The road from Tabriz, the westernmost city of Iran, to the border town of Bazargan took far longer than I had expected. I am whisked on a Cold War era Mercedes bus across a barren landscape of golden heat, marked by pockets of green, drought-ridden river beds and impressive rock formations, of which I am the privileged few witnesses to its enormous beauty. An old woman in a chador sitting behind me has for the past few hours been trying to satiate her curiosity about me, but our fledging conversation in smiling pantomime is little served by our mutual unintelligibility. Meanwhile, a bee has been slamming itself, body and soul against my window for the last two hours.
Dotting the landscape outside are the ancient ruins of abandoned Persian Silk Road caravanserai – marks of the glorious and global history of this road, as well as lonely factories and rusting tractors of an isolated “free industrial zone” – marks of a land arm-twisted by sanctions and intransigent politics. As Rasool, my Tehrani couchsurfing host remarked, “we the Iranian people are fucked by the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
An overcharging taxi driver brings me on the last hour’s drive to the Turkish border. He takes the liberty of detouring round his street, showing me off to his wife and his neighbours – this, the show pony treatment of being the only foreigner in a 500 km radius, has been getting on my nerves for the past few days.
The border itself is a clusterfuck of Turkish cigarette smugglers. Ahead, aggressive border guards with Güvenlik emblazoned on their shirts and pistols on their belts are tossing contraband cartons above the customs allowance into a growing pile of abused boxes. There are flaring temples and shoving and shouting. Cartons of Kent are stuffed in my face – “Three cartons mister! Help me bring just three across!” Waving my bright red passport and shouting “Foreigner! Foreigner! I have no cigarettes!” enables me to push my way through a crowd of 50 Turks jamming up the only checkpoint gate. And I am waived through into Turkish Kurdistan.
A 7 lira dolmus, packed to its creaking seams with Turks and cigarettes and me, bundles on its way to the nearest town of Dogubeyazit. To my right is snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark. It is an unmistakable presence that stretches indolently across the entire Northern horizon – glinting grey in the overcast sunset.
I have not seen clouds for a month.
Five steps to my right across a broken border fence is Armenia. At some points a roaring gorge separates us, at other times, it is a mere fence, rusting and unpatrolled. An ancient arch bridge across the gorge into Armenia, now collapsed and ridden with bird droppings, used to connect eastwards to the Silk Road. Now it’s just emblematic of Armenia’s tragic estrangement from the ruins of its formerly magnificent imperial capital of Ani.
The ruins of Ani, sitting squarely in Turkish territory, is a sorry excuse for its former glory. One can’t help but feel anger at the slipshod destructiveness of half-hearted reconstruction efforts. Concrete and modern materials etch away crumbling memory of ancient masonry, steel pylons that offer little structural support slices into mosaics. An angry archaeologist dedicates an entire blog journaling the decades of deliberate neglect and grave-digging with impunity by both Turks and Armenians. In a pissing match of politics, global cultural heritage is the biggest loser, and its unhindered desecration is an outrageous travesty.