ARTICLE: AKGUN AKOVA PHOTO: EGE ZILCI
When the first snowflake falls on Erzurum...
Covered by snow seven months of the year, the city of Erzurum at an elevation of 2000 meters is a friend of the clouds.
Winter wastes no time when autumn packs up its fallen leaves in yellow bags and takes leave of Erzurum. Many parts of Anatolia are still flooded with sunshine as the first snowflakes fall on this city in Turkey’s northeast corner. The Palandöken has long since shouldered its burden of snow, the mountains’ native residents having withdrawn to their nests and plunged into their winter sleep that will last until the snow begins to melt again in spring.
The shovels had long stood ready behind the door when the first snowflake fell on Erzurum’s marketplace. “One snowfall on the orchard for every seven on the mountain”, as the saying goes. And indeed, when snow has fallen seven times on the Palandöken, the eighth is sure to fall on the city of Erzurum. Far from the cold outdoors, the ‘cağ’ kebab maker stands beside his hearth, turning the meat one more time over the charcoal fire. Eyeing the falling snow through the window, passengers down one last swig of long-steeped, ruby-red tea and hit the road again with a “Bismillah!”. The Erzurum way of drinking tea may strike the first-time visitor as a little strange. For the city’s original ‘Dadaş’ Turks slurp theirs through a lump of rock-hard sugar held between the teeth.
The Erzurum natives are inured to winter’s cold. Their tenacity and love of freedom are the pride of the East. Not only was the Erzurum Congress held by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his colleagues on 23 July-
5 August 1919 one of the crucial steps in the Turkish War of Independence, this city also harbors the memory of Nene Hatun and of the Aziziye Redoubt, which triumphed against the Russians on 27 October 1878. Atatürk’s house, the Congress building, Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the Great Mosque, the citadel and the Archaeology Museum are the historic structures that help us understand Erzurum’s past.
COZY WINTER NIGHTS
When the first snowflake falls on the courtyard of the Rüstem Pasha Medrese, also known as the Taşhan, the windows steam up in the shops selling trinkets made of jet and black amber. Until two hundred years ago, Taşhan was one of the city’s most important buildings where camel caravans were loaded and unloaded. More than forty thousand camels braved the long and exhausting trails to arrive at Erzurum, bearing the fruits of the Silk Road trade to the city. According to popular belief, anyone who made it to Erzurum without getting lost in the snow would certainly come back again. They knew that snow doesn’t just fall on Erzurum, it piles up in mountains. Laundry, mustaches, water running from fountains—all freeze solid. Chestnut vendors appear at every corner. At night the traditional stringed instruments known as the ‘saz’ come down from the walls where they were hung, and the strains of folk songs mingle with the falling snow. Grannies rummage through chests for their warm woollen cloaks and dredge up ancient tales to tell the grandkids. In the kitchen, new brides cook up a storm of bulgur pilaff with lentils, stuffed beets, yoghurt soup, and ‘çiriş’ or the root of the wild leek. Meanwhile examination time looms for the students at Atatürk University, and as the blizzard rages outdoors, lights burn and stoves and radiators puff away in student rooms and dormitories.
When the first snowflake falls on the Üç Kümbetler tombs, children scramble up to the top of the Clock Tower, also known as the ‘Tray’ Minaret, for a bird’s-eye view of the city. And a little further on, the wind-whipped snow begins to coat the lion and eagle motifs at the entrance to the Yakutiye Medrese with a layer of white. The building that houses the Museum of Turkish Islamic Art and Ethnography is one of the last examples in Anatolia of a medrese with a roofed courtyard.
PALANDÖKEN, A FAVORITE WITH SKIERS
There are many sights worth seeing in the Erzurum area. Palandöken, for example, a favorite with skiers for its fine, granular snow. Ski buffs can be whizzing down the slopes within half an hour of landing at the airport, for Palandöken is a scant 5 km from Erzurum. While the Ejder ski run is 7200 meters long, the total length of the slopes at Palandöken, including others of varying degrees of difficulty, comes to 20 km. During the lengthy skiing season from November to May, there is usually an accumulation of 2-3 meters of snow on the mountains. And winter sports and skiing exhibitions their peak during the the Snow Festival, held in March.
It would not be far off the mark to say that the road from Erzurum to Artvin is one of Turkey’s most spectacular. Tortum in particular, famous for its waterfalls and lake, makes an impressive sight especially in spring when the waterfalls burst into life and the muddy waters carried by the mountain streams mingle with the lake’s green. After passing Tortum, if you leave the road at the turnoff to Narman, 38 km further on you will come first to Narman and then to a canyon fairly bristling with red ‘fairy chimneys’. Before you reach the Tortum waterfall, two Georgian churches await you in two different villages, one the Hahuli or Haho Church in the village of Bağbaşı, the other Öşkvank Church in the village of Çamlıyamaç, this second village having been settled in a natural landscape reminiscent of Cappadocia. When the poplar trees along the banks of the stream that runs through it turn green in spring against the brown of the local log houses, the picture created is sheer poetry. And since it is near the Black Sea, winter in this region is less harsh than in Erzurum.
But now, after the first snowflake has fallen on Erzurum, I step out into the street. The cold is bitter. A few hours ago I was looking at the boiled wheat hung up to dry on the walls as I consumed my soup at the Erzurum Evleri restaurant behind the Great Mosque. In front of the Çifte Minareli Medrese I gaze upwards at the twin minarets of this historic structure, said to have been built by Hüdavend Hatun, daughter of the Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad. Snow crystals cling to my face. Suddenly I hear a voice: “What are you looking at?” Standing beside me, a man in a worker’s cap is staring up at the minaret with me. His coat is white with snow. I reply tongue in cheek: “Did the first snowflake fall on the minaret on the left or the one on the right, I wonder?” Grinning, he indicates the minaret on the left with the tip of his finger. “Don’t waste your time,” he says, “Let me explain. Whichever minaret it fell on last year, this year it fell on the other one. That’s the rule. The snow of Erzurum holds out just rewards for those hardy souls who can withstand its rigors.”