Nearly 2000m up, its horizons defined by mountains a further 1000m above, and rocked by frequent earthquakes, ERZURUM is Turkey’s highest and most exposed city, and one of its most devout; some women wear sack-like çarşafs (full-length robes with hoods and veils) tinted the same dun colour as the surrounding steppe, whilst others wear the black chador, a cultural import from nearby Iran. Because of a strategic location astride the main trade routes to Persia, the Caucausus and western Anatolia, its sovereignty has always been contested, and today it’s still a major garrison town of over 400,000 people. All told, the combination of history, climate and earthquakes has resulted in a bleak, much-rebuilt place where sunlight can seem pale even in midsummer, and where the landscaped, broad modern boulevards often end abruptly in literally the middle of nowhere.
While it spent the 1960s and 1970s as a transit stop for overlanders on the way to Iran, Afghanistan and India, Erzurum never really made the transition from hippy hub to mass tourism, though it gets some trade in winter thanks to the excellent skiing facilities at Palandöken just to the south. During summer, the city serves as an occasional base and staging point for mountaineering and rafting expeditions bound for the Kaçkar Dağları, but it also deserves a full day in itself to see a compact group of very early Turkish monuments.
Although the site had been occupied for centuries before, a city only rose to prominence here towards the end of the fourth century AD, when the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II fortified the place and renamed it Theodosiopolis. Over the next five hundred years the town changed hands frequently between Constantinople and assorted Arab dynasties, with a short period of Armenian rule.
After the decisive battle of Manzikert in 1071, Erzurum – a corruption of Arz-er-Rum, or “Domain of the Byzantines” in Arabic – fell into the hands of first the Selçuks and then the Saltuk clan of Turks. These were in turn displaced by the İlhanid Mongols during the fourteenth century, forerunners of Tamerlane himself, who used the city as a springboard for his brief blitzkrieg into western Anatolia. Erzurum was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire by Selim I in 1515, where it remained securely until 1828, after which the Russians occupied it on three occasions.
Skiing at Palandöken
Skiing at Palandöken
Palandöken, stretching 5–6.5km south of town, offers far and away the best skiing in Turkey, more than adequate compensation for being stuck in Erzurum during its habitually arctic winters. With largely north-facing slopes ranging from 2300m near the Palan Hotel up to Point 3125 on Mount Ejder, excellent conditions (essentially nice dry powder on a two-metre base) are just about guaranteed. Pistes total 35km at present, with 10km more projected; currently seven chairlifts, two drag-lifts and a telecabin give access to eight easy, six intermediate and two advanced runs, as well as four recognized off-piste routes.