the coldest regions of earth. In any case, the will to settle in this lands still seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.
Suddenly, cloud-producing factories bring us back to the industrial world; concrete chimneys spitting balls of smoke salute us upon arrival at Erzurum. And soon our questions meet an answer. It is not that people moved in here because the mountains hide abundance of precious stones; neither that it used to be an Anatolian gulag where prisoners disturbing the ruling class were sent to toil and slowly perish. Not a wonder on earth neither hell, simply Erzurum lays on a trade artery connecting Europe and Asia and was also a gateway to the region of Anatolia, so that scores of people had to pass the high plateau in order to escape the surrounding mountains on their way west. Commerce and power aspirations brought the city to life, but also marked it with the scar of violent brutality. Over thousands of years, Erzurum saw the bloody rises and falls of empires and swore allegiances to ambitious rulers of various origins – Hitites, Armenians, Romans and Sassanids, Byzanties, Seljuks, Ottomans and Russians, all scrambled for Anatolia.
And now that the silk route is a fancy thing of the past, an inspiration for ragged travellers and armchair historians, Erzurum’s actual importance has fallen to obscurity. The battlefield has now been moved south-east, as dusty merchant paths no longer matter and this is not anymore a gateway to Europe. But the military brawls for control over the city, no matter how buried in the past, still cast a shadow and stick to its memory with the kind of vanity that human settlements enjoy. Erzurum tells and re-tells the story of how it was once admired and disputed, of the treasures its rocky chest used to hold and of how the father of the nation (Ataturk) chose it as a corner stone in the building of theTurkish national identity. However, its memory suffers serious lapses, and as one explores the long stories of its Ethnographic museum, the city’s idea of history is challenged by the omissions and twists to the story of the Armenians who inhabited this place until 1915. A sinister example of nationalism – the common schizophrenic syndrome fueled by those who seek power – holds the city, and we could say the entire country, in its tight grasp.
Derelict grey blocks and shabby houses overlook broken down and uneven pavements, mischievously covered by a thick crust of slippery ice, which seems to be the explanation to the unusual bluish and asymmetric make-up that it’s in vogue this winter. Sharp, meter-long icicles hang casually from roof-tops and balconies and, resembling a guillotine, await patiently the moment they will strike down. We walk cautiously, unsure to whether we should better look at where we step or at what’s above. Sensing our insecurity an old stooped grand-mother decides to flavour our day by attempting to trip us down with her wooden cane. Then, laughing out loud at our dumbfound faces, she walks away mumbling something that only the Turkish evil eye can protect us from. “They say that if a stranger does not fall down in Erzurum he will marry a local”, tells us Walker – our host, who has recently acquired a blue eye and is obviously not going to spend here more than a few months. This makes us think that the old lady was simply trying out how worth we are of the local beauties.
We have plenty of opportunities to slip down the streets while searching around for the copper neighbourhood in town, to make a wrong move astonished by the Mongol carpet-like minaret, or by the twin symetric ones, or to slide down the castle walls while exploring them from the outside only. Not to forget the dangers of meeting the ice at one of the hundred fountains. But despite looking like a thug boy, Erzurum feels charming. Probably its the mixture of roughness and a romantic foreign touch that makes us want to spent a little longer here, and since there is no particular reason to legitimately delay our departure, we decide to make one up: we have something to mail but the post-office is closed on Sundays, so we fear that walking through the border to Georgia as roving Santas may inspire an undesirable curiosity (Marta shivering at the mere thought of having to open and re-pack her 10 pretty parcels once again) and rapidly conclude that another day in the company of Rikki – a cool 19 years old model – turned to cook – turned to full time adventurer, and Walker – a proud hobo and a great human– is way better, because as the latter says “Erzurum kicks ass!”.