Visiting Van --the good the bad, and the ugly

November 07, 2010, Sunday/ 12:49:00
I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings from the east, but the shocking first sight that greets antiquity-loving visitors when they get out of the dolmuş in Van to go and explore the great Urartian castle on top of the Rock of Van is a glistening wall of white stone where part of the castle has just been completely rebuilt.Fortunately it's a half-kilometer walk from the dolmuş stop to the entrance gate, which is long enough for the fury and frustration to have abated somewhat. What's more, the rebuilding has been restricted to one end of the castle so that if you could only manage to walk half that distance in a blindfold you would be able to fool yourself that nothing so awful had happened after all.

Van Kalesi (Van Castle) is mostly a relic of the days when what is now Van was Tushpa, the capital of the Urartian Kingdom, which lasted from the 13th to the seventh century B.C. The kingdom was famous for its wonderful metalwork, the best examples of which are now on display far away in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, much to the disgust of some locals. The Urartians wrote in a form of cuneiform that they may have learnt from the Assyrians; there are fine examples of it on the sloping faces of the Rock of Van, although you need to have a pretty good head for heights to inspect most of them. It goes without saying that although so much money has been wasted on rebuilding part of the castle (and the mosque inside it), nothing at all has been spent on footpaths, litter bins or anything in the way of useful signage.

On your way to the entrance you might want to pause to inspect a tomb which is a popular port of call for infertile women. Just inside the gate you might also ask someone to unlock the attractive copy of an old Van house that was built there recently. But what you certainly should do is gaze out from the top of the rock at the spectacular views of Lake Van and then down onto the humps and bumps that mark the site of Old Van, the large Armenian quarter that vanished forever in 1915. Locals picnic in the shadow of the rock on the Old Van side of it, but there's also a path that skirts the ruins and brings you out beside the wonderfully stripy Hüsrev Paşa Cami, an Ottoman structure dating back to 1567. Just a short walk away is the equally attractive Kaya Çelebi Cami, dating back to 1662. The Hüsrev Paşa complex is currently a building site from which you will be shooed away; Kaya Çelebi is locked up, but if you peer through the door you'll be able to admire its splendid mihrab. It might be wise when exploring the area, though, to heed local warnings and do so in a group.

Despite its superb setting on the shores of magnificent Lake Van, Van itself is not a beautiful town. Having suffered terribly during World War I, it was then battered by an earthquake in the 1950s which saw off all its remaining historic buildings. The only other specific attraction in town is the Van Museum, which contains finds from and information about several other Urartian sites in the area including Ayanış, in a breathtaking location right beside the lake some 20 kilometers to the north. The star exhibits, though, are the 13 striking stelae found in distant Hakkari in 1998 and thought to date back to c.1500 B.C.

A stroll along the main drag does throw up one very unexpected sign of the times, which is the new park named after the Kurdish poet Feqiye Teyran (Faqi Tayran), who lived from 1561 to 1632. What is so amazing about this park is not just its name but that it also carries a bilingual description of Teyran in Turkish and the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish, the language spoken by so many of Van's residents. A mere five years ago such a sign would have been unthinkable. In another 10 years we will probably wonder what all the fuss was about. Just to ram home the point about change, a second park is named after Ahmed-i Hani, another Kurdish writer who lived from 1650 to 1707 and who is buried in Doğubayazıt, not far from the İshak Paşa Sarayı (palace).

If Van itself is low on specific attractions it still makes an excellent base for exploring the surrounding area, with a much better choice of hotels and amenities than Tatvan on the opposite side of the lake. Aside from excursions around the lake, in particular to the site of the newly restored Armenian church on Akdamar Island, the town is the kicking-off point for a journey out along the road to Hakkari with possible stops at Çavuştepe to inspect the remains of an Urartian town with one of the oldest known squat toilets, and at Hoşap where a superb castle looming by the roadside has also been given a new and unnecessary facelift.

Another possibility is to hop into a taxi and head nine kilometers out to the pretty, stone-built village of Yukarı Bakraçlı, also known as Yedi Kilise (Seven Churches) in a nod of recognition to its drawcard, the extraordinary remains of the old Armenian Varak Manastırı (the Monastery of the Holy Sign). The original 11th-century church on the site was famous for possessing a piece of the True Cross as discovered by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. This had been pilfered from Jerusalem in the seventh century by the Persian King Chosroes II, who then lost it to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. In the 17th century a vast frescoed extension was added to the church, which is still extremely impressive despite having been squeezed into a corner by a mosque built right in front of it. Your taxi will only have to pull up for locals to come running with the key.

What else is there to do in Van? Well, you could go in search of the famously white Van cat with its one blue and one yellow eye, although the closest you'll probably get to seeing it is the huge statue of a cat and kitten that graces the road junction as you approach the lake. You could admire the statue of the inci kefalı (pearl mullet), the only fish known to live in the lake, that decorates the Beş Yol (Five Roads) intersection in the town center. Better still, you could forego your hotel breakfast and head out with the locals to one of the many kahvaltı salonus (breakfast rooms) about town. There's no shortage of places to choose from, but perhaps the most fun is Bak Hele Bak, a kahvaltı sarayı (breakfast palace) no less, which is presided over with considerable bombast by its owner Yusuf Bey, a man who obviously missed his true vocation as a circus ringmaster. Your Turkish will need to be pretty robust to keep on top of the rhymes and riddles with which he blasts all comers, but everyone will be able to appreciate the superb breakfast which comes with fried eggs, herb-studded Van cheese, fresh pide bread, and delectable balkaymak (cream and honey), all washed down with lashings and lashings of tea. (Next week: the south side of Lake Van.)

Where to stay

Akdamar Hotel, Van. Tel: 0432-214 9923

Asur Oteli, Van. Tel: 0432-216 8792

Büyük Urartu Oteli, Van. Tel: 0432-212 0660

Hotel Merit Şahmaran, Edremit. Tel: 0432-312 3060

How to get there

Given the distance from İstanbul and Ankara the only really sensible way to get to Van is by plane. However, there are hourly buses from Tatvan and regular minibuses from Doğubayazıt, too. There are no airport transfer buses -- you'll have to use a taxi.

                        Reconstructed Van House

Armenian churc on Akdamar İsland

Hakkari stelae in Van Museum

Hüsrev Paşa Camii

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