Van prt I: Van Citadel, Varagavank, and Akdamar Island

/ By Josh

For me, the beauty of Turkey is in its incredible diversity packed into a relatively small area: diversity in its cultures, languages, religions, landscapes, climates, and in its very unique histories. It’s amazing that some of these places can be so vastly different and yet be in the same country.

Tucked into the south-eastern corner of Turkey, you can find one of these amazingly distinctive destinations. Centered on the vast Lake Van, bare green slopes rise up into towering mountains. Hidden along the wild coastline, on remote islets, and in the twisting valleys you can find castles and monasteries, “upside-down tulips”, and remote villages with different names in three languages.

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Lake Van coastline near the village of Altınsaç.

Van (pronounced like the German Von and NOT like a miniVAN), is a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. Part of what’s made it difficult to get to is that there was a very particular time of year I wanted to visit. In the spring, usually sometime in April, the snow begins to melt in the lower regions near the lake, the grass turns the world green, the orange upside-down tulips begin to flower, and, most importantly the almond trees begin to flower, filling villages with splashes of pink and white, and filling the air with sweet fragrances.

With Covid restrictions eased and April fast approaching, I booked tickets for Van. A few days later the weather report had turned gloomy; snow and rain were predicted for most of my stay there but, when is a weather report ACTUALLY accurate? The next day rumours were swirling around with more bad news. New Covid restrictions were on their way for the month of April coinciding with the Holy month of Ramadan. This meant that we were looking at bad weather, a tough time getting food, and the potential of going into lockdown in a hotel instead of exploring this beautiful place. To make matters worse, my flight was early Monday morning, inconveniently, the same day the new lockdown measures were supposed to be announced.

With an attitude of, “what’s the worst that could happen,” we decided to press on with our trip and hope for the best.

Apart from a tough time in the food department (we probably averaged one proper meal a day), we ended up getting even better than we could have hoped for!

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As soon as my plane touched down, I raced to the towering Castle of Van, a bit worried that museums could be shut down by the pending restrictions. There is so much to see around Van Castle that, despite spending six hours climbing the terraces of the citadel and exploring the lower city, I still managed to miss a few sights hidden among the towers and cliffs. The castle mound is over a kilometer long and is full of hard to access spots with three-thousand-year-old holy sites, tombs, and cuneiform inscriptions, some of which peek out along the base of walls from behind grass and weeds.

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One of a number of cuneiform inscriptions hiding in the western point of the castle.
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View from the top of Van castle with the ruins of the lower city below.

Comparatively new, the lower city on the south side of the Rock of Van is only about 800 years old. It’s here that you can really see how great a place this once was, full of mosques, churches, bazaars, and homes for some 80,000 residents. Following its destruction in 1915, the old city of Van was abandoned and the mud-brick buildings and burnt timbers crumbled into an undulating field of grass and swampland with the odd stump of a minaret or portion of stone wall sticking out from the green, backed by the sheer wall of the Van citadel.

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Springs and streams keep much of this area marshy and it was surprisingly difficult to get across. I even lost a shoe and stuck my socked foot into the muck. A lovely way to start a trip.

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Detail of the Xerxes inscription. Between the minarets, crosses, and cuneiform inscriptions written in a handful of different languages a visitor really can get a sense of the age of the place, how its has been home to and ruled by many different peoples and powers.
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From below you can see the incredible trilingual Xerxes inscription carved into the 100 meter high cliffs. See the man standing near the foot of the cliff for scale.
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Kaya Çelebi Mosque and Hüsrev Paşa Mosque, two of the restored mosques in the old city of Van.

That evening we went out for dinner, a major event considering the next day was the beginning of the fast and the beginning of new covid rules barring people from eating in restaurants. For some reason most of the restaurants in Van are Konya-themed so, despite being in Van, that’s where we ended up. Not that it matters really as the staples of all Turkish menus are Adana and Antep dishes anyways. One perk to covid travel restrictions was that our hotel room was upgraded to a suite with two separate rooms, perfect when one of you always sleeps too hot and the other too cold. The weird thing was that there was a window between our rooms. I don’t know why, but seeing each other through a window is far weirder than just sharing a room.

The next morning I woke up at five with the hopes of getting a sunrise shot of the stunning Van Castle in the early morning light. What I got instead was some of that bad weather we had been promised. I left the hotel in the dark to wander the waterfront and try and find a good distant vantage of the castle with snow capped mountains behind. After two hours of walking in driving rain and snow I had to retreat to the hotel in defeat and change out of my sopping wet clothes.

Surprisingly, and despite what the forecast had predicted, the skies began to clear and we decided to venture out into the mountains above the city to visit the remains of Varagavank monastery. It’s places like this, where Van’s stunning nature combines with Medieval Armenian architecture, that have always made Van particularly attractive to me. With a lack of restoration, trails, or signage there’s still some air of discovery in visiting places like this.

The drive up through the fresh snow-covered slopes of Erek mountain, once called Varag by the Armenian inhabitants, was stunning as the sky continued to open above us. We arrived in the village just in time to meet the chicken salesmen who introduced us to the warden of the old monastery. The warden was evasive about being able to let us in and even mentioned that we could buy him a chicken each to be let in, which, to be honest I was willing to do just because it seemed ridiculous to me (a chicken is 30TL each for those who are wondering). In the end he let us in, and we got to explore the interior.

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The church here, known as Varagavank in Armenian or Yedi Kilise (Seven Churches) in Turkish, was actually a large monastic complex consisting of a handful of churches, chapels, as well as necessary buildings for life in the monastery. According to legend, a group of future saints were fleeing through the area, carrying a relic, a piece of the True Cross with them. Fearing that the relic could fall into the hands of their pursuers they decided to bury it. Around the middle of the 7th century the relic was miraculously found and so a monastery was established on the site and named “True Cross of Varag Monastery.”

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The remaining apse of St Sophia Church, one of a handful of churches that made up the monastic complex.
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Paintings depicting Mary as well as Mary with crucifix scene below it. You can see the haphazardly patched roof above.

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Today only a small portion of the original complex survives, though it conveys something of its original beauty even without the great pointed domes that once crowned the churches. Like many of the other Armenian Churches in the area, the masonry is covered in crosses,many of them completely different than the ones next to them.

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Door into the church narthex. This was once covered by roof and bell tower,.
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Though badly damaged, the paintings in the narthex are still visible.

After a half dozen cups of tea with the warden (even though he was fasting the warden insisted that we go to his house for tea. We insisted that we couldn’t as it would be impolite to drink in front of him while fasting, but he insisted harder) we left the remains of Varagavank behind to check out the museum before going on to the Urartu monument of Meher Kapı.

We pulled up to the spot, a short slope of pale rock rising into a low cliff, with the monumental niche visible above us. As we began to make our way to the ancient holy site, we were waylaid by a small band of curious local kids. They showed off their mountain goat climbing abilities while I struggled up with a bad knee like an old man.

We were chatting away with the kids at the foot of the cuneiform covered monument for a while when suddenly conversation took a rather sudden turn for the worse. Asking if there was a castle on the interesting hill across from us the kids said no, just a big cliff. Then one of the kids piped up in a cheery seven-year-old voice and told us that’s where the girls go and commit suicide…

We paused awkwardly not really knowing how to address the subject with small kids when another one chips in saying “its because of the blue whale.”


“the blue whale makes them do it”

Now it’s as confusing as it is awkward.

“sometimes its because their fathers beat them.”

As only kids can, they unceremoniously changed the subject back to something benign. Sadly, life in this area of the city doesn’t always seem to be particularly happy.

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With a couple hours before city-wide curfew was to begin we headed to the spot I had scouted that morning in the rain. Now, with the sun setting behind us through broken cloud, the castle was clear and beautifully lit with a backdrop of snowy mountains.

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Under normal circumstances we would have woken up the next morning and begun the day with the legendary Van Breakfast, a massive collection of fried eggs (sunny side up with sausage AND scrambled with tomatoes and peppers), half a dozen types of cheese, olives (at least two varieties), sliced vegetables, honey, jams, clotted cream, fresh breads, and piping hot tea.

But these are not ordinary times, so we didn’t have any of that.

Instead we left the city heading eastward to go visit the crowning jewel of Turkey’s south east: The Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island.

Driving along the coast we arrived at silent docks. We spoke to the captain who warned us that the boat doesn’t go unless it fills up. Our fears were allayed a short while later when two vans pulled up full of people heading to Akdamar Island. Pretty quick it became clear these weren’t normal tourists. Mountains of camera equipment, lighting, a dictionary of Ottoman cooking terms, and… beans? were being loaded onto the boat.

Turns out we were sharing the boat with a film crew from Turkey biggest TV channel filming a cooking show. Later I shared a tea with the star, an internationally acclaimed cook and writer, who recognized me! Apparently, he follows my blog!

Actually, we just sat in the same row on the flight into Van and, being a head taller and 50 shades whiter than everyone else onboard I guess I stood out.

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Before we had even set foot on Akdamar Island we could smell the scent of millions of almond blossoms wafting out over the water towards us. We had clearly come at exactly the right time, and with the film crew sticking close to their set we had the majority of the island to ourselves.

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The church is covered, inside and out, with details from the Bible and Church history, the lives of characters such as David and Armenian saints carved meticulously or painted in deep shades of blue and red. Usually Akdamar is crowded with visitors but today, thanks to global pandemic, it was nearly deserted.

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Saints of Akdamar Church.

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The ornate bell tower of Akdamar Church.

When another boat of visitors finally did arrive, it actually turned into a huge opportunity for us. Normally, access to the highest peak overlooking the island is restricted, but the group of visitors that came after us were a group of reporters, professional photographers, and photography students with special permission to access the heights. We were able to join them and get access to the best vantage points over the island, overlooking the almond blossoms, Akdamar Church, the lake and the snow-capped peak of Artos. If it wasn’t for them we would never have had access to this spot.

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One of Akdamar Islands many cross-covered gravestones wit the church in the background.

With the day nearly done (and my face rather sun burnt) we made one last stop before heading back to Van before evening curfew.

Lake Van is divided between the two modern provinces of Van and Bitlis. In regard to ruins and history, Van is full of Armenian and Urartu ruins while Bitlis is full of Seljuk sites. A rare Seljuk monument in Van is the Tomb of Halime Hatun, with its typical conical top set atop a 12-sided drum covered in geometric patterns and flowing script. The fields surrounding the 14th century tomb are full of other medieval Seljuk graves covered in ornate patterns and writing, still visible through the lichen.

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Read part II