Most visitors tend to stick to the south side of the lake where the restored Armenian church on Akhtamar Island is a major drawcard. In reality, though, the northern side of the lake is at least as beautiful, if not more so because less traffic runs along it.
Surprisingly, the best-known attraction on the north side of the lake is a sprawling cemetery on the outskirts of the small town of Ahlat. This cemetery is full of lavishly carved and lichen-bespattered tombstones that jut out of the ground at crazy angles, like broken teeth in a dentist's nightmare of a mouth. These tombstones are usually said to date back to Selçuk times, and certainly the carvings on them are reminiscent of the khatchkar crosses to be seen on Armenian tombstones of that period. However, according to Sevan Nişanyan's guide to eastern Turkey, the oldest tombstones only date back to the 18th century. Not that their date matters all that much to visitors, who will be enthralled anyway by the beauty of their stonework and by the peacefulness of a site where the silence is broken only by the clattering sounds of mating tortoises and of rooks who've learned to use the tops of the tombs as nutcrackers.
If you think that cemeteries are not really your thing, it's well worth dropping into the excellent small museum beside the site entrance where you'll discover that there's a lot more to old Ahlat than the tombstones. Once called Khlad, Ahlat was probably settled originally by the metal-working Urartians whose capital was Tushpa (modern Van). The cemetery aside, the most striking reminders of the medieval town are its many kümbets, the distinctive circular tombs that can be found all over eastern Turkey and as far west as Kayseri, and the shape of which is sometimes said to be based on that of nomadic tents although it seems equally likely that it was drawn from that of older Armenian churches. One of these, the Ulu (or Usta Şakir) Kümbet, dating back to 1273, stands in splendid isolation across the road from the cemetery, but the finest, the colonnaded Emir Bayındır Kümbet dating back to 1481, is across the far side of the cemetery and attached to a small contemporary mosque.
To find the remains of old Ahlat you need to cross the cemetery, exit from the northern side, turn left and stroll downhill towards a pretty stream. Turn right when you reach it and you will come to the graceful, newly restored Sultan Murad II Köprüsü (bridge) and then to a curious ridge of rock riddled with long-abandoned Cappadocian-like cave dwellings. The most interesting of these boasts over its entrance the same stalactite-like muqarnas that adorn Selçuk mosques; pop your head inside and you will discover what looks like a soot-blackened rock-cut church. Many other traces of medieval Ahlat are littered about here, including the remains of a hamam complex and what must once have been a very fine Ulu Cami (mosque).
Modern Ahlat was built on a site a little to the east of the medieval town. There's not much to see there although the Çifte Kümbetler (Twin Kümbets) as you come into the center are very pretty, and the otherwise uninspiring town center also boasts a fine new Ulu Cami built right beside the lake with wonderful terraces looking over it. There are also the remains of a fortress dating back to the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent near the shore. Ahlat's big claim to fame though is the volcanic stone that is quarried here and which was used to carve not only the tombstones in the cemetery but also such distant masterpieces as the Alaaddin Cami in Konya, and the Ulu Cami and Darüşşifa complex in Divriği. Here, unlike elsewhere in Turkey, houses and other buildings are still being built using this natural stone, which comes in a range of colors from a dark cream through to rust-red. They make a particularly comforting sight for those whose hearts grow weary at the sight of never-ending concrete.
From Ahlat you can catch a dolmuş to Malazgirt (Manzikert), site in 1071 of the titanic clash between the Byzantine army under the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes and the Selçuk Turks under Alp Arslan. The Selçuk sultan used Ahlat as his headquarters for this battle, which deprived the Byzantines of control of most of eastern Turkey. If instead you press on round the lake you will come to the even smaller town of Adilcevaz where with a little help from the European Union a promenade has been laid alongside the lake immediately east of the striking Tuğrulbey Cami; although this dates back to 1557-58, the claim that it's a work of Sinan should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. On the hillside behind it what looks like a medrese or caravanserai is currently being renovated while high above that are scattered the remains of a 16th-century castle. Trickier to get to unless you arrive wearing suitable shoes are the remains of the Urartian Kefkalesi (Kef Castle), a fine relief from which can be seen in the grounds of Van Museum. Adilcevaz is known for its tasty walnuts, a statue of which, predictably, greets visitors as they drive into town.
Looming above Adilcevaz is spectacular Süphan Dağı (Mount Suphan), at 4,058 meters the second highest mountain in Turkey but not, supposedly, especially hard to climb. If you keep driving along the shore you will come eventually to the small town of Erciş, whose only historic monument is yet another kümbet dating back to 1458, this time housing the remains of Kadem Paşa Hatun, the mother of one of the Karakoyunlu rulers. Erciş is the kicking-off point for visits to a mountain village that is interesting more for the uniqueness of its residents than for the beauty of its architecture. In 1982, not long after the military coup, a group of Kirghiz refugees from Pamir in Afghanistan were resettled in a village now called Ulu Pamir, 30 kilometers northwest of Erciş, after an interim sojourn in Pakistan. Today they still live here in dismal block housing and tend their flocks, albeit set amid the most glorious mountain scenery. The women weave kilims on horizontal looms and still wear traditional Kirghiz costume for day-to-day life although the men seem to save theirs for the colorful festival that takes place here every June. Their poignant story is told in Ben Hopkins' 2006 documentary “37 Uses For a Dead Sheep.”
One should not, perhaps, expect too much of Ulu Pamir, which clearly has no rubbish collections, and where the arrival of a stranger is likely to lead to questions from armed village guards and speedy referral to the nearby military base. Provided you're carrying your identification documents, though, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Afterwards you could continue north to Ilıca where the piping hot waters of a small spa may be housed in depressingly ugly concrete but are still good for a quick soak.
Where to stay
Kardelen Hotel, Tatvan. Tel: 0434-827 9500
Hotel Dilek, Tatvan. Tel: 0434-827 1516
Merit Şahmaran, Edremit. Tel: 0432-312 3060
How to get there
There are hourly dolmuşes from Tatvan to Ahlat with onward connections to Adilcevaz and Erciş. Erciş is also served by dolmuşes from Van. Taxi drivers at the bus station are familiar with the road to Ulu Pamir.