Most towns in Turkey have changed out of all recognition over the last 20 years.
Doğubayazıt is not one of those towns. On the other hand, İshak Paşa Sarayı, the dramatically sited palace that’s the main reason for visiting Doğubayazıt, has changed out of all recognition. Restoration work that had been proceeding in stops and starts has finally finished and the end product is a virtual rebuilding.
Fear not, though. For once the rebuilding doesn’t seem to have been wholly destructive. It’s true that externally the palace has lost some of the charm it had when it was a romantic ruin perched on a rock with age and history oozing from its stonework. Internally, however, the rebuilding has succeeded in bringing İshak’s masterpiece back to life. You’ll have a much better sense of what living inside it might have been like now than used to be the case when it was sans roof, sans walls, sans everything.
Given its prominence in the landscape, the history of the palace, six kilometers east of modern Doğubayazıt, is surprisingly obscure. Work appears to have begun on it in 1685 although serious building only seems to have been carried out under Hasan Paşa, whose son, İshak Paşa, then completed it in the 1790s. In some ways it’s a little like a cut-down stone version of Topkapı Palace in İstanbul in that it has three courtyards, each approached via a grand portal, that become increasingly private the further one penetrates. The architectural style is routinely called eclectic, and certainly one can read into it what one will. A touch of Divriği in the main entrance? Traces of Mardin in some of the window carvings? Most unexpectedly, a foretaste of Art Nouveau in a panel on the wall of the second courtyard.
There are many things to enjoy inside the palace, although the two most striking rooms are the glorious mosque with a built-in minber (pulpit) off the second courtyard and the splendid pillared dining room beyond the third one. Look out, too, for an octagonal hamam (Turkish bath), for bedrooms with sizeable fireplaces as protection against the harsh winters of eastern Turkey, and for some unexpected wooden corbels that must once have supported a balcony but are curiously reminiscent of the gargoyle drains on the cathedrals of Western Europe.
Now that restoration work is complete, regular dolmuşes ferry visitors up to the palace and beyond it to the shrine of Hanibaba, otherwise known as Ahmed Hani (1650-1707), the Kurdish poet whose most famous work told the story of the star-crossed lovers Mem and Zin. As you walk down from the shrine towards the palace you’ll see ahead of you the looming remains of the castle of Eski (Old) Bayazıt, the town that straggled down the hillside in the general direction of the new town until the 1930s, when it was destroyed after a riot. Then you’ll come to a newly restored mosque probably dating back to the 16th century and the reign of Sultan Murad III. If you stand at the top of the flight of steps leading up to it and gaze up at the castle you should also be able to make out the entrance to a much older Urartian tomb with large figures carved on the facade. Only the surest of footed should follow local youths who shin up to the top of the castle as if it were a school playground.
You could, if you want, take the dolmuş back down to Doğubayazıt, but if it’s a fine day the walk is delightful, giving you the chance to scrutinize the foundations of the stone houses of the old town that have of course been replaced by routine concrete in the new one. At this time of year cuckoos will be calling across the valley and the slopes of the hill will be festooned with wildflowers. Plus halfway down the hill you can pause for lunch in the restaurant attached to Murat Camping, where pictures show you what the area would have looked like in the 19th century with the palace sandwiched between the ruins of the castle and the houses of Eski Bayazıt.
It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for modern Bayazıt, whose only “attraction” is a rambling set of pasajes (arcades) filled with products that Iranians think Turks want to buy and Turks think Iranians do. Otherwise the town is best thought of as a base from which to sally forth and explore the far-flung attractions of the surrounding area.
First and foremost of these attractions is Ağrı Dağı (Mount Ararat), the snowcapped mountain whose primary peak, Büyük Ağrı (Big Ararat), soars to 5,165 meters. Venturing up it is a serious matter not to be entered into without proper planning. The usual course of action is to take at least three days about the venture, climbing with a guide and porters. Since last year it’s been possible for local guides to obtain the necessary permits to climb the mountain in one day. There’s also a shop in town that sells basic mountaineering and camping gear, although you’re probably better off bringing your own. The climbing season runs from now through to September, and if you make it to the top you will no doubt look back on your visit to Doğubayazıt with great affection. Assuming, however, that you’re one of those who is likely to be viewing Ararat only from afar, try and land a hotel room that overlooks the mountain to give yourself the best chance of glimpsing the peak free of cloud.
The second most popular side trip out of Doğubayazıt is to the supposed remains of Noah’s Ark (Nuh’un Gemisi) above the village of Telçeker. This is a little confusing since one of the reasons people were always keen on climbing Mount Ararat was because it was believed to have been where the ark came to rest at the end of the Flood. But of course for most of the 1990s it was impossible to get permission to make the ascent and during that hiatus an alternative location was discovered. Most people will gaze out over what looks like an interestingly shaped rock formation and come away less than convinced by the yellowing newspaper cuttings on display in the poor old information center. The scenery on the way, though, is quite breathtaking.
Telçeker is on the road east towards the Iranian border, and if you keep going along the main road you’ll eventually come to a sign to the north that makes much of a crater in the middle of the fields that was apparently created by a meteor strike in 1892. Slowly but surely the vast void is filling up with mud. Even the information board sounds apologetic when it says, “Studies are being made ordered to make the crater a more attractive sight to be visited by local and foreign tourists.”
In good weather it should be possible to drive out to an ice cave hidden at the bottom of Mount Ararat. Should rain have washed the track away, though, there is one other possible excursion to be made, which is west to the small town of Diyadin and the hot springs (kaplıca) at nearby Ilıca. To be brutally frank, these are housed in buildings of such unmitigated ugliness that you’re unlikely to want to linger. However, the small turquoise rock pools around the oldest kaplıca are vaguely reminiscent of the travertines at Pamukkale and there’s a lovely stretch of canyon nearby if you can manage to overlook all the litter.
Where to stay
Golden Hill Hotel. Tel.: 0 (472) 312 87 17
Hotel Grand Derya. Tel.: 0 (472) 312 75 31
Hotel Isfahan. Tel.: 0 (472) 312 43 63
Simer Hotel. Tel.: 0 (472) 312 48 42
How to get there
There’s no airport at Doğubayazıt; the closest are at Van and Kars. From Kars there are direct dolmuşes to Doğubayazıt; from Kars you’ll have to change in Iğdır.