Following a devastating earthquake in 1939 that claimed many lives, what is now Eski Erzincan was almost completely abandoned. Most of modern Erzincan is a city that has developed since that tragic year. This means that modern Erzincan has very few buildings more than eighty years old and, as a consequence, feels more like a concrete jungle than most Turkish cities because of the absence of anything of substantial age. Despite this, and despite the fact that conventional Sunni piety shapes a majority of the population, I had enjoyed my last and only other visit to the city. The city’s shabbiness has an oddly endearing quality, the pazar is very good and the railway has a substantial presence. Also, the mountains that enclose the city are very attractive, although in a somewhat austere manner. With excellent places in the region to visit including Kemah, Tercan and Altintepe, the latter an Urartian fortress with a temple, palace and tombs, there are many worse places to spend the night. Moreover, the northernmost edge of Eski Erzincan is only 3 kilometres from the main square in Erzincan’s city centre.
As I walked to Eski Erzincan along the main road bound for the airport and Caylagan, one of the city’s many stray dogs, one about the size of an Alsatian, befriended me and we became companions for about an hour until it developed an interest in two dogs of similar appearance to itself. On the way to Eski Erzincan we crossed the railway, passed a large cemetery which I looked at later and walked beside a very depressing zoo where animals were in small and sterile compounds in which food and water were provided intermittently.
The first structure we came to was an old hamam, a long, low building with stonework in very poor condition. The hot room is at the north end of the structure. Externally, only two of the domes can be identified and both are made of brick. Part of a chimney rises from the roof. Sinclair thinks the hamam is Ottoman, but suggests it “could conceivably be medieval”. Because part of the building is now used as a store and the doors were locked, I could not examine the interior.
The ruins at Eski Erzincan now lie among trees and long grass, the latter decorated with wild flowers in late spring and early summer, and two or three houses are near the next structure I went to examine, a gatehouse about 100 metres away. To reach the gatehouse I walked among some trees where two men were looking after beehives they had arranged in lines in a small sunlit clearing among the trees.
A sign beside the ruin identifies it as Kale Kapisi, or Castle Gate. Sinclair reveals that:
This gatehouse, of smooth, well-finished masonry, is Ottoman, but it is almost certainly built on foundations of a previous medieval gatehouse. Its rectangular chamber extends behind the line of the wall. Either side of the wide doorway project two diminutive bastions: these have five faces, as if coming from a cut-off octagon, but the five-faced figure is added to the front of a short rectangle rather than directly to the front of the city wall. The purpose of this rectangular block of masonry is to support the wide arch, which acts as a kind of porch, against the front of the gatehouse’s wall. The facing stone has all been pulled from the gatehouse’s s. wall and also taken at the base of the n. tower. The back aspect is also generally shoddy. Both doorways have been narrowed with breeze blocks.
The family living in one of the nearby houses uses the gatehouse to store things, food for animals included.
By now my companion had attracted the attention of three large dogs protecting one of the nearby houses, but the man who owned the dogs said they would not attack me; they were interested in my companion instead.
Near the gatehouse is the ruin of a tower with a hexagonal ground plan which, as Sinclair indicates, projects:
from the first angle on the w. corner (of the city wall) to a present height of one storey, but must originally have risen further, perhaps only enough to allow a crenellated defensive wall, less probably enough to allow a second covered storey. One side of the hexagon is accounted for by the back wall, which contains the entrance. The two sides adjacent to the entrance project from the city wall… These two sides are longer than the others to accommodate a lobby immediately inside the doorway. In the five outer faces, arrow slits with deep, wide embrasures. The masonry is of big, bossed blocks. Fragments of 14th-15th century decoration, very likely Islamic, on the n. face, mean that the tower was probably rebuilt in the 15th century.
Immediately south-east of the tower are short sections of the city wall and more sections of the wall exist after turning through a right angle so you are now facing north-east. A flat ditch about 10 metres wide provided additional protection along some of the city wall. The ditch is most readily identified where the wall along the south side of the city runs in a south-west to north-east direction. Here, the edge of the ditch opposite the city wall is in places 2.5 metres high. The slope of the ground precluded a ditch in front of the wall facing south-west. The wall was built along the top of a bank which gets lower as it leads to the north-west.
I lost my companion as I examined the ditch, after which I crossed the road to the airport and Caylagan to spend some time in the pretty cemetery. Very few of the tombs or gravestones in the cemetery are old, but a few notable Muslims have been buried there and their turbes reflect the high esteem in which they were held. The cemetery is kept in good condition and many flowers including poppies, pansies and irises were in bloom. Some simple wooden kiosks with seats have been erected among the tombs, so I retired to one to have a rest. I ate half a simit and a nectarine, both survivals of my visit to Tamdere.
I returned to the road leading to the airport and Caylagan, then took a left onto the ring road avoiding Erzincan’s city centre. I knew there was more to see in Eski Erzincan and that it lay just to the north of the ring road, which did not exist when Sinclair visited the site in the 1980s. Thankfully, construction of the ring road does not seem to have destroyed anything of great importance.
I crossed the ring road and, behind a wire fence, saw the remains of a large hamam benefiting from a major restoration programme. Thinking I would not be able to examine the remains close up because of health and safety concerns, I took a few photos before intending to make my way back to the city centre. However, by following the fence I came to a gate and the gate was unlocked. I knew already that the workmen were not on site, so I went inside hoping dogs were not on guard duty or living nearby in a feral state. There were no dogs, so what followed was a delight. I walked around the whole hamam, which is already in an impressive condition. I came away with the impression that the restoration programme will result in a monument not done up to an excessive degree.
Sinclair notes that:
The disrobing chamber with high dome is to the n. It is in good condition, both inside and outside, apart from the debris on the floor. The masonry of the walls is of the same bossed blocks as on the large octagonal tower. The dome is brick. The recess with pointed arch to the r. of the door (e. side) seems to have been for a cesme. Squinch and blind arch support for dome, set low in the usual manner. At the back of each squinch is a sloping triangle of rows of blocks set, toothlike, diagonally to the triangle’s face.
The area between the disrobing chamber and hot room is arranged unusually, and the series of rooms in question extends to either side of the rectangle implied by the disrobing chamber and hot room. A door leads into a chamber which must have been the cool room. This takes up only two-thirds of the slim space lying strictly between the disrobing chamber and the hot room. Off it, to the w., leads a passage to the lavatory, which projects to the w. end and to an extent lies alongside the disrobing chamber. S. of the corridor is another slim room, the w. end of which is domed. To the e. is a room adjacent partly to the cool room and partly to the hot room: it can only be entered by external doors to the n. and e. The hot room is of standard type, with small domed chambers in the corners, iwan-like rooms on the axes (though that communicating with the cool room is domed) and a central domed space. Furnace along whole s. side of the hot room.
Beside thoroughly enjoying the hamam for its size and unusual features (part of the floor had been lifted to reveal where the hot water used to flow to keep the hamam warm), I was intrigued to find that the workmen’s clothes and tools, even a small battery-operated torch, had been left inside and outside the hamam as if they had suddenly deserted the site merely to have a meal nearby. Among some trees and bushes were bags of rubbish, cushions, water bottles, glasses for tea and other liquid refreshments, a teapot and a small wood-burning stove to boil water. This was clearly where the workmen had their breaks during the working day. There was also a hastily built loo with breeze block walls and a hole in the ground for human waste.
A short distance from the hamam, but slowly being lost to view as the grass and the wild flowers grow against and over the remains, is what may be a medrese, although today you would be hard-pressed to know it was such a structure unless relying on Sinclair. Sinclair says that the ruin:
has not been inspected properly, as it lies just north of the main dumping ground for waste from the city abattoir… Roughly 20 metres n.-s., 15 metres e.-w. None of the walls survive to any great height. To the s., where the much-mortared rubble fill is exposed, there is a projection from the middle of the wall. Inside, and near this projection, lies a fragment of masonry which was part of a dome or pendentive… To the e. the masonry, much of it grassed over, is non-descript. In the w. wall is a series of five doorways: their bottom halves are buried in earth, but they are too wide in any case for windows. Each doorway has a stone lintel with rounded brick relieving arch above… The row of doorways looks as though designed to lead into a courtyard. On the other hand, Ottoman and medieval Turkish medreses are normally entered by a single doorway. These doorways, in fact, are the part of a building which defies explanation. Other possible guesses for the building’s purpose are a church with courtyard and, conceivably, a caravansaray or bedesten.
It was now about 3.30pm. I walked through an area of small sheds and compounds where, at the appropriate time of the year, large numbers of sheep and goats are killed for Eid-ul-Adha or, as the Turks prefer to call it, Kurban Bayram, the Feast of Sacrifice. I then walked around the exterior of part of the wholly inadequate zoo before visiting the railway station and its marshalling yard. A westbound passenger train from Kars, the Dogu Ekspres bound for Ankara, was due quite soon and about twenty passengers were waiting for it, but it was running about fifty-five minutes late.
After reminding myself of just how attractive the station is, two men invited me to have tea, cheese, bread and olives in a building where railway employees have their offices, lockers, rest rooms and storage facilities for tools. It was interesting to see the interior of the building because, although there is a sense that it is much larger than modern-day exploitation of the railway network requires, its construction and facilities, as in the nearby station itself, confirm that, when built, the railway was very much part of Turkey’s progressive and secular future, a future that inspired in many a feeling of unbounded optimism. Transportation by road and air has done much to erode the importance of the railway network, but, especially in large urban centres such as Erzincan, facilities associated with the railway are kept in very good condition, perhaps in the hope that current investment programmes will revive its fortunes. The introduction of high speed trains in the west of the country, where the roads are far more cluttered with traffic than in the east, have certainly attracted people back to the trains.