It’s time you get to know Van
Get ready to be lured by the untouched east of Turkey. Bordered by Iran to the east, Van is an underrated destination yet to be uncovered. The Armenians who once lived around were so enamoured with its beauty and fertility they had a saying “Van in this life, paradise in the next”. Assyrians, Urartians, Armenians, Romans, Byzantines and Seljuks, Ottomans are only few of the kingdoms who ruled Van. The city of present day, was built over the ancient ruins at the beginning of the 20th century, but was destroyed by the Russians in 1916.
Lake Van is the major sight of the city with mountain silhouettes, coves, beaches and islands. Set on a major bird migration route between Africa and Russia/Central Asia, Lake Van is a magnet for serious birdwatchers. Pelican and flamingo can be seen, as well as the rare white-headed duck, velvet scoter and paddyfield warbler. Beautiful wildflowers can be found around the lake during springtime. There is plenty of sodium carbonate in the lake which is at an elevation of 1720 meters above sea level. Two species of fish – one called dareka – live in the lake. You’ll find sandy or pebbled beaches (without amenities tho) where locals take a dip in the summer.Researchers have unearthed the remains of a 3,000-year-old castle buried beneath its waters. Full excavations are yet to be carried out; good news is that the alkaline water of the lake has allowed the castle to remain preserved in excellent condition.
The major draw on the south shore of the lake is the second largest of four islands; Akdamar. Don’t be surprised to see grey rabbits scampering around J The island is home to the 10th century Armenian Holy Cross Cathedral, whose walls are adorned with carvings of biblical scenes and interior with frescoes. Built between the years 915 and 921 by Armenian architect Trdat Mendet for the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, it reflects the importance of religion to the island. The church, hosting a religious ceremony once a year, now serves as a museum. Legend has it that the name of the island was born out of love. There was a commoner who fell in love with an Armenian princess named Tamar who lived on the island. Every night, he crossed the Lake Van to see her and then one time, he braved the rages of the storm but his boat sank and while he fought the violent waves, he was calling out to the girl Tamar, “Ah Tamar” (Oh, Tamar). We definitely should have come up with a beter story,man...
Unfortunately Çarpanak Island with the ruins of the Armenian Monastery of Ktuts is not open to visit. It was founded in the 4th century by Saint Gregory the Illuminator, after his return from Rome. It contained a hand of John the Baptist, which was kept in a reliquary that is currently held at the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Van Citadel set atop a dramatic limestone outcrop, overlooks the old town and is definitely worth the climb. Called Tushpa back in 1000 BC, the ancient city of the Urartians, was built on this rock, which provides a commanding view over the lake, and at the base of the rock. On the side of the rock and at the top there are inscriptions, the tombs of eighth and ninth century B.C. Urartian kings, and ruins of a temple.Within the vicinity of the citadel is also the Sardur Tower, which bore inscriptions from 5th century BC in three languages – Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite, of the beginnings of the ancient kingdom of Urartu. Urartian artifacts found in the region are exhibited in a rich collection, at the Archaeological Museum in Van.
Kaya Çelebi Mosque and Hüsrev Paşa Mosques are the only surviving mosques to date. Hüsrev Paşa is a complex with a single domed mosque, a tomb to the east and a madrasa to the north. The remnants of the Great Mosque of Van, the lower half of a minaret and foundation walls, are often dated to Seljuk rule in the 12th century.
25km from Van Lake, is Çavuştepe Kalesi (Haykaberd or Sardurihinilli), an ancient fortress-palace used by the Urartian kings in the 8th century BC. Overlooking the Gürpınar Plain, the foundations of the Urartian royal palace remain – it was built at the apogee of the Urartian Empire between 764 and 735 BC. The fortress is home to temples built in honor of the god Haldi and god Irmushini; and storage rooms for grains and wine. You can witness the original, 2850 year old wheat stored from then! The last urartian Mehmet Kuşman will show you. Mehmet Kuşman, 74, has been the watchman of the castle for the last 40 years. He is one of the 38 people in the world who can speak, write and read the Urartian language. It’s his tenacity that makes Kuşman special as he learned the language himself! Watch this documentary directed by Fuat Demirhan, of Kuşman’s success & sacrifice here and you won’t return without meeting him; very impressive.
Around another 33km away is the magnificent Hoşap Castle, which stands on a hill overlooking the idyllic village of Güzelsu. Its castle entrance is marked by two beautiful lion reliefs. It was built in 1643 by a local Ottoman governor to architect Mahmudi Suleyman. However, legend has it that the architect had his hands cutoff so he could no longer build another castle that would rival. Wait, I remember that story from Taj Mahal!
About 80 kms. of driving distance from the center of Van city, Muradiye Waterfall is named after the Ottoman Sultan Mourad IV, Conqueror of Bagdad, which was held by Persians at the time. Sultan Mourad IV set up camp in this beautiful area for respite during his Bagdad Campaign to rejuvenate and reinforce his army.
While you’re around Lake Van, it’s worth paying a visit to its northwestern shore for Ahlat, in the neighbour city Bitlis. It is known for the Seljuq Cemetery with many historic tombs from the Ahlatshah dynasty. The cemetery seeks spot in UNESCO list with its 400- to 700-year-old gravestones. Known as “Kubbetul-Islam”, the cemetery in Gevaş is the largest in the Islamic world. One of a kind necropolis, built on a 220-square-meter area, includes more than 8,000 tombs, with various reliefs and carvings, including ornamental, cairn and cist-type sepulchers. Halime Hatun Mausoleum, at the entrance, is a polygonal mausoleum that was built in 1335 for Halime Hatun, a female member of a local Seljuk noble family.
The Volcanic Mount Nemrut's (not to be confused with the namesaked in Adıyaman) caldera that hosts three crater lakes is also on your way. Since the last eruption in 17th century, bursts of steam indicating fumarolic activity can be observed from steam chimneys.
While breakfast is cherished and taken seriously throughout Turkey, its heartland is the eastern city of Van, with matured herb cheese as the indigenous piece. The city is famous for its kilims (rugs), made with natural dyes and the art of silversmithing is also developed. Don’t forget to take a look at Van Cats, a unique breed with white fur and different-colored eyes, amber & blue. Last but not least, Lake Van, just like Loch Ness, has its own monster. Besides Urartian myths, Armenian and Ottoman Chronicles have written about it. The monster was even recorded in ‘90s. Former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit wrote a poem for it, can you believe it 🙂
It won’t be easy to explore all this individually, so I do recommend getting a guide or joining a tour. Autumn / spring is the best time to visit. Hurry before it’s flocked by tourists.
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