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Volume 24, Number 2March/April 1973

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In remote eastern Turkey, one of the largest lakes in the Middle East dominates a region of harsh beauty and splendid isolation.

Written by John Noonan
Photographed by Robert Azzi

In late 1971 the Shah of Iran and the President of Turkey celebrated the realization of a dream 100 years old: the construction of the final railroad link between Europe and Asia. To mark the occasion the two rulers entrained for one of the largest lakes in the Middle East and one of the most beautiful areas of the world still unknown to commercial tourism: lofty, 56-mile-long Lake Van, the one gap the Europe-Asia railway could not close.

Located near the high eastern border of Turkey where towering mountains reach into Iran and Iraq, Lake Van's alkaline waters cover 1,420 square miles of a plateau 5,640 feet above sea level. After Iran's Lake Urmia, Lake Van is the largest lake in the Middle East and one of the highest in the world.

It is also, despite high salinity and un-drinkable bitterness, an oasis in the otherwise harsh highlands of Turkey. In startling contrast to the massive iron-rich mountains around it—especially two extinct volcanoes on the north, Mt. Nemrut and Mt. Suphan—an extensive plain east of the lake is covered by beautiful gardens and bountiful orchards springing from soil so rich that the Armenians used to say: "Van in this world, Paradise in the next."

In Van those worlds are closer than you would think. Just 60 miles to the north is what many believers accept as one of'this world's links to Paradise: Mount Ararat, on whose 16,946-foot snowcapped flanks Noah and his ark, along with his cargo of birds and beasts, supposedly landed after the flood. Science has failed to verify this, but over the centuries various travelers have reported glimpses of an ancient ship high in the mountains.

That link to history is not the region's only claim to historical importance, however. Sitting astride a difficult but passable trade route between Persia and Anatolia, the region played unwilling host to most of the armies of the ancient and modern world: Hittites, Hurrians, Urartians, Assyrians, Persians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Phrygians, Medes, Armenians, Sassians, Tartars, Kurds, Arabs and Turks. The Assyrian leader Tiglath Pileser boasted that when he took those regions from a civilization called the Urartu he placed rings through the noses of Urartian chiefs and led them back to his kingdom like bulls to a market. Similarly, Sargon, after describing the difficult march to the Himalaya-like mountains, asserted his armies had overrun Urartu "like a swarm of locusts."

The first settlers, apparently, were the Hurri, dating back to 1500 B.C. Two centuries later—1300 B.C.—the unique kingdom of Urartu sprang up. Masters in metallurgy and irrigation, the Urartu, for the next 500 years, ruled all the territory from Sivas in central Turkey to Lake Urmia in Iran, defending it against such formidable opponents as the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Urartu also constructed a great capital at Toprakkale three miles east of the present city of Van. Excavations, commenced in 1850, have yielded a large quantity of bronze shields embossed and ornamented with figures of animals, cylinder seals made from precious stones, artifacts of gold and silver, and delicate pottery of distinctive Urartian design, all housed today in the Ankara Archeological Museum and attesting to the skills of Urartian artisans.

One of the most striking features at Van are cuneiform inscriptions found on smooth vertical faces of cliffs. These Vannic inscriptions are of a non-Indo-European language closely related to Hurrian. First reported by the German scholar F. E. Schulz in 1826 for the British Museum, the script was finally deciphered in 1882 by A. H. Sayce. The oldest inscription dates back to Sardur I of Urartu, who called himself "King of the Four Quarters."

As in any region that commands a strategic site, Van, over the centuries, absorbed and blended civilizations from many directions. It was to this region that the sons of Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, fled (II Kings 19:37) and here that the legendary Assyrian Queen Semiramis came to build a haven on the shores of the lake. Importing 30,000 workmen from Nineveh, she constructed a palace that was the marvel of the Assyrian world, complete with a garden of a thousand fountains, the better to escape the intolerable Mesopotamian summer heat.

Early Christians also came to these remote highlands, some to meet an unhappy death. St. Bartholomew, St. Simon and St. Jude were martyred nearby and an Armenian king put St. Thaddeus to death near the slopes of Mount Ararat.

Today's travelers receive a more sedate reception and in turn find the city of Van much less exciting. It is a quiet city that thrives on trade of tanned animal skins, wheat, fruits, vegetables and the Van cat, a valued pet with rich white or gray fur.

Around the city teem herons, gulls and pelicans which feed on a special herring able to survive in water so thick with borax that inhabitants wash clothes without soap.

Ruins abound in the region. Most noteworthy is Van Castle (Cavustepe), constructed by King Sardur II of Urartu and expanded by the Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans. Located atop a limestone rock 360 feet above the lake, this ancient citadel is honeycombed with tombs and caves and also with stairways carved into the stone that carried defenders and conquerors—like Tamerlane—to the crest of this strategic hill. As at Toprakkale, kings and generals had cuneiform inscriptions carved into the polished cliffs, one of which, placed there by the fifth-century Achaemenian King Xerxes, proclaims, with becoming innocence, that Xerxes is the "Great King, King of Kings, the King of the provinces with many languages, the King of this great earth far and near."

Other ruins include two multi-storied watchtowers of Hosap Castle, a fortress commanding the route used for thousands of years by traders and armies passing to and from Mesopotamia and—on an island called Ahdamar in Lake Van—the Church of the Holy Cross, a masterpiece built by the Armenian King Gagig Van Vaspuralan in 921. A strong reminder that this region was once part of Armenia, the Church of the Holy Cross is a stone building whose exterior is covered with relief sculpture. All four facades and its dome are adorned with prophets, evangelists, saints, scenes from the Old Testament, a variety of animals and floral scrolls, Adam and Eve plucking the forbidden fruit and, commanding the west facade, a frieze of King Gagig offering a model of the church to Jesus.

Another Armenian monument, overlooking the plain of Van, is the monastery of Varag, called Yedikilisse because of the seven Armenian churches there. The monastery is built atop the place where Moses is said to have prayed.

Such structures, now unhappily succumbing to the elements, are proud monuments to the Armenians who so fiercely held this harsh land so long, even beating back the Greek Xenophon during his March of the Ten Thousand about 400 B.C. The Greeks left the area as speedily as possible, despairing at the ferocity of the Armenian "with their long wicker shields and spears."

Some 300 years later Van became the center of a powerful Armenian kingdom ruled by Tigranes the Great (95-54 B.C.), and three centuries after that Armenia became the first Christian state anywhere.

Efforts to remain independent failed time and again as one wave of invaders succeeded another right up to the Ottoman Turks. Van also fell briefly into the hands of Russia in World War I. The Russians captured Van on May 20, 1915, and evacuated the area on December 18, 1917—during which time Russian archeologists, led by Mar and Orbeli, carried out excavations at the foot of the Urartian capital in Van and found an extensive temple cut into the base of the rock.

Today a serene Lake Van has left violence behind in history. Although its history precedes written records—even those in the cuneiform script so abundant on surrounding cliffs—it had passed from the mainstream of history and is only now returning to it via the new trains that are ferried from the city of Van on the eastern shore of the lake to Tatvan on the west, to span the one gap in the Europe-Asia rail connections and open up eastern Turkey once again to the outside world.

John Noonan, now a free-lance writer, spent 14 years in Turkey with the U. S. Air Force, during which time he contributed poems and articles to the International Herald Tribune and Stars and Stripes.

This article appeared on pages 16-25 of the March/April 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1973 images.