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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.