A dream that you never want to wake up from
A vast landscape of rugged mountains, remote plateaus and scenic lakes comes to life in Turkey’s Eastern Anatolian Region, where a complex mosaic of cultures and ancient stories combine in a mingling of church bells with the soulful call to prayer.
In the northern highlands bordering Armenia, the Black Sea and Georgia, local principalities fended off the Mongols while depositing a cultural trail of Christian monasteries. With the appearance of the Urartu Kingdom in the lands around Lake Van in the 9th century BC, Anatolia had its first experience of state-style organization, to be later usurped by the arrival of the Armenian Kingdom, which at its height reached as far north as the Caucuses and to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.
With huge distances between towns, extremes of climate and little infrastructure, travelling around the east may be more challenging than elsewhere in Turkey, but your efforts will be amply compensated by the remote beauty, relatively unspoiled scenery and the region’s cultural authenticity.
Intrepid visitors who venture into the East generally have at the top of their itinerary the city of Dogubeyazit, gateway to Agri Dag, believed to be the biblical site of Agri Dagi (Mt. Ararat), the legendary place upon which Noah’s Ark came to rest. A pilgrimage to Mt. Ararat is made even more moving with a taste of the local specialty asure pudding said to be first concocted by Noah’s wife from the leftovers remaining on the ark.
Commanding the mountaintop a mere 3 miles east of Dogubeyazit is a spectacular example of the cultural blend that was 18th century Ottoman architecture. The Ishak Pasa Palace was built by a Kurdish Emir to guard the strategic mountain pass that now connects Turkey with Iran. Standing at the convergence of geography and culture, the fortress complex is a stylistic medley of Persian arches, Selçuk niches, Armenian and Ottoman ornamentation, with inspiration from Georgian and Syrian traditions.
Erzurum, the largest city in Eastern Turkey and the capital of Erzurum Province has a rich history, from an important Byzantine outpost to an Armenian, then Persian center, from the Sassanid, Arab, Roman Mongol and Selçuk domination through to the Turkish Republic. During the Selçuk period, Erzurum served as an important hub for caravan traffic along the Silk Road. The city accommodated its inhabitants and guests with an impressive landscape of Selçuk monuments of which the Çifte Minare Medresesi, a theological school of imposing dimensions, and the Ulu Cami, the oldest mosque in the city with its wooden dome and cone shaped tombs, are just two of the finer examples.
The high altitudes and a harsh mountain climate are no reason to steer clear of the unspoiled and untamed province of Kars, where culture, nature and wintering opportunities abound. Because of its strategic position - sitting at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet and bordering the historic lands of Russia and present day Armenia - the city of Kars was the target of conquest for centuries. Several of the monuments left by conquering armies are worth a look: the grand Citadel that faces the city from atop a hill, the imperial Russian architecture in the streets of the historic center, and the 10th century Church of the Apostles, transformed after the Turkish conquest into the Kümbet Mosque and now serving as the Havariler Museum.
Overlooking the scenic gorges of the Arpa River at the farthest eastern reaches of both Kars Province and of Turkey are the remnants of the ancient site of Ani, medieval capital of the Bagratid Armenian Kingdom. At its zenith, the Armenian Kingdom dominated much of the lands of Eastern Turkey, but fell apart in subsequent centuries at the hands of Persian Selçuk and conquering Georgian armies.
Stunning mountain silhouettes at an altitude of more than 5,600 feet frame the colorful and culturally rich metropolis of Van. Once capital of the noble Urartu Kingdom, the city lies on the eastern shores of Lake Van. The region’s appeal is found in the magnificent hues reflected off the placid water, in the hyper-saline waters similar to those of the Dead Sea, and in the distinct, bicolored eyes of the infamous Van cats.
A visit to the area should begin with a tour of the remains of Tuspa, capital of the Urartian Kingdom, located a few miles west of the city. Van Castle, a 1,000 BC Urartu fortification cut into the rock, is the main attraction of the “old city,” its crenellated battlements concealing the Urartu sculptures and cuneiform inscriptions within. Just steps from the fortress, cut into the rock face is an inscription by Persian King Xerxes, the only one of its kind to be found outside of Iran.
Another of the earliest cities is located about 2 miles northeast of Van on the hill called Toprakkale. In addition to buried artifacts in bronze, gold, silver and marble, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a temple dedicated to Haldi, the principal Urartian god.
After lingering at a lakefront eatery over an entrée of pearl mullet caught fresh from Lake Van, visitors will want to enter a time warp on a boat trip to Akdamar Island, one of the four Lake Van’s islands. Akdamar Island is renowned for its dramatically situated 10th century Church of the Holy Cross, a conical-domed masterpiece of Armenian religious architecture. Stories from the Old Testament adorn the walls in low relief.
A short drive south leads up the hilltop to Çavustepe and what is believed to be the ancient fortified city of Sardurihinili, named after the 8th century B.C. Urartian king Sardur. The foundations of a palace are visible not far from the fortress walls and feature long hallways cut into the rock as well as thousand-year-old cisterns, kitchens and storerooms – some still holding the remains of ancient grain.
Near Çavustepe and still only 30 miles from Van is the village of Güzelsu (Hosap in Kurdish), best known for the impressive Castle of Mahmudiye. This dramatic Kurdish fortress seems to grow out of a steep and rocky outcrop, overlooking the meandering river below. The fortress’s 40 towers would have commanded the barren plain, protecting the complex within by an inner and outer castle and a dramatic, 85-foot diameter tower of 13 feet thick walls.
As a region steeped in Urartian civilization, the region of Van is replete with one of the symbols of that early civilization’s advanced know-how, that is, its approach towards irrigation. Having adapted to a climate of extreme heat and cold and of natural streams unusually high in salinity, the Urartians devised a network of water channels and dams to collect rain and other surface water. The most important of these water channels is the 32-mile-long Menua Canal, locally known as the Samran Water Channel named most probably after Semiramis, the Assyrian Queen said to have founded the earliest settlement around Van nearly 6,000 years ago. This water channel is a unique example of engineering and is still in use today.
The remarkable treasures of Eastern Anatolia offer visitors an undeniable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, where ancient structures of stone are juxtaposed against towering minarets and age-old steeples. This mingling of culture and faith amidst the bustle of a traditional way of life is an inspiration to inhabitants and visitors alike.