There’s (Rumoured) Gold in Them Hills: Part 3

/ By Josh

Read Part 1 or Part 2

For our final day of the trip we had hoped to visit the last of the churches on the south shore of Lake Van. Looking at the long list of sites, the many unknowns, the number of remote places, and the persistent threat of rain in the forecast I was doubtful we’d get through it all.

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After a short delay in the wrong village we managed to track down the church of Surp Sarkis in Hanelmalı for our first success of the day. The church was small and simple, much like the churches we had seen in Göründü and Yelkenli and we were soon off eastward to follow a hunch that I had.

While my hunch was wrong, things worked out for the best.

A short drive east from Hanelmalı and we found ourselves on a road not marked on our maps, in a village that apparently didnt exist. In the middle of the village was a massive church, the largest we had seen yet. The church is believed to be one of the oldest in the region, dated back to the 5th or 6th centuries and even though it’s been used as a barn for many years, the church is in a state of fair preservation. The outer facing stones on the south and north walls have fallen away and a tree is growing on the roof, its roots digging into the masonry and splitting the stones apart. Yet the interior is in good condition and any pits that may have been dug in the church have since been filled in. As the village was unmarked I had no idea what it was called.

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Van Bitlis Vaspurakan Blog

After exploring the church we passed an old woman. I stopped and asked her what the village was called and got a response in Kurdish. I realized I couldn’t tell if she was telling me the name of the village or saying she didn’t understand me so I tried something else, asking about some cave that I had heard was in the area. While the response was again in Kurdish I caught the words “ziyaret” (a tomb of a holy man), and “asphalt” and so figured there was a road with something interesting at the end of it.

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The road took us to a remote village sitting in a deep bay closed in by steep cliffs. Based on some poorly placed images on Google maps and some satellite images I thought I found the location of another church. In the end I was somehow right even though all my guesses were wrong.

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Some of the caves in the ziyaret.

As we entered the bay our attention was immediately drawn to a group of caves across from us. There was a stack of cave openings that looked almost like the windows of an elevator shaft going up the cliff, one directly above the other. Along the path leading up to the caves was a rack with a set of meat hooks attached for offering sacrifices. Climbing the narrow set of stairs we entered the caves and found a bed made up in one of the upper rooms. This was clearly the ziyaret the lady had told me about in Kurdish and apparently this too was used as a yatır, a place where the sick are laid to gain healing from whatever spiritual forces are present there.

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Stairs into the yatır portion of the ziyaret.

Wanting desperately to find out the name of the village and the story behind the strange caves, we kept a close eye on the village for any signs of life. “Village” is a generous word for the quiet cluster of seven households tucked away in this strange and remote place so when we finally spotted someone we made a b-line to meet them.

Talking over cups of steaming tea we learned that the village was named Por and something of the history of the caves. Most important for locals, the caves were connected to a mystic named Sheikh Huseyin who came to live in them. He was a descendant of Abu Bakr, first Caliph and ruler of the Muslim Peoples after the death of the prophet Muhammed and apparently of some spiritual authority. Noticeably absent from our conversation was any mention of buried gold.

When I asked about the church I thought would be nearby, they told me there were no churches in the area, just the one cave church that had been converted into a mosque some 500 years ago. So while my guess was completely wrong, we ended up finding a church in Por anyways. The lands surrounding Lake Van are lush and fruitful compared the valleys just a few mountains over and have been settled for thousands of years so that even when your information is wrong like mine was, you’re still likely to find something.

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The interor of the cave church turned mosque.

While the morning along this stretch of the coast had been beautiful, the evening was yet again calling for rain and lightning making it difficult to plan. We figured our best bet was to head to the remote village of İnköy and, if the weather was favorable, hire a boat to take us to a pair of monasteries that were supposed to be out on some of the far-flung peninsulas that jut out like claws into the lake.

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The drive to İnköy was through familiar territory, passing by the villages of Göründü and Altınsaç with their little churches, and then by the Monastery of St Thomas, looming high over the road. We arrived at İnköy, parking at the foot of the now complete minaret that the villagers had been erecting last year. We spotted a pair of boats in the little harbour and looked around for someone to ask about catching a ride.

The first local we met was Salih Abi and he had bad news for us. It was illegal for fishing boats to take people on tours and the coast guard was regularly checking boats, meaning that no one would be willing to risk the fine for us. Not to be turned away so easily we asked about one of the closer monasteries, Surp Harutyun, which was supposed to be directly to our north at the end of the narrow Tivapuyn (Deveboynu) Peninsula.

When we asked about going on foot he had some good news for us: it was only a two hour hike to the monastery, an hour and a half if we were quick and we had exactly four hours till sunset. It probably wasn’t the wisest choice but it seemed perfect in the moment.

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A section of clear path on the way to Surp Harutyun Monastary.

The weather looked like it would hold out so we packed our gear in a flurry and set off in a race against time. At first the trail was well marked and clear of rubble, allowing us to make good time and even jog from time to time. We rounded the first headland and began heading north up the length of the peninsula at a trot.

Rounding a small headland we came to a long flat of grass with the remains of walls breaking the smoothness of the grass here and there. Beyond this was the first real climb. The hill was much higher than I had expected and, having lost the trail we began zig-zagging our way upwards.

There was a flock directly ahead of us so we decided to skirt right a bit only to have a shepherd insistently call out to us. Not being able to spot him amid the scrubby junipers we ignored him and contunued on the path we thought best. Eventually we caught sight of him gesturing and calling to us and had to go introduce ourselves to him, after all, we didnt want him thinnking we were looters or something.

We laughed when he, a shepherd, told us his name was Jesus (İsa), and that we were on the wrong path but he’d show us an easier one. When a shepherd named Jesus calls you and shows you a better path it would be foolish not to listen.

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Having now gained the summit we were now able to jog along the relatively flat spine that connects the mainland with the wider “island” at the end of the peninsula. Unfortunately we were barely halfway and an hour had already gone by. If we hoped to find the church and get back before sunset, we would need to hurry.

Here in the open the wind was intense and cold, beams of light cut through the few openings in the clouds to our left, and in the dimness of the west we saw the occasional flash of lightning. Once again we had got a lucky break with the weather in defiance of the ever-gloomy forecast. An hour later we finally reached the broad hill at the end of the peninsula.

My legs were exhausted by the time we took our first break. Unfortunately, this was only a sixty second stop to get my camera out of my bag to capture a herd of horses, donkeys, and mules that we came across. We later learned that the villagers of İnköy release the animals out onto the peninsula for the winter. When spring comes and the farmer’s work begins again, so too does the work of the animals.

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The semi-wild horses of the Deveboynu/Tivapuyn Peninsula.

While the horses were a beautiful addition to this stunning setting, they were not what we had come for. We reached the highest peak on the “island” where we were told we would be able to see the monastery below us to the north, only, we couldn’t see anything but trees and grassy slopes reaching down to the shore. Walking as quickly as we dared on the rough terrain, we began to skirt the outer edge, always looking below us to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive monastery. As we weren’t looking where we were going we were regularly stumbling and twisting our ankles, but feeling the pressure of sunset we couldn’t slow down.

The “island” at the end of the peninsula was way larger than I had expected; we scoured it’s eastern end where Google Maps put one of the pins, as well as the bay where the shepherd Jesus and Salih had said it would be and still found nothing. Time was running seriously short, we had an hour and a half till sunset but we now knew it would take closer to two hours to get back. We had decided to abandon the idea of visiting the monastery, planning instead to simply find it and take a picture from above, when, suddenly, there it was!

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With the sight of the ancient building before us we suddenly felt like we had the energy to descend and return to the village faster than we had come. We were clearly tired and not thinking straight. And so we raced off down the slope.

It didn’t take long to realize that the church was much further away down the hill below us than we had thought. Most churches in this simple style are quite small, Surp Harutyun however, was much larger and by the time we reached it all the excitement-induced energy had worn off.

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Van Bitlis Vaspurakan Blog
The interior of Surp Harutyun church, the sole remaining building of the complex.

The church was in fair condition. There were gaping holes in the roof but these hadn’t opened up into the interior yet. The nave was long and narrow with a deep-set apse. Built against the north side of the church had been a smaller church, though only the half-dome of the apse remained. The rest of the complex was in ruins, the lower portions of walls sticking out above the thick weeds.

With only an hour till sunset and over two hours of hiking ahead of us our tour of the church was brief. By the time we reached the point where we had last seen Jesus, the sun had fully set and the light was growing dim. Yet again we were off of the main path (if there actually was one) and following one of the million goat paths that criss cross the  hills here. By the time we reached the village we were picking our way among the boulders by flashlight. We had hiked and jogged without a break for five hours, covering about 17 kilometers over rough terrain, often without any path.

While Fred, who runs marathons, was fine, I was a mess.

In our dirt covered stinking state Salih came out of his house to invite us in for tea. Tea turned out to be dinner with him and his family eaten sitting on the floor. After the hike we had just done this was torture for our stiff and unaccustomed legs. While its considered rude to sit with the soles of your feet showing, I kept them tucked under me just to hide how filthy they were.

Over a dinner of rice and wild mushrooms picked from the surrounding hills, we talked about life in their village, the cold winters and the terrifying cliff-face road that connects their little hamlet to the outside world. Amazingly treasure never came up. At one point someone brought up yet another small church not too far away. With so many other monasteries, castles, volcanoes, and temples left to see I had hoped that I had at least finished visiting everything along the south shore and with my return flight booked for early the next morning there was no chance of seeing it this trip.

So apparently, I’ll be coming back yet again.