Foothills of Legends
A journey skirting the foothills of the legendary Mount Ararat. Part 2 of East of Eden
The Route through Igdir
The long and improbable day was coming to a conclusion as we returned to Kars on the plains of eastern Turkey. We set a straight course to the bus station to venture further off the beaten path, but it wasn't long until we fell under the spell of the shrarma meat permeating the air, setting the precedent of a delicious staple of our journey through Anatolia. When we arrived at the bus station, bellies fully content, we failed to find a route to take us directly to Dogubeyzit, a dusty town on the foothills of Mount Ararat. Our next best alternative was a direct ride to Igdir, and from there a two hour ride to our intended destination.
The ride to Igdir left late in the afternoon, allowing us a couple hours of daylight to look outside the window and see the landscape go by. It proved a marvelous journey where we passed by various badlands and danxia geologic formations and small villages with intricate cave systems suspended in the cliffs above. I later discovered these caves were part of the Tuzluca salt mines. We didn't want the sun to retreat, but as always, darkness hit and we had to wait the final few hours resting our eyes
The town of Igdir had nothing to write home about.
Since we arrived late at night and planned to leave first thing in the morning, we searched for a hotel. At first we followed a local man who was eager to help us, but upon bringing us to a dilapidated hostel in sketchy part of town, we kindly declined and headed quickly back to the area where the bus stopped - the only lively road with moderate accommodations. We finally found one hotel, possibly the largest in town, and was so delighted to find clean sheets and ac. It was those simple moments of pleasure that we often take for granted at home, but felt so rare and refreshing in the middle of our journey. That feeling of first climbing into that bed sticks in our minds to this day.
And this ended a very long first day in Turkey, starting in Georgia, hitchhiking to Kars and visiting its castle, making our way to Ani and exploring its ruins and commencing with a journey by bus to Igdir.
Dawn broke, and so did our second day on this Anatolian journey. We filled up on the hearty breakfast provided by the hotel of breads, cheeses and vegetables, walked out the doors, and easily found a local bus to Dogubeyezit. This short bus ride was more about the journey itself than the destination, as it weaved around the foothills of the legendary Mount Ararat.
Yes, the biblical Mount Ararat where it is thought Noah's ark came to rest and he and his family descended to restart human life.
Even though this mountain is symbolically linked with Armenia, Turkey currently has full control over the mountain, in fact sharing the slopes of its smaller peak with not Armenia, but Iran. We tried to snap some good pictures of Ararat's glaciated slopes, but the fast bus driver had no inclination that this was a dream photo for us. For him and all the locals on the bus, it was their daily morning commute, as normal as the 78 highway in San Diego is to me. In fact, all the locals seem much more interested that two foreigners decided to take their bus, interrupting an otherwise ordinary day.
Dogubeyezit looked as if it has seen better days.
The bus dropped us off a small road with local establishments and stalls, livened by the striking Mount Ararat in the background. The city had its ounding during the Kingdom of Urartu, a ancient 8th century BC people centered around Lake Van. During the time of the Armenians in the 4th century AD, it was named Daruynk, and from then on had a tumultuous history of changing hands, much like the region in itself. The Turkish people came and renamed the city Beyazit in the 16th century after an Ottoman sultan. In the 18th century, the city was destroyed then partially relocated and renamed Dogubeyazit. In other words, the city has seen better days.
We came not only to Dogubeyezit to glimpse Ararat as close as possible, but to visit an enigmatic palace that called its home on a ridge above town. Visiting a palace is always intriguing, but when it is so remote, seldom visited, and squarely in biblical lands, it puts on a new aura of mystique. We walked down the street to the main "square" where busses frequented the short journey up the ridge and to the palace. The bus was most likely busier that day than others as it was a Friday, Muslims day of worship. This said bus concluded at a mosque and tomb just up the hill from the palace, which was particularly busy that morning.
During the ride, several conservative Turkish men exhibited keen interest in me. They held out their phones and pamphlets and encouraged me to say the Muslim call to prayer, albeit in Turkish. I knew what they were up to, so I decided to play dumb and didn't understand a thing. A clever man held out his phone with an English translation, but I still exhibited no signs of understanding. They finally let me be and laughed amongst themselves the rest of the brief journey. This far eastern region of Turkey is one the most conservative places for Islam. In addition, we were headed to a site sacred to this people and were standing alongside their daily life, where seldom foreigners venture off to. I was reminded how far away from home I was and to show utmost respect the people who call this area home.
For a region with a history as old as time itself, a structure built in the 18th century seems like it is as new as our breakfast this morning.
However, Ishak Pasha Palace's lack of "ancientness" should not be reason to overlook this architectural masterpiece. The photos alone do justice to the intricate stone work, Turkey's counterpart to the Mughal forts in India. That, combined with the unique setting in a hidden gorge, and the locals that bring it to life today, makes it a treasure in eastern Turkey. However, respesentative of every corner of Turkey, if you dig a little deeper, ancient relics unfold. In this case, not much digging had to be made, as an imposing castle-like structure juxtaposed off the jagged cliffs, as if as old as the rocks itself. This is known as the fortress of Urartu, and other than being 2700 years old at the earliest, not much is known. I scrambled up some rocks to get a closer look at the remains while Mary rested by the mosque. I noticed some rock cut tombs and put my hands on the ancient cut stones of the same color as its bedrock. The morning sun was already cutting off the crisp air, so we decided to make our way down the road and inside the Isak Pasha Palace. With a 5 lira entrance fee (less than $1), it was a bargain.
I love how the colors of famous monuments are representative of their surrounding rock quarries, from the golden sandstone of Jaisalmer, the white marble of the Taj Mahal, and the grey granite of Geghard Monastery. This palace was no exception, with its golden and pink hued stone blending seamlessly in the arid environment. The front entryway was adorned with such intricate carvings, it made immediate sense why it took almost a century to complete. The palace laid its foundation in 1685 by Colik Abdi Pasha, with the work passed onto his son Ishak Pasha, hence the name. It wasn't fully completed until 1784 by Ishak's grandson. 99 years in the making all in the family line.
They integrated Middle Eastern architecture that surely must have put a spell on the passerbys, including us. The palace didn't serve useful for very long, however, as the Russo--Ottoman War saw its ultimate demise and abandonment. It was said the Russians plundered the palace and stripped off its gold. More bad news came in 1840 in the form of an earthquake, damaging and collapsing its room (hence the glass ceiling). It traded hands back and forth between the Russians and Turkish in the following years, with more damage being done by both parties. As with Ani, modern times have led the palace to be highly protected under the arms of the Republic of Turkey, giving a chance for visitors to marvel and imagine its one time splendor.
The Shores of Lake Van
Ever since visiting Armenia (only two weeks ago at this time), Lake Van came up repeatedly whether it be Van-shaped ponds or halls of the national museum devoted to its treasures. Therefore, I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Luckily, the bus from Dogubeyezit to Diyarbakir passed by the northern shoreline of Lake Van, more than 100 kilometers in length. It gave us time to gaze out the window of the endless sea of blue over the Anatolian steppe. The lake is unique in being one of the worlds largest lakes without an outlet (due to an ancient eruption) as well as being saline. Historically there is a lot to be discovered here too; unfortunately we can't discover much through the window panes of the bus. The Urartu's settled here on the south shore, leaving behind remnants. Remarkably, just the year before in 2017, archaeologists discovered remnants of an underwater fortress. As recognized in Armenia, Lake Van was also one of their three Great Lakes of antiquity (Lake Sevan being the only remaining one in the borders of modern Armenia).
Returning to our bus journey, we passed by another ancient town by the name of Ahlat, once capitol of an 11th century kingdom. A few stone tombs were made off in the distance, the only lasting legacy I noticed in this now, well, very normal Turkish village. The stretch from Ahlat to Tatvan proved the most beautiful, barely catching the blues of the lake before sun down. The last stretch, in darkness, we crossed, unknowingly that is until looking later at a map, a series of fun sounding 'B' towns in the name of Bitlis, Baykan, Batman and Bismil. And now being west of Lake Van and getting into the heart of the Fertile Crescent, we left behind the 'east of Eden.”
It’s time to welcome another part of this world, uniquely different.