|10th century Armenian Church, on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island
I may or may not have slept for a couple of hours — I was too groggy to know the difference. The rising sun was still hidden behind a range of jagged, graphite-gray mountains to the east, though the sky had brightened to a crisp morning blue. Most of the other passengers of the bus, including Susanne, were still asleep save a thin Kurdish man in his thirties who was vomiting in a thick plastic bag dutifully provided by the yardimci. In retrospect I believe his retching had actually jarred me back into consciousness — not a auspicious way to inaugurate our arrival in distant Kurdistan.
The bus entered a sizable town steeped in the bottom of a jagged gorge. Men on motorscooters steered around us as we pulled over to a Best Van office. High above on the left side, the ruins of a Seljuk castle stood guard over the city. As far as I could tell we probably were not yet in the city of Van since it had a large otogar terminal, not to mention a 100km-wide lake that should have appeared to my immediate left. In fact, I hadn’t seen any sign of Lake Van that morning. After groggily staring at my map of southeast Anatolia I surmised we were passing through the town of Bitlis. This meant that we must have been at least two hours away from Van, which would put us at our destination no sooner than 8:30am, a full five hours past our scheduled arrival time.
As our bus drove northeast beyond the gorge, the terrain transformed into a wide valley, revealing gravel-colored hills on all sides, with more mountains further afield. Descending the far side of a pass I saw an expanse of blue trailing far off towards the north, a mountain perched along its western shore. We had finally reached Van Gölu — Lake Van. The first thought that entered my mind was an image of the approach to Copacabana, a Bolivian town along the edge of Lake Titicaca which Susanne and had visited precisely one year before.
As my sleep-deprived mind continued to clear, I remembered we were far, far away from that Andean lake. Yet as we approached the shore I could see that Lake Van shared Titicaca’s mysterious, deep blue hue, with only the reflections of passing clouds blurring its near-perfect complexion. Along with its gorgeous color, Lake Van is perhaps best known for a rare quality it shares with another great body of water, the Dead Sea: extreme salinity. Millions of years ago, an enormous eruption from the volcano known as Nemrut Dagi (not to be confused with the other Nemrut Dagi we visited two days earlier) blocked the outflow of Lake Van’s only river, causing the lake to bloat up with mineral-rich water from the mountains. With no river to release its waters, Van maintains its size through evaporation, leaving the lake saturated with unusual amounts of minerals and natural sodas. The lake is so rich with minerals that its waters are extremely buoyant, causing swimmers to float uncontrollably — not unlike the waters of the Dead Sea. This mineral saturation also allows the local Kurds to wash their clothes without the need of soap. The lake’s chemical content works just as well as any detergent.
We soon passed through the town of Tatvan, 100 kilometers from our destination. Until recently, Tatvan was a booming port whose ferries carried cargo and train cars across the lake to Van before continuing onward into Iran and Iraq. But Turkey’s undeclared war on Kurdish separatists dried up the local transport business, leaving many of Tatvan’s residents wondering what to do next. The bus dropped off a couple of passengers before continuing towards Van along a two-lane road hugging the shoreline. Susanne began to stir a few minutes later.
“Where are we?” she asked, removing her sleeping blinds from her eyes.
“Along Lake Van,” I replied. “Probably another hour or so to go.”
The road briefly steered away from the shore, cutting through another mountain pass. As the bus returned to the coast 15 minutes later I noticed a small island several kilometers off the shoreline, shaped like an immense shark fin.
“Arrrrrgh, Shark Fin Island,” I joked. “We must be nearing pirate waters, matey….”
As we returned to the water’s edge I noticed what appeared to be a rectangular structure with a low, conical roof sitting near the right side of the island. The closer we got the more I recognized it as Lake Van’s most famous landmark.
“It’s Akdamar Island!,” I said to Susanne, tapping her with one hand while grabbing my Lonely Planet with the other. “That has to be Akdamar’s Armenian church.”
One thousand years ago, centuries before the Ottoman Turks ruled the land, Lake Van was Armenian territory, and Akdamar Island was its spiritual center. At various times over the past 1600 years, Akdamar Island served as the home of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, the Katholicos. Though most of the island’s buildings are gone, its church remains brilliantly intact, perhaps the best preserved medieval Armenian religious structure outside of modern-day Armenia. It was the experience of seeing photos of Akdamar Island that first attracted me to Lake Van; despite my exhaustion I was thrilled to see it with my own eyes, even at a teasing distance. At some point in the coming days we would certainly make our way back to this spot and hopefully charter a boat to the island.
Leaving Akdamar Island behind us, the bus passed through the town of Gevas, best known for a well-preserved Seljuk cemetery. The road once again veered away from the shore, heading several kilometers inland towards Van’s outer city limits. Surrounded by an increasing number of apartment blocks and small factories, we soon pulled over at what appeared to be a police checkpoint. A plain-clothes official boarded the bus from the front as several armed soldiers stood guard outside. Row by row, the official checked the identification cards of everyone on board, occasionally referring to a collection of papers kept in his khaki safari vest.
“Pasaportunuz, lütfen,” he said to us as he reached our seats.
“Iyi günler, Memur Bey,” I said as I pulled out our passports from my front pocket.
He leafed through our passports one page at a time, occasionally looking up at us. After scrutinizing them to his satisfaction he returned the passports to me, nodding his head as he handed them over. Within a few minutes the official departed the bus, allowing us to enter the city and proceed to the otogar.
The bus made its way through the morning traffic, passing a large white statue of a Van cat, a prized local feline famous for its eyes: one is colored yellow while the other is green. I wasn’t sure if we would get a chance to see a Van cat during our stay — the animals have become so valuable that residents are forced to keep them secured inside their homes to avoid potential catnapping, so to speak.
On the north side of town, the bus arrived at the otogar, pulling into the far side of the terminal’s parking lot. Susanne and I exited the bus and quickly walked to the luggage compartment on the other side, eager to confirm that our backpacks hadn’t vanished during the many stops throughout the night. To our relief both our backpacks were safe and sound, allowing us to hail a taxi on the other end of the parking lot in order to ride to the city center.
Susanne and I didn’t have hotel reservations in Van, but various sources on the Internet had recommended the Ipek Yolu Hotel, near the center of town. Once at the hotel, we were encouraged to ask for Mr. Berzan Dersimi if we needed any help in arranging tours of the area. With Turkey’s military crackdown on Kurdish terrorists, Van’s tourism industry had collapsed almost completely, wiping out any chance of us latching on to a regularly scheduled minibus tour like the ones so prevalent in Cappadokia. Since we both wanted to visit a number of Kurdistan’s off-the-beaten-track historical sites, Susanne and I probably would have no choice but to hire a private guide. Assuming the remaining travel agencies couldn’t arrange one for us, hopefully Mr. Dersimi could.
The taxi made its way into downtown Van, weaving through a traffic sprawl of cars, motorscooters and horsecarts laden with fresh produce from the countryside. The Ipek Yolu Hotel was right around the corner from the main road, across the street from the Kebapistan restaurant and several banks. Our Lonely Planet guide also mentioned that the tourist information center was a few blocks to the south, assuming it was still in business — I didn’t notice it as we exited the taxi. To our cabbie’s chagrin, we didn’t have exact change for the fare. The ride had cost just over three million lira (around seven dollars), but the taxi driver was unable to break the five million lira note I had. He said something to himself in Kurdish before motioning for us to follow him into the hotel where he could get some change.
The Ipek Yolu Hotel was a comfortable two-star hotel with 44 rooms, three elevators and a restaurant/bar — several steps up from some of our previous accommodations.
“Good morning,” a tall man at the front desk greeted us in English.
“Merhaba,” I replied. “Do you have a double room available?”
“Of course,” he answered, signaling to another man to take our backpacks upstairs. “Follow him upstairs to the third floor. Hos geldiniz.”
Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!
Susanne and I entered the small elevator, fitting rather snugly along with the man carrying our bags. “Merhaba,” Susanne said to him, to which he smiled shyly and nodded his head. As always I was eager to carry on the pleasantries — a polite exchange of “Merhaba, nasilsiniz?” and so on always seemed to be appreciated by Turks when initiated by us. But now we were in Kurdistan, where well over 90% of the population were ethnic Kurds and native speakers of Kurmanji Kurdish, not Turkish. Turkish, by law, is the public language of exchange in this country, so Kurds can only speak their native tongue discreetly among themselves.
While I suspected that any attempt of mine to say hello in Turkish would have been accepted kindly even by Kurds, I felt awkward using it here in Van. I didn’t know a word of Kurdish, nor did I know what the local etiquette was. Since the public use of the Kurdish language can be construed as a political statement in itself, would I break any taboos if I learned any Kurdish? For the time being, I would smile and hopefully learn through observation, yet it made me wonder just what it would be like to live in a place where even your choice of language could have profound personal consequences.
After settling into the room and cleaning up from our grueling overnight bus trip, Susanne and I hit the streets of Van to find some breakfast and exchange some travelers cheques. Just off Cumhurriyet Caddesi we found a pleasant pastane shop, the Ayça Patisserie, which appeared to still be serving breakfast.
“Kahvalti dahil?,” I asked, inquiring about the availability of breakfast to the man behind the counter.
“Evet, kahvalti var,” he replied, placing a sheet of fresh baklava behind the glass counter. We were desperately short on cash, though, so we decided to continue up Cumhurriyet Caddesi to find a bank and perhaps some other options for breakfast.
As Van’s main thoroughfare, Cumhurriyet Caddesi was an energetic artery of Kurdish city life. We veered around oncoming pedestrian traffic of all makes and models: businessmen talking on cellphones, teenage boys hawking snackfood and lottery tickets, old men in skull caps strolling to a local çayhane for some tea. Compared to other cities we had visited in Turkey, we sensed a difference in style here we hadn’t seen since Selçuk. Most younger women were casually dressed in jeans or fashionable dresses, while older women wore colorful Kurdish costumes, hiding their faces with intricate lace head scarves. A surprising number of young men wore the knit skull caps that we had only seen on elderly men in other cities. In fact, my initial reaction to one particular man in his twenties was that he was wearing a large Jewish yarmulke rather than an Islamic skull cap. I also noticed a significant number of disabled people in Van, including several beggars whose tattered traditional dress suggested they had come to the big city in the hopes of a better chance. Life has been hard and often violent in rural Kurdistan for a long time; the vibrancy of Van has attracted more than its share of villagers hoping to escape the ravages of poverty and insurrection.
Though Cumhurriyet Caddesi had at least half a dozen major banks along it, none of them seemed willing to exchange money. Several blocks up the road we discovered two exchange offices but neither of them accepted travelers cheques, so we had no choice but to dip into our cash reserves. Susanne exchanged $100 in one office at a rate of 442,000 lira per dollar. We then returned to the Ayça Patisserie, where Susanne ordered a puff pastry and some cookies while I enjoyed my usual Turkish breakfast, along with some coffee and peach juice for both of us. Initially the pastane played Turkish music, but as a young man behind the counter brought over our drinks someone switched the radio station to low-grade American pop. As has been true in so many places we’ve traveled — Egypt, India, Thailand, Bolivia — people seemed eager to supply us with Western music rather than the local variety, whether we liked it or not. At least there were no more swarms of bees trying to steal sips of our peach juice.
After breakfast we passed several tour agencies, each of which advertised bus travel to Iran but not much else. We walked several blocks south of the hotel in search of the Van Tourist Information Center, which was supposedly four or five blocks from where we were staying. I couldn’t find any obvious entrance so I assumed it was out of business — not a surprise considering the indefinite state of emergency here.
Just as we were heading back to our hotel a man stopped us and asked in English, “Where are you going?”
“We’re going back to our hotel,”, I replied, assuming he worked for the carpet shop on the corner.
“If you need to find the tourist office it’s right here,” he answered, pointing to a door directly across the street. Somehow I had completely missed it despite the fact it was right in front of our faces. A little embarrassed because of my mistake, I thanked the man before we crossed the street and entered the tourism office.
The Tourist Information Center was a hollow shell of an office, totally barren except for a few posters and a dusty desk counter. Two men were sitting behind the counter, both looking as if no one had visited them in weeks.
I approached the counter, hoping one of them spoke English. “Ingilizce konusuyormusunuz?,” I inquired.
“Yok,” they both replied, raising their eyebrows and clicking their tongues.
Struggling to find out if there were organized minibuses to the local sights I asked in Turkish, “Turist dolmusler var mi?” One of the men pointed to a large map taped to the counter. For reasons beyond my comprehension the map was oriented with east at the top rather than north, so the men and I had a terrible time of referencing points on their map with points on my guidebook’s map. After several minutes of frustration I did my best to pretend I had gained some knowledge from our discussion, then thanked them before heading back to the Ipek Yolu Hotel.
Susanne and I approached the front desk to get our room key. “Uç yüz dokuz, lütfen,” I said, requesting our key by our room number.
“Good morning,” replied the man behind the desk. “Are you interested in tours in Kurdistan?”
“Actually, yes,” I answered. “Can you help us arrange a guide?”
“Of course,” he said, reaching for a thick folder of tour information. “We can talk in the lounge.” Susanne and I followed him towards a couch near the restaurant bar. The man was tall and thin, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and he had unusually green eyes. His sideburns and bushy mustache showed signs of premature graying.
“Would you like some çay, perhaps?” he asked. “Apple tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee please,” Susanne answered. We could have certainly used the caffeine infusion after the previous night’s sleepless bus ride.
“By the way,” I added, “my name is Andy, and this is Susanne. What’s you’re name?”
“My name is Berzan,” he replied. It appeared that we had found Berzan Dersimi, the travel agent-turned-hotelier who had been recommended to us.
As our Nescafe arrived a small white cat darted between our sofas. Berzan reached down and picked it up. “This is my new cat,” he said. “Have you heard of the Van cat? Its eyes are both green and yellow.” Indeed, as the kitten peered up at us it became readily apparent that each eye had a distinct color, as if an eccentric cat lover had purchased contrasting contact lenses for it.
“This is my third Van cat,” Berzan continued. “A tourist took my first cat last summer. I was out of Van guiding a tour and someone staying at the hotel took it. The second cat disappeared this spring. They are very valuable outside of Turkey, you know.” Susanne and I both tried petting the kitten but its interests must have been elsewhere, for it quickly vanished under the window curtains.
“There is much to see here in eastern Turkey,” Berzan explained as he opened a large map on the table. “How much time do you have here?”
“We fly back to Istanbul on Thursday morning,” I replied. “That gives us the rest of today, as well as Tuesday and Wednesday.”
“You can fit a lot into three days if you get started soon,” Berzan said. “Around Van, you could visit Akdamar Island, Hosap Castle, the ruins of Çavustepe and the Rock of Van before the end of the day.”
“We have a few priorities,” Susanne noted. “We really want to visit the Kurdish palace at Dogubeyazit above everything else, with Akdamar Island second and Hosap castle third. Can we do Dogubeyazit as a day trip or will we have to stay there overnight?”
“Yes, Dogubeyazit can be done in less than a day,” he answered. “Two hours each way, it’s no problem. And the road from Van to Dogubeyazit doesn’t close at night so you can drive back late in the afternoon. You could even visit Ani one day and then visit Dogubeyazit the next day on the way back.”
Berzan’s last comment caught both of our attentions. The 10th century Armenian capital of Ani was initially high on my list of places to visit in Turkey, but its remoteness along the Turkish-Armenian border far to the northeast made it seem a relatively unlikely place for us to visit before our time was up.
“Is it really possible for us to visit Ani as well?” I asked, both surprised and a little skeptical.
“Yes, it’s not difficult,” Berzan explained. “If we start now — within the hour — we can visit all the ruins around Van today and spend the night here before driving north tomorrow morning. If we leave by 8am we can get to Kars by noon, complete the paperwork for Ani, and visit the ruins in the afternoon. We then spend the night in Kars before driving back to Van the next day, visiting Dogubeyazit and Mount Ararat along the way. With a private car you could do it.”
The temptation to include Ani during our three days in Kurdistan was all too enticing. Without a private car, it would take six to eight hours to get to Kars, the city closest to Ani, then another hour to go through the Soviet-style bureaucracy to receive permission to visit the ruins. Ani stands in a no-man’s-land between Turkey and Armenia, so potential visitors must jump through all the proper hoops in order to visit it. On top of all this, there is no regularly scheduled transport between Kars and Ani, adding more time and stress to the visit. If we were going to visit Ani at all, we would have to do it with a driver who could take care of all the hassles for us.
“How much would it cost to hire a driver and guide for three days?” I asked, bracing for Berzan’s answer.
“Three hundred and sixty dollars,” he replied. “That includes driver and all other costs, including hotels and food.”
His offer weighed heavily on our minds. If we accepted his offer we’d be blowing a lot more money than we had planned, but Susanne and I both knew this would be the only way we could visit all the major sites of Kurdistan.
“Can we talk it over for a few minutes?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied, lighting a fresh cigarette. “I will be at the reception desk. I could also lower the price some, say to $300, but that is my best offer.”
Susanne and I waited a moment until he stepped out of earshot. “We’ve got to do this,” Susanne said, partially to my surprise. “I know it’s a lot of money but let’s be honest — do we actually think we’ll ever be in this area again?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I think you’re right. At best we might be able to do Akdamar Island and Dogubeyazit on our own. Hosap Castle would be difficult since there’s no direct transportation from Van, and Ani would be totally out of the question.”
“And I know how much you wanted to go to Ani,” Susanne continued. “I think we should do it, as long as we can pay with a credit card and if Berzan will be the one going with us. I really like him.”
“Me too,” I said. “Let me talk to him and find out.” I walked around the corner to the reception desk, where I found Berzan flipping through an appointment calendar.
“If we accepted your offer, could we pay with credit cards?”
“And would you be our driver and guide?”
“Okay…. Let’s do it.”
“Very good,” he said, stamping out his cigarette butt. “We must get started soon. Meet me here in 15 minutes.” Susanne and I quickly went upstairs and gathered our cameras and film. It was just before 11am and we had a lot of ground to cover that day.
Susanne and I returned to the front desk several minutes early, where we found Berzan waiting with his car parked outside the hotel. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water at the hotel restaurant and met Susanne and Berzan at the car. He drove a Turkish model four-door with a dark green exterior. Out of habit I offered Susanne the front seat, though as she got inside I wondered if we were breaking any taboos by doing this — normally an unmarried woman would not be allowed to sit next to a man who wasn’t closely related to her. But Berzan didn’t flinch at our choice of seating arrangements, so I climbed into the rear and manouvered back and forth to figure out which side would have less Anatolian sun pouring in on it. I noticed the seat covers below me were decorated with colorful pictures of Hawaiian beaches, as if Berzan were a chauffeur for surfers and Japanese tourists in his spare time.
Driving south for 10 minutes we soon reached the checkpoint our bus had passed several hours earlier. I noticed that the same plainclothes officer as before was still on duty.
“I will need your passports,” Berzan said as he rolled down his window. The official reached inside for our identification and began to speak to Berzan in Turkish. “Paperz Pleez,” I imagined a Colonel Klink-like character from Hogan’s Heroes demanding of us. Apparently the official recognized our passports for he returned them to Berzan quickly and nodded his head at me. Berzan muttered something to himself in Kurdish as he rolled up his window and turned on the radio. At best these checkpoints must be a daily annoyance to the Kurds. At worst — well, at worst I could only dare guess.
As we drove beyond the city limits to the rocky countryside east of Lake Van, Berzan reached below his radio and pulled out an unlabeled cassette tape, plugging it into his stereo. An exotic blend of violins and traditional string instruments reached my ears as a muezzin
tenor began to sing.
“This is Kurdish music,” Berzan said. “I hope you like it.”
“Very much,” Susanne replied. A pause.
“So are you Kurdish?,” I asked, realizing it was a dumb question as soon as it came out of my mouth.
“Yes, I am Kurdish. Most of Van is Kurdish — 90, 95 percent. The Turkish government says we are but 10 percent of the total population but the truth is much higher — around 20 percent. There are also many Kurds still in Iraq, in Iran, Syria, even in Armenia…”
“Have you been to Iran?” Susanne asked.
“Yes, to Iranian Kurdistan,” Berzan replied. “It is very easy for us to go. We could have lunch there if you want.”
“I wish it were that easy for us,” I sighed. “It’s very difficult for Americans to get visas for Iran. We’re allowed to go there, but it’s still very difficult. There is still a lot of anger between their government and ours. I really wish we could settle our differences.”
As our car drove uphill along the edge of a small dam, Berzan slowed down for a second checkpoint. This time the police were dressed in camouflage and were armed with automatic rifles — they were jendarma
, or paramilitary commandos. Though this was at least our fourth checkpoint since we entered Kurdistan last night, the sight of the jendarma
sent an icy chill up my spine. Again I imagined the words “Papers please,” but this time the soldier in question wasn’t so affable as Colonel Klink. Without thinking I automatically handed Berzan our passports. I then pictured Pavlov ringing his little bell and grimaced to myself. We would be repeating this conditioning experiment a lot over the coming days.
A soldier inspected our passports and Berzan’s identification while questioning him on our itinerary. Though he was speaking too quickly for me to understand the entire conversation, I could hear Berzan mention Hos
ap Kalesi and Çavus
tepe, our first destinations along the road ahead of us. If we chose to continue past Hos
ap we would soon find ourselves near Hakkari, the last major town before the Iraqi border. Hakkari has been off-limits for outsiders for many years, and these soldiers clearly intended to send a message that we should proceed no further than Hos
Just beyond the checkpoint we began to descend into a valley. Far ahead of us I could see a rocky outcrop jutting from the valley floor, with the ruins of red-brick castle worthy of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights sitting gracefully atop it. We had arrived at the great Kurdish castle, Hos
|Hosap Castle, Turkish Kurdistan
“Can we stop and take a picture from here?” I asked eagerly.
“Not now,” Berzan replied. “There are soldiers everywhere. Wait until we leave the castle and I will take you to a safe spot.”
We descended into the valley and around the right side of the castle, passing numerous deserted souvenir stands and tea shops. The car ascended the hill counterclockwise until we reached an enormous wooden door towering above us. The door was locked with a thick metal chain.
“I will get the castle attendant,” Berzan said as we got out of the car. “Wait here.”
He turned the car around and headed downhill, leaving us at the castle gate all alone except for the echoing wind and five mountain goats feasting on the grassy hillside. Susanne and I both looked at each other and smiled.
“We’re in Kurdistan!” I laughed. “What are we doing here?”
“I have no idea,” Susanne replied, “but I am so glad we did this.”
|Our young friend Ayse, outside Hosap Castle
We stood awhile at the castle gate, peering down on the valley below. Along a row of hills a kilometer ahead of us I could see the remains of the castle’s outer walls snaking over the rocks like the broken spine of a slain dragon. I then noticed a young girl with long hair scurrying up the hillside. Whether she wanted to sell us trinkets or was just curious to meet us, it was too early to tell.
The girl soon arrived atop the hill, standing around 15 feet from us. She had bright green eyes and a certain worn beauty well beyond her limited years.
“Merhaba,” Susanne said to her.
“Merhaba,” she replied, wiping her hair from her squinting eyes.
“Iyi günler,” I continued. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Iyiyim,” she replied. “Tesekkürler.” There was still no sign of Berzan anywhere.
“Ismim Andy,” I continued the conversation, “ve benim Arkadas Susanne. Isminizne?”
“Ayse,” she replied.
“Ask how old she is,” Susanne suggested.
“Kaç yasindasiniz, Ayse?” I asked.
“On,” she answered. “On dokuz.”
“On dokuz literally means 19,” I said to Susanne, “but she probably means she’s nine, going on ten.” I could now see Berzan’s car returning up the hillside.
“Nerelesiniz?” I asked her, running out of questions.
“Orada,” she said, pointing to the village of Hosap below. She then asked me something in Turkish which I couldn’t understand.
“Üzgünüm, anlamadim,” I replied apologetically. “Yavas konusubulursunuz?”
“Berzanin Arkadaslarsiniz?” she said again, slowly and a little louder.
“Oh! Are we friends of Berzan!” I said aloud. “Evet, evet. Berzan taniyiz…”
Berzan now pulled up and parked his car, stepping out to open the passenger door for the castle attendant. Out stepped another child, a boy no more than 12 or 13 years old.
“Okay, now we can go in,” Berzan said, clasping his hands together.
Berzan, Ayse, Susanne and I walked to the door as the young boy unlocked the door and swung it open. The door let out a loud medieval creak as it revealed a pitch black hallway. As I began to remove my sunglasses Berzan said, “Don’t worry, it will be bright in a moment.”
We cut through the darkness up a rounded corridor that looked as if it had been freshly cut by a regiment of Gurkha mine sappers. As we reached the top of the corridor we found ourselves standing on the second floor of the castle. Susanne and I were both severely short of breath.
“I just remembered that this part of Kurdistan is about as high as Denver,” I said, panting a little. “We’re over a mile up right now.”
“Welcome to Hosap Kalesi,” Berzan said. “The castle was built around 350 years ago by the leader of a Kurdish clan. It remained a Kurdish castle for many years until the Ottomans captured it. Right now we are standing over the grainery, and not far away is the water cistern. Be careful where you step for it is a long drop to the first floor. We have some time to look around to see the ruins of the mosque, the medresse and the dungeon.”
|Citadel ruins, Hosap Castle
Berzan and the boy walked ahead of us, leading us past the living quarters to the old dungeon, now a deep hole filled with rubble. Ayse wandered not far from us, sometimes enjoying our company, other times preferring to explore on her own.
“I wonder if they are brother and sister,” Susanne asked.
After getting Ayse’s attention I pointed to the boy. “Sizin erkek kardes, degil mi?”
“Yok,” she replied, dismissing the idea entirely.
Perhaps they were just friends. “Arkadaslarmisiniz?” I asked.
“Yok,” both Ayse and the boy said in unison. Apparently they were reaching that age where boys and girls could no longer be friends. Berzan smiled and put his arm around the boy as they walked ahead. Susanne and I both noticed the natural rapport he had with children. He probably had younger siblings.
|Stone ramparts, Hosap Castle
The five of us leisurely explored the upper levels of the castle. Though most of the individual quarters were in poor repair, the castle walls were firmly in place, undoubtedly kept intact by the Ottomans for strategic reasons.
Susanne pointed out a series of arrow slits along the walls. “Just like in medieval castles,” she said. Indeed, each arrow slit was long and thin, with a short horizontal slit extending to the left and another slit extending to the right, several inches higher than the other slit. The theory behind this split-level slit design was that if you had a single horizontal slit cutting straight across the vertical slit (like the letter t), an archer from the ground below would have any easier target — X marks the spot. But by splitting the horizontal slit into two slits at different heights, it makes a more difficult target for there is no single converging point on which an opposing archer could concentrate.
As we stood above the ruins of the castle mosque, Berzan pointed to the southeast. “My village is that way, in Hakkari province,” he said.
“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Susanne asked.
“Nine,” he replied. “I am in the middle.” I suppose that partially explained his comfort level with young children.
“Are you married?” he then asked us.
“No,” I replied. “Are you?”
“Oh yes,” he responded. “For 15 years. I also have two children: Adnan and Yasmina. They are twins — 13 years old now.”
“That’s much smaller than your parents’ family,” Susanne commented.
“Yes, thank God,” Berzan replied with a chuckle. “In my village, my parents needed many children to help with their herds. Because I am a travel agent, Fatima and I do not need so many children. Besides, it is different now, especially for people living in Van.”
“Does Fatima mind that you will be gone for the next several days?” I asked.
“Usually she would mind,” he responded, “but she is at home in Hakkari for her cousin’s circumcision. Besides, not many tourists come to Van any more — I only have to leave her once a month, maybe twice.”
After carefully making our way out of the castle, we said our goodbyes to the children and began the drive onward to the ruins of Çavustepe. A police checkpoint waved us through, allowing us to drive higher uphill to a quiet spot where we could take a picture of Hosap Castle from a distance. Soon after taking my photo I heard two men at a roadside cafe calling over to me. When I looked over they both waved and yelled, “Fotograf! Fotograf!”
I pointed to my camera and asked, “Fotograf çekebilirmiyim?,” to which they nodded enthusiastically. Posing for the picture, one man placed his hands on the other man’s shoulders, while the second man held up his tea glass to his lips, a pistol grip protruding from the bottom of his buttoned shirt.
Once back in the car, we drove for 20 minutes through seemingly endless fields of wheat until reaching an undistinguished hill towards the left of the highway. We drove up the hillside and parked in a small gravel lot near an extended mound of rubble. Exiting the car, Berzan offered us both some grapes and pears. Ever more cautious than I, Susanne declined the fruit while I accepted a pear and a handful of grapes. The green grapes were crisp and juicy, as was the pear, though I was left with a minor dilemma in disposing the pear since there was no trash receptacle to be found.
“There is a trash can at the other end of the ruins,” Berzan said, somewhat amused by the fact that I didn’t just throw the pear off the side of the hill.
The three of us hiked up the crumbling ruins until reaching a flat area of pebbles large enough for all of us to stand comfortably. “Here are the ancient ruins of Çavustepe,” Berzan said.
Three thousand years ago this area was controlled by the Urartu, the arch rival of the great Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria. During the eighth century BCE, Çavustepe served as the foundation of Sarduri-Hinili, the palace of King Sarduri II. From their capital of Tushpa (present-day Van), the Urartu dominated southeastern Anatolia for several centuries, commanding a modest empire that stretched into Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. But constant warfare with the Assyrians wore down the Urartu until they were overrun and assimilated by Armenians in the seventh century BCE.
|2700-year-old Urartu ruins of Çavustepe, Turkish Kurdistan
We climbed onward to a series of stone mounds. “These mounds were the graineries,” Berzan pointed out. “Under the mounds of dirt are large holes which were filled with wheat. Usually there is an archeologist working on these holes but he is not here today.”
Berzan reached under a wood plank and pulled out a handful of charred grains. “This is wheat, you see, but it is not so old. When the Russians controlled this hill during the First World War, they stored grains here. When the Turks forced them out, the Russians burned down the fort, destroying their wheat.” Lake Van, like much of Eastern Anatolia, was controlled by the Russians from the end of the 19th century until the end of World War I. Many cities further north of here, including Kars, still maintain their turn-of-the-century Russian character.
At the top of the ruins we reached a large platform tiled with slabs of hard black basalt. Near the far end of the platform were the remains of a temple wall. “This was the center of the king’s palace,” Berzan continued. “If you look at the wall you can still see some cuneiform Urartian writing.” Indeed, hidden in the shadows we found ancient cuneiform carved deeply into the rock. The oldest known form of writing, this cuneiform looked as if it had been carved yesterday thanks to the timeless strength of basalt.
“This is where the king and his family lived,” Berzan said. “And you see this marble hole in the ground? This was the royal toilet. It leads to a drain off the side of the hill. Behind that, you can see large holes in the ground. These were the cisterns. Be very careful — a tourist fell in several years ago and died.”
As Susanne and I looked around and took some pictures, Berzan paused for another smoke, offering us one as well.
“No thanks,” I said. “Sigara içmiyoruz.”
“You Americans,” he said, “you never smoke.”
“Some Americans smoke,” Susanne replied, “but many more people in Turkey smoke.”
“Everyone in Turkey smokes,” Berzan laughed. “As Muslims we are not supposed to drink, so when we became Muslims and stopped drinking, we started to smoke. Of course, there are many people here who both drink and smoke.”
Throughout our visit to Çavustepe I continued to carry the pear core in my left hand. “It seems there is no trash can at Çavustepe,” Berzan concluded. “Throw it off the hill — it will be nothing in a few days.” I tossed the pear off the edge of the ruins, watching it fall to the wheat field below.
We had a 30-minute drive to the southeastern shore of Lake Van, where we would catch a boat to Akdamar Island. “We will park in Gevas, across from the boat dock,” Berzan said. “There we will have lunch before visiting Akdamar Island.”
Not far from the lake we reached yet another checkpoint. A jendarma examined our identification while saying something in Turkish to Berzan. He suddenly shut off the engine and removed the keys.
“They want to search the trunk,” Berzan said. He stepped out for a minute and opened the trunk. After the jendarma was satisfied, Berzan was allowed to return to the car. Again Berzan muttered to himself in Kurdish as he drove away.
At first neither Susanne nor I said anything. Eventually Susanne piped in, “It must be annoying to stop all the time.”
Berzan shook his head and raised his right hand in a gesture of frustration.
“This is how we live,” he sighed.
Around 1pm we reached the Akdamar boat docks in the small town of Gevas. I was rather eager to get on a launch and ferry over to the island but Berzan suggested we eat lunch first at the Akdamar Lokantasi. The restaurant was a typical hillside garden cafe, with equal amounts of shade and flies.
“What would you like to eat?” Berzan asked.
“What do they have?” I inquired.
“Only fish,” he replied rather dryly.
The fish, we soon discovered, was some kind of local kipper served deep-fried. Having had little experience with oily, bony fish, Susanne and I both stumbled as we yanked off small bits of meat, often finding ourselves with a mouthful of wiry bones. To make matters worse, the smell of the fish attracted a swarm of aggressive bees, even more bellicose than the ones we had encountered in Cappadokia. Susanne and Berzan shrugged off the presence of these belligerent bees, but I became extremely frustrated. Eventually I gave up on my fish, covering them in a shroud of napkins before focusing my attentions on a bowl of shepherd’s salad and fresh bread.
Susanne and I both made a pit stop at the local restrooms before proceeding across the highway to the Akdamar docks. A Kurdish family was picnicking behind the restaurant near a small playground. Two children went down a yellow and red slide as their father and chador-enveloped mother looked on. I paused for a moment and watched the children playing. I then noticed the mother was smiling at me.
“Merhaba,” I said to her.
“Merhaba,” she and her husband replied, waving.
|Preparing to sail for Akdamar Island,
Over at the dock, four large boats were anchored to a wooden pier as the boat owners and their families finished lunch near the pier gate. When Berzan arrived one of the men stood up and shook his hand, kissing each side of Berzan’s cheeks. Two of his sons, both in their early teens, jumped up and scrambled across one boat to reach another boat and start up its engine. The captain then mounted the closest boat, holding it to the dock so we could climb aboard before scaling over the other side to his boat. The craft could have accommodated well over a dozen people but today we were the only passengers. Susanne and I sat on the right side while Berzan settled on the left. As the boat pulled away from the dock Berzan sat crosslegged, smoking another cigarette as he stared out over the water through his dark sunglasses. Decked out in his bright oxford shirt and Armani jeans, he looked as if here were posing for a Mediterranean fashion shoot. Eventually Berzan decided to spread out, laying on his back as the boat made the 20-minute ride to the island.
I sat on the far side of the boat, watching Akdamar Island get bigger and bigger. Suds of salty water splashed to our right; the smell of salt was everywhere. Despite the fact that Lake Van appears deep blue from a distance, up close the water was emerald green and extraordinarily clear. I wanted to reach over the side of the boat and skim my hand across the water but it was just out of reach.
As our boat docked onto the island I looked up to see an arid, largely barren hillside dotted by small shrubs and a few olive trees. Atop the right side of the hill, though, stood a wondrous sight: Akdamar Kilesesi, the Church of the Holy Cross. Built by Armenian King Gagik Artzruni in 921 AD, the church was once part of a larger complex that included a palace, monastery and graveyard. Today only the church and the graveyard remain intact, but its remarkable state of preservation was stunning. From a distance the church appeared to be a simple structure, a rectangular building with a high conical roof, not unlike a medieval castle keep. But as we approached the church it became apparent what a marvelous gem it truly was. Standing below the church I began to make out a fantastic array of stone-carved murals covering its outer walls: scenes from Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, legendary Armenian kings and saints.
|Stone carvings, Church of the Holy Cross, Akdamar Island
Back outside the church Susanne and I marveled at the church’s famous relief carvings. Much of the wall was also decorated with Orthodox Christian crosses and ornate Armenian script. “The writing you see here is from Armenian pilgrims,” Berzan continued. “Even when the Armenians no longer controlled Lake Van they considered Akdamar one of their holiest places, and they would carve prayers and crosses into the stone when they visited. Last year I took an Armenian priest from America here. When we arrived he told me that to him, coming here was just as important to an Armenian as a Muslim coming to Mecca.”
Susanne and I stepped back from the church, climbing over piles of scrub to get some photographs from a distance. Berzan soon encouraged us to follow him around to the far side of the church to view more carvings. Susanne stayed behind for a few minutes while Berzan and I walked counter-clockwise around the church, climbing over rubbled marble along the edge of the graveyard. On the shady side of the church Berzan pointed out life-size images that were all too easy to identify.
“Here you see St. George slaying the dragon,” he explained. “And here you see Abraham and Ishak — you call him Isaac — on the Temple Mount before God.” St. George held an enormous spear pointed downward, while Abraham’s blade was raised piously high, ready to strike the sacrificial blow to Isaac until God halted Abraham, praising him for his unwavering faith.
As Berzan and I marveled at the carvings, I saw Susanne come in from around the corner, apparently talking with someone on the far side of the graveyard. From the look on her face she seemed to be a little unsure of what to do.
“There’s a family having a picnic and they’ve invited us for some tea,” she said.
“Would you like to get some tea?” Berzan asked.
“Sure, why not,” I replied.
We walked through the graveyard to find a large family spread out over several blankets. To the left sat the women near a cooler and a picnic table, while to the right sat an older man, his son and baby grandson, along with a tall Japanese backpacker who looked completely out of place.
“Merhaba, merhaba,” said the old man, getting up to welcome each of us. Berzan shook his hand and kissed his cheeks as the old man’s son encouraged all three of us to sit down for some tea. (Because Susanne was a guest from the West she would not be expected to sit with the other women.) After exchanging pleasantries with Berzan, the old man poured each of us a half glass of strong black tea, which he thinned out with a steaming kettle of water.
“Tesekküler,” I said to him automatically as he handed me my hot tulip-shaped glass.
“Sey degil,” he replied, nodding his head.
At this point I turned to Berzan and said, “I feel bad for having to speak Turkish to him since I don’t know any Kurdish.”
“It’s okay,” he replied, “because he would never expect you to know any Kurdish.” Berzan then translated our exchange for the old man, who laughed heartily.
“How do you say hello in Kurdish?” I asked.
“We say Merhaba, just like in Turkish,” Berzan replied.
“And how do you say thank you?”
“Spas,” I said to the old man in his son, who both smiled and bowed their heads politely. The infant grandson, who was sitting in his father’s lap, began to clap his hand and make gurgling sounds.
“Hello! How are you?” the Japanese man jumped in, apparently happy to see us. “Where are you from?”
“America,” Susanne replied. “What is your name?”
“Akira,” he answered.
Time soon began to fly as we each worked our way through three glasses of tea. Berzan and the Kurdish men were engaged in deep conversation while Susanne and I talked with Akira, learning about his year-long trip around the world and his impending departure for Iran. After finishing our third glass (which I know in some parts of the Middle East is considered a polite time either to move on to business or to depart company) Berzan noted that it was nearing 5pm, and we needed to hurry if we wanted to see the sun set from atop Van Kalesi, Van’s impenetrable natural fortress.
Berzan again shook hands with the old man and kissed his cheeks, after which I followed with a handshake and a polite bow of the head. Susanne offered her hand to the grandfather but he flinched, pulling away his hand. He then appeared to apologize by raising his right hand to his chest, then said something to Berzan in Kurdish.
“He is a very religious man and he prays to Mecca five times every day,” Berzan explained. “Because he must be clean before he prays, he must not touch any woman who is not his wife or close relative. Otherwise he will have to wash himself again, and there will be little time to do that. He hopes you are not offended.”
“I understand,” Susanne said, smiling and nodding her head to him. Again the old man bowed apologetically.
Having completed our goodbyes we returned to the boat and rode back to shore. The captain’s two teenage sons horsed around by hanging large pieces of wood over the deck into the water, causing huge amounts of foam to spray into the air. Back in the car we returned to Van, once again passing through the city limits checkpoint and the same plain-clothes policeman we had seen twice previously. Susanne and I noticed that Berzan had turned down his stereo before reaching the checkpoint and cranked up the volume after we left it.
“The Turkish authorities don’t like my Kurdish music,” he said, thumbing through the stacks of unlabeled cassettes sitting in a compartment below his radio. “One time I had over 40 tapes in my car. I was driving along listening to my music, and then I was pulled over for a surprise inspection. The jendarma came to the window before I could shut off my music. The soldier said, ‘You are a Kurdish terrorist because you listen to terrorist music.’ It was crazy. They said they would only let me go after I had thrown my Kurdish tapes into a river. They would not throw away the tapes themselves — that would be illegal. But they would not let me go until I threw them away. Now I am much better about hiding my tapes in my glove box.”
Just past the outdoor statue of the Van cats we turned west towards the lake, driving a few kilometers to the entrance of Van Kalesi, the Rock of Van. As we drove in I noticed what appeared to be an abandoned golf course, with its dried up lakes and bunkers overrun by grass and grazing cows. I didn’t think much of it as we parked and began the 15-minute walk uphill.
Our climb up Van Kalesi reminded me much of Salsbury Crags, the jagged cliffs below Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, where I once spent many a long evening with friends over bags of Indian take-away and numerous bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale. Van Kalesi has been occupied much longer than the cliffs of Edinburgh, though, having been a major base of the Urartu kings in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. It was during that time that Van served as the Urartu capital of Tushpa. Between the fall of the Urartu and the foundation of modern Turkey 2500 years later, the Rock of Van was occupied by a stream of successive invaders, including Armenians, Romans, Medes, Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians, Arabs, Seljuks, Ottomans and Russians.
|The Urartu fortress of Van Kalesi (Rock of Van), Turkish Kurdistan
“There are cuneiform writings on the other side of the fortress,” Berzan said, “but they are open only for large tour groups now. The rest of the time they are sealed off from vandals. So instead we will just enjoy the sunset.”
|The decimated ruins of Old Van
Along the summit of Van Kalesi we had a fine view of our surroundings, with modern Van laid out in grids to the west and the lake stretching far out to the east. To the south I saw several square miles of abandoned fields — again with mounds and ditches like an abandoned golf course — with a handful of ruined mosques dotting the landscape. Here on my strategic perch, I quickly realized what I was looking at below me. This was the site of Old Van, a prosperous Armenian city that, during the increasingly violent final days of World War I, was razed to the ground as Turks and Kurds fought relentlessly against Armenians and Russians. At the end of the war, both the Kurds and Armenians each hoped that Van would become the center of their own independent nation. But as the ruins below demonstrated, those dreams were dashed when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish republican army reconquered the whole of Anatolia in the early 1920s, in response to the humiliating armistice offered by the allies and the subsequent invasion by Greek forces in the west. From atop the rocky summit, a giant neon image of Atatürk blazed toward the city below, a proud but blunt reminder to both the victorious and the vanquished as to who came out on top.
The three of us sat quietly, contemplating the ruins as a fiery orange sun descended against a blood red sky. We walked down the edge of the fortress talking about war and politics, which led to conversations about the assassination of JFK, the war in Kosovo, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
We drove back to the hotel and went inside. “If you would like we could go to dinner,” Berzan said. “We can meet here in an hour.”
Since dinner was included in our tour we gladly accepted, but we were both eager to spend some more time with Berzan in the hopes of getting to know him better. In the one day we had spent with him it was readily apparent that he was a quiet, complex individual with probably more stories of intrigue than anyone his age should ever have. Besides, who better than our guide to suggest a good local restaurant?
We met in the lobby around 8pm and drove north to a place called Merkezi Et Lokantasi, or The City Center Meat Restaurant. A parking attendant with a red armband opened the car doors and led us inside. Berzan embraced the maitre d’, speaking with him in Kurdish as we walked upstairs.
“This restaurant is very popular with the local people,” Berzan said as we sat down. “It is not a tourist restaurant, but t he food is very good and very safe. There are places in Van I could never take you because your stomachs would not handle it well. Here I promise you will like it.”
“What should we get here?” I asked.
“Meat kebaps are best, very nice,” he replied. “Köfte kebap, döner kebap, sis kebap, adana kebap…”