VAN & AKDAMAR

Van, eastern Turkey’s largest city beautifully situated along the shore of its eponymous lake, boasts beautiful vistas, fascinating ancient ruins, and stunning scenery.  Originally an important center of the Kingdom of Urartu (ninth through sixth centuries BCE)—the Urartian capital was at nearby Toprakkale—Van spreads out at the foot of an ancient citadel that rises high above the city.  Legend holds that Van was built during the reign of the Assyrian Queen Semiramis and was later enlarged by a local prince named Van, in whose honor the city was eventually named.  During the rule of the Urartian kings, the city was known as Taespas, and, at some point during this era, the citadel was first built.  After the Persian occupation of Anatolia, the city came into the hands of the kings of Pontus, who were succeeded by the Armenian kings, the Syrian kings, the Byzantines, and the Arabs.  The province has been Turkish territory for five hundred years.  Nearby is the enormous and picturesque Lake Van, seven times larger than the Lake Geneva.  Dotted with islands and rimmed with rocks and beaches, enjoy a day of swimming and water sports after taking in Van’s many historic sights.

Van’s impressive citadel sits atop a long rocky spur, with a considerable part of the fortress still standing tall.  Originally built by the Urartian ruler known as Sardur II in the ninth century BCE, the citadel stretches for nearly two thousand meters on the longer side, and its summit is eighty meters above Lake Van.  Inscriptions carved in cuneiform script by the Urartian royals can be seen near a grotto.  On the sides of the hill are ancient burial vaults cut into the side of the cliff.

Toprakkale is the site of the eighth-century BCE capital of the Urartian civilization, perched atop a hill with a magnificent view of the lake.  Excavations here have unearthed fascinating artifacts and interesting inscriptions.  The first building on the hill, constructed of huge stone blocks very precisely cut, is thought to have been a temple dedicated to Haldis, the chief deity of the Urartian kings.  A wall built of large stone blocks two to three meters thick surrounds the fortress.  Several basalt statues have been found in the buildings, along with bilingual writing in both Hittite hieroglyphic and Phoenician scripts.

A true marvel of Armenian architecture is the carefully restored Akdamar Church (Kilisesi), perched on an island three kilometers out in Lake Van.  In 921 CE, Gagik Artzruni, King of Vaspurkan, built a palace, church, and monastery on the island.  Little remains of the palace and monastery, but the church walls are in superb condition, and the wonderful relief carvings are among the masterworks of Armenian art.  You will immediately recognize images of Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale (with the head of a dog), David and Goliath, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, Daniel in the lions' den, and Samson.   The church is built of local brown sandstone on a cruciform plan, with a huge twelve-sided, cone-topped drum to cover the central area.  The south porch was added to the structure only in the eighteenth century.  Among the interior frescoes are scenes from the life of Christ:  the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, Christ washing the feet of the disciples, and a line of apostles or saints at the end of the altar.  Around the church are fallen tombstones and graves dating from the Seljuk period. The designs are lovely, with intricate floral and geometric patterns.

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