the Russian houses of Kars

A Turkish town that looks like it's been lifted out of the Russian Caucasus- or even Central Asia, reflecting its history as a Tsarist Russian settlement in the 19th century. 

Why visit? 
In some novels, the city it's set in becomes a main character rather than just a background to the story. 

If you have read Orhan Pamuk's novel 'Snow' you will have been intrigued by the setting, the city of Kars, which, in Pamuk's novel, is full of grey Russian and Armenian houses, and snowed in for three days. 

In real life, Kars indeed offers a fascinating glimpse of the 19th century geopolitical and architectural confrontation between the Russian and Ottoman empires

Northeast Anatolia, not far from the fabled abandoned city of Ani and in a forgotten corner of Turkey. Map.  

ORHAN PAMUK IS without doubt Turkey's most famous writer and the country's only Nobel Prize winner (in 2006). His 2002 novel, Snow, captured the world's imagination (or at least Minor Sights' imagination), not in the least because of its unusual setting. 

'Snow' ('Kar' in Turkish- get the pun?) is set in the Anatolian city of Kars, an otherworldly place with an end-of-the-line kind of feel.  As the lead character paces the streets of the city, Pamuk vividly brings to life unusual cityscape of Kars. 

In the novel, Kars is isolated from the outside world for three days due to incessant snow. Indeed, January average daytime temperature is close to -10C, so visiting in summer may be a better idea. Unless you want a real Siberian experience to top off the Russian architecture! 

It may be Turkish now, but the city's history reflects the historical and cultural complexity of this part of Anatolia. Starting off as an Armenian city, Kars became Ottoman until the Russian Tsarist empire first annexed it in 1828, and held on to it, with a few intermissions, till 1921. 

In a fit of empire-building, the Tsarist Russians went to town between 1878 and 1921 and created a new garrison town, instantly familiar to anybody who's visited Almaty in Kazakhstan or some of the towns in the Russian Caucasus, but minus the Soviet eyesores that vandalized those towns later. 
And so central Kars remains a city of low houses and cottages, built on a grid, with distinct Russo-European architecture (Pamuk refers to it as 'Baltic') with gingerbread window frames and neo-classical frills.  No other city in Turkey looks this way- you won't see anything like it unless you're prepared to cross into the former Soviet Union. 
Armenian inscriptions- as co-believers, the Armenian community flourished during the Russian occupation.
The building that perhaps perhaps best captures Kars's unique history is the Fethiye Mosque. Yes, it's got two pencil-thin minarets, but other than that, it looks very much like the Russian Orthodox church it once was. 
The Mosque Formerly Known As Church.
Walking around the sloping streets of Kars, you're bound to work up an appetite. The good news is that Kars has two local specialties that are worth picking up, and, complemented with some Turkish bread, make the twin pillars of an excellent picnic: cheese and honey. 
Kars cheese is world-famous, at least in Eastern Anatolia. 
Getting there: 
There are direct flights from Istanbul and Ankara. If you've got time to spare, there is also a train connection, and buses run from various towns in East Anatolia. 

Useful links:
'Snow' on Orhan's Pamuk official website. 


  1. The history behind this city and other cities in eastern Anatolia is very sad. The destruction of the Armenian people and heritage is quite a depressing fact of Kars and other cities.

    1. Hi, thanks for posting. Yes, it's true that the events of the early 20th century changed Kars and other cities. At the same time, the same can be said of almost anywhere on the planet- history is littered with senseless wars and suffering in all parts of the world. There's little point in beating a grudge against those who live there now, and who usually have little to do with events that happened long ago.

      Of course, we should not forget what happened. One way of doing that is by preserving historical sights. So let's give more attention to places like Kars, in a positive way, to encourage preservation of its unique character which was shaped and formed by its Turkish, Armenian and Russian communities.

    2. Sorry for the late response. Yes it's true you can't hold a grudge for the past, but at the same time you have to remember the past to make sure it doesn't take place again. The Turkish state and people do not acknowledge what happened, and that denial and rewriting of history on their part allows for the continued mistreatment of other ethnic minorities in that country (namely the Kurds, but also the few remaining Armenians). Proper education and acknowledgement in Turkey of what happened will serve everyone well.


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