Just as it was transforming itself into a modern, buzzing city, VAN was rocked by a major quake in 2011. At the time of writing, reconstruction was under way, and many hotels, restaurants and bars were open for business. The region is well used to earthquakes, and despite the initial trauma there’s an air of steely determination to recover. Van itself, set 4km from Lake Van against the backdrop of the volcanic, 3200m Erek Dağı, continues to make a great base to explore the lake’s numerous attractions. Its highlight, ancient Van Kalesi, is spectacularly situated 3km west by the lake, where it overlooks the poignant remains of the old city destroyed during World War I.
Most visitors reach Van by road, along the scenic southern-shore route from Tatvan, which initially follows a pretty willow-fringed valley to the pass of Kuskunkıran (2234m), then descends through a checkpoint and along the lakeshore, with vistas of Akdamar and Süphan Dağı reflected in the still waters. The lake and mountain views are similarly spectacular if you approach Van by air, or on the erratic ferries from Tatvan.
Although Van is basically a conservative town, that’s mitigated by the presence of the large student population attending Yüzüncü Yıl university. Numerous bars litter the centre, where it’s possible to drink in mixed company, and listen to Turkish and Kurdish folk and rock music. Van is also a good place to shop, with a wide selection of local (Kurdish) tribal rugs, as well as often cheaper ones from nearby Iran, though you need to bargain hard to get a good price.
Following the winding down of the war with the PKK, the locals are increasingly asserting their Kurdish identity. In 2009 the pro-Kurdish DTP party won sixty percent of the vote in local elections, and the city’s central tea garden on Cumhüriyet Caddesi has been given a Kurdish name.
Van Kalesi: the Rock of Van
Van Kalesi: the Rock of Van
The narrow outcrop known as Van Kalesi – 1.5km long, over 100m tall and perhaps 300m wide at the base – holds the nearest visitable Urartian fortification to Van. Equipped with its own spring, it was an eminently suitable stronghold. As you pass the northern face, note the arched niches, which originally belonged to an Urartian temple, set in the base of the cliff, behind an Ottoman-era mosque and türbe. These once held stelae; cuneiform inscriptions on the base of one document the life and works of a powerful Urartian king.
Entry is from the car park and ticket booth on the northwest side, where there’s also a decent restaurant/café and a replica of an old Van house, built of mud brick and home to one of the famous Van cats. Just west of the tea gardens is a large stone platform (possibly a jetty) made of limestone blocks, some over 5m long. Two inscriptions adorn the structure, both in the Assyrian, rather than the Urartian, language, praising the Urartian king Sarduri I (844–838 BC).
From the “jetty” or ticket booth, a path ascends the gentler north face of the Rock and leads, eventually, to the citadel on top. A slight diversion south from the route leads to the single most impressive part of Van Kalesi, the rock tomb of Argishti 1 (785–760 BC), which is set in the sheer cliff face on the south side of the Rock, west of the summit area. As the door is gated and locked, you’ll need to be guided by one of the security officials who hang out near the ticket booth – expect to give a small tip. The tomb is reached by a set of worn steps, fortunately protected by metal railings. The carved rock face above the stairs is covered in well-preserved cuneiform inscriptions relating Argishti’s conquests. Take a torch to explore the interior, where the fixing holes for votive plaques can still be seen. Several more anonymous rock-cut tombs are scattered on the south face of the Rock, east of the summit area, but take care – the path is badly worn, and the drops deadly.
The most prominent building on the top today is a restored Ottoman-era mosque. The arch-roofed building next to that is a medrese, while the former barracks of the Ottoman garrisons stand close by. The curious steps cut into the limestone are actually the foundation bases for cyclopean Urartian walls; the mud-brick ones visible today are much later. The new-looking sections of crenellated wall on the eastern part of the Rock are just that, but probably follow the line of ancient walling.
Van in the wake of the quake
Van in the wake of the quake
The Van region was struck by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in October 2011, followed by a second, less powerful quake in early November. Over six hundred people lost their lives and tens of thousands spent a miserable winter in tents as their homes had either collapsed or were declared unsafe. Fortunately the initial quake happened during the day, or casualties would have been far higher.
By the spring of 2012, tens of thousands of people were still living in temporary accommodation, mainly in the form of container (konteyner in Turkish) dwellings, and Van city centre held several empty plots where unsafe buildings had been demolished, while many more stood empty and awaiting demolition. At least fifteen thousand buildings are likely to be pulled down in total. That said, many hotels, offices and homes had been checked and declared safe – some after quake-proofing – and life on the streets of Van was pretty much back to normal.
Villages in the region were also badly affected. Some, like Yukarı Bakraçlı, will be completely rebuilt. Over four hundred thousand people fled the quake zone to escape unsafe buildings and the harsh winter, but by spring 2012 many had returned. The government, initially criticized for refusing outside help, is providing housing and interest-free loans for those affected by the disaster.