Castles, and churches: making the most of Van

Castles, and churches: making the most of Van

Ulu Camii and Rock of Van (Photo: Terry Richardson)

June 06, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:03:00

The devastating earthquakes that struck Van in late October and early November left tens of thousands homeless and facing a winter of discomfort and uncertainty. This high-altitude region and its people literally froze as snow blanketed the plains, valleys and towering peaks and ice rimmed the alkaline waters of Turkey’s largest lake.

Few outsiders, aid workers apart, penetrated the area. Now, however, as the warm fingers of spring coax Van’s unspoiled landscape back to life, reconstruction work gathers momentum and refugees return from points west, a semblance of normality is returning. Many hotels have been checked and given the all clear to re-open by the authorities, city center bars, cafes and restaurants appear as bustling as ever and visitors from all over the world, drawn by the region’s natural beauty and fascinating historical sites, are returning.

Most visitors, of course, come here as part of a long bus sojourn around eastern Turkey. A quick dash to the stunning Rock of Van and a boat visit to the iconic church on the island of Akdamar are the standard outings, before heading west to the delights of Mardin or north to the splendors of the İshak Paşa Palace and Mt. Ararat. But the city of Van, spectacularly set on the inland sea’s eastern shores, in the shadow of a jagged 3,000-meter volcanic peak, deserves more. For a while the city itself may not be anywhere near as appealing as, for example, Mardin, but its immediate environs certainly are, making Van every bit as worthy a long-weekend destination as its rival to the southwest. The three suggested daily itineraries that follow are designed to help the visitor make the most of their time in Van.

Day 1: Breakfast and the Rock of Van

Even before the quake few would have argued that the city of Van was one of Turkey’s most beautiful. Laid out on a grid plan following a quake back in the 1950s, it has always been little more than a pleasant enough base from which to visit the surrounding area. The one must-do activity is a Van breakfast, best sampled on a bustling weekend morning at an outside table in the city’s famous “breakfast alley,” just off the main street. The endless cups of çay are required to wash down a monster-sized feast of herb-studded local cheese, cream and honey, olives, kavurmalı yumurta (a couple of fried eggs topped with tender sliced lamb), plus local Kurdish specialty murtuğa, a scrambled-egg omelet of egg, flour and oil. The Rock of Van (Van Kalesi) lies close to the lakeshore some three kilometers to the west of town, easily reachable by a city bus from the Beş Yol crossroads at the northern end of the main drag, Cumhuriyet Caddesi. The “Rock,” a 1.5-kilometer-long limestone ridge running from west to east at a right angle to the lake, is sheer on its southern-side and rears up dramatically from the flat, marshy plain. The bus will drop you at the eastern end of the Rock, although the ticket entrance is at the far, lake, end. It’s best, therefore, to cut around to the southwestern side of the Rock, where a gap in the fence gives you entrance to Eski (Old) Van, a now completely ruined city beneath the Rock. Despite the desolation, there’s a whole host of things to be seen as you pick your way along the undulating terrain, from the shells of Armenian churches and early Turkish mosques to the delights of a Sinan-designed beauty, the Husrev Paşa Mosque, currently under restoration.

The pits of treasure seekers litter the ground, so watch your step as your eyes are drawn upwards to where kestrels, swifts and choughs circle the 300-meter-high cliff face to the south. This spectacular rock was once Tushpa, the capital of the Urartians, who ruled a vast area around Van between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. Rivals to the better known Assyrians across the mountains to the south, the tombs of their kings can be seen pocking the cliff face, though the palace, temples and storerooms that once topped the Rock are now mixed up with the remnants of the peoples who came after them -- including the Ottomans, who left a fine mosque and lots of crumbling mud-brick wall. Binoculars are very useful here, and make a viewing of the huge cuneiform rock-cut inscription, left by the Persian King Xerxes in the sixth century B.C., even more exciting.

Completely destroyed, depending on your political persuasion, by the Armenians, Russians or Turks in the vicissitudes of World War I, it’s hard now to imagine the old walled city of Van as it was when described by Scottish traveler Isabella Bird in the 1890s. “I did not see such a choice and abundance of European goods in any bazaar in Persia and … beneath the tablet of Xerxes, there is a bazaar devoted to Armenian tailors, and to the clatter of American sewing machines stitching Yorkshire cloth.” After buying a ticket at the booth (TL 3, daily 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.), head up to the top of the citadel for fabulous views of the lake and its surroundings, as well as a look at the Urartian inscription at the mouth of the King Argishti tomb, terrifyingly poised in the southern side of the cliff (you’ll need a security guard to unlock the metal door to the five-chambered tomb and a head for heights).

Day 2: Famed and lesser-known Armenian churches

The Armenian people probably moved into the Van region around the time of the collapse of the Urartian Kingdom. Here they remained until they were expelled in the early 20th century. A proudly Christian people, the most obvious legacy of their time in what is now eastern Turkey are their churches. Most famous is the easily visited Church of the Holy Cross on the Island of Akdamar (boat TL 7.50 return, site TL 5, daily 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.). Dolmuşes (local minibuses) run to the quay opposite the island from a scruffy garage just north of the Beş Yol junction in central Van, but if you want to visit the second church mentioned here, that of St. Thomas near the village of Altınsaç, you’ll need to rent your own vehicle from Van. The island church was controversially (to Turkish nationalists at least) restored in 2007, and much has been written about its naive but beautifully carved exterior, adorned as it is with relief-carved scenes from the Old Testament and an “inhabited vine-scroll,” from the stone foliage of which peep sturdy Armenian farmers, wild beasts and even an oriental-looking mounted archer performing the famous Parthian shot. This small but very pretty church was built for the Armenian king Gagik, ruler of the short-lived vassal kingdom of Vaspurakan, between 915 and 921. A 20-minute boat ride from the mainland, it makes for a fascinating visit, the beauty of the church enhanced by the loveliness of the island on which it stands, and the panoramic views of the mountains ringing the shores of Lake Van.

To get off the tourist trail, with your own transport head west from Akdamar to explore the little-visited church of St. Thomas. Around 12 kilometers after the quay, turn right past a petrol station to the village of Göründü. The scenery is simply idyllic as you drive through the village and along the lake shore, with green pastures and cows grazing at the lake’s margins. The village of Altınsaç, reached after another 15 kilometers of driving, is prettily set at the foot of a green valley running down at right angles to the lake. The church is set on a prominent spur above the lake about two kilometers beyond Altınsaç. Built in the 14th century and dedicated to St. Thomas, it may lack the relief-carving and frescoes of the church of Akdamar, but it’s still a fine building, with plenty of katchkars to admire on the hillside behind. The views across the lake are sublime so it makes an ideal picnic spot. Local women come here to collect thistle roots in spring -- them apart you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself.

Day 3: A fairy-tale castle and a Urartian citadel

Providing you’re prepared to be flexible and happy enough to wait around for a while, it’s perfectly possible to visit the next two sites using local transport. It makes sense to begin with the furthest, the stunningly situated castle at Hoşap, around 55 kilometers south of Van on the road to Başkale/Hakkari (dolmuş TL 10). Built in the late 17th century by a Kurdish chieftain, this romantic fairy-tale of a fortification once controlled trade along the Hoşap valley below. Vertiginously steep on the side overlooking the river and settlement of Hoşap (Sweet Water in Kurdish) below, it’s much more approachable from the east -- just follow the winding dirt road up from below to the main gateway, adorned with a fine bronze-plated door and a couple of relief-carved lions. Recently restored, there are the remains of a mosque, hamam and palace inside, which the custodian (who claims Çerkez [Circassian] descent, despite giving his two daughters Kurdish names) will be happy to point out. The views down over the flat-roofed, mud-brick houses of the village below, and the crumbling mud-brick walls of the castle’s outer defenses, are spectacular.

En route back to Van, get off the dolmuş at the Urartian citadel site of Çavuştepe (TL 3, daily 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.), set on a prominent rocky spur to the south of the road, near the village of Gürpınar, around 28 kilometers from Van (dolmuş to Van TL 5). While its situation may not be quite so dramatic as that of the Urartian capital on the Rock of Van, Çavuştepe more than makes up for it in terms of easily recognizable and interpretable remains. This is largely down to the work of Afif Erzen, who excavated the site between 1961 and 1984. Wander out onto the airy ridge to see the superbly cut andesite blocks of a temple sanctuary, inscribed with delicately chiseled cuneiform writing, storage rooms with the remnants of large storage jars (pithoi) that once held the fortified place complexes supplies of grain and wine, and huge cisterns carved from the bedrock. There’s even what some archaeologists claim to be the first toilet in the world, of the squat variety, hewn from the rock at the very tip of the promontory on which the complex stands.

Getting to Van

From İstanbul: THY and SunExpress

fly direct, Anadolujet flies via Ankara

From Ankara: Direct with Anadolujet

From İzmir: SunExpress direct, or via

Ankara with Anadolujet From Antalya:

SunExpress direct or via  Ankara with Anadolujet Accommodation Budget: Şahin. 0 (432) 216 30 62,  www.otelsahin.com

Mid-range: Büyük Asur. 0 (432) 216 87 92,

www.buyukasur.com Top-end: Tamara.

0 (432) 214 32 96, www.tamaraotel.com

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