East to Lake Van, Dogubeyazit, Ani, and Trabzon

After crossing the Dikle Nehri—the Tigris a bus took us northeast into quickly rising mountainous, ever lonelier country: Silvan, Bitlis, until after 4 hours we reached Tatvan at the southwestern corner of Lake Van. All of these are dark, old towns with strangely restless populations. On the map the road from Tatvan to Van appears to follow the south shore of Lake Van. In reality it climbs inland across two high passes and the lake is not visible most of the time.

Lake Van 

 All the greater is the surprise when one descends from the 2050 m altitude of the second pass and faces this entirely unexpected Japanese view of Mt. Süphane floating over the lake.... Like Ararat Süphane is an extinct vulcano, 4050-m high. Lake Van lies at an altitude of 1750 m. — Click on the landscapes pictures to enlarge the images!

It was in the plain of Manzikert at the foot of Mt. Süphane that the Selçuk Turks defeated the imperial Byzantine army in 1071 and sealed the fate of the Empire and Asia Minor.

 The late afternoon of this day was spectacular. A few kilometers further the steep rock of the Island of Akhtamar appeared, the symbol of another destroyed civilization: Magna Armenia.

Akhtamar Island

Next morning we took a bus from Van back to the landing for Akhtamar. Small boats ferry visitors to the island. A group of government bureaucrats is boarding a boat across the lake. This magnificent day was to become the highlight of our Anatolian journey.

 The church of Akhtamar, built by King Gagik Ardzrouni in 920, with its sculptures is the only remnant of the former splendor. Everywhere fruit trees were blooming.

 View of the east façade of the church towards the mountains along the south shore.




 Wily David and a Byzantine Goliath in full armor.


After having been regurgitated by the whale, Jonas sleeps in a vineyard and then teaches the King of Niniveh, which is very close, due south from here.

 Jonas being fed to the whale



 Süphane and the Lake in a Japanese setting of blooming trees.


 The church and the snow mountains along the south shore from the top of the island mountain.


 One could see the rocks on the bottom of the lake from the island mountain.


 A last view of the Lake from the bus to Dogubeyazit.


On the Way to Dogubeyazit

We were lucky to sit in the front seats of the bus: The first view of Mt. Ararat just west of Dogubeyazit 


Twenty kilometers from the Iranian border Dogubeyazit was a smuggler's paradise — a wild boom-town.

Achmed, a young Kurd from the local government tourist office, took us to a reasonable hotel. He was a nice man, and we let ourselves be talked into meeting him at night for dinner — he practically invited himself.... He took us and an older single-lady tourist from New Zealand to a Kurdish restaurant, and over dinner unloaded his life's problems with the Turkish authorities. Someone had denounced him when he had shown a video of the forbidden film "Yol" (which describes the fates of five Kurdish men on furlough from a political jail in western Turkey) to friends at his house. He had spent three months in jail for this "crime".....

After dinner, around ten o'clock, on our way back to our hotel Achmed suggested a visit to the local hamam, owned by his uncle: "A nice, clean bath house, empty at this time of the night. You'll be made most welcome." Why not? Barbara and I persuaded the New Zealand lady to join us. We were received with polite smirks — tourists!— and were each given a dressing cabin and several towels. Stark naked, wrapped only in a towel Achmed led us into the "purgatory," as he called it, to acclimatize. "Hell," the next stage, took my breath away. The infernal heat of the main room hit one like a wall. It was a beautiful hamam, all in marble, scrubbed spotlessly clean: A low central marble dais was surrounded by eight small wash basins with cold water. My disappointment was that there were no bathing pools, it was all dry heat. Heavily breathing we stretched out on the dais. My heart was racing. Barbara with her yoga training was the only one comfortable. And then Achmed revealed himself as an exemplary massage artist. Armed with a lufa sponge he began rubbing down the back of the lady from New Zealand, and then turned to Barbara. In no time the two women looked like boiled lobsters. The New Zealander ran for the basins pouring cool water over herself with a bucket. I knew I wouldn't be able to stand it any longer and considered the predicament: Barbara was old enough to fend for herself. I fled. Outside I was given a cold drink of water and more fresh towels and sat down with the New Zealand lady to recover. And then with a big bang all the lights in the hamam went out. Candles were brought. Someone went into the purgatory with a petroleum lamp. I raised my brows — Barbara would truly have to defend herself now..... After a few minutes the electric lights came back on and a little later Barbara and Achmed emerged....

Rolf and the lady from New Zealand.


We discussed Barbara's experiences only later. - After scrubbing her back and front Akhmed had taken her to the cold water and poured buckets of cold water over her every part. When the lights went out— Barbara was convinced it was programmed— he whispered, "Just a little sex, please!" With a laugh she had told him to enjoy that with a younger lady, and he had acquiesced himself..... "Oh," she said, "I felt really sorry for the desperate man...."

Two days later Achmed got us a reduction on the bus to Kars and cheerfully waved us good-bye — as if nothing had happened....

Since then Barbara has every year given money to the Kurdish Council of America—for humanitarian causes.



 In the hills above Dogubeyazit, overlooking the valley and the road to Persia, lies Ishak Pasha Seray. Built in the 19th century and robbed by every invader since — its ornate doors are now in the Érmitage in St. Petersburg. The local brochures claim that it was once the pleasure castle of a rich Kurdish prince. After looking at it in great length, I came to the conclusion that it was more likely a Sufi tekke — a meeting and resting place for the Sufi minstrels walking the old Silk Road to India. May that be as it is, it is a fairy castle in an unparalleled location. We took a taxi and spent two hours in its elegant halls.

The entry gate

A corner of its elegant mosque



 The superb view west from its ramparts on Dogubeyazit and the mountains.

 Across from the Seray stands a mosque, the tomb of a Sufi Saint, amid the ruins of an Urartian town and its castle.


On the last evening we ventured out of town to have a closer look at the Great and the Little Ararat, rising almost three thousand meters from the adobe houses of Dogubeyazit. I am not easily frightened by dogs, usually a few stones will keep them at bay, but here were so many and such half-wild beasts that we retreated in panic. 


The Road to Kars

Along the road to Kars poverty dropped one more level. These are the huts of the semi-nomadic Kurdish shepherds who weave the most magnificent rugs in Turkey. For a while the road skirted the border of the former Soviet, now the Armenian Republic. One could see the comparatively prosperous Armenian towns on the other side of the Araxes.... 


The Lost City of Ani

 It rained in Kars — a stark and miserable former garrison town built by the Russians in the 19th century. Gurdjieff was born there. We found a cheap hotel and rented a taxi to Ani next day. On the way the taxi broke down, and we had to fend-off the curious locals while the driver hitch-hiked back to Kars to pick up a new carburetor. Since everyone stopped to have a look at the stranded foreign woman, these were rather uncomfortable two hours...


The mighty walls of Ani. Together with Trabzon, Merv-Mary, Marikanda-Samarkand, and Karakhoto in the Turpan Depression in China, Ani was once a rich and important city along the northern Silk Road.  Marco Polo slept here. Ani was first destroyed by the Selçuks in the 10th, a second time by Djenghis Khan in the 13th century, finally an earthquake leveled it for good. In between it was for a while the capital of the Armenian kings, and the Armenians still consider "the City of a Hundred Churches" their holy shrine. Since 1918 and especially in the 1960s it had been inaccessible to foreigners. For the first time one could visit it on one's own without a military guard.  

Unexcavated, there is not much to see. On a triangular plateau between two rivers covered with rubble three churches — easily identified by their careful masonry as Armenian — are still standing. This is the cathedral of St. Gregory.

The high nave of St. Gregory's Cathedral...



 ... and the third church, resembling the church of Svarnots near Yerevan, Armenia.


 The gorge of the Arpaçay, the eastern border of Ani and Turkey. The opposite bank is Armenia and was once the Soviet Union. In the distance one can see, once again, a flourishing Armenian town...


Through Tao-Klaredji to Trabzon

For half a day the road out of Kars looked like this. I don't know how the driver of the bus managed to negotiate it with great care. He drove eleven hours that day to reach Trabzon. This is "Tao-Klaredji" in Georgian, the home of the Laze's who, like the Swan's, speak an ancient Georgian dialect but are Moslems.

A dismal "farm" house in the mountains. Sod covers the roofs — Ireland comes to one's mind....

"Gurdji," Turkish for Georgians (viz., the russified name of Gurdjieff), crowding around the bus in one of the villages. Like Kurdish, Greek, and Armenian, Georgian is suppressed by the Turkish authorities. These dubious characters understood my Georgian well enough but replied in English or Turkish — it is too dangerous to speak their language with unknown people. Another linguistic surprise was that several people spoke German here. They were proud to have lived and worked in Germany often for many years....

A truck-stop and a mosque at the cross-roads to Yusufeli south of Artvin. Our bus is parked at the restaurant, where the personnel spoke Georgian.


The Aghia Sophia in Trabzon

We stayed in Trabzon (Trapezont in Greek) for a couple of days, to explore its churches and the ruins of the Greek monastery at Sumela. Trabzon is a strange town, or better, like in Diyabakir its population is unpleasantly aggressive and highly restless. Because of my beard — which in Islam would identify me as a Hadji, a man who has been to Mecca — I was jeered at by university students: "en peu de sufisme, hu?" and spat at by hordes of schoolboys following us. The people here are not Kurds but their restlessness may be due to a similarly unstable mixture of suppressed ethnic minorities as in Diyabakir: Greeks (expelled in 1923), Armenians (deported 1896-1926), Georgians who have lived in this town for centuries, long be-fore the Turks appeared. A similar situation one finds in Istanbul-Pera, where the Greek-speakers consider any outsider who speaks their language with greatest suspicion.

Trabzon was for centuries the Mediterranean terminal of the Silk Road. It fell to the Ottomans only in 1461 — 7 years after the fall of Konstantinopolis. The last capital of the Byzantine Emperors Paleologos-Komnenos. The Aghia Sophia, their cathedral (Ayasofia in Turkish) (~1240), is now a museum, its frescoes dating from 1250 have very recently been restored. They are nevertheless in very bad condition, but they are an example of the last century of Byzantine painting important for the understanding of Georgian fresco painting.

The Aghia Sophia-Trapezont  



Four columns carry the weight of the central dome...




St. John baptizing Christ, who is identified by the traditional Greek inscription "IC-XC"


Christ teaching the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5000.



A fragment of the Last Supper — Judas sits separately on a stool in the foreground, the apostles have no haloes


Wedding at Kana



The Madonna Theotokos (Carrying God) (before 1300!) in the apse and the Elevation of Christ in the center of the vault of the naos.