A trip to Van in the spring has become something of a tradition for us. With fresh snow still falling on the upper heights of the mountains, thick green grass on the lower slopes, and fruit trees full of pink-white blossoms it’s really the best time to visit this incredible place. And so, for the third year in a row, Fred and I were once again making our back way to Van, this time with two of my kids in tow.
While we had big plans for this trip, we started our trip by heading back to the remote village of İnköy to pick up where we had left off last year.
Last year we wrapped up our trip to Van with hike to the Surp Harutyun monastery, thinking that it was the last of the monasteries to visit along the south shore. After an absurd hike/run that lasted five hours and had us returning after dark in the pathless hills, we learned from a local we had met that there was actually another monastery just on the other side of the mountain to the west. As our flight was the next morning, we had to leave it for next year.
Stopping into villages along the way to say hi to friends we had met on the last two trips, we passed through one of my favorite landscapes in the world with bright green slopes above and the blue of the lake below. Pulling into İnköy we went to the house of Salih Amca to say hi and get some directions. There was no one home so we walked around the tiny village looking for anyone who could help direct us. While there were kids running around there weren’t any adults to be found anywhere, but, as there was only one road west out of the village, we decided to trust our young guides and give it a shot. A short distance above the village we came across a group (all adults this time) coming down from the mountains where they had been collecting wild herbs, turnips, and a curly rhubarb-like plant especially popular in Eastern Turkey. Among the crowd was Salih, just the person we had been trying to find!
After chatting for a bit, we mentioned we were heading to the Ngaravank Monastery that he had mentioned to us the year before. While others said we’d never make it there and back in time before dark, Salih was more hopeful and thought it wouldn’t be an issue. The only problem with Salih’s positivity was that last time he helped us he told us that it would be a 3-hour hike to the Surp Harutyun church and back when in reality it took us 5 hours despite running for much of the distance.
We decided to give it a try anyway, at least this time we were going to be following a road most of the way.
While our little sedan wasn’t exactly the ideal vehicle for the terrible road, it got us to the top of the ridge without too much drama. The descent however was much worse: incredibly rough, full of rocks, narrow, and very steep. Continuing on foot we took in the stunning view of of the curve of the lake shore with high mountains still hiding patches of snow even at these lower elevations. Across from us we could see the low ring of mountains where we found an old, ruined church in the center of Göllü and the Gomki Monastery. Despite it being in the open, it took us a while to spot our destination below us. The distance reduced it to a tiny speck of pale orange rock in the midst of stunning green vegetation.
The road zig-zagged down the steep mountainside to the gentle slopes below where the monastery had once stood. As we got closer we spotted the remains of other ruined buildings, retaining walls that would have formed terraces for gardens and lesser buildings, and even a strange oval shaped castle wall. Through the trees I spotted some freshly turned soil and, going to investigate found the forest filled with pits and a tombstone lying strewn about where looters had left them.
While nothing was left of the complex, the simple church was in fair condition. It consisted of a simple barrel vault ending in a semi-circular apse. A deep pit took up half of the floor with the rubble stones piled almost respectfully in the corner. Apart from a handful of stones bearing crosses and inscriptions there was no ornamentation on this humble church. What stood out was the odd second storey room on top of the sanctuary. While I’m no expert on Armenian architecture I have researched over a hundred sites and never come across anything like this (though some Syriac monasteries have living spaces in upper rooms of monasteries. The monastery of Mor Sarkis and Mor Bakus in particular is similar).
With the sun setting early behind a thick bank of clouds we had to make our visit to the monastery a short one in order to make it back up to the ridge where we had left the car before dark, though, once again we were arriving back to the village in the dark.
Sitting with Salih and a couple neighbours we learned that the old village had been used as a seasonal settlement, with their grandfathers adding the upper room to the church, the strongest remaining building at the time. Now, over one hundred years after the Armenians had left, even the Kurds who live nearby have abandoned the site, only visiting to gather the wild herbs and vegetables that grow in the abandoned gardens.
When I first started planning this trip my main hope was to visit a pair of the remaining island monasteries. While the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar (Aghtamar) is well known and one of the region’s most popular attractions there are actually three other surviving island monasteries. We had seen Arterivank, now reduced to a single, partially collapsed chapel, from the hilltop of Akdamar Island. The monasteries of Gduts and Surp Gevorg were, by comparison, quite influential and had grand churches at the center of the complexes.
While Akdamar is easy to reach by regular hourly ferry service, the islands of Çarpanak and Adır were going to be difficult. Looking online I couldn’t find anything except for some out-of-date information from asking about in nearby villages. When I contacted people directly they confirmed that I could hire a boat from nearby villages but when I asked for more details I was always met with silence. Considering it’s been illegal for tourists to use fishing boats for a couple years now I wasn’t exactly surprised when people were tight lipped about who it was that had helped them sneak onto the islands.
So, while I still hoped to find a way to the islands, I was prepared to be disappointed.
We followed the advice given to us and visited the villages with harbours near the islands and we were met with the expected result, no one was willing to take us across and risk the heavy fines they’d be given if caught. Running out of options I called the official tour company to get a price from them but as their docks are so far away the price would have cost as much as all of the week’s expenses combined.
With no other option we traveled the east coast of Lake Van, stopping in villages to ask about a way onto the islands or if they knew of any churches in the area. What little hope I had left was in the chance that we would find a rowboat we could borrow, but even these didn’t seem to exist. While the Islands turned out to be a failure, we did find a number of other churches and monasteries in the area. There was a strange pattern to them though; any village marked with a church on Google maps ended up having no churches whereas all the churches we found were unmarked.
Now, I am aware that most of you aren’t as interested in the topic of abandoned Armenian churches, their histories, and their architectural lineages as I am, so I will spare you some of the details.
For the most part we explored the east side of the lake from its corner in north to the inland valleys of the south, while some of the sites were completely wiped out, others were in fair condition, though ongoing looting was a widespread problem threatening to erase what has survived the last century of abandonment.
In the north of Van we visited the ruined Ardzvaber church, a once proud and ornate building modelled after and bearing details copied from the St Hrispime church in Vagharshapat Armenia that we had visited a few months before. In one of the few side chambers that still remained Fred noticed a large cuneiform inscription set as a lintel in the doorway. The stone was a large, well-cut rectangular block of black basalt with a curved top, similar to many on display in the Urartu Cultural Museum in Van city. Like many other medieval builders, recycling the ancient block was simply easier than cutting a new one and has now served as a lintel for about 1350 years.
While the stele with its lengthy inscription was certainly an interesting find, it only got more interesting the next day. The next morning, we went to Çavuştepe, a long spine of rock rising out from the valley floor upon which the Urartians built a fortress complex complete with a palace, storerooms, workshops, and temples.
As we pulled up to the site an old man came out of his hut to greet us wearing a hat with handwritten cuneiform on it and a necklace carved with more cuneiform. Mehmet Kuşman is something of a celebrity in Turkey (if you happen to be a fan of Near-East early Iron Age history). His primary claim to fame is that he’s one of the only people in the world who can read Urartian cuneiform, though what makes this even more impressive is that he’s not actually trained as a historian or archaeologist and actually only finished primary school.
Instead, fueled by curiosity and the help of archaeologists and books, he learned the long dead language to the point where he can now read it without the help of any dictionaries or other aids. When we showed him a picture of the stele we had found in the Ardzvaber church he was immediately able to begin translating it for us.
On top of that, it turned out that a friend of mine who had had recently passed away after three decades of working as an archaeologist, had been good friends with Mehmet’s family, even staying with him and his family during excavation season. From a shelf in his workshop Mehmet pulled out a signed copy of my friend’s book, a catalogue of Urartian inscriptions.
While the Çavuştepe ruins were interesting, its warden, Mehmet Kuşman was far more interesting.
In the far south-east corner of Van province we visited a pair of exceptional churches. The first, the grand church of St Bartholomew, was stunning in its scale. At first glance it appears to be a simple basilica style church, though once we entered it was clear that the design, like most of medieval Armenia’s grand architecture, was incredibly complex. Historic photos show domes, square vaults, a cupola, and a small belfry above the west entrance.
Today the church is in a poor state with all the main vaults having collapsed and only the rough barrel vault over the apse remaining. The church is surrounded by sandbags, trenches, bunkers, and razor-wire from a military outpost that dominated the hill till 2012 when peace in the area finally seemed permanent enough to haphazardly abandon the site.
Further into the hills we visited the very unusual Church of the Holy Cross of Aghpak. Rather than having a circular drum topped with a conical pyramid, this church has a tall square drum, giving it a strange top-heavy appearance with an undersized cupola set on the pinnacle. Kids at the school next door came out to watch us as we inspected the tombstones that had been lined up to serve as a fence. My sons were more than a little awkward being interviewed by thirty or so village kids all talking at once.
To the south of Van is the province of Hakkari which occupies the remote south-eastern corner of Turkey with border crossings into Iraq and Iran. The road follows the Zap River down from the churches we had visited in Yanal and Albayrak southward where it carves its way through a narrow gorge between high mountains. The Hakkari stelae that were found in the city center date to significant human settlement in the area for at least 3500 years, though I couldn’t help but wonder how people managed to live in such a rugged and mountainous place.
In a narrow valley near the city itself we stopped to visit a historic church. As we pulled up there was a large crowd of people milling about. Fred wondered if maybe they were there to see the church too, to which I incredulously pointed out that we had never seen more than a shepherd or two at any of the churches we had visited.
As it turned out, Fred was right and the crowd of people made their way down from the road to the old church. I attempted to talk with them but quickly realized they didn’t speak any Turkish. The woman I was speaking to was actually from Chicago! She explained that they were a group of Syriacs (also referred to as Assyrians) from all over the world who had come to visit the homes of their grandparents.
It was interesting to me to see the difference between the experience of the Syriac and Armenian diasporas. While I’ve visited many Armenian sites I’ve never yet met any Armenians coming back to visit ancestral villages. On the other hand I’ve met many Syriacs visiting or even moving back to tiny remote villages. Perhaps the result of ongoing political issues.
In general, Hakkari was full of the signs of political issues more recent than what had transpired in 1915. The violence of the 1990’s saw the destruction of Hakkari’s last remaining historic sights. The historic madrasah that is now open to visitors was completely rebuilt out of the rubble. Thankfully, Hakkari has been mostly peaceful for many years now, though there is little left to attract visitors to the city center.
Having traveled through much the region, revisiting familiar places, discovering new ones and even visiting a new province, we once again found that five days here is never enough and once again were left with many sites yet to visit. Our ever-growing survey of Armenian Churches and Monasteries would be growing again soon but would still be far from complete. Next time I visit I’ll be bringing a rowboat along with me and get to those islands.