While the main attraction near Van is the Armenian island church of Akdamar, nearby St Thomas and the splendidly isolated church on the island of Çarpanak are almost equally worthwhile. The ancient Urartian settlements at Çavuştepe to the south and Ayanis to the north also make excellent day-trips from Van. The rocky foothills to the east hold more church remains, at Yedi Kilise, while the landscape south of Van is the most physically impressive in Turkey, featuring rugged mountains dotted with isolated settlements such as Bahçesaray. The imposing castle at Hoşap lies en route for the wild mountain town of Hakkari.
Although it’s possible to visit some of these sights by public transport, to really make the most of one of Turkey’s most fascinating regions, it’s worth considering renting a car for a couple of days.
The tiny island of Akdamar, just off Lake Van’s southern shore, is home to the exquisite tenth-century Armenian Surb Khach or Church of the Holy Cross. Recently restored to the tune of US$1.5 million by the Turkish government, it stands as a glimmer of hope of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. A metal cross has been erected on the conical dome of the church, and there’s now an altar inside; services are held at irregular intervals.
The church was erected between 915 and 921 AD, at the behest of Gagik Artsruni, ruler of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan. The small building is gracefully proportioned, but what makes it so special are the relief carvings that run in a series of five bands around the exterior. As well as animal scenes there are several depictions of Bible stories, including Jonah appearing to dive from a boat into the jaws of a most unlikely-looking whale (south facade), and David taking on Goliath, sling in hand (south facade). King Gagik himself is carved in bold relief on the west facade, presenting a model of Surb Khach to Jesus. A number of khatchkars – the Celtic-looking, obsessively detailed carved crosses that the Armenians used both as celebratory or commemorative offerings and as grave markers – are also set into the facade and scattered beneath the almond trees to the east of the church.
The frescoes inside, formerly in a shocking state, have been sensitively restored. It’s possible to make out New Testament scenes such as the Baptism of Christ, the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion. Outside, to the south, are the partially excavated remains of the monastery complex of which the church was once a part.
Clamber up the steep hillside behind the church for spectacular views down over the church to the lake and, beyond, to the magnificent peaks that ring the lakeshore and run all the way down to the Iraqi border. Be wary, though, of plodding tortoises, and gull-infested cliffs that drop sheer into the azure waters below.
A forgotten Kingdom – Urartu
A forgotten Kingdom – Urartu
Between the ninth and seventh centuries BC, the Urartian Kingdom, centred on Van (then known as Tushpa), encompassed most of the territory described in this chapter, plus parts of present-day Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Around a dozen Urartian citadels have been unearthed in modern Turkey and Armenia, always sited on naturally defensible rocky spurs or outcrops. More than a castle, they incorporated a palace, workshops, storage depots and temples.
Great engineers, the Urartians built numerous dams and irrigation channels, and their bronze-work was legendary – examples have been found in the Etruscan cities of Italy. They also planted many vineyards, and have been credited with the discovery of wine; curiously their biggest rivals, the Assyrians from the flatlands of Mesopotamia to the south, were beer drinkers. Eventually centuries of fighting with the Assyrians and later the Scythians took their toll, and the Urartian Empire went into decline at the start of the seventh century.