After unpacking a few things and freshening up, I left the hotel for what amounted to a walk of four hours around Divrigi. My first destination was a ruined church, which I could see from my balcony, below the citadel.
Sinclair describes the church as Armenian and dates it to the late 19th century. It has:
Three aisles and three apses, of which the central one is wider. Along the n. and s. walls, shallow blind arcades of three wide arches each. From the triple engaged pillars supporting these rise ribs… The arcades running westward from the walls between the apses would have mirrored these arcades.
There is a door in the first arch from the e. on the n. side. Opposite it in the s. wall is the entrance to what seems to be a large chamber. Windows in the other two southerly blind arches: beneath the windows are tall brackets. No light is let into the chamber behind the s. wall except from the church’s interior: but this may be because the hillside has slipped and covers any windows there are. Slippage has also obscured the window of the s. apse.
The day of my visit the grass around and in the church was long and dotted with wild flowers. The church looked pretty, despite being in such a ruined state, but it was only when I visited some of Divrigi’s other survivals from the past and noticed that they had benefited from past or recent restoration that it dawned on me again that monuments of Armenian derivation are subject to neglect of a criminal kind.
I next ascended the hill above the church to examine the citadel, which, taken as a whole, is excellent, even though some parts of the fortifications have suffered from over-zealous restoration in recent years. No one else was on the summit the same time as me. Many patches of ground near or within the fortifications were covered with long grass and many wild flowers, which only enhanced my pleasure, although some of the paths leading across the site were therefore hard to follow.
Sinclair describes the citadel in great detail, but I will quote only a paragraph so that something of its majesty is conveyed:
The citadel has two lines of wall to the w., where the slope was gradual and parts of the medieval town must have lain. To the n., where the site comes to a point, it is delimited by cliffs, and the cliffs of the e. side drop to the river. To the s. a trough crosses the ridge from e. to w. The wall here was built above the n. side of the trough, on the low cliffs descending to its floor.
At one of the highest points within the citadel is the 12th century Citadel Camii. Although the mosque externally is plain, internally there is much to admire. Sadly, however, the doors leading inside were locked. I had to content myself with sublime views of the meandering river far below and of the railway leading to Erzincan via Ilic and Kemah. The river is a tributary of the Euphrates.
One of the most surprising things about the citadel was that many sandbags had been arranged to provide soldiers protection from in-coming fire. Here were fortifications that had recently seen military action, just as they would have seen military action on many occasions in the past. The sandbags had to be in place to help repel attacks by members of the PKK, so they must have been assembled some years earlier before the ceasefire was declared. I was surprised to see evidence of the civil war in Divrigi because I had not realised that PKK activity had been as far north as this. Then I remembered that a few years ago I had been warned about PKK activity in and around Kemah, east and just a little north of Divrigi. Suddenly the sandbags made perfect sense.
I walked down to the Ulu Camii and the Hospital to admire two of the most remarkable buildings of Muslim origin anywhere in Turkey, so much so that they now constitute a world heritage site and deservedly so. I will not describe them in detail because of their international fame and because information about both can easily be acquired electronically and in book form, but will say that, after well over twenty years since last seeing them, they took my breath away all over again.
In many respects the Ulu Camii and the Hospital are quite plain internally and externally, but, once your eyes closely examine the portals, you are confronted with intricately carved stonework of such interest and eccentricity that you linger in admiration for far longer than would normally be the case, even when engaging with architecture of the highest quality.
The mosque and hospital are designed as a single long rectangle on a platform in a hillside overlooking the town. Work began on both in 1228. From the middle of the roof rise the spire-like pyramid that covers the mihrab dome and, near it, the cap of the tomb in the hospital. In the hospital in particular there is a simple monumentality to everything that survives, so much so that, although almost eight hundred years old, it feels somehow very modern.
But it is the portals, of which there are three, that are the main reason why the mosque and the hospital have been declared a world heritage site. As Sinclair indicates, the hospital portal consists:
Of two pointed arches of rotund cross-section… many parallel torus mouldings follow the curve of each arch and the vertical drop to the base. The supports for the two arches merge with buttresses coming forward from the walls… Of the two arches only the outer is carved in a comprehensive manner, and that only on the three outer courses of the curve.
Look closely and you will identify many different decorative elements including squares, octagons, medallions, leaves and tendril tracery. Flamboyance is the order of the day.
Of the west portal of the mosque, Sinclair writes that:
The nature of its decorative patterns, their disposition and some features of the basic design such as the use of free-standing pillars beneath the inner arch are unique within the world of Selcuk and contemporary Syrian architecture. They are not only unique, but far distanced from anything else within that world. They belong instead in the world of Armenian manuscript decoration.
And of the north portal of the mosque, Sinclair notes that:
The front face is designed as a rectangle into which is put a splayed arch of Gothic shape… The carving… imitates stucco. The large elements in the thickest of the decorative lines give the whole portal a fleshy, prolix and jungle-like appearance. Each band or course is carved with great originality and skill, but the successive parts were not thought of in concert with one another. The lack of harmony is accentuated by the circumstance that almost the whole of the portal’s front face is covered, that is to say practically no blank space is left which might have relieved the crush of juxtaposed and discordant elements.
If the summary description of the north portal above suggests that Sinclair is not altogether happy with the final outcome of much labour over an extended period of time, may I say that I think it is, in common with the two other portals, simply astonishing. It does, in many ways, look quite bizarre and is intentionally extravagant and over-the-top, but no one can accuse it of not having ambition or lacking a playful sense of imagination. I love the mosque and the hospital even more on my second than my first encounter with them, even though on close inspection you notice some damage to the stonework, some of it inflicted by idiots who have left behind their names carved into the portals. Moreover, although far more people now visit Divrigi than twenty or so years ago to see the world heritage site, they come to admire buildings that express humankind’s capacity to build, build rather than burn, burn, so it was enjoyable to mix with the small number of foreign and the much larger number of Turkish tourists, the latter who had travelled hundreds of miles from large urban centres, most of which lack monuments of similar quality.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing of all? As with the citadel, admission to the Ulu Camii and the Hospital was free. In fact, by the end of the trip, after having seen scores of important monuments, an admission fee was required at only one site, the Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir. However, when I went to the church in Diyarbakir, one of my companions at the time paid for me. Now think how different things are in most European nation states, the UK included, when notable monuments are visited. This is another aspect of Turkey that often brings tears to my eyes.