Virtually an inland sea, covering almost 4000 square kilometres at an elevation of 1750m, Lake Van is one of eastern Turkey’s most unusual features. Along with Lake Sevan in Armenia and Lake Urumiya in Iran, it is one of a trio of huge upland lakes hereabouts that lack outlets. Surrounded on all sides by a narrow but fertile plain, and then mountains, the lake – nearly 200m deep in spots – occupies what was once a lowland basin that was later dammed by lava flowing from Nemrut Dağı. Owing to rapid evaporation in this desert climate, the lake water is highly alkaline.
Although venerable Bitlis is a twenty-minute drive from the western shores of the lake, and set 200m below it in a narrow valley, the vast majority of visitors pass through the town en route to or from Lake Van and its immediate environs. On the west shore of the lake, workaday Tatvan makes a handy base for forays up impressive Nemrut Dağı and its crater lakes. Of interest on the austerely volcanic north shore of the lake are Ahlat and its incredible medieval Muslim cemeteries, while to the northwest pastoral Adiıcevaz nestles in the shadow of 4058m Mt Süphan Dağı. The major draw on the south shore of the lake is the beautiful Akdamar island and its Church of the Holy Cross, while the east shore holds the regional capital, Van.
Although you can swim from the stony beaches on and opposite Akdamar Island, and along the more sparsely populated stretches of shoreline, pollution makes it inadvisable to bathe near Tatvan or Van. In places the shoreline is littered with plastic detritus washed up from the lake – it’s a major eyesore and a public awareness campaign has had little appreciable effect.
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.
Two species of fish – one called dareka – live in the lake, but only where fresh water enters. They are caught for food during spring when, salmon-like, they migrate up incoming streams to spawn.
The Van cat, a fluffy white beast endowed naturally with one blue and one gold eye, is now rare, but a few specimens are still kept at local carpet shops as tourist bait, and there is a breeding station (open to visitors) on the campus of Van’s Yüzüncü Yıl university.Read More
The historic town of BİTLİS (1545m altitude) is reached along an attractive winding gorge dotted with kervansarays and old bridges. Its lifeblood used to be its location on the main west–east transit road linking the Tigris and Euphrates basins with that of Lake Van, but Bitlis has recently been bypassed by a 4km-long tunnel. The plus side for visitors is that the once very noisy, polluted main drag is much more pleasant.
Bitlis is a fascinating and atmospheric town, ignored by most travellers in the headlong rush to Lake Van. Assuming you arrive early enough in the day, it’s easy to alight here and explore before you catch one of the very frequent dolmuşes on to Tatvan. The most important monuments lie west of the road, in narrow streets busy with people rather than vehicles.
With its dark stone houses and steep valley setting, Bitlis has the feel of an isolated nineteenth-century English mill town, though it once controlled the pass from Syria to the Van region and Persia and Armenia beyond. Before World War I it was a prosperous place, and about half the inhabitants were Armenian. Today this predominantly Kurdish town is impoverished, and its last major employer, a factory that processes the famous local tobacco, closed down in 2008.
TATVAN, a functional town lodged between the mountains and lakeshore 25km northeast of Bitlis, makes a good base for exploring the surrounding sights. It has smartened up considerably in the last few years, with a couple of new shopping centres, one of which holds a cinema and bowling, and a newly constructed promenade along the lakeshore. To the north is the massif of Nemrut Dağı with its crater lakes; further east around the lake are the impressive medieval remains at Ahlat.
Tatvan’s streets follow the grid layout common in new developments in Turkey, with the main street, Cumhuriyet Caddesi, running east to west 100m south of the lake.
Immediately north of Tatvan, the extinct volcano of Nemrut Dağı – no relation to the mountain with the statues – rises to 3050m. Six thousand years ago Nemrut is believed to have stood 4450m tall; as a result of a huge volcanic explosion, the whole upper section of the peak was deposited in the Van basin, thus blocking the natural outlet and creating the lake. The present-day volcanic cone, which is accessible after snowmelt from May or June through to November, contains two crater lakes, one of which is pleasantly warm.
From the rim, an asphalt road drops down and right towards the crater floor. To reach crescent-shaped Soğukgöl (cold lake), bear left on a dirt track. The lake occupies the western half of the crater, and on its east shore there are some swimmable hot springs. Better for a dip, however, is smaller Sıcakgöl (warm lake), connected to its partner by a narrow path leading east or a left branch off the asphalt road and heated to 60°C by ongoing volcanic activity. The 7km-diameter crater is lushly vegetated (beech, aspen and juniper), contrasting sharply with the bare landscape outside. In summer Kurds graze their flocks on the slopes.
A small ski resort on the mountain, 8km from Tatvan at an altitude of 2200m, holds a smart new hotel, the Nemrut Kardelen. A chairlift ride takes visitors to the summit for TL10, but only runs in summer for groups of ten or more. The lift goes right to the crater rim, and the views are spectacular.
The shabby town of AHLAT, which lies a picturesque drive 42km northeast of Tatvan along the north shore of Lake Van, is known chiefly for its medieval Muslim cemetery, holding hundreds of beautifully carved gravestones, and for its monumental tombs, known as türbe in Turkish.
The cemetery and tombs are by far the most substantial remains of a settlement that can boast a very long history. The Urartians are known to have been here in the first millennium BC, and were followed in turn by the Armenians. Ahlat fell to the Arabs during the seventh century, was retaken by the Byzantines two hundred years later, and subsequently passed to the victorious Selçuks after the nearby Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Mongols, who arrived in 1244, were succeeded by the İlhanids a century later; by the fifteenth century Ahlat had become the main base of the Akkoyunlu Turcomans. Even after the local Ottoman conquest of 1548, real power in this remote region remained in the hands of the Kurdish emirs of Bitlis. Ahlat continued to be a populous, polyglot city until World War I.
Old Ahlat is a sprawling site, centred on a small museum, with the most visited of the monumental tombs, the Ulu Kümbet, some 300m south. The Meydan cemetery, peppered with intricately carved tombstones, is immediately north of the museum, while the Bayındır tomb lies 600m north of the museum across the cemetery. The city ruins nestle in a valley around 400m west of the Bayındır tomb.
- Around Van