I was in a small village high on the western slopes of Erek Dağı, the 3,200-meter volcanic peak that provides a startling backdrop to the high-altitude lakeside city, which lies over 1,600 kilometers east of İstanbul and a mere 60 kilometers from the Iranian border. A wiry villager stood atop a two-meter-high pile of rubble, gesturing at the crumbling stone-built structure behind him, beyond which slender poplars, still in their sparse, leafless winter garb, swayed silently in the breeze. Above, the shattered, ragged ridge-tops of the summit area of Erek Dağı thrust up into a sky of the purest blue.
Seven Churches and a pile of rubble
I’d met Mehmet several times on previous visits for he was the bekçi (custodian) of the building that draws a modest -- but to the villagers important -- trickle of visitors to their dramatically situated but otherwise unremarkable village home, the Medieval Armenian Church of St. George. The rubble he was standing on was actually the zhamatun (porch) of the church, which had collapsed in the quake. “Don’t go in,” he cautioned as I scrambled up onto the rubble beside him and gazed down at the door to the church below us. “The roof cracked in the earthquake.”
He’d been in of course to rescue his modest display of early 20th-century photographs of the church, once part of one of the most famous monastic complexes in the Van region, Varaga Vank or as it is known in Turkish today -- Yedi Kilise, or the “Seven Churches.” As well as the photographs, I remembered that there had been a few chairs for guests to sit on and admire the faded 17th-century frescoes, candles for Armenian visitors from İstanbul or Armenia itself to light and pretty socks, hand-knitted by the village women, for sale. Mehmet was genuinely devastated by the damage to the church, not because the village would lose a little income if the meager flow of visitors dried-up, but because he had maintained the building as best he could over the years and was proud of the interest outsiders had shown in it.
Reconstruction in the air
Just then a German couple turned up in a rented car. They’d only been able to find the right road because a couple of local lads had jumped into the car with them on the outskirts of Van and kindly come all the way up here with them. They snapped a few pictures of the fine khatchkars (relief-carved crosses) on the facade of the church, and I translated as Mehmet linked arms with me and answered their questions about the earthquake. “All the houses, 80, have to be demolished,” he said. “And the government is going to build us new ones… but they won’t be big enough. We have big families,” he added, laughing. And continued: “Just 100 square meters, single storey. What about our animals?” (Village houses throughout Anatolia usually have a room or two beneath their homes for housing livestock in the harsh winters.)
I knew that Mehmet was being accurate in his appraisal, for on my arrival in the village I’d met a couple of building contractors from Erzurum who would be carrying out the work, and they’d reckoned the TL 40,000 per house they’d been allocated by the government would barely be enough. Later, I stood on the flattened remains of Mehmet’s house opposite the church. He said: “At least no one was inside my house [the quake struck in the afternoon]. And no one in the village was killed.” Mehmet appeared to be far more sanguine about the loss of his home than that of the church. For, unlike his house, it will almost certainly not be rebuilt or even shored-up, as despite its venerable age and importance, it is just one of many hundreds of crumbling, empty Armenian churches scattered across Eastern Anatolia.
Life gets back to normal -- for some
Back in the city center, I found a town that appeared to be getting back to normal. I checked on several hotels as part of my work for a guidebook for independent travelers. Several were up and running, having been vetted by legions of government and private experts. The Büyük Asur where I was staying had a few foreign travelers as guests, as well as some domestic visitors, and the owners had taken the opportunity to renovate the whole place. Other places had not been so lucky. Where the bayram had been, one of the city’s best known hotels and situated right in the city center, was just an empty lot.
Another, a budget hotel favored by backpackers in the backstreets, was also gone. “It fell,” said a man outside a nearby a shop, “in the quake. Eight people dead.” Later a worker from the hotel told me that it was the building next door to it that collapsed, pushing his hotel down -- and if it hadn’t crashed sideways into the building across the street first, the death toll would have been much higher.
Yet on this sunny April day the streets were busy, the tea shops and restaurants packed and banks, post offices and shops open for business. Life has to go on here, and it is, and many locals said yes, even a month ago the streets were quiet, but now that the weather is warmer at least some of the (by some estimates hundreds of thousands) of residents who had fled the harsh winter and temporary camps were coming home. Not all, though. A Van friend I have known for 25 years was now in forced exile in Ankara, his three children enrolled in new schools. His house, which I visited, is one of the 15,000 properties that will probably be too expensive to save and will be demolished.
I could only see a few hairline cracks in the property, while some of the blocks roundabout were shattered shells, but it had been declared unsafe -- not that he or his family would want to risk living there anyway. I rang him from the garden in front of the three-story property that he shared with his extended family, which now contained a Red Crescent container where a relative stayed to guard it. “I don’t know what will happen, Terry. Will I get any money or not? [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is coming to Van soon. Maybe everything will be clearer then.” I certainly hope so, and so will the tens of thousands housed in the “container cities,” the giant trailer parks I saw dotted around the city and its outskirts, mostly named after the village or district from which they were from.
Tourism after the tragedy
I have to confess to feeling a little uncertain in Van, ghoulish even. Was it right to be gathering information for travelers and tourists about a region that recently witnessed such tragedy, where so many buildings await demolition, so many people are living in temporary accommodation and thousands are having to cope with the psychological traumas that are inevitable in the aftermath of a quake during which, as one guy I spoke to told me, “The ground literally boiled”? I sincerely hope that it is right. Tourism is an important, even crucial part of the local economy, and it has to be built up again. Perhaps more importantly, people here want to believe that the outside world, whether in the form of visitors from Ankara, İstanbul, İzmir, London, Paris, New York or wherever, want to see an area of which they are proud to call home.
En route to the little-known Urartian (a fascinating ancient kingdom centered on Van from around 900-600 B.C.) site of Ayanis, I passed through the tumbled village of Alaköy. A local told me 13 had been killed here in the quake. İstanbul’s Fatih Municipality, in its “Bridge of Hearts” campaign, has provided the locals with a huge all-purpose tent, a temporary first-grade school building, container toilets, laundry and a hamam. They were signs of hope, as was the happy buzz of noise from the kids in the classroom and the sight of teenagers enjoying kicking a ball around on a dusty pitch. Ayanis is stunning, a grassy hilltop citadel perched just above the lake, overlooking a series of beautiful beaches and affording wonderful views across milky-blue waters to the snow-capped cone of 4,058-meter Süphan Dağı. Even here, though, the quake has brought problems, as according to the bekçi, the unique temple sanctuary at the core of the site was damaged in the quake. Years of sterling work by archaeologists from İzmir has been jeopardized.
Van needs you
I visited many of the magnificent sights around Van, from prime attractions like the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island to relatively obscure Urartian sites such as hill-top Anzaf, on the way to Iran. And, of course, I clambered over the famous Rock of Van itself where, in the remnants of the long-abandoned, old walled city beneath the rock, work continues apace to restore the splendid Ottoman-era mosque of Hüsrev Paşa, a work of the remarkable Sinan. None of these places were damaged.
Van, in the wake of the quake, is beginning to pick itself up and begin the long, slow road to recovery. Visitors and, to be blunt, the money they bring, are essential to this process. Much has been written about the ethereal beauty of the Lake Van region, with its rugged peaks circling a lake of ever-changing shades of blue, its green valleys, its stunning historical sites -- even its famous breakfasts rich with herb-cheese, butter, honey and clotted cream. It’s not hyperbole. Lake Van really is one of the most beautiful and fascinating regions in Turkey. Visit sooner rather than later. Van needs you.