Few travellers make it to Turkey’s northeast, but many of those who do find it the most stimulating part of the country – imagine rafting down a raging whitewater river, hiking along a bucolic valley, or peering at distant horizons from a snow-covered mountaintop. Yet this outdoor appeal is far from the full story, since you’ll also find a fair amount of history sprinkled into the mix – the area now borders the modern states of Georgia and Armenia, but was once actually part of their two predecessor kingdoms. A tremendous number of ruins survived the Ottoman era, and eagle-eyed travellers will spy castle after castle crumbling away on inaccessible peaks.
Much of northeastern Anatolia is a high, windswept plateau segmented by ranks of eroded mountains. Four great rivers – the Çoruh, Kura, Aras and Euphrates – rise here, beginning courses that take them to scattered ends in the Black, Caspian and Persian seas. Despite ambitious development projects, much of the area remains poor – horse-drawn ploughs are still a common sight, as are stacks of cow-dung used for fuel; indeed, some of the more remote farm communities, and even whole villages, live partly underground in burrow-houses. In comparison, the relatively prosperous and forested valleys around Yusufeli and Artvin have a lighter atmosphere and quasi-Mediterranean climate, as a tangible Caucasian influence begins to be felt.
However you approach – from central Anatolia, the extreme southeast of Turkey, or the Black Sea – your first stop is likely to be Erzurum, long a goal of armies and merchants and the only real urban centre. Today it’s the main jumping-off point to just about anywhere else in the region, with a clutch of post-Selçuk Turkish monuments to distract you. North of Erzurum lie the valleys of early medieval Georgia, now part of Turkey, which hide dozens of churches and enchantingly set castles, all little visited and arguably the most rewarding targets in this area. The provincial capital of Artvin and the small town of Yusufeli are the logical overnight stops while in search of Georgian monuments, and Yusufeli also sits astride the most popular southern approach to the magnificent Kaçkar Dağları, a trekker’s paradise that separates northeast Anatolia from the Black Sea. Northeast of Erzurum, Kars is the last major town before the Armenian frontier, and serves as the base for visits to the former Armenian capital of Ani and less heralded, isolated Armenian churches and castles in the province, together comprising the biggest tourist attraction in the region. There’s also good skiing in the area, at Palandöken near Erzurum, and Cibiltepe near Kars.
Perhaps because of the discouraging climate and meagre resources, this corner of the country was thinly settled until the second millennium BC. The Urartians had their northernmost city at today’s Altıntepe, near Erzincan, between the ninth and sixth centuries, but the next real imperial power to make an appearance was the Roman Empire, succeeded by the Byzantines and Armenians. The eleventh-century undermining of the Armenian state and the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert marked the start of a pattern of invasion and counterattack, which was to continue until 1920. The Selçuks, their minor successor emirates and the newly ascendant Georgian kingdom jockeyed for position in the territory until swept aside by Mongol raids in the early thirteenth century and Tamerlane’s juggernaut in the early 1400s; the Ottomans finally reasserted some semblance of centralized control early in the sixteenth century.
Just as the northeast had been a remote frontier of the Byzantines, so it became the border of this new Anatolian empire, confronting an expansionist Tsarist Russia, which effectively ended what remained of Georgia’s autonomy in 1783. As the Ottomans declined, Russia grew bolder, advancing out of its Caucasian fortresses to lop off slices of the region on several occasions during the nineteenth century, though they got to keep their conquests only in 1829 and 1878. Until 1914 nearly half of the sites described in this chapter were under Russian rule, with additional conquests up to 1917 nullified by the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the Caucasian front. Between 1915 and 1921 the area was the scene of almost uninterrupted warfare between White Russian, Armenian Dashnakist and Turkish Nationalist armies, and of massacres among the mixed civilian population that had historically been over a third Armenian and Georgian-Christian.
By 1923 the northeast was all but prostrate, with ninety percent of its former population dead or dispersed. The present international boundaries between Turkey and Georgia or Armenia are the result of treaties between Atatürk and the Soviet Union in March and October 1921, and don’t necessarily reflect historical divisions (indeed as late as 1945 Stalin was still demanding that Kars and Ardahan be returned to the “Russian motherland”).Read More