From Harput to Lake Van, Erzurum and Trabzon with Henry Fanshawe Tozer (2)
Disembarking at the Black Sea port of Samsun in the spring of 1879, the British geographer Henry Fanshawe Tozer made his way southwest over several mountain chains to the Central Anatolia plateau. Here he explored the fascinating remains around the Hittite capital of Hattuşa, east of Ankara, before riding southeast to the crucial trading hub of Kayseri. After a quick detour west to the fairy tale landscape of Cappadocia, Tozer and his party headed northeast to Sivas, then southeast across the biblical Euphrates to Harput (outside modern Elazığ).
From Harput onward, the territory the curious Tozer would venture through was inhabited largely by Kurds and Armenians. It was a remote and mountainous region that the Ottoman authorities were struggling to keep a firm grip on — especially in the wake of the crippling 1877-8 war with Russia. Britain, motivated by its own interests in the region, had stepped in to help Ottoman Turkey against imperial Russia. In return, the ruling sultan, Abdul Hamid II, had been forced to accept the presence of British officials roaming at will over Anatolia — handy for British travelers such as Tozer in the short-term, but the resentment caused by this partial ceding of independence to a foreign power was to eventually have devastating consequences for Anatolias Christian population.
From Harput to Muş
From Harput, Tozer headed east to the today little-visited town of Palu. Here he was shown some rock-cut chambers in the Urartian fortress, which his guides informed him “were the dwelling place of St Mezrop, the Armenian saint, who invented the Armenian alphabet about 406 AD.” The party then skirted the mountainous Dersim region (today the Munzur Mountains around Tunceli). Having mainly fraternized with Turks, Greeks and Armenians up until now, the party had their first contact with Kurds. The group they met “hardly spoke a word of Turkish, so that we had difficulty communicating with them, and we found them very suspicious, and demanding high price for articles such as milk and cheese, which we bought of them, and demanding the money be paid on the spot.”
Today the Surp Garabet Monastery on the Muş Plain, the partys next destination, is completely ruined and desolate. Tozer reached it on Aug. 24, 1879 and found this important monastery — believed by Armenians to contain a very holy relic, the body of John the Baptist — and pilgrimage stop “full of men, women and children … picnicking on the ground. … Some of the women had one nostril pierced for a silver ornament.” The monastery was then home to 20 monks, the head priest of which spoke fluent French, and 180 lay brothers.
The town of Muş was quite the contrast to the monastery, being “quite the filthiest town we had met with in Turkey … the pavements were broken and ragged; every street was an open drain, and the stenches were fearful.” After lodging in Muş with a well-off Armenian, the travelers set-off the next morning on fresh horses for Bitlis, nestling deep down in a valley below Lake Van. Here they were hosted by a well-known American missionary, Reverend George Knapp, who was working with the local Armenian community. According to Tozer, Bitlis — today a fascinating place clustered around its imposing old citadel — consisted of “3000 houses, 2000 of which belong to Kurds, 1000 to Armenians, 20 to the Turks and 50 to the Syrians.”
Up Mount Süphan and by boat across Lake Van
Every traveler to eastern Turkey today longs for their first sight of Lake Van. Back in 1979, Tozer first saw it following a five-hour ride from Bitlis. “A beautiful view, owing to the numerous bays, the succession of headlands, and the finely cut outline of the ridges.” The party rode around the north shore of the lake to Ahlat, famed for its Selçuk tombs and gravestones, before reaching the pretty settlement of Adilcevaz. Having conquered Mount Erciyes outside of Kayseri, the lure of the even higher Mount Süphan, a volcanic cone towering above the village, was irresistible. Despite camping 7,000 feet up on the slopes of the peak and leaving at 3 a.m. the next morning, Tozer, who was weakened by the journey, failed to reach the summit. He did, however, enjoy the splendid lake and mountain views from the rim of this crater-topped, 4,058-meter-high peak.
Tozer and his companions reached Van by sailing from Adilcevaz and lodged in the old, walled town at the foot of the dramatic Rock of Van. Today Van is an undulating sea of rubble, bar a couple of well-restored Ottoman mosques and the scant remnants of a church and a couple of caravanserais, but it then had a prosperous population of some 30,000 “of whom three fourths are Armenians.”
The Rock of Van
Eager to explore the Rock of Van, Tozer first had to get permission from the commandant of the Ottoman garrison then stationed atop it. Then, as now, the view from the summit of the sheer, 100-meter-high, 1.5-kilometer-long rock was spectacular: “The panorama from the highest point was enchanting, for on one side lay the expanse of the blue sparkly lake, with its circuit of mountains, among which Siphan [Süphan] and Nimrud Dagh [Nemrut] were conspicuous, while on the opposite direction the broken Varak Dagh [Erek] formed a noble object.”
The oldest historic remains on the rock are now known to be Urartian, a unique civilization centered in Van between 900 and 600 B.C. At the time of Tozers visit, they were thought to be Assyrian and the cuneiform inscriptions that mark the rock-cut tomb of Urartian King Argishti I that Tozer saw were “still a riddle to philologists.” Before leaving Van, Tozer visited another American missionary promoting the Protestant variant of the Christian faith to the sometimes unwilling Apostolic Armenians led by Dr. Reynolds.
Üç Kümbetler, Erzurum
Past Kurdish encampments and a biblical peak to Erzurum
They left Van on Sept. 6, riding north along the eastern shore of the lake and then following the gorge of Bendimah River. Led by a local, they overnighted at a Kurdish encampment “with numerous tents forming a long line, some large and black, others smaller, round and white. The men who were hanging about them were a wild and surly looking set, with hair streaming down in long locks … all of course were armed. Their possessions might be seen about the encampment — sheep, goats, oxen and cows, herds of horses, big mastiff dogs, and greyhounds clothed in small coats. The whole formed a highly picturesque scene.”
Avoiding Doğubeyazıt, which according to the locals had been ruined in the war with Russia, they headed across high, volcanic peaks to Diyadin — today known for its hot springs — reveling in the fine view of 5,165-meter-high Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağ) en route. From Diyadin they continued westward towards Erzurum, passing “a long line of 170 laden camels.” Tozer was impressed with Erzurum as they approached, noting, “As seen from without, it seemed the most imposing city, with the exception of Amasia, that we had reached on our journey, owing to the numerous minarets and other striking buildings that rise from its midst.”
In Erzurum they were “received with the greatest kindness by our consul, General Major Trotter, who entertained us during our stay.” Trotter had been in the city during the recent Russian siege during which the strategically crucial outpost nearly fell, and according to Tozer, the population had fallen to around 20,000 as a result of the recent difficulties. Tozer reported that the whole region was in disarray as the Kurds were taking advantage of the lack of central control (the Ottoman troops had not been paid in four years) to pillage the Armenians. Worse, the Circassians (Çerkez) who had arrived as a result of Russian advances “came with nothing but their arms … they follow no pursuits save those of highway robbers and petty pilfering, and being well-armed with rifles, revolvers and swords, whilst the Zapitehs (Ottoman police) often have nothing better than flintlock guns.”
Over the Pontic Alps to Trabzon
From Erzurum Tozers party headed north, over the Kop Pass, to the top of the Pontic Alps from where they “looked down into a deep valley, in which were cheerful, well-built villages, with walls of stone and red-tile roofs; beyond this rose forest clad mountains … delicately cut ridges … the snow-topped mountains of Lazistan and, completing all, the expanse of the soft-blue Euxine (Black Sea).” The cultural, topographic and climatic contrast between the arid Anatolian Plateau and the Black Sea hinterland still shocks travelers today, how much more marked it must have been in Tozers day.
Tozer waxed lyrical about their next stop, the famous cliff-hanging monastery of Sumela, then still inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks. They were hosted by the gracious monks and as they left the next day for Trabzon the normally reserved Brit was moved to write that it was “one of the loveliest spots we had ever seen.” It remains a picturesque place with the monastery recently restored. The monks, though, are long gone, prey to the post-WWI population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
Finally they reached Trabzon, or Trebizond as Tozer knew it: “We came in sight of the city, which was the term of our wandering. We had concluded a ride of 1,500 miles, which had been accomplished without illness or incident of any kind.” It was indeed quite an achievement. In Trabzon they explored the various Byzantine churches turned mosques, but couldnt gain access to the famous Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) as it “had been appropriated for military purposes.” Then on Sept. 27 Tozer and his companion, TM Crowder, boarded a French steamship bound for Constantinople.