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About Kars



Kars & Sarikamis

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Kars is a city in northeast Turkey and the capital of Kars Province. The population of the city is 73,826 as of 2010.

As Chorzene, the town appears in Roman historiography (Strabo) as part of ancient Armenia. For the etymological origin of the name "Kars", some sources claim it is derived from a Georgian word meaning "the gate", while other sources claim it is from an Armenian word which means bride.

Little is known of the early history of Kars beyond the fact that it had its own dynasty of Armenian rulers and was the capital of a region known as Vanand. Medieval Armenian historians referred to the city by a variety of names, including "Karuts' K'aghak'" (Kars city), "Karuts' Berd", "Amrots'n Karuts'" (both meaning Kars Fortress) and "Amurn Karuts'" (Sturdy Kars). At some point in the ninth century (at least by 888) it became part of the territory of the Armenian Bagratunis. For a short time (from 928 to 961) Kars became the capital of their kingdom. It was during this period that the town's cathedral, later known as the Church of the Holy Apostles, was built.

In 963, shortly after the Bagratuni capital was transferred to Ani, Kars became the capital of a separate independent kingdom, again called Vanand. The extent of its actual independence from the Kingdom of Ani is uncertain: it was always held by relatives of the rulers of Ani, and after Ani's capture by the Byzantine Empire in 1045 the Bagratuni title King of Kings held by the ruler of Ani was transferred to the ruler of Kars. In 1064, just after the capture of Ani by the Seljuk Turks, the Armenian king of Kars, Gagik-Abas, paid homage to the victorious Turks, so that they would not lay siege to his city. In 1065 Gagik-Abas ceded control of Kars to the Byzantine Empire, but soon after they lost it to the Seljuk Turks.

In 1206/1207 the city was captured by the Georgians and given to the same Zakarid family who ruled Ani. They retained control of Kars until the late 1230s, after which it had Turkish rulers. In 1387 the city surrendered to Timur (Tamerlane) and its fortifications were damaged. Anatolian beyliks followed until 1534, when the Ottoman army captured the city. The fortifications of the city were rebuilt by the Ottoman Sultan Murad III and were strong enough to withstand a siege by Nadir Shah of Persia, in 1731. It became the head of a sanjak in the Ottoman Erzurum Vilayet.

In 1807 Kars successfully resisted an attack by the Russian Empire. After another siege in 1828 the city was surrendered on June 23, 1828 to the Russian general Count Ivan Paskevich, 11,000 men becoming prisoners of war. Although it later returned to Ottoman control, the new border between the Ottoman Empire and Russia was now much closer to Kars. During the Crimean War a Ottoman garrison led by British officers including General William Fenwick Williams kept the Russians at bay during a protracted siege; but after the garrison had been devastated by cholera and food supplies had failed, the town was surrendered to General Mouravieff in November 1855.

The fortress was again stormed by the Russians in the Battle of Kars during the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 under generals Loris-Melikov and Ivan Lazarev. Following the war, Kars was transferred to Russia by the Treaty of San Stefano. Kars became the capital of Kars Oblast (province), comprising the districts of Kars, Ardahan, Kaghisman, and Olti.

From 1878-1881 more than 82,000 Muslims from formerly Ottoman-controlled territory migrated to the Ottoman Empire. Among those there were more than 11,000 people from the city of Kars. At the same time, many Armenians and Pontic Greeks migrated to the region from the Ottoman Empire and other regions of Transcaucasia. According to the Russian census data, by 1892 Russians formed 7% of the population, Greeks 13.5%, Kurds 15%, Armenians 21.5%, Turks 24%, Karapapakhs 14%, and Turkmen were 5% of the population of Kars Oblast of Russian Empire.

In the First World War, the city was one of the main objectives of the Ottoman army during the Battle of Sarikamish in the Caucasus Campaign. Russia ceded Kars, Ardahan and Batum to the Ottoman Empire under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. However, by then Kars was under the effective control of Armenian and non-Bolshevik Russian forces. The Ottoman empire captured Kars on April 25, 1918, but under the Armistice of Mudros (October 1918) was required to withdraw to its 1914 frontier. The Ottomans refused to relinquish Kars, its military governor instead constituting a provisional government, the Provisional National Government of the Southwestern Caucasus, led by Fahrettin Pirioglu, that claimed Turkish sovereignty over Kars and the Turkish-speaking and Islamic neighboring regions as far as Batumi and Alexandropol (Gyumri). Much of the region fell under the administrative control of Armenia in January 1919 but the pro-Turkish government remained in the city until the arrival of the British troops, who dissolved it on April 19, 1919, arresting its leaders and sending them to Malta. In May 1919 Kars came under the full administration of the Armenian Republic and became the capital of its Vanand province.

Skirmishes between Turkish revolutionaries and Armenian border troops in Olti led to an invasion of the Armenian Republic by four Turkish divisions under the command of General K├ózim Karabekir, triggering the Turkish-Armenian War. The war led to the capture of Kars by Turkish forces on October 30, 1920. The terms of the Treaty of Alexandropol, signed by the representatives of Armenia and Turkey on December 2, 1920, forced Armenia to cede more than 50% of its pre-war territory and to give up all the territories granted to it at the Treaty of Sèvres.

After the Bolshevik advance into Armenia, the Alexandropol treaty was superseded by the Treaty of Kars (October 23, 1921), signed between Turkey and the Soviet Union. The treaty allowed for Soviet annexation of Adjara in exchange for Turkish control of the regions of Kars, Igdir, and Ardahan. The treaty established peaceful relations between the two nations, but as early as 1939, some British diplomats noted indications that the Soviet Union was not satisfied with the established border. On more than one occasion, the Soviets attempted to renegotiate with Turkey to at least allow the Armenians access to the ancient ruins of Ani. However, the government in Ankara refused these attempts.

After World War II, the Soviet Union attempted to annul the Kars treaty and regain the Kars region and the adjoining region of Ardahan. On June 7, 1945, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov told the Turkish ambassador to Moscow Selim Sarper that the regions should be returned to the Soviet Union, in the name of both the Georgian and Armenian republics. Turkey found itself in a difficult position: it wanted good relations with the Soviet Union, but at the same time they refused to give up the territories. Turkey itself was in no condition to fight a war with the Soviet Union, which had emerged as a superpower after the second world war. By the autumn of 1945, Soviet troops in the Caucasus were already assembling for a possible invasion of Turkey. The British prime minister Winston Churchill objected to these territorial claims, while President Harry S. Truman of the United States felt that this matter shouldn't concern other parties. The Cold War was just beginning.

In April 1993, Turkey closed its Kars border crossing with Armenia, in a protest against the capture of Kelbajar district of Azerbaijan by Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Since then the land border between Armenia and Turkey has remained closed. Although national politicians have shown little inclination to change this policy, and Azerbaijan together with Turkish nationalist groups have campaigned for the closure to remain, there has been increasing local pressure for the border to be re-opened. In 2006, former Kars mayor Naif Alibeyoglu said that opening the border would boost the local economy and reawaken the city. But there is also an increasing opposition and pressure by the local population against the re-opening of the border. Along with intense pressure from Azerbaijan and the local population, including the 20% ethnic Azerbaijani minority, the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has reiterated that opening the border with Armenia is out of question.

Kars Castle (Kars Kalesi), also known as the citadel, sits at the top a rocky hill overlooking Kars. Its walls date back to the Bagratuni Armenian period (there is surviving masonry on the north side of the castle) but it probably took on its present form during the thirteenth century when Kars was ruled by the Zak'arid dynasty. The walls bear crosses in several places, including a khachkar with a building inscription in Armenian on the easternmost tower, so the much repeated statement that Kars castle was built by Ottoman Sultan Murad III during the war with Persia, at the close of the sixteenth century, is inaccurate. However, Murad probably did reconstruct much of the city walls (they are similar to those that the Ottoman army constructed at Ardahan).

By the nineteenth century the citadel had lost most of its defensive purpose and a series of outer fortresses and defensive works were constructed to encircle Kars - this new defensive system proved particularly notable during the Siege of Kars in 1855.

Below the castle is an Armenian church known as Surb Arak'elots, the Church of the Apostles. Built in the 930s, it has a tetraconch plan (a square with four semicircular apses) surmounted by a spherical dome on a cylindrical drum. On the exterior, the drum of contains bas-relief depictions of twelve figures, usually interpreted as representing the Twelve Apostles. The dome has a conical roof. The church was converted to a mosque in 1579, and then converted into a Russian Orthodox church in the 1880s. The Russians constructed porches in front of the church's 3 entrances, and an elaborate belltower (now demolished) next to the church. The church was used as a warehouse from the 1930s, and it housed a small museum from 1963 until the late 1970s. Then the building was left to itself for about two decades, until it was converted into a mosque in 1998. In the same district of Kars are two other ruined Armenian churches. A Russian church from the 1900s was converted to a mosque in the 1980s after serving as a school gymnasium.

The "Tashköprü" (Stone Bridge) is a bridge over the Kars river, built in 1725. Close to the bridge are three old bath-houses, none of them still operating.

As a settlement at the juncture of Turkish, Caucasian, Kurdish, Russian, and Armenian cultures, the buildings of Kars come in a variety of architectural styles. Orhan Pamuk in the novel Snow, which takes place in Kars, makes repeated references to "the Russian houses", built "in a Baltic style", whose like cannot be seen anywhere else in Turkey, and deplores the deteriorating condition of these houses.

Sarikamis is a town and a district of Kars Province in the Eastern Anatolia region of Turkey. The population is 17,860 as of 2010. The town sits in a valley and is surrounded by mountains, many of which are covered with pine forests. It has very long winters, with average of 7-8 ft of snowfall, and short, dry summers. In recent years Sarikamis has developed as a winter skiing resort, with one of the world's longest pistes.

Extensive barracks from the Russian period surround the town and are still in use by the Turkish army. Other historical buildings include the town's former Russian cathedral, known locally as Yanik Kilise, now used as a mosque after being used as a cinema for many years. A hunting lodge, built for a visit by Czar Nicolas, is located at the edge of the pine forests.

For most of the 19th century, Sarikamis was an insignificant settlement that was divided into two parts: upper Sarikamis and lower Sarikamis.

Nothing is known of its earlier history, but nearby archaeological sites date from Urartian times: there is a Urartian fortress on a hill beside upper Sarikamis, another, 12 km away, beside Chatak village, and a third, 15 km away, at a site known as Yedikilise. To the east and south of the town, in the forests of Soganli, there were many medieval Armenian monasteries, but most were in ruins by 1878.

Seljuk sultan Alparslan invaded the Sarikamis area including Allahü Ekber and Soganli mountains in 1064, only a few years prior to the battle of Manzikert between the armies of Alparslan and Romans. The area was then taken by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1534 and became a liva of Kars sancak of the Ottoman Empire.

In the 19th century the region around Sarikamis became a conflict zone between the Ottoman and Russian empires. Battles took place at nearby Zivin in 1829, 1855 and 1877.

After the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Sarikamis became part of the Russian empire and lower Sarikamis developed into a small, modern town. Being close to the Ottoman border, it was also a military station with barracks for two regiments. It had a railway station that was the railhead for the line running from Kars and Alexandropol.

An important battle took place between the armies of the Ottoman and Russian empires in and around the city in late December 1914-January 1915 as part of the Caucasus Campaign of World War I.

Enver Pasha, the leader of the Ittihat ve Terakki party in Istanbul, personally led the army along with Hafiz Hakki Pasha, who was his brother in-law, to scale the Mount Allahu Ekber and afterwards attack the Russian army in Sarikamis to occupy the town in order to halt logistic support to the city of Kars lost to Russians in 1878 which he was planning to reoccupy.

In mid December, Enver Pasha entered the Caucasus region through Armenia. Enver ordered his forces to attack along many routes with the goal of arriving suddenly at Sarikamis at the same time. The chief German military advisor, Liman von Sanders strongly argued against this plan but was ignored. Governor General Vorontsov planned to withdraw his forces to the city of Kars. But General Yudenich, in charge of the defense of the area, ignored Vorontsov's wishes to withdraw and instead stayed to defend Sarikamis.

Enver's forces lost touch with one another and arrived at Sarakamis at different times from December 29 through the 3rd of January. The first divisions to arrive briefly took control of the barracks in the western part of the city but were driven off. In the following days, as more Ottoman forces arrived at the battle, they attacked without coordination and the Russians under the skillful command of Yudenich fought off the attacks one by one. The battle finally ended on January 4 and the Ottoman army retreated in complete disorganization back through the mountains in the middle of winter.

The number of Turkish losses is estimated to be 60,000-80,000 dead out of an army of 90,000. It is very likely that the majority of Turkish soldiers died because of inadequate winter clothing and field shelters during the attack and retreat. In any event, this was an extraordinarily costly defeat for the Turks; in losses this was the worst single defeat they suffered in the entire war. Turkish soldiers reached their targets but they were too weak to win. The Russian casualties were estimated at 35,000.

As one German officer attached to the army wrote later, the Ottoman 3rd army had "suffered a disaster which for rapidity and completeness is without parallel in military history."

Leon Edgar Books