One of eastern Turkey’s few large cities, ERZURUM sits almost 2000m above sea level on the slopes of a burly mountain range, some of whose peaks poke at least another kilometre higher. It’s fair to say that the city’s reputation fails to live up to these lofty heights – Turks from elsewhere deride Erzurum as too conservative and too prone to earthquakes, while travellers tend to use it as a place in which to break long journeys, or start mountaineering and rafting expeditions bound for the Kaçkar Dağları. However, the city’s devout nature is actually one of its highlights: mosques here are not only fancy but full of worshippers night after night, while many local women wear the black chador – a cultural import from nearby Iran – or the çarşaf, a full-length hooded robe tinted the same dun colour as the surrounding steppe. Add to this a compact group of very early Turkish monuments and a city centre recently beautified with fountains, small parks and the like, and you may even find yourself wanting to stay longer.
As the highest city in Turkey, Erzurum endures winters that are both long and hard – temperatures often plunge below -30oC. Keeping local homes warm at these times is a matter of survival, rather than comfort, and even some of the city’s more modern apartment blocks sport wood-fire niches on their balconies. Despite the brutal wind and bone-chilling temperatures, however, winter is high season: tourists aplenty (mostly Turks and Russians) arrive to use the excellent skiing facilities at Palandöken, just south.
Because of a strategic location astride the main trade routes to Persia, the Caucausus and western Anatolia, Erzurum’s sovereignty has always been contested. 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. Finally, the 1970s saw Erzurum become a bit of a hippy hub, thanks to its location on the way east to Iran, Afghanistan and India – travellers of a certain vintage still remember it rather fondly.