Turkey’s northeast is, quite simply, the most visually arresting part of the country: whitewater rivers bustle through valleys dotted with distinctive wooden housing, and there are muscular mountains every which way you look. In addition, an almost bewildering array of ruins showcases this area’s heritage as part of the ancient kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia – eagle-eyed travellers will spy castle after castle crumbling away on inaccessible peaks. The region itself is easily accessible by bus, train or plane, though still maintains an air of remoteness – tell a big-city Turk you plan to visit the northeast, and you’ll likely provoke astonishment, followed by a wistful admission that they’d love to visit. For the few foreign travellers who make it this far there’s plenty to see and do, including tremendous skiing and hiking opportunities for active sorts.
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, starting 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, and also holds a clutch of post-Selçuk Turkish monuments. North of Erzurum, the valleys of early medieval Georgia hide dozens of little-visited churches and enchanting castles. The provincial capital of Artvin and smaller Yusufeli are logical overnight stops while in search of Georgian monuments. The latter 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.
East 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. There’s also good skiing, at Palandöken near Erzurum, and Cibiltepe near Kars.
Thanks perhaps to its 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 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 that continued until 1920. The Selçuks, their minor successor emirates and the newly ascendant Georgian kingdom jockeyed for position until swept aside by Mongol raids in the early thirteenth century and Tamerlane’s juggernaut two hundred years later; 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. Nearly half the sites described in this chapter were under Russian rule until 1914, 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”.