Lake Van: Turkey's best kept secret

2019-06-11 20:10:04

Fringed by austere, tawny-hued peaks soaring to 13,000ft (3.9km) the startlingly blue Lake Van, an inland sea seven times larger than Lake Geneva, is one of Turkey's best-kept secrets.

Given that this intriguingly beautiful high-altitude lake (it's 5380ft above sea level) lies almost a thousand road miles east of the fleshpots of Turkey's economic and cultural capital of Istanbul, it's not surprising that relatively few Turks make it out here, let alone foreigners, who flock instead to the country's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.

Indeed, Van is far closer to Tehran than to Istanbul, and the border with Iran is just 60 miles (97km) to the east.

Remote today, the lake once sat astride a major branch of the Silk Road and was for many centuries in a populous, prosperous region.

The Armenians who lived here until the genocide of the First World War had a saying: "Van in this world, paradise in the next", and the exquisite medieval churches dotting its shores bear witness to their industry and piety. Van was also a "paradise" for the precursors of the Armenians, the little-known Urartians. From around 900-600BC the Kingdom of Urartu rivalled the mighty Assyrian Empire to the south, and they gave as good as they got against the warlike Assyrians from their formidable palace-cum- fortress "capital" on the eastern shores of the lake.

Located on the outskirts of the only city on the lake (Van, population one million) the Rock of Van makes an ideal introduction to the region. Around a mile long, this spectacular limestone spur rears up from a marshy floodplain, a sheer cliff riddled with the rock-cut tombs of Urartian kings on the south side, a gentler north flank rising up to the Ottoman Turkish period mud-brick walls of a summit fort.

The views west from the top, especially at sunset, when the low sun hangs like a golden globe above the indigo immensity of the unruffled lake, the orange sky washed with pink and purple, are sublime. Those east, to the looming, shattered-rock presence of volcanic Mount Erek (10,416ft), are only marginally less dramatic.

The presence of the Urartians is everywhere on the Rock. Visiting the tomb of King Argishti, comprising several chambers hollowed out of the sheer cliff, is not for vertigo sufferers, but worth it for the superb cuneiform inscription carved above the steps leading down to the opening. More inscriptions adorn the western end of the Rock, while at its eastern fringe a couple of large, arched niches once held statues of Urartian gods.

To find out more about a people famed for their metalworking and engineering skills, visit the brand-new Urartu Museum, one of the largest in Turkey and containing almost 100,000 artefacts. Its long, sleek mirror glass facade has been artfully designed to reflect the magnificent Rock of Van opposite.

At the foot of the southern cliff of the Rock are the poignant remnants of Old Van, destroyed during fighting between the Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Russians in the First World War.

Two attractive Ottoman mosques have been restored, though little else remains bar the crumbling brick minarets of a couple of Selcuk mosques, the shell of an Armenian church and a caravanserai. Look up to the Rock to see the enormous fifth- century BC trilingual inscription of the Persian king Xerxes carved high into the cliff, and behind the church a number of khatchkars, distinctive Armenian crosses, have been scratched into the outcrop by pilgrims.

Old Van was not always desolate. In the late 19th century the indomitable British traveller Isabella Bird visited the then thriving town and wrote, "Owing to the increasing enterprise of the Armenians, every European necessity of life can be obtained, as well as many luxuries. Peek and Frean's biscuits, Moir's and Crosse and Blackwell's tinned meats and jams, English patent medicines, Coats' sewing cotton, Belfast linens, Berlin wool, Jaeger's vests... 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!"

Despite its lack of historic buildings, utilitarian, grid-plan "new" Van has its own vibrancy, not least on "Breakfast Alley", a quiet passage running parallel to the main street where numerous little outlets specialise in the famous Van breakfast; tender lamb slices fried up with egg in a tiny, wok-like pan; otlu peynir (a local pungent, herb-studded goat's cheese), murtaga (a Kurdish speciality made from butter, eggs and flour), tender flat breads, clotted cream and comb honey and many more dishes, all washed down with endless refills of black tea in tulip-shaped glasses. It's a Sunday institution for the predominantly Kurdish locals and visitors alike.

The jewel in Lake Van's tourism crown has long been the church-capped islet of Akdamar, off the shore south of the lake, a 45-minute drive from Van city. The exquisite Church of the Holy Cross, topped by polygonal drum and pyramidal dome, was built in the late 10th century at the behest of the ruler of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan.

What makes it so special are the exterior, relief-carved biblical scenes, which include Jonah and the Whale and Samson clubbing the Philistines. The views from the islet, reached by ferries from the mainland, are as superb as Isabella Bird suggested in 1890: "All along I am quite impressed with the resemblance which the southern shores of Lake Van bear to some of the most beautiful parts of the Italian Riviera".

An even more remote island church lies to the north of Van city - the Monastery of St John on Carpanak, a pretty islet also home to a colony of Armenian gulls. Other Armenian churches, including those of St Thomas and St George of Goms, can be visited on the beautiful southern shores of the lake. Although very picturesque, abandoned churches in the region are often badly ruined and used by Kurdish villagers as hay barns. The church on Akdamar was badly damaged too, but was restored by the Turkish state in 2007 at considerable expense and no little controversy. Occasional services attract Armenians from Istanbul, the Republic of Armenia and the large diaspora.

The trip around the north shore of the lake is equally fascinating. Ahlat is a spectacular and extensive burial ground, nestling between the azure waters of the lake and a pair of towering volcanoes, Suphan and Nemrut. The graves are a mix of cylindrical mausoleums with conical roofs and a forest of elegantly crafted rectangular tombstones, some more than 6ft high, inscribed with flowing calligraphic epitaphs in Arabic and Persian, the legacy of the early Turkish, Mongol and Kurdish dynasties who ruled here in the Middle Ages. The latter of the volcanoes, Nemrut (9670ft) has a four-mile (6.5km) diameter crater, one of the largest in the world, and the car ride up the slopes and down to the twin lakes (one hot, one cold) in the immense crater floor is spectacular.

On the trip up, look out for chunks of obsidian, the shiny black volcanic glass prized in Neolithic times because it could be worked into razor-sharp tools. Obsidian from the Van region was traded as far afield as the Persian Gulf by our Neolithic forebears.

An eruption of Nemrut some three quarter of a million years ago is thought to have resulted in the blockage of the natural outlet, thus creating the lake visitors marvel at today. It's so high in soda that local Kurdish villagers wash their carpets and clothes in it, and fish can only survive in the few places where freshwater streams run into the lake.

Until recently the only species was thought to be the pearl mullet, which can be seen in large numbers in June leaping, salmon-like, up the feeder streams to spawn. Then, in 2018, divers from the Turkish military spotted, much to their surprise, a previously unknown species living on algae deep beneath the surface.

Lake Van certainly has an air of the undiscovered, though local sightings of the Van Golu Canavari (Lake Van monster) are every bit as plausible as those at Loch Ness. One creature that does break the lake's silky smooth waters is the fluffy white Van cat, notable not only for its propensity for swimming but for having one blue and one amber eye. They are quite rare now; there's a breeding station at Van University on the edge of the city.

With an introduction to the Urartians under your belt following an exploration of the Rock of Van and Urartu Museum, it's well-worth heading south to Cavustepe. The remains of this palace-fortress top a rocky spur running down from higher peaks to a broad, fertile valley commanding the south-eastern approaches to Lake Van.

Here you can really see just how advanced the Urartian civilisation was - with the incredibly tight-fitting, mirror-smooth andesite blocks of a temple to the chief god, Haldi, etched by the doorway with a long cuneiform inscription in praise both of the god and the self-aggrandising ruler Sarduri II.

Further along, storerooms contain the remnants of large clay jars once filled with wine, wheat and other produce, and cavernous cisterns have been carved into the limestone. There's even a stone-carved squat lavatory, set at a discreet distance from the main part of the palace.

For the non-expert the remains might seem scanty - but with luck you'll have the services of one of the region's most remarkable men on your visit, Mehmet Kusman. Lean, weather-beaten and with the profile of a hawk, this sprightly octogenarian has been site guardian here for decades.

Like most locals he speaks both Turkish and Kurdish. More remarkably, for a villager with a very basic education, he is one of a handful of people in the world who can read and speak the long-dead language of the Urartians - a scholarly attribute he's so proud of he's passed the knowledge on to his son. Hearing him read aloud the temple inscription (he has a handy translation in English to show visitors) brings this mysterious place alive. Destroyed by Scythian invaders around 600BC (archaeologists found thousands of Scythian arrowheads here) Cavustepe was short-lived, but it was imperious in its heyday.

There's so much more to be seen around Van. Head 45 minutes south-east from Cavustepe to the spectacularly situated late-medieval castle at Hosap, or west from Tatvan to the village of Por, notable for its lovely mountain setting and 6ft-high, ornately carved Armenian khatchkar gravestones. And that's without mentioning the gorgeous landscapes, bird and botanising opportunities, and insights into the transhumant culture that survives in the region.

I've been visiting Van regularly since the early Eighties, lured by its austere beauty and fascinating history and culture, but the region receives a fraction of the visitors it deserves despite having been linked to Istanbul by regular flights (around two hours) for many years.

It was ever thus, as Isabella Bird notes of a very different era: "Van and its surroundings are at once so interesting and picturesque it is remarkable that they are so seldom visited by travellers."

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