Northeast of Van, the road skirts the lake before heading up into the volcanic peaks bordering Iran. The drive, over a bizarrely contorted laval landscape, is spectacular in places, especially on the 2644m Tendurek Pass. In clear weather, the views of Mount Ararat from the far side of the pass are stunning. Huddled on the plain south of Ararat, the unkempt border/garrison town of Doğubeyazıt is a functional base from which to visit the spectacular palace of İshak Paşa or, more adventurously, ascend the peak or cross into neighbouring Iran.
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Impoverished DOĞUBEYAZIT, 130km northeast of Van and just half an hour from Iran, is, thanks to its border position and largely Kurdish population, heavily militarized, with a huge army camp just outside town on the road to a spectacular ridge-top fortified place, İshak Paşa Sarayı. In response to the blatant Turkish army presence, the truculent locals boldly elected a (female) Kurdish mayor from the now banned DTP party in 2009, and have named the main street after dissident pro-Kurdish intellectual İsmail Beşikçi.
Ishak Pasa Sarayi
Ishak Pasa Sarayi
Overlooking Doğubeyazıt from atop a rocky promontory, the iconic İshak Paşa Sarayı is an overblown, impossibly romantic palace. This was once the site of a Urartian fortress; both the Selçuks and Ottomans later built castles to control traffic along the Silk Route.
The palace itself was begun in 1685 by Çolak Abdı Paşa, a local chieftain, and completed by his son, İshak Paşa, in 1784. By 1877, the complex was already in decline, being used by the Turkish army as a barracks; subsequent periods of Russian occupation set the seal on its decay. A controversial new glass and steel roof, added to preserve the walls of the crumbling palace, has spoilt the classic photograph of the palace taken from above.
The grandiose gateway of İshak Paşa Sarayı once boasted gold-plated doors; removed by the Russians in 1917, during their retreat from Anatolia, they’re now on show at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. From the outer courtyard, an ornately carved portal leads to a smaller, inner courtyard. Straight ahead is the harem entrance, while to the right is the entrance to the selâmlık or men’s quarters. The tombs of İshak Paşa and his favourite wife stand in a türbe in one corner of the inner court.
The harem contains fourteen fireplace-equipped bedrooms (in which four hundred soldiers were quartered in 1877), overlooking the valley below, a kitchen and two circular bathrooms. At its centre is a colonnaded dining hall. The selâmlık also holds a library, bedrooms and a fine mosque, retaining much of its original relief decoration and ceiling painting.
Behind the palace is the picturesque, recently restored Ottoman mosque. It’s possible to scramble up behind the mosque to a rock-cut Urartian tomb flanked by two carved relief figures. Above this, reachable only by a scramble, there’s a narrow niche in the dramatic ridge-top fortress wall. Squeeze through this and you can descend to the much-visited tomb of the Kurdish poet and philosopher Ehmede Xani. His Mem u Zin (1692), a tale of star-crossed lovers, is the epic work of Kurdish literature. Drinks and souvenir stalls here cater to pilgrims.
The foundations on the plain below the palace are all that’s left of Eski Beyazıt (Old Beyazıt), a city founded by the Urartians. It was inhabited until 1930, when – in the wake of an unsuccessful local Kurdish rebellion – it was forcibly depopulated and the new Doğu (East) Beyazıt founded in its present location.