My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 4 November 2013

Our Pilgrimage to Armenian and Syrian Christianity in Eastern Turkey: some essential history

on the road to Ani
Sooner or later in this blog we have to get some historical facts sorted out. As someone who failed history exams at school, you can tell it was never my strongest subject. However I felt at a distinct disadvantage at the beginning of this pilgrimage because I couldn’t slot the ruins of mosques and churches into their rightful historic place in the grand scheme of things in my mind. Hellenistic, Byzantine, Ottoman, Seljuks, Christians: where did they all fit in?
The history of Anatolia (I think at school we called this Asia Minor, from the Greek meaning Small Asia) is enormously complicated, with a great number of tribes and dynasties, and many conflicts over the centuries. I can only begin to scratch the surface here as with some humility I try to put our pilgrimage into some kind of historical context. I wish I had taken more notice of my history lessons at school all those years ago. They would have come in handy now! Instead I used to draw train engines – yes really! I had quite a passion for them, and for some reason the teacher humoured me and let me get on with it.
And if you don’t listen in lessons you can’t expect to pass exams!
So here is my attempt to try to condense enormous volumes of complex historical events into a bite size portion that is relevant to our pilgrimage, is tolerably accurate and which I hope is not too difficult to digest. It can all get enormously confusing because historical scholars seem to disagree among themselves sometimes, there being for example several definitions of both Hellenistic culture and the Byzantine Empire and the periods they cover. With all that in mind, here goes!!

Anatolia was one of the first places where Christianity spread, so that by the 4th century AD, western and central Anatolia were overwhelmingly Christian and Greek-speaking. For the next 600 years, while Imperial possessions in Europe were subjected to barbarian invasions, Anatolia would be the center of the Greek Hellenic civilization albeit under Byzantine control since the split of the Roman Empire into two in 395 AD. Byzantine control was challenged by Arab raids starting in the 8th century with a series of wars, the Byzantine-Arab Wars.
on the road to Ani
So where do the Seljuks fit in? The House of Seljuk was a branch of the Oguz Turks whose original homeland was the Ural-Altay region of Central Asia, on the edge of the Muslim world. This has been the domain of Turkic peoples since antiquity, although their mass-migrations from Central Asia occurred from the 9th century onwards. In the 10th century, the Seljuks started migrating in a big way from their ancestral homeland into Persia which became the administrative core of the Great Seljuk Empire. Then towards the end of the 11th Century they began penetrating into the eastern regions of Anatolia, then under the rule of the Byzantines where they started building mosques such as those we have seen and will see at places like Ani. The Seljuks fought and defeated the Byzantine army in 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert and the capture of the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes of the Byzantine military aristocracy played an important role in undermining Byzantine authority in Anatolia and Armenia and paved the way for the gradual Turkification of Anatolia. (The Emperor is said to have been blinded, retreated to a monastery and died of his wounds – I wonder which monastery? Does history record?)
The Turkish language and Islam introduced to Anatolia gradually spread over the region and the slow transition from a predominantly Christian and Greek speaking Anatolia to a predominantly Turkish speaking Muslim region was well underway.

But the Seljuk armies didn’t always have it their own way. They were defeated by the Mongols in 1242, and the power of their empire then slowly disintegrated. This made way for one of the Turkish principalities governed by Osman 1 to evolve over the next 200 years or so into the Ottoman Empire which then expanded throughout Anatolia, the Balkans, the Levant and North Africa. In 1453, the Ottomans completed their conquest of the Byzantine Empire by capturing its capital Constantinople.
on the road to Ani
The Ottoman Empire, named after this Osman I, was to prevail as a world empire for almost six centuries, Its power and prestige peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries, although it was often in conflict with those who came in its way, for example the Holy Roman Empire, in its advance to Central Europe through the Balkans. In the early part of the 16th century the Ottoman Empire’s borders were extended south and east and into Egypt and Algeria, and conflicts arose with Portugal over maritime dominance as the Portuguese were perceived to be threatening Ottoman monopoly over the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between East Asia and Western Europe. From the beginning of the 19th century onwards, the Ottoman Empire began to decline and many Balkan Muslims migrated to the Empire's heartland in Anatolia. The Ottoman Empire entered WW1 on the side of the Central Powers (comprising the German Empire, the Austro- Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria). It was ultimately defeated. During the war, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were deported and exterminated in the Armenian Genocide although there is still much controversy surrounding the exact circumstances of this. There were also large scale massacres committed against the Greeks and Assyrians. Following the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918 the Allied Powers sought to partition the Ottoman State but Turkish Nationalists then waged the Turkish War of Independence against the occupying Allies. The Turkish National Movement in Anatolia led to the formation of a new Grand National Assembly by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The War of Independence culminated in the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, the allies left Anatolia and the GNA decided to establish a republic of Turkey – declared on 29th October 1923 – a modern secular nation-state.
The Ottoman Empire ceased to be on 1 November 1922. 

the gorge at Ani
Now if you still have the stomach for some more history lessons, here is how the history of Kars slots into all that. I have taken this from the excellent on line official guide book to Kars that I have mentioned before. Here you will find a really good time line that makes sense of all this is an easy to follow sequence if you still want more! The first known inhabitants of Kars were the Hurrians, who go back incredibly to 13,000 BC and apparently stuck around for a very long time! The Urartus occupied the region in 900 BC. The Iskits ruled in the 7th century BC but failed to fight off the Persians in the 6th Century BC. In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great of Macedonia won the war against the Persians and took hold of the region, ushering in a spread of Greek culture into the east resulting in a new Hellenistic civilization. The tribe of Parts and the Armenian feudal lords dependent on it then occupied Kars from time to time. Since the 2nd century AD Kars and its surroundings continually changed hands from the Romans to the Sasanis. In 395 the Roman Empire divided into two, and the region found itself in the Byzantine/East Roman Empire. In 646 Kars became Muslim Arab. In 961 the Armenian feudal lords founded the Bagrat Kingdom and made the city of Ani its capital but the Byzantines soon drove the Armenians out from the region.
After 20 years of Byzantine dominance the Seljuk Sultan Alparslan occupied Ani and Kars in 1064.
This region was the first part of Anatolia captured by Turks, 7 years before the victory of Malazgirt in 1071. Byzantines tried to get Kars back in 1080 but lost to the Seljuks. Then in 1124 the Georgians occupied Ani and Kars, but the Seljuks regained control in 1124. 1239 was the Mongolian invasion when they took over the whole of Anatolia starting with Kars and Ani. In later centuries the city was repeatedly disputed between Ottomans and the Safevi country and changed hands many times over the years between Byzantines, Georgians and Armenians. Kars was conquered by the Russians twice in the 19th century and again in the 20th century before the Armenian Turks gained control. And there you have it…
on the road to Ani
no wonder there is such a wonderful variety of different architectural styles in Kars

If any historian wants to put me right on any of this then please do…
Tomorrow I shall leave history behind and continue with our travels...hopefully I for one will be better informed.


  1. Thanks for the history! I, too, found history deadly dull in school, except for one fifth grade teacher who spoke of world history. It seemed to be a monotonous recitation of wars and dates. It was only when I began to travel that I started to love history, and was more interested in what the people were doing (art, artifacts, writing, science, etc.) than their "leaders."
    This part of the world is fascinating! I spent two months in the Balkans and had the same sort of eureka experience you're having here.

    1. Yes Jo Anne I so agree. Next year I'm off on another pilgrimage this time to Georgia by the Black Sea. I've never found history as interesting as now! Suddenly it seems to have so much more relevance...