Erzurum: Battleground of Kingdoms Past

With the first rays of sunlight beginning to pierce through the windows, what had been an arduous night in the cramped back seats of the bus was nearing its end.  The scene outside the window began to emerge with rolling green snow capped mountains capturing our attention despite our overwhelming grogginess.  After arriving in the major city of Erzurum and with the long haul now behind us, it was time to begin our journey in this vast and mystical region of the far eastern reaches of modern day Turkey.

Erzurum is littered with old historical relics

Erzurm is the bustling center of eastern Anatolia and will most likely be on any itinerary you make of the region as nearly all routes pass through the city.  With enough sights to keep you occupied for a day it serves as a good stopping point between the gems of Mount Nemrut and Ani in the region.  While the sights here will pale in comparison to those just mentioned, Erzurum still remains a worthy stopover along the long and open road that stretches across the eastern half of the country.

Typical Stalactite ceiling found in most Seljuk styled buildings in Turkey

Erzurum was once the frontier of many empires and as such has been conquered and lost by more than ten kingdoms.  The most notable conquerors of the region were the Armenians, Arabs, seljuk Turks, and Mongols.  The strategic location of the city made it the ideal location for empires to stage their armies to conquer further into Anatolia.  While the city itself has thrown itself well into the modern age, there are several monuments that line the main street of town that hint towards the city’s storied past.  The city is now mostly inhabited by Turks as the once large Armenian population was sadly decimated during the Armenian Genocide.

What to See in Erzurum

The majority of noteworthy attractions in the city are located down a short stretch of the main road that cuts through the center of the city, Cumhuriyet Caddesi.  

Erzurum’s most important cultural relic, Yakutiye Medresesi, dates back to the Mongol period.  Built in 1310, the Islamic seminary is one of the few surviving structures from a fascinating period that blended Mongol and Seljuk culture.  While the overall design of the school is Seljuk, the motifs that surround the doorways sport depictions of animals and plants, an unusual sight on Islamic architecture.  The highlight of the building however, is the original blue tile work that still gleams faintly on the southern minaret.

Yakutiye Medresesi
Yakutiye Medresesi is one of the few buildings remaining the the world that shares both Seljuk and Mongol influences

Yakutiye houses a small museum inside with the small dark interior rooms now housing displays of clothing, weapons, and daily items from the time period.  If you’ve been to any museums in Turkey, there isn’t much that will interest you inside so if you are looking to pinch pennies, you can definitely skip this.

Yakutiye Medresesi
Animal and plant motifs that went against Islamic rules of iconoclasm but were of no concern to the invading Mongols who eventually built Yakutiye Medresesi

Heading east down busy Cumhuriyet Caddesi and after passing several rather more recent mosques, brings you to the most photogenic sight of Erzurum, Cifte Minareli Medrese.  The twin columned school  that dates back to the 13th century is in the Seljuk style.  The sparsely spaced blue tiles pop out wonderfully, complimenting the red brickwork of each minaret.

Cifte Minareli Medrese
Cifte Minareli Medrese with its twin minarets

Unfortunately, there was some sort of event taking place inside and outside of Cifte Minareli when we visited which detracted from the atmosphere of the place.  I would have very much liked to have gotten better photos of this building.

Cifte Minareli Medrese
Tile work found on Cifte Minareli Medrese

Not far from Cifte Minareli lie two other minor attractions, the Kalesi Citadel and the Uc Kumbetler tombs.  We didn’t bother visiting the citadel as it was undergoing very heavy reconstruction but the small hilltop offers some views of Erzurum and the surrounding area.  The tombs are a very short walk from Cifte Minareli and are worth a short visit while here.  The tombs come up to a conical point similar to that of an Armenian church and date back to the 14th century.  You won’t need long here but it is a good place to relax before walking back into the center of town.

One of the conical buildings at Uc Kumbetler tombs

The mountains surrounding Erzurum are great for skiing as resorts are expanding in order to help improve the city’s chances to winning a future bid to host the winter Olympics.

Where to Stay and Eat

Like most of Turkey east of Cappadocia, accommodation options are few and far between.  When it comes to budget accommodation, cheap hotels is the only way to go and after looking at a few we settled for Hekimoglu Otel.  Rooms were tight and a bit smokey smelling but were well cleaned and kept.  On the plus side there is a great little restaurant downstairs meaning you don’t have to venture far for some decent food.

Mongol influenced motifs in Erzurum

The local specialty of Erzurm, Cag Kebap, is lamb grilled slowly over a fire and then sliced thinly along with all you can eat flatbread and spices.  Ordering is done by the skewer and its always hard to say no to just one more.  Our favorite place was Cagin Cag Kebap Lokanta.  While the gaudy purple and white decor may seem out of place, this is a local hot spot where you can feel free to gnaw away straight from the skewer.

Getting There and Away

Erzurum is the main gateway into the far reaches of Eastern Turkey.  If you are coming from the west or heading back from the east all bus routes will head for the city.  The bus station is several kilometers away from the center of town so most buses will have free shuttle services just outside in the station’s parking lot.  Be sure to hold on to your ticket and don’t be timid to ask which bus line each van is working for.

Yakutiye Medresesi
The bright tile work of Yakutiye Medresesi

If heading to or from Cappadocia you will first have to transfer at Kayseri.  All options will be in the evening so night buses are the norm.  For those heading to or from Mount Nemrut a transfer will be necessary as well but in the city of Malatya.  Like those heading to Cappadocia, night buses are the regular way to go.  Compared to other routes, Kars in the far reaches of eastern Turkey is just a 3 to 3 1/2 van ride away from Erzurum.  Vans are run by Kars Vipturizm where their Kamilkoc office serves as the hop on and off point.  Tickets can also be purchased here.

Erzurum: Little Sights from the launching pad of world Conquerors 

While Erzurum wouldn’t be a worthy destination today on its own, a stop here is required in order to get to the true gems of modern Turkey’s far east.  With just enough to keep the intrepid traveler busy for a day, it still is a special place when considering what major powers used the city and surrounding area as their bases to further their thirst for empire.

Chilling for a day in Erzurum between bus rides


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