Van, Tatvan, Bitlis: "Castles in the Sky"

Lake Van
Southeastern Anatolia
19 October 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

The Lonely Planet "Turkey" is 732 pages thick. When I got to the last chapter on page 597, Southeastern Anatolia, I decided to begin my travels out there and work my way backwards in the book, traveling from east to west in southern Turkey. I flew from Istanbul to Van (1642 km…1020 mi).

Out here, Turkey's neighbors are Georgia and Armenia. West of Van lies Iran (only 100 km), and to the south, Iraq and Syria. Even though they were very close, and tempting, I decided not to visit any of these countries, at least not on this trip, since there is so much to see here.


My first stop was a Kurdish village and Yedi Kilise (Seven Churches) 9km outside Van. This crumbling Armenian monastery boasts beautiful stone portals and archways with Armenian inscriptions and several well-preserved frescoes. At the end of the day I visited the Van Castle. I walked along the base of the immense walls, and waved to the younger folks who had climbed to the top. Finally, sunset on the shore of Lake Van.

As I drove through the countryside, I began to understand what I was seeing and feeling in Van, a city of 391,000 at an elevation of 1727m…5666 ft.

Treeless and rocky, bald and dust-covered extinct volcanoes surround the brown harvested farmland, the green plots of winter plantings and the green-gold of autumn. The high altitude winds drive the dust into the city where the preoccupation of every shopkeeper is to sweep and sweep and sweep some more and then water down the sidewalk. It's a never-ending, futile fight.

It's a dusty place, Van. And in this mile high city, the winds also drive the cold air through my jacket and cotton shirts. At the first men's shop I could find I bought a wool sweater. (Of course, as an experienced traveler, I checked the weather forecasts before I left home. But I neglected to bring one of the several wool sweaters I already own. I think I need another lesson in converting C to F).

Diego is a young man from Spain who is on a one year trip around the world. We met by chance and decided to see some sights together. We took a dolmus (mini-bus) to the village of Güzelsu to see Hoşap Castle that is perched high on a rocky outcrop near the village. The castle was built in 1643 by a local Kurdish chieftain, Mahmudi Suleman and really looks like a fortress with its grand, artistic entranceway, impenetrable walls and round towers. From the top (I climbed this one) you can spot defensive walls that surround the village.


At Çavuştepe, we hiked up the hill to the remains of Sarduri-Hinili, a fortress-palace and home to the kings of Urartu. I bet you didn't know that the palace was built between 764 and 735 BCE by King Sardur II, son of Argishi. What remains are the best-preserved foundations of any Urartian palace. The ingenious Urartian engineering includes cisterns, kitchens, storage vessels and canals. We found cuneiform writing on large blocks of stone. *

But what impressed me the most was the view from the top. In all directions, large tracts of farmland are framed by the rugged, grey-brown mountains and the peaks of the Kockiiran Dagi, part of the Hakkari Daglari range. The sun, the breeze, the air, the panorama, I felt like an Urartian king. I said to Diego, "I don't want to leave."

On our next daytrip, Diego and I made our way to Akdamar to visit the Tenth Century Armenian church called Akdamar Kilisesi (Church of the Holy Cross). The church sits on an island in Lake Van so we needed to wait for other ferry passengers, and then we negotiated our fare. The church has attractive exterior walls with marvelous relief carvings of biblical scenes. ** The interior has impressive archways and several frescoes. The location is ideal for a stroll or a picnic under a canopy of almond trees.

Diego went east by train to Tabriz, Iran and I went west by bus to Tatvan, a small city on the western shore of Lake Van.

The scenic bus ride along Lake Van and through the mountains was only a prelude to the achingly beautiful, unforgettable car ride from Tatvan to Nemrut Dagi (Mt Nemrut -- not to be confused with another Mt Nemrut with the stone heads). The extinct volcano rises to 3050m (10,000 ft) and is surrounded by crater lakes. Here is yet another place I didn't want to leave -- jagged black peaks atop the grey mountainsides that sweep down to the autumn-gold flora that surrounds the rocky shore and pristine mountain lakes. And the air! The air! On the way down, the views over Lake Van and Tatvan were sensational. In the winter, there's skiing.

Right on the shore of the lake, Tatvan is a lively town with colorful markets and outdoor cafes where men sit and chat and drink tea. I decided to stay an extra day so I could sit and chat and drink tea, and to take a daytrip to Bitlis.

Bitlis is a small city, off the tourist track, that sits in a narrow valley along a mountain stream. Above the city loom the ruins of Bitlis Castle that was founded by Badlis, one of the commanders of Alexander the Great! I wandered the narrow, winding streets and found several old mosques and bridges – just a charming place with a curious and helpful local population.

"Van?" or "Van??" was the usual response when I told folks where I was headed. I daresay that very few Turks have traveled out here, deep into Eastern Anatolia - a region with several "exotic" borders and frequent army checkpoints. Despite the need to produce my blue USA Passport, that by the way was well-recognized and well-respected, I am pleased with my decision to be here.

Exotic. Off the tourist track. Castles in the air. Are there any better reasons to take a trip?


*"Turkey." Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd 2009. p 651.

** The Biblical wall carvings include Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, Daniel in the lions' den, and Sampson. Can you find them on the photos?

*** Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey. The water is clear and cold. But did you notice, as I did, that there are no fishermen? I thought perhaps that the water is polluted or that the chemical composition of the water makes it inhospitable to fish. Gerard, a geography teacher and a new friend in Tatvan, explained: the water is full of carbonates and supports only one species of fish – the pearl mullet.

See It's interesting reading.


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