There are few places in this country that have captured my imagination the way Lake Van has. The soaring heights of bald mountains, the villages of squat stone houses scattered among the folds of the land, the jig-saw coastline, and the vast lake itself, hold endless mysteries waiting to be explored.
While the sights and experiences of my first visit were amazing, what really captivated me was what I found when I got home. After visiting Van and a exploring a number of the areas medieval Armenian sites I started researching deeper into their histories and looking to see what other sights there may be. It was shocking how little I could find. At best, monasteries, churches, and villages were briefly described and their location vaguely hinted at. I came across a list of some 90 sites with Armenian names but little more. Guidebooks were full of errors and no two sources could agree on the spelling of place names.
I finally had a breakthrough when I was given a pair of maps with the locations of various churches on it. I was warned that some of the locations were approximate, others were guesses, and some were likely mistakes, but, combined with my own research we were off to a great start.
A year after my first visit to Van I was again descending towards the city, the mountains and lakeshore that I knew were out the planes window were hidden behind thick cloud and curtains of rain. The forecast showed rain, cloud, and lightning everyday but I was optimistic that we’d get some good openings. Picking up Fred from the city center we made our way up into the foothills of mount Varag, the upper slopes hidden by dark clouds and our surroundings blurred by sheets of rain on the windows of the car.
Before diving into the exciting work of hiking and hunting for remote and little-known churches there were a couple of places we had to visit. Our first stop was at the site that had been the monastery of Surp Grigor. The site had once been home to a monastic complex with two fine churches. Today the site is little more than a heap of rubble with the scattered pits of treasure hunters. While a century of abandonment had done damage to the site, the ever-persistent rumours of buried Armenian gold has inspired looters to dig deep holes, undermining the few remaining walls of the churches.
Our second stop was perhaps even worse than the first.
The village of Yemişlik, once known as Narek, was once home to the beautiful Narekevank monastery complex. Today, not a stone remains.
According to most reports, the great monastery of Narek was torn down by government order in 1951. As 1951 was the exact year of other government efforts to destroy churches this seems quite likely (see Khtzkonk in Kars and the nearby Surp Khach Church).
As we drew near the village we came to a military checkpoint. Predictably, they asked us what two Canadians were doing in this remote place, and, thankfully, wanting to visit a no-longer-existent church was a good enough answer to let us through.
While these sites are important in understanding the painful history of this region, there is nothing there to discover. For our next site, however, we had higher expectations.
Turning from the main road onto a country lane with only just enough pavement left to make the potholes feel especially harsh, we wound our way out of the mountains and into a flat plain, rimmed with steep peaks and ridges. At the north end of this plain we came to the village of Çanakdüzü.
From what I knew the monastery of Surp Gevorg would be on the opposite side of the mountains to the north of us, just above the lake. While I was confident we could find it easily enough, we wanted to make our intentions known to the locals before taking to the mountains. From our experience in Kars we knew that quietly heading out into the countryside was a good way to get yourself a visit with the authorities.
Initially the trouble was finding any locals. When we finally did find some, it turned into a rather unusual experience. We quickly saw that mental and physical disabilities were common in this little village and many of the young people didn’t speak Turkish, implying they hadn’t spent much time at school. Eventually they took us to the hoja (teacher) who chatted with us in Turkish while simultaneously berating the youths that were gathered around us in Kurdish. Feeling like we had injected ourselves into rather uncomfortable situation we thanked them for the directions and got out. On our way out I spotted a set of large Khachkar (stones with crosses carved into their surface, often serving as grave or memorial stones) set up in a garden with a bed laid out between them.
While I didn’t want to press the matter too much, I had to ask the hoja about the stones. He waved vaguely towards the ridge to our north and said he brought them down and set them in his garden. It seems that he made a yatır in his garden. A yatır is a site usually associated with a mystical or spiritual power where the sick, mentally ill, and lame are made to spend the night in hopes that they can be healed. While I dont know how the practice worked in this particular place, animal sacrifice is usually a part of it.
Leaving Çanakdüzü we skirted the mountains to the west where the slope was gentler and the summit lower. Cresting the ridge the lake opened up before us, steep slopes and cliffs rising out of the water marched away in long rows to the east and west. Just below our path we spotted a flock of sheep grazing and working their way towards us. Where there are sheep there are sheepdogs, and while shepherds can usually keep the protective animals under control, that isn’t always the case. The more I hike in this country the more I come to hate these over aggressive dogs.
We decided to make a break for it and pass above the flock before they cut us off. We walked quickly, careful not to make any noise, or send any loose rocks skipping down. Our plan was a success and we gained the far ridge without being spotted. Cautious of a second flock on the other side, we peered cautiously down the far side only to have a massive dog jump up snarling and barking just a few paces away! We leapt away and adrenaline leapt into our veins. The dog, recognizing our panic, considered its job done and trotted off after the flock we had tried so hard to avoid.
Regaining some composure, we took a look at our surroundings and saw the monastery complex set clearly below us just above the lakeshore. While the church and its outer walls were all standing, it had suffered incredible damage. The outer facing stones were completely missing from the upper portions of the church, and the high peaked dome was completely lost. Apart from the lintels of the windows, the masonry on the exterior was plain pale stone. Almost crawling to get through the doorway which had been choked with rubble, I came into a space bearing the hallmarks of the Armenian architectural tradition. The lofty, narrow, barrel vaults set around a high central dome set atop a set of squinches carved with trios of scallop-shell motifs. The dark space was illuminated through narrow slit windows in the apse and drum as well as through the gaping hole where the conical dome had collapsed.
After a pair of underwhelming sites earlier in the day it was good to finally find something as impressive and picturesque as this.
Making it back to the car we returned by the same terrible pothole filled road. As we passed through the village of Göllü on the south end of the pan-like plain, we stopped to look at a large, ruined building that peaked out from behind a recently built mosque. The ruin was large with an arched doorway in the west wall, three narrow slit windows in the east wall, and built nearly at ninety degrees off-axis from the neighbouring mosque; all signs that this ruin had been built as a church. Considering its central location in the village next to the mosque, it seemed likely that when the Christian population was replaced by Muslims the church was used as a mosque, then, as maintenance became too costly, it was abandoned for a newer mosque. Eventually we found some locals who confirmed my guess, though they couldn’t tell us anything more.
After another short drive we came out of the mountains and were again on the shores of Lake Van. We turned into a small village on a picturesque peninsula, and stopped to ask the first locals we found if they knew about any churches in the area. After showing us a pair of Khachkar that we had nearly parked on, they told us that there had been at least three churches near the village but only one had survived a century of locals poaching convenient pre-cut stones. On our way to the Church of Surp Hovhannes were stopped by some inquisitive locals, who, hearing we were headed to the church, began making vague threats saying “If you find any gold you come back and tell me, if you find something and don’t tell me I’ll find out and you won’t be going home.” As I wasn’t expecting to find anything, I wasn’t too concerned.
Yet another suspicious local came out to keep an eye on us as we inspected the church. The church was a simple vaulted room with no dome, with a cluster of more recent buildings added around it haphazardly.
Leaving Yelkenli as the sun began to set, we made our way to Ahlat to find a hotel; a surprisingly difficult task as it would turn out.
The next day the weather was fair and we made our way back down the coast to the village of Sarıkum. While the maps I had been given didn’t show anything, Google Maps had the location of a church labelled “Aziz Teotoros”. Google Maps pins are notorious in this region so my expectations weren’t exactly high.
Arriving in the village we spotted some fine Khachkar stones in walls and stopped to help some children right a wheelbarrow of feed. When we asked the kids about the church, they didn’t hesitate to point us in the direction of a small knoll on a headland just outside the village.
The knoll was made up of a jumble of boulders rising out from the sheep-shorn grass. Among the boulders a shepherd was running and yelling, throwing rocks aggressively at a pair of donkeys. At first we kept our distance, hoping to avoid sheepdog and crazy shepherd alike but as there was nothing but grass and looters pits we eventually made our way over to ask if the shepherd knew anything.
He took us to a bit of rock and pointed out some barely visible crosses etched in the pale stone. There had been more, but looters had smashed them out hoping to find treasure hidden in virgin stone by some miracle. “X” does not mark the spot. He told us that, to the best of his knowledge, there had been a church on the spot, but he hasn’t seen any sign of one apart from the couple crosses he showed us.
Not wanting to come up empty handed, we asked if he knew of any other churches in the area. He thought for a while and turned towards the slopes of Mount Nemrut, still covered in snow. He pointed to a village far in the distance, and a large patch of black rock with high snowbanks behind it. As it was all black rock and snowbanks I couldn’t be sure I knew where he meant, but said I did anyways. He said if we go to the high village and take a rough dirt track up the skirts of the extinct volcano, we’d find an old church still standing.
While we were still talking, he suddenly started yelling and throwing rocks at the donkeys again. He explained that, given the chance the donkeys will grab the lambs by the back and shake them till they’re lame or dead. It was good to know he wasn’t just crazy or an animal abuser. After more talk about village life, shepherd economics, and buried gold, he suddenly had to leave as his flock had wondered well out of sight along the coast. He raced off in pursuit, mounted on one of his killer donkeys.
We too mounted (our rental car) and turned our sights to the vast volcano to our west and the church that was supposedly there.