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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

Deciphering Ruins

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June 4, 2012 at 19:42

Posted in Monochrome, Travel

Pillbox View

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Written by vedicakant

May 28, 2012 at 19:55

Posted in Photography, Travel, War

Turkey’s War

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One of the interesting things about visiting the Gallipoli peninsula was seeing the many different ways in which the battle gets appropriated by Turkish nationalism. The victory of the Ottoman army is seen as the first step on the path of independence, the defeat of the allied forces here making way for the defeat of invading and occupying armies elsewhere. Of course, the battle in Gallipoli was fought well before the independence struggle was ever launched (it ended in 1916, whereas the War of Independence began only in 1919 — the precise date, as every Turk learns, is the day Mustafa Kemal arrived in Samsun, May 16 1919), and was a victory for the Ottoman Empire. The Sultanate was abolished in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, who was commanding the troops in the independence struggle, and with that came the end of the Empire. The Republic itself very pointedly blamed all the country’s ills on the corrupt, degenerate Ottomans, so why the Empire’s victory is celebrated with so much emotion, pomp and vigour is an open question, but hey, that’s probably just nitpicking.

Mustafa Kemal’s statue at the sight where he commanded the 57th Infantry Regiment against the ANZAC troops. It was also here that he was hit by shrapnel but saved by the pocket watch he kept in his breast pocket.

What really connects Gallipoli with the War of Independence is the figure of Mustafa Kemal. Lieutent-Colonel Kemal was the front-line commander of the 19th Division and was instrumental to the Ottoman success at Gallipoli. Of particular importance was the counter-attack he led against the invading ANZAC troops in April of 1915. It’s the stuff of legend in Turkey. Kemal told the 57th Infantry Regiment —

I do not order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places.

Every soldier of the regiment was either killed in action or wounded. Today, there is no 57th regiment in the Turkish army as a sign of respect. While Kemal was watching the fighting, he was also hit by a piece of shrapnel but saved by the pocket watch he kept in his breast pocket. The site where he was hit is marked by his statue and the area where the battle is fought a site of pilgrimage for Turks. While we were there, we saw people stand in front of the graves of the soldiers who died here and pray.

One of the many legends about the Turkish flag, and its brilliant red date back to Gallipoli. It is said the battle fields had become red with the blood of the soldiers. When the moon came out it reflected in the pool of blood. The flag represents this – a sign of respect and remembrance for the soldiers who died fighting for this country. It’s an incredibly moving story, at least for someone like me, but then I have a soft spot for this kind of Kemalist nationalism, but no one seems to remember that those soldiers were not fighting for Turkey, but for the Empire and its Sultan. Small detail.

The ‘Dur Yolcu!’ sign seen from Çanakkale.

In Gallipoli, the memory of the battle is everywhere. This is, of course, necessarily the case because of the very physical reminders of the campaign — the trenches, the graves, empty pill boxes, shrapnel and weaponry that are still discovered today — but there has also been a concerted effort to memorialise the battle. In Çanakkale, the city on the Asian side of the Dardanelles, a massive sign has been carved onto a hillside that is visible as one crosses the straits or from the European shore. It simply says in red ’18 Mart 1915′. That was the date the allies started their naval assault on the straits. The local university in the town is also called 18th March University. Near Kilitbahir on the European shore of the straits a similar sign has the following words

Dur yolcu!
Bilmeden gelip bastığın,
Bu toprak, bir devrin battığı yerdir.

The words are a fragment from a poem by Necmettin Halil Onan. Stop traveller, it says, this land that you unknowingly tread on once witnessed the end of an era. The complete verse is translated along these lines –

Stop wayfarer! Unbeknownst to you this ground
You come and tread on, is where an epoch lies;
Bend down and lend your ear, for this silent mound
Is the place where the heart of a nation sighs.

Busts of the commanders of the Ottoman Army on Eceabat’s waterfront.

Turkey paid a huge price for its victory in Gallipoli. According to one estimate some 87,000 dead and 1,64,000 wounded. It is actually incredibly moving to see that the struggles and sacrifices of those who fought there, from all the commanders of the army to the ordinary soldiers and even the enemy, have been memorialised and have not been forgotten. Many of the Turks involved in the Gallipoli campaign — not just Kemal but also other military figures like Cemal Gürsel, Fevzi Çakmak, İsmail Cevat Çobanlı, Fahrettin Altay among others — played major roles in the War of Independence and the early Republican period. It might be easy to draw inference that they were fighting in Gallipoli for Turkey, but this battle was not about that.

Written by vedicakant

May 27, 2012 at 16:30

Posted in Photography, Travel, War

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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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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High-exposure pomegranates

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Written by vedicakant

November 16, 2011 at 21:02

Posted in Colour, Home, Photography, Travel