Van 2003

The present text is copied from my personal pages on my department’s website.

Part the First

Originally composed in Van, Friday, September 12, 2003

We are far enough east that there are roadsigns pointing to Iran. At about a hundred miles, Iraq is not much further away, though no signs point there. We are in the city of Van, on the vast lake of the same name.

They say the city was founded some three thousand years ago as Tushpa, the capital of the kingdom of Urartu. That name is said to be Ararat in English. Mount Ararat itself is too far to the north to be seen from here, though we hope to see it tomorrow.

Some time after the Urartians, an Armenian kingdom was here. The Turkish authorities cannot deny this. Indeed, a thousand-year-old Armenian church on an island in the lake is one of the tourist attractions here. We took a boat out to the church yesterday. One of the stones seemed to be a part of a recent restoration: it featured some carved Armenian lettering.

Perhaps the carving was done by a priest or artisan who came out from İstanbul. The Armenian church survives there. The Armenians of this area were killed off or driven off finally during the first world war, and the old city of Van was razed.

It is said that in those days, the Russian empire encouraged the Armenians here to rise up against the Ottoman authorities and to kill their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. Indeed, along with Urartian artefacts, the museum in Van has a “slaughter section”, featuring bones dug up from mass graves and alleged to have belonged to Turks killed by Armenians with Russian bullets. Probably these claims are correct as far as they go. The displays do not say that the dead probably spoke Kurdish or that, for example, the Sultan had ordered slaughters of Armenians starting around 1870.

When my beloved and I bought the Rough Guide to Turkey in 1998, the current edition did not cover the southeast, because of the ongoing civil war between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish separatists. Probably one could have flown safely into Van (as Ayşe and I did on Tuesday), but since the current city was only built in the twentieth century, it is not very interesting in itself, at least architecturally.

Culturally, the place is interesting to somebody who has spent time only in western Turkey. One hears Kurdish spoken on the streets. Almost every boy seems to say Hello to us; he is surprised when we respond in Turkish, and may follow along to chat with us. I admit to being an American, though I may point out that I have not lived in the US for five years. It occurred to me that some people might support America’s actions in Iraq, for the sake of their Kurdish brethren. One boy did ask me what I thought of the war; I said it was bad; and he agreed with my assessment, because innocent people had been killed.

At a lunch table seating nine yesterday, a Turk from elsewhere, but living here, announced that Van had been at its best when ruled by Armenians; they had made the land fertile with many fruit trees. (I had not followed this in the original Turkish; Ayşe explained it later.)

Indeed, something that bothers me increasingly in Turkey is the thought that the brown hillsides I see all around were once covered with trees. Perhaps the trees had been obliterated long before the Turks arrived (the official date for the arrival being 1071). But as long as peasants keep grazing their sheep and goats, the trees will not come back, and the eroded cracks in the hillsides will only become deeper with every winter’s rain.

The Grand Canyon is spectacular. Nothing like that is here; but the naked hills do have their own beauty.

The rim of Lake Van is quite green, nourished presumably by the water still trickling down from the surrounding mountains since the rains stopped last spring. The higher surrounding mountains still have a bit of snow.

The lake water seems denser than the Mediterranean’s (which is in turn denser than the ocean’s). But the density of Lake Van comes from soda, not salt. The water is very alkaline, making one’s skin feel slippery. One can swim in it quite happily though, as we did yesterday from Akdamar Island. It doesn’t hurt the eyes.

We are here in Van for the Ulusal Matematik Sempozyumu (National Mathematics Symposium). The meeting finishes today, but tomorrow we take a trip to see various sights, including “Isaac Pasha’s Palace”—which looks gorgeous in photos, overlooking a vast plain backed by mountains. They say we shall also go as far as the Iranian border to see a meteor crater. The locals want us to see all that the region has to offer: it’s lucky for us.

Part the Second

Originally composed, Wednesday, September 17, 2003, in Ankara:

Ayşe and I and our Ankara colleagues flew home from Van on Sunday afternoon, but I had picked up an intestinal bug whose effects peaked on Monday; I stayed home (and therefore away from the computer) on that day and yesterday.

I won’t describe the effects further, except to say that I felt a pain in my gut on Sunday morning as we were exploring Van Castle. This castle is on a ridge of rock jutting up from the coastal plan southeast of Lake Van. At the base of the trail up to the castle, I had filled my bottle from a pipe from which water was gushing. Rather, a man selling snacks filled the bottle for me. I assumed the water was safe, and I drank it. Perhaps my pain came too soon to be blamed on the water. Ayşe blames my eating peaches that I merely scrubbed with my fingers under the tap in our hotel room, not using soap and not peeling the peaches. But I had been eating peaches this way since our arrival on the previous Tuesday.

I had not taken the prophylactic measure of eating yogurt regularly. I shall try to remember to do this the next time we go east.

They say the Urartians built Van Castle or at least its oldest parts. There are some rooms carved out of the rock, with niches in the walls; these rooms are claimed to be royal burial chambers. On the cliff face outside these chambers are cuneiform engravings. Further along and up the ridge are adobe fortifications; I don’t know how these can have lasted for a century, much less three millenia, unless the Urartians had originally covered them with stone. The Lonely Planet guide does not have much information. Later civilizations had added to the castle. Somebody had added a mosque, from whose ruins the minaret had been re-erected. I started investigating the possibility of climbing the stairs in the minaret when a bang came from above. Two boys had already ascended and were lighting firecrackers. When they came down, I went up.

The boys were not taking seriously their job of showing tourists around. It is not an official job, but their families can use any money they can get. A third boy, older, was more serious. He was one of nine siblings. His father was a porter. His mother had not gone to school, so she could not speak Turkish.

“Why did your parents have so many children?” asked Ayşe.

“They were ignorant” the boy answered; “my generation won’t make their mistake.”

I spoke (in Turkish) with one of the younger boys. I confirmed that he had learned Kurdish at home and Turkish at school; he also told me some of the expressions in German, Italian and Japanese that he had learned from tourists.

From this experience I derive some hope for Kurdish young people in Turkey. Because their mother tongue is Indo-European, they may have an advantage over native Turkish speakers when it comes to learning, say, English or German. (At any rate, I observe that, while Turkish is simple and logical in itself, it requires a different approach to sentence-construction than in the Indo-European languages that I know something about.)

On one side of Van Castle is the site of the old city of Van, razed in 1915. The rest of the coastal plane is green with grass and trees, but the grass in the old city is brown. No structures remain but two mosques and the minarets of a couple of others. The eldest of our guides had pointed to a green area in the distance, where he said there were churches, or had been. In the war, he said, Muslims destroyed churches, and Armenians destroyed mosques. His grandfather had spoken of those times, but the boy had been too young to remember any details of what his grandfather had said.

After our tour, as we walked back towards the new city, a little girl asked me for a pen. At least, I’m pretty sure she asked in Turkish for a kalem, for school, rather than offering to show me the kale, that is, the castle, where we had just been. From my backback, I extracted the pen that I had received as a participant in the math symposium. Instantly I was surrounded by other children, who grabbed at my backpack.

Meanwhile, Ayşe and our other companions had stopped a municipal bus, so I ran to get on. I hope the girl wanted the pen for herself. Ayşe had spoken to another girl who said her parents didn’t send her to school, only her brothers. Probably her birth had never been registered with the Turkish authorities.

We had seen something of rural Kurdish life on Saturday. The conference organizers had arranged for busses to take us north along the eastern shore of Lake Van, towards Mount Ararat and the town of Doğubeyazit.

I saw bare hillsides corrugated by the hooves of sheep. Some hillsides were worse off than others; but even if the soil on one side of a hill had been completely washed away, I could still spy a shepherd with his flock on top. Trees do grow where people plant them: in their villages, or in a square array in the middle of a field.

Peasants were getting ready for winter. Each house had a large haystack, and perhaps a large pile of dung-cakes for fuel.

In western Turkey, I have seen peasants carrying hay on their backs. I did not see them on Saturday. Some of the Kurdish peasants had mechanical tractors to pull haywagons; others used biological quadrupeds.

Some of the land was rough barren rock: probably lava. We also passed some flowing streams. If the land is being degraded, it must have been so slowly for centuries, as the people cannot be treating it much differently now than they ever have.

For the tourist, the land is a spectacle. Most of the day would be spent on the road, so I brought a book; but I never opened it.

I wrote before that Van was interesting culturally, because people were friendly without trying to sell something, and because it was a Kurdish city in a Turkish state. I had meant to mention also the tea. I’m off caffeine, but Ayşe had enjoyed the tea served at breakfast at our hotel. It was smuggled tea, explained the waiter; if we wanted, he could show us where to buy it.

Ayşe wanted, so he took us across the street to a stand selling socks and other clothing, and tea. The kilogram boxes from Sri Lanka were sitting in the open, but the seller wouldn’t allow us to decline a black plastic shopping bag to hold our purchase.

Being closer to Iran than Van was, the town of Doğubeyazit seemed to have much more in the way of smuggled goods. They must be smuggled; why else would a bazaar in a small border-town contain lots of flashy items from the Far East, along with cigarettes with weird names?

From Doğubeyazit, we headed to the border with Iran. Our busses proceeded past the long line of waiting trucks and through the first gate. We ate lunch at the restaurant there. We walked up to the next gate; on the other side was Iran. There was a rumor that we would be let through for a little while, but it was not to be. We did watch the gate being opened a bit to let pedestrians through. It would have been amusing to watch women walk up to the gate bare-headed, covering up as they passed through, but it didn’t happen either.

The restaurant bathroom had no running water while we were there. Neither did a restaurant we used in Van that night. I wonder if this sort of thing might explain the intestinal distress I came down with.

Meanwhile, back in Doğubeyazit, we headed into the hills to see the old palace of a Kurdish chieftain named İshak, that is, Isaac. Supposedly, he lost the use of his palace when the Shah of Persia told the Ottoman Sultan that Isaac’s palace was more spectacular than the Sultan’s. But the Shah was probably correct. In its setting, Isaac’s palace put me in mind of the Hearst Castle.

On our way back to Van, one of the busses broke a belt or something, so we stopped by the road for a while while the driver fixed it. Ayşe heard that a soldier, alone, had had a breakdown in such a place and had been eaten by a wolf.

On the Turkish Airlines flight back to Ankara, we heard an attendent explain to somebody behind us that a soldier had been killed “because there are still terrorists in the hills”. We didn’t fully understand the reference until we were at Ankara airport and saw a flag-draped coffin being carried from the plane on the shoulders of six uniformed goose-stepping men.

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