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A town on the border

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My overwhelming sense of the place when I was in Kars was that it was just a very strange town. My first acquaintance with the place was through Pamuk’s book Snow (Kar) which was set in Kars and when I was there it made total sense that Pamuk would set that strange novel in this very strange place.

Armenian, Selçuk, Georgian, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian, Turkish; Kars has had the chequered history of a city that is located at the confluence of empires. For most of the 20th century the town was the object of territorial tussles between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, frequently switching hands. In her article on biodiversity in Kars, Elif Batuman writes that when the Russian poet Pushkin decided to travel outside the realms of the Russian Empire he came to Kars. However, by the time he reached Kars it had been taken by the Russians and so Pushkin realised he was still in Russia after all. Kars spent its longest spell as a Russian town, when after the Russo-Turkish War (1877 – 1878), it was  transferred to Russia under the Treaty of Stan Stefano. The city became part of modern Turkey when Kazim Karabekir’s troops took the city in 1920. Today it is located on the border with Armenia and not very far from Georgia.

Kars has the air of a city that has seen better times. At one time being a border town was advantageous and the city boomed. The Armenian-Turkish border was closed in 1994, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out and has not been opened since. As a result, Kars has suffered. Its location, which was once an advantage, has now relegated it to the status of effectively being an outpost.

There is still a certain Russian air that Kars has. I kept hearing people speaking Russian while I was there. There is probably a strong underbelly that keeps trade between the closed borders going. The Russian past is also quietly referenced at almost every turn by the samovars you see. I never saw traditional Turkish çaydanlıks, but rather the very Russian-style samovars at all the tea houses. It was nice to see that they were still being used because in many other ways the other Russian influence – the architecture – is going to shit.

There are still remnants — broken and tired — of Baltic architecture here. The basalt rock houses with their clear lines add to a sense that this town has a history that it does not share with others in Turkey. But the beautiful 20th century Russian buildings have been overtaken by really atrociously bad concrete structures that hurt the eye. Imagine a cowering old basalt house with a multi-storied pink apartment block on one side and another multi-storied yellow apartment block on the other. TOKİ, the organisation that is in charge of housing development projects in Turkey had signs all over the city. It didn’t make me hopeful. If anything, Kars will probably see an explosion of ugly, cheap construction projects. Unfortunately, that will only make it more similar to other cities in this country, and less like Kars.

Written by vedicakant

June 14, 2012 at 14:07

Posted in Colour, Photography, Travel

The Sky

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We visited Gallipoli over the weekend. It was an amazing trip — incredibly beautiful, incredibly moving. It had rained heavily the night before we went to look at the battlefield. The sea was a variety of blues. The sky was ever-changing.

In Istanbul, the weather and the sky is extremely changeable. I think this has to do with its location on the bosphorous. You can literally see the clouds moving. Once, on a bus ride up the bosphorous it seemed that the bus was in a race with the dark rain clouds that were quickly advancing to the Black Sea. It was similar in Gallipoli, which is also located on a strait. The clouds moved and changed colour quickly — from threatening dark grey to cottony white through wich the sun shone. In Gallipoli, where the traces of the War are everywhere, even looking at the sky called back to the soldiers who fought here. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell talks about how important the sky was in the soldiers’ imagination.

To be in the trenches was to experience an unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented and lost. One saw two things only: the walls of an unlocalised, undifferentiated earth and the sky above. … What a survivor of the Salient remembers fifty years later are the walls of dirt and ceiling of sky, and his eloquent optative cry rises as if he were still imprisoned there: “To be out of this present, ever-present , eternally present misery, this stinking world of sticky, trickly earth ceilinged by a strip of threatening sky.” As the only visible theater of variety, the sky becomes all-important. It was the sight of the sky, almost alone, that had the power to persuade a man that he was not already lost in a common grave. 

Fussell quotes the diary of a soldier:

Was it Ruskin who said that the upper and more glorious half of Nature’s pageant goes unseen by the majority of people? … Well, the trenches have altered that. Shutting off the landscape, they compel us to observe the sky; and when it is a canopy of blue flecked with white clouds …, and when the earth below is a shell-sticken waste, one looks up with delight, recalling perhaps the days when, as a small boy, one lay on the garden lawn at home counting the clouds as they passed.

Written by vedicakant

May 23, 2012 at 07:52

Posted in Colour, Soldiers, Travel, War

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Written by vedicakant

May 4, 2012 at 22:10

Posted in Colour, Istanbul

Indian Soldiers in Istanbul

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Yesterday I visited the English cemetery in the Asian neighbourhood of Haydaypaşa. It required a bit of hunting  and perseverance (which seems to be a prerequisite to enter any non-Turkish cemetery in the city). I was eventually helped out by one of the men at a restaurant at the Haydarpaşa station, who led us across the train tracks (which had signs along the lines of ‘Demiryolunun hatlarını geçmek tehlikeli ve yasaktır’  — crossing the railway tracks is dangerous and forbidden. It is always dangerous AND forbidden to do certain things here), up a small hill and helped get the cemetery open.

The Haydarpaşa English cemetery was initially used as a cemetery for the soldiers who died in the Crimean War. The Selimiye Barracks, which are nearby, were where Florence Nightingale famously treated and cared for the Crimean war wounded. It is also where a large number of the British community of Istanbul and Smyrna (now Izmir) are buried. After the First World War, a large number of British Prisoners of War who had been captured on the Turkish front were also buried here.

It was mostly for the last reason that I visited. I have been interested in trying to find out more about Indian soldiers who found themselves fighting on the Mesopotamian front. Mesopotamia saw the largest influx of Indian soldiers. Over the course of the many campaigns, close to 675,000 Indian fighting troops as well as hundreds of thousands of auxiliary troops  were involved in Mesopotamia. When General Townshend’s troops surrendered in April 1916, the POWs were marched all the way from Mesopotamia to POW camps in Turkey. Most of those who survived probably ended up at the POW camps in Afyonkarahissar (the name ‘black poppy castle’ always makes me chuckle). Apparently, there are still some memorial stones in that region of Anatolia, but most of the Indian POWs are remembered here in Istanbul.

Written by vedicakant

April 23, 2012 at 09:21

Posted in Colour, Istanbul


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The Pera Museum has an exhibition on titled Sultans, Merchants, Painters: The Early Years of Turkish-Dutch Relations. The absolute best thing about the exhibition was the colour of the walls. So yellow!!


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February 18, 2012 at 21:33


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December 10, 2011 at 15:47


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Back in the city. For the first time in winter. It is even more beautiful.

Written by vedicakant

December 3, 2011 at 22:03

Posted in Colour, Istanbul, Photography, Travel

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