Explore Lake Van and the southeast
Once drab, VAN is rapidly transforming itself into a modern, buzzing city and makes a great base to explore Lake Van’s numerous attractions. Set 4km back from the lake against the backdrop of volcanic, 2750-metre Erek Dağı, its prime attraction, ancient Van Kalesi, is spectacularly situated 3km to the west by the lake, where it overlooks the poignant remains of the old city destroyed by the Ottomans during World War I.
Although it remains a very conservative town, this is mitigated by the presence of the large student population attending Yüzüncü Yıl university, and it’s possible to have a drink here in mixed company. Van is also a good place to shop with a wide selection of local (Kurdish) tribal rugs, as well as largely 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 beginning to assert their Kurdish identity and in 2009 the pro-Kurdish DTP party won 60 percent of the vote in the local elections.Read More
Van Kalesi: the Rock of Van
Van Kalesi: the Rock of Van
Van Kalesi, 3km to the west, is the nearest visitable Urartian fortification to Van. A narrow outcrop 1.5km long, over 100m tall and perhaps 300m wide at the base; equipped with its own spring, it was once an eminently suitable Urartian stronghold. Passing the northern face, note the arched niches, part of an Urartian temple, set in the base of the cliff, behind an Ottoman-era mosque and türbe. These once held statues, and cuneiform inscriptions on the base of one of them document the life and works of the 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 of which are over five metres 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 leading, eventually, to the citadel on top. The single most impressive part of Van Kalesi is the rock tomb of Argishti 1 (785–760 BC). It’s set in the sheer cliff-face on the south side of the Rock, west of the summit area. It’s 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. There are several more anonymous rock-cut tombs on the south face of the Rock, east of the summit area, but take care when exploring as the path is badly worn and the drops deadly.
The most prominent building on the top today is a ruined mosque, the arch-roofed building is a medrese and, close by, are the barracks of the Ottoman garrisons once billeted here. 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.
Van and the Armenians
Van and the Armenians
Van is at the very heart of the propaganda struggle between Turkey and Armenia over the terrible events of World War I. The city became a battleground in April 1915 when Armenian civilians, considered Russian collaborators by the Turkish authorities, barricaded themselves in a quarter of the old town and mounted a resistance against Turkish forces. Much of the city was destroyed when the Turkish garrison up on the Rock pulverized it with heavy artillery during which around 6000 Armenians were killed. During the rest of the war the town changed hands a couple of times; but following the Tsarist collapse in late 1917 the Russians and remaining Armenians left for the last time.
Armenian history and Christianity
The Armenians had first appeared in the region in the late seventh century, following the collapse of the Urartian Empire. Although usually the vassals of more powerful states, they gradually developed their own identity, a process which began to crystallize with the advent of Christianity, which they fervently embraced. Towards the end of the third century Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt the new faith, thanks mainly to the efforts of St Gregory “the Illuminator”. The invention of the Armenian alphabet in 404 by Mesrop Mashtots furthered the Armenians’ view of themselves as a distinct race.
This separate identity was further strengthened when the Armenian Apostolic Church refused to accept the ruling of the Byzantine Council of Chalcedon in 451, which declared that Christ had two equal and co-existent natures. The Armenians, in retaining their monophysite views (ie that Christ had a single, divine nature), cut themselves off from the mainstream Byzantine Orthodox Christian world, which held that Christ combined both human and divine natures.
Armenian culture, particularly in the Van basin under the Artsruni dynasty, flowered in the ninth and tenth centuries, but the arrival of the Selçuk Turks and other Turcoman groups in the eleventh century heralded the start of a decline in their fortunes.
The Ottomans finally took control of Armenia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ottoman rule benefited the Armenians who, like the other non-Muslim minorities, were conceded substantial control over education and family law, and even earned for themselves the epithet of sadık millet (loyal nation). During the nineteenth century, however, as the Ottoman Empire declined, some Armenians (along with other Christian groups in Anatolia) developed nationalist aspirations – often encouraged by the Russians, who were intent on fragmenting the Ottoman Empire.
The Genocide issue
In 1915 the Turkish authorities ordered the deportation of all Anatolian Armenians to Syria. All across Anatolia Armenian women, children and the elderly were rounded up for transportation, men of fighting age were executed. Between 700,000 and one and a half million Armenian civilians were killed between 1915 and 1920. Today Armenians, both in the modern Republic of Armenia and the diaspora, claim these events constituted genocide. The Turkish state vehemently refutes the charge, arguing that up to 600,000 Turks and Kurds were killed by Armenians in their attempts to wrest their own state from the hands of the dying Ottoman Empire.
This dispute still poisons relations between Turks and Armenians. Diplomatic relations were broken off in the 1990s and the land border between the two countries remains closed. Efforts at rapprochement have been tentative, the Turkish government’s restoration of the long-neglected Armenian church on Akdamar island is at least at start. The issue is a PR nightmare for Turkey, which constantly lobbies other countries not to officially acknowledge the “genocide” (twenty-one have done so).
A forgotten civilization – Urartu
A forgotten civilization – Urartu
From the ninth to the seventh centuries BC, the Urartian Empire, 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 of it have been found in the Etruscan cities of Italy. They planted many vineyards and have been credited with the discovery of wine-making; 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.