Hidden in a natural basin on the banks of the Kars Çayı, KARS is an oddly attractive town, unusual in Turkey thanks to a few incongruous terraces of Russian belle époque buildings. Although a couple of hundred metres lower than Erzurum, the climate is even more severe; winters are fierce, while when it rains, which it often does, the outskirts become a treacherous swamp. Most visitors have made the long trek out here for the sole purpose of visiting the former Armenian capital of Ani, but a few sights are certainly worth dallying for, and the city makes a pleasant place in which to break up a tour of the northeast with a few days’ rest. It has also found fame as the setting for the novel Snow, by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.
Kars was once one of Turkey’s ugliest cities, but things are improving. The central streets are clean, and have been repaved with cobbles or bricks, though watch out for some near-invisible steps on the pavements. The best area to stroll around, Ordu Caddesi, is lined with some fantastic Russian architecture, while the winding road to the citadel above town is dotted with appealing pre-Ottoman structures.
Kars was originally founded by the Armenians, who knew it as Kari. It became the capital of their Bagratid dynasty early in the tenth century, when the citadel that still dominates the town was substantially improved. Later that century, the main seat of Armenian rule was transferred to nearby Ani, and Kars lost importance. The Selçuks took it along with almost everything else in the area during the mid-eleventh century, but devastating Mongol raids made a mockery of the new overlords’ plans. In 1205 the Georgians, profiting from the waning of both Selçuk and Byzantine power, seized the town and held it for three centuries until displaced by the Ottomans.
The Russians tried repeatedly during the nineteenth century to capture what they saw as the key to Anatolia. Sieges in 1828 and 1855 – the latter during the Crimean War, when a British and Turkish garrison was starved out of the citadel after five months – were successful, but on both occasions Kars reverted to the Ottomans by terms of peace treaties. Not so in 1878, when, after a bloody eight-month war between the two powers, the city was finally awarded to the Tsar. It only returned to Turkish rule following the Treaty of Kars in 1920. In the immediate aftermath of World War II the Soviet Union made unsuccessful attempts to overturn the treaty and reclaim the city.