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The Northeast Frontier - September 2010



The plan was to search for the Kingdom of Presbyter John and travel from East Turkey to Armenia to find the last Christian Emperor. The Van to Yervan plan could not be done as I had to cut my trip short by a week. So we decided to do only the Turkish part of Armenia Maior and find Priest John on another time.

Armenia Maior was the name of an independent kingdom from 190 BC to AD 387 and a client state of the Roman and Persian empires until 428, stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean seas.

A two-week and a half trek through deserted landscapes dotted with church ruins and with some luck we just might find that boat Moses lost on mount Ararat. Slowly going west to Trabzon for a visit to Sumela and South to Ankara for the Anatolian museum of Civilizations. From there continue for a few relaxing days in the Cappadocian region to get another dose of Byzantine churches before ending with a whirl in Konya.

So after this trip we will be able to tell the difference between a Georgian , an Armenian and a Byzantine church. !


This is the Planning! and this is the route

This is a map of the area: map


Go directly to the different Places:

Lake Van Georgian valleys Trabzon
Ankara Cappadocia Konya


Istanbul, thursday, 9 September

Some things sure have changed over the last few decades like the ease with which we take a plane these days.  Forgetting the eco-footprint for a moment it is cheaper to fly 3 hours to Istanbul than it is to take a 1 hour train ride to London. So for 120 euro the flying horse took us in three hours from Brussel to Istanbul.


We have been there already so many times that we start to know are way are blindfolded.


We Arrive at the low cost airport Sabiha Gökçen,which is about an hour drive away from the city centre, but for 7.5 euro the Havaş shuttle takes us to Taksim, the modern part of Istanbul. While driving to downtown we are amazed at how modern Istanbul has become. It has a skyline with modern high rise building, everything is new, it feels more modern than Belgium. Indeed, the sun is setting in the West.


View from Karaköy over the Golden Horn

After we have dropped our luggage at the Hotel, we walk along the streets around the Taxim Square and we watch the people enjoy the evening out while the restaurants show their great food and I remember again why we love Turkey so much.

Stay in hotel Avrupa, in the Taksim area, for 50 euro. The hotel is located in one of the many side streets around the square and there are many hotels and restaurants around.

Getting to the hotel: hotel click to enlarge

We spend the evening in one of the meyhaneler (taverns) on Nevizade Solak in Beyoğlu. This is behind the çiçek Pasajr (Flower passage) on Istikal . For 30 euro we have a great amount of meze brought to our table, and with a full stomach we enjoy the scenery even more. The atmosphere is a lot nicer than in the touristy Sultanahmet area which is pretty dead at night. In these restaurants the locals eat, so none of the tourist fare or prices. The shops stay open till very late at night and are mostly outlets of western brands.

The Taxim area is very crowded, all of performers and street artists are trying to get the on goers attention, the terraces are full and the streets are overflowing with people. Especially young people seem to enjoy an evening out in one of the many bars with live music blaring out of the doors and windows. I hear jazz, blues and pop music.

We end the day with a nice bottle of Nero d’Avola that we bought at the airtport. It is going to be a nice trip.


Lake Van

Friday, 10 September

We have to get up real early to take the 7 o’clock bus and by 8 we are already at the airport. Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport is a brand new airport for low cost carriers. We are too early as there is no need to be at the airport 2 hours before a domestic departure, but it allows us to have a nice breakfast and walk around a bit.

ishak pasha

Ishak Pash Palace

By noon we arrive in Van where I have rented a car from Avis at the airport itself. Again we are too early as I have asked the car to be available at 1 in the afternoon. The person that has to give in the car is late, but by 1.45 we are off in a rather new Ford diesel with only 24K kilometre on the teller. So we are immediately off for the 150 km drive to Doğubayazit, where we arrive by five in the afternoon.  The road along Lake Van is very good, but ones I turn off to the Doğubayazit road I have to reduce speed as there are many curves and every so often there are young kinds herding their sheep up or along the road. There is very little agricultural activities, the landscape is very rocky and there is a lot of lava in the fields. Signs that the Arrat has erupted a couple of times.

For 150 euro we can drive around for 3 days: reservation voucher

Last time I was here was in 1987 and I slept in a tent in front of the Ishak Paşa Palace. It was nice to walk into the palace at night and gaze over the plain seeing the lights of the city in the distance. When we get to the Palace, 6 km uphill from Doğubayazit, I am a bit disappointed. Since my visit 23 years ago, the palace has been restored but to me it feels like the soul has been taken out of the building. It is all to clean and new. The air is dull and as there is not going to be a nice photo opp.


so we head back to town to our hotel Tahran, which is not much of a hotel but it is cheap and has a friendly owner. Furthermore at the corner shop they have cold Efes beer. So we end the day with a pide and some beers.



Mount Ararat in the background

We are well within Kurdish territory and only 35 km away from the Iranian border. Many of the women wear traditional clothes and the men have what a photographer would call “character” faces. Unfortunately both sexes are extremely camera shy and do not want their photo taken.


Saturday, 11 September

We are the only visitors at the breakfast table on the rooftop which has superb views of the Arrarat. Alas, we see that they are building an apartment block in front that will obscure the view in the future.

We drive again to the Ishak Paşa Palace in the hope that the light will be better this morning to photograph the “over restored” Palace.


We then drive around a bit to find a nice scene of the area with the snow covered Arrarat as a background. But I can not find a good foreground object to make the photo. So we give up and drive back to Lake Van. Suddenly I see a tractor and some people harvesting the hay onto the tractor. That was the composition I was looking for. Click!

At noon we stop in the village Adilcevaz for a trout grill with a delicious batter. Then we continue our drive around the lakeshores to Ahlat where there are some nice Seljuk tombs and graveyard.


Until the 9th century, Ahlat was an important Armenian city and it came under the Seljuk rule during the 10th century. The Seljuk graveyard at Ahlat is home to 8,000 four-meter high tombstones dating back to the 12th and 13th, and is considered the world’s largest cemetery t. Here the graves are marked by great stones 2 metres in height, known locally as akıt. The stone carving on these tombstones is remarkable, turning the cemetery into an open-air museum. No two are alike.


Ahlat - Seljuk Graveyard


The Kümbets (mausoleums) are scattered over the area. Some stand by the road, some at the edge of fields, others in people’s gardens or on hilltops and can be entered. Most are two storied of which the ground flour is used for the burial of the body and the upper floor is used as a prayer room. These centuries old buildings are among the finest examples of Seljuk architecture, and the final resting places of many eminent figures of the period.


View of Tatvan from Nemrut Dagi


Driving further west we arrive at Tatvan where we take the turn off for Nemrut Dagi (not the one with the heads). This Nemrut Dagi (3050m) is an inactive volcano with several crater lakes. The road is pretty bad but the views are stunning and there is not a soul in sight. After 13 km we reach the crater rim where on the one side we have great views of Tatvan and Van Lake, and the other side offers a beautiful view over the crater lakes. The Crater Lake and the surrounding park just beg for hiking and camping.

Nemruti dagi crater

Nemrut Dagi Crater


We have no time for hiking and so we are back on the road as we want to be in Van by night time.


It is nearly dark when we reach our super nice hotel: Bûyuk Asur Otel, or Great Assyrian Hotel in English. We are even able to get the price down a bit if we stay for two days (45 euro for a spacey, clean and comfortable double room). We have a shower and then we go out for a copious meal at the Halil Ibrahim Sofrasi restaurant which seems to get all the well-heeled Van clientele.


Van City

As it is a Saturday night we walk around the town a bit looking for some live music. A friendly guy accompanies us to a basement café where we have the chance to see a Kurdish group doing a gig while the people are dancing on the music, the arms on each other shoulders style. We are heartily welcomed and we love the music. I am allowed to make some nice film of it, but by 9 pm everything is dead. Van sure does not have a night live!

Sunday, 12 September

We get up early and by 7 we are already feasting on the breakfast buffet with fresh breads and the usual Turkish goodies.  We then drive off to Akdemar, but when we get to the pier there isn’t anybody else. The boat crew are having breakfast and we are invited to share. We kindly decline, but I cannot resist to taste the lovely goat cheese which tastes deliciously even if it is very salty. We decide to wait as there need to be 15 persons to fill the boats before they leave to the island. Half an hour later only one other person had arrived and it looks like it is going to take a long time before more people will arrive. So I take the decision to charter the whole boat. 15 persons at 2.5 euro makes not even 38 euro and I can get the whole boat for 35 euro. I do not want to wait any longer and agree. So the three of us are king of the boat!


The boat crew at their breakfast table

Akdamar Kilesi (Akdamar Church) or Church of the Holy Cross is a recently restored Armenian cathedral. It is situated on a small island 3 km out in the lake. The Akdamar church dates from the 10th century and is famed for the fascinating reliefs carved on the exterior.

akdamr church

Akdamar Church on an island in Lake Van

The Church of the Holy Cross was once an important Armenian cathedral. The seat of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, the cathedral was founded by King Gagik between 915 and 921 as part of a royal complex that includ
ed a palace, monastery, streets, gardens and terraced parks. The church is all that remains today.


Lazarus in a coffin and Jezus on a donkey - Akdamr church

KonasThe Church of the Holy Cross was the seat of an Armenian patriarch from 1116 to 1895, after which it was abandoned due to conflict between Armenia and the Ottoman Empire. The building fell into disrepair and was neglected throughout the 20th century, but has now been restored.

That being said, I would advise photographers to go in the afternoon as the light then falls on the church, the lake and the shoreline. I adepted by making an HDR photo of it.

Jonas and the whale (Akdamar church)



We also stop at Gevaş to see the cemetery with tombstones dating from the 14th to 17th century. The mountains make a nice backdrop for the tombstones.


Gevas Seljuk graveyard

In the afternoon we drive to Cavuştepe, which is about 25 km south of Van.
Cavuştepe was one of the most important fortresses of the Urartians. Urartu was an Iron Age kingdom around the Lake Van area. The kingdom rose to power in the mid-9th century BC. 2 centuries later it got absorbed by the mightier neighbour the Assyrians, and became a vassal state. The fortified palace was built in the 8th century BC and was occupied by the Uratian kings. The excavations date from the 1970’s. Beside the palace, the excavation revealed a temple and a sacrifice altar with cuneiform inscriptions. The palace commands excellent views of the area and is worth a visit.



We continue the 33 km further to Hoşap castle (build in 1643 by a Kurdish Chieftain) in the hamlet of Güzelsu. The road becomes really bad and it takes a long time to get there. The castle makes a nice photo and it is already time to get back to Van.


Hosap Castle

We fill the car with diesel, have it washed, and all is ready to deliver it at Avis in Van, which is conveniently located a100 meters from our hotel. They come to look at the car park of the hotel and there is no fuss. We walk to the archaeological museum of Van which is a small but nice place and the entrance is free. From there we take a taxi to Van Castle (10€).


Van Castle

The Van Citadel (Van Kalesi; meaning "Rock of Van") is a massive stone fortification built by the ancient kingdom of Urartu during the 9th to 7th centuries BC, and is the largest example of its kind. It overlooks the ruins of Tuspha the ancient Urartian capital during the 9th century BV.

van castle

Van Castle

Van Castle is a huge, impressive place, which is spread out over an enormous rock, and has beautiful views of present day Van down below. From the entrance it is a fair walk up and we do not see a normal path go up, so we walk up on intuition. At the top we get to talk with some young Kurdish people who are on a picnic with their family, nice folks, and are invited to join them. They insist, but we can, friendly, decline their offer and decide to walk back to the city. After more than an hour of walking we give up and jump in a dolmus (1, 25€). Distances can be deceiving, as it takes at least another 20 minutes before we reach the city centre. We have a look at the different bus companies that line the Cumhuriyet Caddesi for a ticket to Erezurum, but or they leave late or they are fully booked, so we decide to take our chances at the bus station tomorrow morning. Back at the hotel a hot shower and a cold Efes (room services) bring us back to life. And we pack our bags for tomorrow morning.


Next the Georgian Valleys








  • Several books written by Orhan Pamuk (1952), Nobel Prize winner for literature in 2006, are worth reading. My favourite is Red, a novel during the ottoman times and snow, set in Kars. I was shocked to read in his book Istanbul that there were still pogroms against non-Turks (Greeks) in Istanbul in the 1950’s.


  • Elif Şafak (1971) has written the flea palace and her novel, the bastard of Istanbul got her charged with public denigration of Turkishness, as there “never” was an Armenian genocide.


  • A sad story of how Turkey is removing all traces of pre-Islam evidence can be read in From the holy mountain: a journey in the shadow of Byzantium of William Dalrymple (1965) where he follows the travels of a 6th century monk Moschus and author of the Spiritual Meadows (English translation). Retracing this trip through Asia Minor William talks to the Christian people left behind and the remaining Orthodox priests who tell the story of a rich culture, now completely destroyed by war and genocide, and how they try to survive in a hostile Islamic environment.


  • Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire by Judith Herrin, is recommended. In this book she reveals the riches of the ancient civilization of Byzantium. Judith Herrin is a professor of late antique and Byzantine stidies at King's College of London.


  • Ali and Nino by Kurban Said about a love affair between the daughter of a Christian businessman and a Muslim boy of a noble family. The story is set in Baku during the Bolshevik revolution (1917- 1920)


  • Jason and his Argonauts arrive in Colchis (modern Black sea coast of Georgia) in search of the Golden Fleece. The best story is the epic poem Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, written in Alexandria in the 3 century BC.


  • Anabasis (Aνάβασις), or the march up country by Xenophon tells the story of how the 10.000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their way from Babylon to the Black sea in 400BC





Turkey General information: www.turkeytravelplanner.com


A website dedicated to travel in Turkey, still in the early stages: www.iwasinturkey.com


Istanbul: the Dervish convent: www.mekder.org


Armenia General Information: www.tacentral.com/default.asp


A wealth of information on ancient history: www.livius.org/anatolia.html


About archaeology in Turkey: www.adiyamanli.org/turkey_arke.html


About Catal Huyuk:  www.smm.org/catal


Website dedicated to Ani: http://www.virtualani.org/citymap.htm, with a huge amount of information on the individual buildings.


Loads of information about the region. The history part is very good: /www.armenica.org




The frontier between Europe and Asia has seen many waves of conquerors passing through. The history is one of past wars, while some are still very active.

The earliest history may or may not have been the well-known biblical story about Noah landing his boat on mount Ararat (Genesis 8.4).

With Babylonia and Sumer as neighbours, the area was among the first in the world to emerge as a place of civilization.

During the Bronze Age collapse (13th to 12th centuries BC), tribes settling in this region were considered a force strong enough to contend with both Assyria and the Hatti kingdoms. They became incorporated into Urartu during the 10th century BC.

The Iron age kingdom of Urartu (Hebrew Ararat) mapwas named Biainili by its inhabitants and was located in Eastern Anatolia, around the mountainous region of Lake Van and with its capital the rock fortress Tušpa at lake Van. It existed from about 1000 BC until 585 BC. The people of Urartu, famous metalworkers adapted the Assyrian cuneiform scrip. Most refer to royal construction activity.

A century later it became a target for the nomads who lived north of the Caucasus, known to the Greeks as Scythians'. Archaeologists have discovered that many Urartian fortresses were destroyed before 600. Arrowheads from a type known from the Ukraine indicate that the Scythians were responsible for the destruction.

Having suffered from the Scythian invasion, the country was an easy target for the successors of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Medes. It became a satrapy
Urartu was as a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, and continued to do so under the Parthians when it became a battleground between Rome and the Parthians. 

By know the Christianity spreading throughout the East. The breakthrough was in the year 303, when Gregory the Illuminator (257-325) converted Tiridates III. For the first time in history, an entire state became Christian.
























Kumbet - Ahlat





















Ahlat - Seljuk graveyard









us in van

Us and the Avis car at Lake Van





























































































Christian Vandalism - Van Museum




























Local youth at the Castle










cvanView from the castle over Van city