We reached the city of Van almost at midnight. Early morning when I opened the window of my room, there was another surprise, it was beautiful Lake Van, in full view. I hurried out. The parking lot was full of cars, and minivans, including large luxurious tourist buses.
I took a walk along the granular sandy beach when the early morning sun was shining on the lake. There was a light breeze and the small waves were sparkling in the sun and the small whitecaps in the distance made me fantasize, and wished, I could rent a small sailboat, or a windsurfer, to sail on the historic lake. Just wishful thinking.
I met a middle-aged European lady having a morning walk and asked her where she was from, and whether she was enjoying her visit. She was from Germany and said she was having a good time and added, “today we are going to visit an Armenian church on an island”.
I highlighted the Armenian church due to the fact that, at the time, the church was being renovated and promoted by the Turkish government as a museum, and not as an Armenian church. How stupid. The tourist lady knew the truth even before she visited it.
The hotel was the best hotel we stayed in for the whole trip. The restaurant was packed with mostly European tourists, and the food was great. Thankfully this was one of the two hotels that we stayed in for two nights. The other was in Mush, our next overnight stop.
In Van, we visited the downtown with an impressive old and modern architecture. Then we visited the castle that was like a rocky “rectangular” hill rising straight from the flat land. It was difficult to walk and “squeeze” through the rocks with Urartian (Ուրարտական) writings carved on them. Many fellow travelers wisely chose to stay at the little public park at the bottom of the castle to enjoy a good rest rather than climb the castle under the hot sun.
It was really sad when we visited the Ayqesdan (Այգեստան) district that was the hub of the Armenian community in Van. There was hardly any sign left to indicate that, once the place was densely populated. Needless to say, there are many many historical books and documents that describe the Ayqesdan district as the hub of the Armenian community up till the 1915 Armenian Genocide a fact that cannot be denied.
The visit to the famous Armenian Varaqa Sourp Khach Monastery was even sadder. The long uphill and rocky road seem to be the only link to the Kurdish village where the Monastery is located. When we got there, young children “welcomed” us, and led us to the Klisa (Church).
Sadly it was only part of the altar of the large Monastery that once was surrounded by a cluster of Armenian villages with a rich history of Armenian culture, and revolutionary activities until the Armenian Genocide. The children also guided us to the houses where stones with crosses, and Armenian letters carved on them, were used as building materials to build the houses. Sad indeed, to say the least.
We also visited the Aghtamar island with the famous Armenian Church on it. The ferry dock was being enlarged with noisy heavy construction equipment that “spoiled” our lunch with its noisy operation at the outdoor restaurant near the construction site with a full view of the island and the church. The much talked about Darekh Տարեխ fish, barbecued on an open fire, looked and tasted like smelt.
It was about a 15-minute ferry trip to the island. While walking our way through the narrow uphill path to the church, we saw a handwritten notice with an arrow pointing towards the church that read in Turkish “Armany klissa” “Armenian church”. (Most probably erected by an Armenian visitor in defiance to the Turkish authorities that were promoting it as a Museum).
The church was small but very beautiful. Although I have seen many pictures of the church, seeing it in real, and up close, was very beautiful. I have seen many ancient Armenian churches and enjoyed their Armenian architecture, but never seen one with such extensive and beautiful carvings on its exterior, carved by our ancestral artists, and craftsmen.
Volodia, the tour guide, alloyed half an hour for those who wanted to swim in the salty water at a sheltered area of the lake. Few of us did. The pebble stone shore was matched with equally slippery pebble stones at the bottom of the lake. It was a memorable and refreshing swim. On our way back to the shore, we watch a spectacular sunset from the ferry deck as if a colorful send-off.
The next day morning we left for Mush. Before getting in the minivan I noticed that a young man was stocking the display shelve with maps. l purchased one and the young man opened and placed the map on the counter and started circling areas of Armenian heritage, and wrote the names in English letters, Aghtamar, Kduts, Lim, Mher Gate, Castle, etc.
I was surprised, to say the least, and asked his name, he said Azad. (Freedom in Armenian) Before I could ask questions, Volodia, interfered and asked/ordered me to get in the minivan. Although his interference was warranted (everyone else was already in the minivan), up till now, I blame myself for not taking a few more minutes and getting to know Azad.
When I told Valodia that he could have been a hidden Armenian, he said, Islam-ized Armenians usually have very distinctive Turkish and Kurdish names without any Armenian similarity. He might be right, after all, it was an official policy of the Turks to erase any trace of Armenian identity during, and after, the Armenian Genocide.
Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian