Today was the beginning of something I had been wanting to start for a long time: a pet-project of mine that will likely never be truly finished. All throughout the rugged slopes surrounding Lake Van there are lonely, derelict churches left behind by the Armenians who used to live here. For some reason information about these places is incredibly hard to come by. Some of the more popular places, like Akdamar, are well documented, but there are dozens of others whose names and even locations are seemingly lost. My hope is to simply visit as many of these sites, take what notes and photos I can, and at least make some record of their whereabouts.
Forgetting that shops outside of the city open late during Ramadan, we left early the next morning with a pack of crackers and half a bottle of water to serve as our breakfast and lunch. We headed east past the Akdamar docks and out onto the rather strange set of twisting peninsulas that jut out from the south shore towards the heart of Lake Van, a place that was supposed to be home to four churches. Passing the first headland we parked in a wide bay, and began to hike upwards, hoping we had chosen the right valley.
After about half an hour, seeing no one and hearing nothing but the rustle of tortoises and the gurgle of water flowing into sheep troughs we began to turn with the curve of the valley and got the first glimpse of our destination: Karmavank Monastery.
As we made it to the monastery ruins we spotted a flock of sheep coming down the opposite slope through the stunted juniper trees. Sheep mean dogs and I have no faith in the friendliness of Turkish sheepdogs or the ability of the shepherds to control them (once the shepherd was asleep and couldn’t call off his dog and another time, we were chased clear out of a valley by a sheepdog completely ignoring its owner calling it).
So, we took to the roof of the church just in case.
The dogs barked and circled a bit, but we were safe on our roof and eventually the shepherd himself emerged to chat with us, taking up a perch atop one of the old walls opposite us. He was incredibly friendly and a great source of knowledge about the history of the region. From our odd positions on a roof and wall we chatted for almost an hour about what the area was like before the Armenians were forced to leave the area and new people moved to resettle the abandoned villages. He pointed out faint patches on the slopes where there had once been vineyards and a small, wooded patch where there had once been a small mill.
He also told us that the locals, who speak Kurdish, still use the old Armenian names for places amongst themselves and only use the Turkish on official documents. He also said that in his village we could find another small church, one that I’d never found any mention of, as well as some upside-down tulips, and even a tandır (tandoori) oven built with an Armenian style roof of poplar timbers. Finally coming down off the Karmavank roof, he showed us the wild oregano that grows under the tough shrubs that cover the mountainside.
Getting stiff and cold after standing around in the chill breeze we began to make our way back down the valley and further up the peninsula to visit yet another monastery. Counting bays as we went, we passed through the village of Altınsaç where I spotted a rather unusual looking building.
Though the face of the building had partially collapsed and the masonry was rough and unmaintained, the building was a bit too tall and the stones too large to be a simple village house or barn. Peeking in I saw a high vaulted space backed by a semi-circular apse with a small window facing east, confirming what I had guessed; the old barn was actually once a church (traditionally churches are built facing the east, catching the morning light and in anticipation of Christ’s return “in the east”).
A short drive past the village and into the next bay we spotted our destination high above us on the brink of a spur jutting out from the mountainside.
Surp Tovmas, or the church of St Thomas, is one of the area’s most famous churches, partially for its grand size and fair condition, but especially because of the incredible views. Like Karmavank church that we visited earlier that morning, the Church of St Thomas was once a part of a much larger monastic complex, but only the church itself remains. To the west of the church, a short distance up the hill we came across a large graveyard of roughly-shaped blocks with cross patterns etched into the smooth face. Many of the stones were broken and the earth opened, quite recently in many cases, by grave robbers seeking treasure to sell on the black market. Sadly treasure hunters do incredible damage to historic sites like this, often digging straight through walls or into solid rock faces looking for treasure where there can’t possibly be any. We’ve even talked to people about places where whole monuments were dynamited in the hopes of finding something. Often nothing is found but the ancient buildings are lost forever.
After a couple hour detour to the peninsula’s most remote village to try and gather information about other churches for a future trip (there are SO many ruined churches, monasteries, and even some wild horses here), we went to the village of our shepherd friend to see the upside-down tulips, the tandır oven, and investigate the old chapel. Arriving in the village of Göründü we realized that we had no idea what a “tandır oven built in a traditional Armenian style” actually looks like. We attempted to find it by looking for any large stockpile of firewood but when we found one, the only person out chopping wood looked to be about three years old (though he was quite handy with his little axe). When we finally found an adult to get more information from, it turned out to be the uncle of our shepherd friend. Moments later we were joined by a little band of his nephews, some aunts, and more uncles; turns out the whole village is related and was very happy to help us!
While we got to see the oven, no one was using it as it was Ramadan and Ramadan means Ramazan Pidesi (a special flat-bread for Ramadan), and not tandır ekmeği (a special flat bread NOT for Ramadan). While we didn’t get to see the oven in action, we did find five chatty kids to be our guides to the church and point out the recycled gravestones used in the walls of the ancient building.
With evening curfew fast approaching we had to turn down the incredibly tempting offer of breaking the fast in the village and race back to Van city to find a hotel. Apparently everyone was in the same situation and we all drove at speeds that were impressive even for Turkey and, for legal reasons, I will not be writing here.
With a surface area of around 3750 square kilometers, Lake Van is a small inland sea. It waters the land around it and adds humidity to an otherwise dry environment. The lake itself sits over 1600 meters above sea level (300 meters higher than the highest point in the United Kingdom) in a vast region of mountains that stretch out in all directions. The result is that the land surrounding Lake Van is green and temperate compared to the wider region. Once you get past one or two mountain ranges the land turns desolate and incredibly barren. There are hills of bare soil with barely any grass growing and the job of finding pasture for sheep is far more difficult than the comparatively green slopes surrounding Lake Van.
For our final morning we decided to visit a particularly striking site in this arid landscape away from the effects of the great lake. To make the most of our time we were up and heading out the door at 5:30 heading south east along the highway to Hakkari, arguably the most remote province in Turkey bordering Iran and Iraq. On official maps our destination is known as Güzelsu, but most people know it by its Kurdish name Xoşabe, or Hoşap, the name given to the towering fortress at the center of the village.
The dusty little town is dominated by Hoşap castle, built on a towering crag that juts out sheer over a small river running through the center of the modern village. The older settlement is on the opposite side where the slope from the castle descends less steeply into something of a bowl, surrounded by the remains of mud-brick walls and watchtowers. Just as it was hundreds of years ago this low spot is still a collection of flat-roofed homes and stables, though many have collapsed or been abandoned in favour of newer homes on the other side of the river.
While it was the castle we had come to see, this ancient patch of village with its purple rock and alien-looking saw-tooth spine of mud-brick fortifications was mesmerizing. The walls, rather than crumble, appeared to have melted like ice. We could even clearly make out the outline of the individual bricks.
It took us a while to get through the village, but eventually we made it up to the castle gate. The gate itself is almost hidden behind a large piece of natural rock that protrudes out from the smooth face of the tower. Above the door is an ornate crown of Persian calligraphy, geometric patterns, and a pair of chained lions, that don’t particularly resemble lions.
From a distance the gate looked like the type of recent addition you can see at thousands of other historic sites across Turkey: thin painted steel with a pattern of round bulges across the face of it. However, upon closer inspection I realized these doors were actually original, made out of solid slabs of iron with simple patterns etched into the surface. Here and there you could see pock marks left by bullets and even the odd piece of lead still lodged into the dull brown metal.
The problem was that the door was very much locked. Asking a local if they knew of a way in, they pointed us in the direction of the warden’s house, but as it was still early and people often tend to sleep in during Ramadan we decided to check out the rest of the village first, stopping in at a pair of tombs and their connected madrasahs. Both madrasahs (a school, often religious), had been recently restored and yet completely abandoned with doors hanging off hinges and the unmistakable signs of cows finding their way inside.
Beginning to worry we’d run out of time to see the castle, we went to the warden’s home only to hear from the women in the yard that they had no idea what we were talking about. Asking around some more we found out from another local that there was no warden, the keys had been given to police up the road and that if we wanted to go in we’d have to request the keys from them.
Now, a police station in an area like this is nothing like your normal police station. It’s a fortress. There are high concrete walls topped with razor wire, watch towers, and turrets. Like its historic counterpart the gate is also a massive slab of iron and everyone is dressed in fatigues and heavily armed. Its not particularly inviting. We drove up and asked at the gate, went through the arduous process of giving all manner of identification numbers and finally got admitted in to speak to the keeper of the keys. Occasionally a confused face would pop around the corner whenever someone heard that two Canadians were waiting in the hall, speaking Turkish, and asking for the keys to the castle.
Eventually our wish was granted, and we were given a guide to unlock Hoşap Castle’s iron doors for us and let us explore inside.
With such a long and drawn out lead up to getting into the castle, I have to admit, the inside was a bit anticlimactic. The lower levels that we were restricted to were somewhat plain, and the upper castle, which served as a palace to Sarı Süleyman, the local lord over the region, was closed for restoration.
With time running short we quickly toured the castle, thanked our guide, and made our way back to the airport. It was exciting to have gotten a good start at exploring this stunningly beautiful region, but I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of regret to be leaving so many places unvisited.
When I first envisioned a trip to Lake Van I thought about doing a road trip circling the lake. As I researched more I realized there was simply far too much to see in one trip. There are still dozens of little-known churches tucked away on remote mountainsides, some of Turkey’s greatest Seljuk monuments, Ancient Urartian cities, a giant volcanic lake, island monasteries, and travertine pools left to explore. Also I still need to eat a proper Van Breakfast.
While I’ve felt this after most trips, this time more than ever I really hope to make it back here soon.