With the forecast for tomorrow looking wet and cold we decided to take advantage of the sun we had at the moment and follow the shepherd’s advice and take to the mountains to find the church. The drive was a gentle but continuous climb from the lake shore up the lower slopes of Mount Nemrut. Passing through the lower villages we spotted dark basalt stones carved with crosses set into walls. The villages were clearly poor and it was difficult to tell which buildings were low shed-barns and which were homes. Despite the obvious poverty, these were the most lively villages I had seen, full of children running through the muddy streets. Where most villages in central Turkey have been abandoned to ruin, the villages of Bitlis are full of life and industry.
At the village of Serinbayır we made a few attempts at finding the right track to get us up to the church that was now visible far above us. Eventually we found the correct route and bounced our way up the tractor path, attempting to avoid the boulders that were strewn about the road. Heavy clouds spilled down from the lip of Mount Nemrut, darkening the sky and, moments later, bringing hail and snow. Shortly after the snow began the road became impassible and we had to continue on foot. As it was May we were not at all dressed for the cold, though the fast moving clouds just above our heads made for a dramatic setting for this remote church.
While the church looked in good condition from a distance, most of the south wall had collapsed as the shelf of bedrock it was built on was undermined by erosion and, undoubtedly, looters. There was an inscription next to what remains of the door in the south wall, maybe, if I can get it translated, I can figure out where I was and something about the history of this remote church.
In the meantime, it was time to get ourselves and the cameras out of the snow and rain.
The next morning we woke up in Ahlat to great curtains of rain falling on Lake Van. Trusting that we’d catch a break at some point we followed the coast road to the town of Adilcevaz where we planned to hike to the monastery of Ardzgue (also known by the far more difficult name of Skantselagorgivank) that we hoped was somewhere in the hills above the town.
We found the correct valley easily enough and abandoned the car at the end of the road where a group of men were standing around keeping watch over their cows. We greeted them and, even through we could now see the church, asked how to get there, half to see if there was an easier route and half to let the locals know what we were up to.
This approach wasn’t as effective as we had hoped, but more on that later.
We set out following the course of a creek, now swollen with the run off from melting snow above. The morning rain had turned the earth to sticky mud that clung in great clods to the soles of our feet. Even though the valley was deep and narrow, cold wind from the snow-covered peaks ahead lashed our faces. Not for the last time I wondered, “How is this May?”
The last stretch of hill was steep and slick with mud, but after some undignified slipping and sliding we gained the flat shelf that the monastery was built on. The picturesque church of high arches and domes sat perched near the lip of the flat, commanding an incredible view of the steeply falling valley and the lake below. Despite the fact that the church appeared to be in fair condition from a distance, closer up we found a different story. The entire south wall had collapsed, taking a portion of the high cupola dome with it. The likely octagonal pyramid roof of the dome was completely lost, and pieces of roofing were scattered far down the slope.
Even though the outer complex was completely ruined, the shape and size of the monasteries out buildings were obvious. A mound of rubble extended in perfectly straight lines forming a wide box on the west side of the church, even the outlines of the rooms built against the outer wall were clear.
While the church was beautiful, the looters pits and extensive damage were a sad reminder that, even these reminders of the Armenian communities that once lived here could soon be lost. Like many of the at-risk sites in this region, how many will be left in the coming decades?
On the topic of looters there was a bit of good news, though it came in a rather unusual way.
Making the slippery descent, we could see our car parked below us from a fair distance. A couple of young guys were hanging out next to their car which they had parked next to ours. As we got closer I spotted the walkie-talkies on their belts, confirming my suspicion: they were police.
Evidently someone had taken us for treasure hunters and called the police. As much as being questioned by the police isn’t always the most pleasant experience I was glad someone cared enough about protecting the church to make the call and I thanked the police for helping preserve the monastery. We chatted for a while, our time stretching on thanks to the officer in the station not knowing how to enter foreign passports into the system. After following each other on Instagram we parted ways and began to pack up our gear. Once the police were out of sight, I noticed four young guys get out of a car parked near the creek. They began making their way up the valley towards the church with picks in hand. Using our new connections with the police we notified them over Instagram, and went to find lunch.
At lunch I had my head down as I attempted to put together some notes regarding what we had seen that morning. As I wrote I noticed a pair of shoes and pants pass by that didn’t belong in a town like Adilcevaz. I turned from my note taking and lunch (a bowl of the unfortunately named “water meatballs”), to take a peek at the new arrival.
Somehow, he managed to look more out of place than even we did. He was the perfect image of an Istanbullu (someone from Istanbul) come to the country, ready for action. An Istanbullu wears clean rugged shoes, light hiking pants, a brightly coloured rain jacket, hair in a man bun, and fashionable sunglasses on his head. A villager wears leather dress shoes caked in mud, semi-formal pants with a well ironed crease, a thick wool coat (black or brown, never colourful) with knit vest underneath, a hat from courtesy of the sugar beet farmers co-op, and is ready to squint should the sun get in his eyes. Apart from being a good sixteen inches too tall we probably stood out less than him. As it turned out, he was actually from Adilcevaz, but had spent most of his life living in Istanbul working for foreign news agencies as a war correspondence reporter.
Naturally we got chatting. He is simultaneously a local and an outsider and his perspective on the area and its people were fascinating. Eventually we came to the topic of my hunt for the Armenian churches of the region which brought the other locals in the shop into conversation. Inevitably we came to the topic of buried treasure and how looting is done (minimum three people; two to dig and a third to read the Koran to keep away the evil spirits). They had even heard that a guy would come and chip out crosses for money. Rumours of buried gold were rampant in Bitlis.
A street sweeper who had come to sip tea and take shelter from the cold told us about a church in his village as well as a second one near the road to the north. Once our watery meatballs were finished, we took to the road in pursuit of two new additions to our list.
Driving north-east we passed by the foot of Mount Süphan, yet another ancient volcano and one of Turkey’s highest mountains though all but its feet were hidden by clouds and rain. The first site we stopped at turned out to be a natural formation rather than a church: a bizarre formation of twisted travertine stone rising out of the fields. A small hole near the base showed that much of the formation was actually hollow.
Walking back down towards the car a tractor did a U-turn and parked behind our car; yet another local woried we were there to find buried treasure. He didnt seem to mind if we dug or not, if anything he seemed more curious to know if we found anything. More helpfully, he explained that the site had been used as a dungeon and that the whole cave had been full of gold but taken away long ago.
Our next stop would prove to have even wilder claims of gold.
The village of Yukarısüphan was large and full of cross covered masonry. Retaining walls, barn walls, house walls, just about everywhere we looked we saw crosses and Armenian inscriptions. Eventually we found a local who showed us the site of an old water mill. The water stank of sulphur and the banks were covered in calcium deposits. He told us about a man from Germany who had come with a sounding machine years ago and found a massive trove of gold under the mill flume. Naturally, the local dug a massive pit where the gold was supposed to be, only to find nothing. The idea that someone is travelling around trolling villagers like this is absolutely bizarre.
We learned that the village had once been home to a number of churches, though now only the remains of one is left. According to our friend, a group of Armenians came and camped next to it, secretly excavating at night. According to rumour, they managed to leave with over a ton of gold in the night. How people could know the amount of gold when it was smuggled away in secret is suspicious to say the least.
Below the village we met a group of locals as we crossed a field towards the remains of the church. The kids practiced their English while the women talked amongst themselves in Kurdish. I caught “tourist”, “treasure”, and “photograph”. While I hoped “photograph” meant they understood what we were actually doing, a man came from the village to see what we were up to shortly after the women and children left. Yet again, more talk of digging and buried treasure. Unfortunately, the church bore the scars of these rumours of gold and only a couple walls and apse remained.
The west shore of Lake Van seems to have had the least Armenian presence, likely due to the major Seljuk centers of Ahlat and, in its later stages, Adilcevaz. We had now visited four sites along this coast and had just one left before we planned to once again turn attention to the southern coast. It seemed every valley and bay hid some ancient church.
Our last stop was at the village of Yumurtatepe, where Google Maps said we’d find a church named Surp Harutyn, the Church of the Resurrection. Arriving in the town I couldn’t help but notice that the stones used for the barns and houses were much smaller than usual and not a single one bore any sign of crosses or inscriptions.
When we arrived at the location where the church was supposed to be we met a friendly local who straightaway guessed at the purpose of our visit. There was one issue though, there was no church. He said we weren’t the first to visit following the Google Maps pin and he showed us the exact spot shown on the map. He told us that he had tried digging at the location but found nothing. The confusion seems to come from the fact that there are two villages in Bitlis province called Yumurtatepe (though the local Kurdish names are different). This village was only founded in the 1950’s meaning that there were no large medieval stones to reuse in the modern buildings.
Considering churches don’t tend to move (though they can disappear), it’s surprising how much of a wild goose chase finding them can be. But we still had one full day left.