The Monastery of St. Thomas of Gandzak, Altinsac, near Gevas, Van, Turkey.

To find the Monastery of St. Thomas of Gandzak, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Gevas, Turkey”. From the centre of Gevas find the main west to east road just north of the town centre (the road goes from Tatvan in the west to Cavustepe and Guzelsu in the east). Once on the main west to east road, go about 12 kms west until a road branches north to the village of Gorundu. Follow the Gorundu road through the village and continue about 12 kms north until you arrive in the village of Altinsac. Stay on the same road for another 2 kms, by which time you will see the ruin of the monastery on your left (to the west). Public transport from Gevas to Tatvan is frequent. Ask to be dropped off where the road leads to Gorundu. Once on the road to Gorundu and Altinsac you will have to walk or hitch lifts in private motor vehicles.

The ruined Monastery of St. Thomas of Gandzak stands almost half way up a mountain about 2 kms from the road north of the village of Altinsac. It looks from a distance as if it will be a relatively easy ascent to the monastery, but the track and the path, although taking slightly different routes, are quite steep toward the end. Although fields exist below the ruin, and people in small numbers drive to the nearby cove to have a picnic or a swim in Lake Van, there is no sign of permanent human habitation, from the road or the ruin. Moreover, the higher you ascend, the more stunning the views. The monastery is situated in exceptionally pretty surroundings.

I walked to the monastery along the path in about forty-five minutes, but followed the infrequently used dirt road to descend. The descent took only thirty minutes. The path leads across the fields and through wild herbs, the dirt road through a small patch of trees sustained by a narrow stream. Walking beside the stream I disturbed clouds of butterflies. As for the ruin itself, it is excellent. Parts of the wall enclosing the compound are intact, there is the usual deceptively tall nave inside the church, and the church’s dome and drum are in very good condition, no doubt due to the ruin’s relative isolation. Some attractively carved stone exists inside the church and around its entrance, and more carved stone, possibly deriving from broken gravestones, litters the land around the ruin. There are two nearby sources of water, which help to explain why the monastery is located where it is.

T. A. Sinclair (a renowned scholar specialising in eastern Turkey) writes that the ruin is named after St. Thomas of Gandzak, Gandzak being the old name for Altinsac. The ruin stands:

“on a platform looking down to the lake, which is about 2 kms away. The monastic buildings other than the church are in ruins. The church: a domed compartment with transepts, extended by a bay to the west: rooms either side of apse reached from transepts. All within a rectangle. The exterior is in rough stone, apart from the very finely cut drum and dome: inside, the drum has courses of brick below the windows, and to some extent between them. 10th or 11th century, but the brickwork in the drum is probably from a restoration of 1581. The zhamatun (the hall in front of the church): four thick piers. The domes of the three compartments in the central east – west line are on the interior higher than those of the others. Either 17th or 18th century. The exterior a restoration of 1801.”

The walk back to Altinsac was a delight because of the lake, the mountains, a reed bed in the pretty cove, the views of the ruined monastery and the large number of flowers (because it was the hottest time of the year I was surprised to see so many flowers). The small village of Altinsac has a mixture of old stone and modern concrete and breeze block houses strung along the shore a short distance above and away from the water. Most houses have their own gardens and the gardens are very productive. The surrounding hills are devoid of trees (trees are confined to the village in general and the gardens in particular), but they still look very pretty. Tied along the quay in a small harbour are four old, flat-bottomed ferries each about 15 metres in length. The ferries used to carry people to and from Akdamar Island.

Altinsac has a ruined church of its own, but it is in bad condition and used to store hay. In fact, Sinclair thinks there may be two churches side by side known collectively as the Monastery of the Mother of God. He calls the northerly church a “domed rectangle” where the brick of the interior of the dome is left exposed on the outside. The southerly, broader church has a pointed vault with ribs. The apse “is off-centre” and a small chapel adjoins. Sinclair dates both churches to the 15th or the 16th century. In truth, less survives than when he visited in 1968.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

The monastery featured in the photos below belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite/diaphysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite/diaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

One last point: Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the religion of the state (Georgia was the second country to do so). 301 is usually identified as the year in which Christianity became the state religion in Armenia. Note that 301 pre-dates adoption of Christianity as the state religion in Georgia by over thirty years (337 is now widely accepted as the date when at least part of modern-day Georgia adopted Christianity as the state religion), and the Roman Empire’s edict of toleration of Christianity in 311 by ten years. But the edict of toleration did not make Christianity the religion of the state in the Roman Empire, nor did legalisation of Christianity in 313 or Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 321. These events merely made it a lot safer to be a Christian within the empire’s borders. Note that at least one later Pagan emperor, Julian in the 360s, engaged in the persecution of Christians, as had occurred prior to 311.

It is very sad that Armenia’s importance in the history of early Christianity is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Kalecik, near Nusaybin, Mardin, Turkey.

To find Kalecik, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Nusaybin, Turkey”. From the centre of Nusaybin find the main west to east road just north of the town centre (the road goes from Mardin in the west to Cizre in the east). Once on the main west to east road, note that a smaller road goes north to Midyat via Beyazsu. Follow the Midyat road for about 5 kms and you will see Kalecik less than a kilometre to the west (Kalecik overlooks the road from its hilltop location). From the Midyat road it takes about twelve minutes to walk to Kalecik along a meandering asphalt road. Public transport between Nusaybin and Midyat is frequent. Minibuses will drop you where the asphalt road begins its ascent to Kalecik.

From the road below, the hilltop village of Kalecik appears to be strung along the highest point of a ridge (for most of the village this is, indeed, the case, which significantly enhances its appeal). A narrow asphalt road zig-zags toward the village from beside a small, concrete and breeze block cube-shaped mescit (small mosque) sheltered by a few trees. A boy aged about fourteen appeared from behind the mescit and walked with me most of the way along the road before taking a path to the right to some old stone houses just below the ridge. The boy’s house, in common with all of Kalecik’s houses that are not strung along the ridge, has a small garden enclosed within a dry stone wall.

As you ascend the road, the houses along the ridge, which form the oldest part of the village, appear to have been built so that they join together (this is actually the case with many of the houses). Moreover, because the ridge drops steeply toward the east, the walls of the houses on the east side are much taller than those on the west. As a general rule, windows appear in the east-facing walls only toward the top. The absence of windows lower down, and the fact that the walls of individual houses join together, ensure that Kalecik resembles a castle (hence the name of the village, which means “Little Castle”). However, on the west side of the ridge Kalecik looks very different because the cube- and cuboid-shaped blocks that confront the eye cannot be other than whole houses or individual rooms. This said, because the houses stand on rocks above the road, only the narrowest of paths or flights of stone steps lead toward them. Once among the houses themselves the narrow paths persist. Kalecik looks and feels like a castle, but a castle that began life as a collection of village houses.

The ridge itself is the most obvious place to build a settlement for defensive purposes, but, because the ridge is narrow and not very long, it has been completely colonised by houses to provide shelter for what must once have been a substantial population (today, sadly, many of the houses have been abandoned). As soon as no space remained along the ridge, additional houses were built on the east-facing slope overlooking the beautiful valley below. But even the additional houses are quite old, although a few have had concrete and breeze block extensions added in recent decades.

From the ridge, villagers can see long distances in every direction. Moreover, Kalecik is directly above the valley and the valley has a river that never dries. The valley has a gently undulating floor which is, and always has been, easy to cultivate. Even today the village looks down on admirably productive fields, orchards, gardens and wild trees, all of which benefit from the river. Needless, to say, villagers use the valley to produce food for themselves and others, just as they did in the past. Because a few sheep and goats wandered among the houses themselves, it was obvious that some families raise livestock on the nearby pasture. The summits of the hills enclosing the village are dry and barren, but pasture can be accessed quite easily, both along the valley itself and in the hills to the east and the west.

Almost every house in the village has been built with a honey-coloured stone, and the stone must look its very best early morning and late afternoon (the day of my visit it looked very pretty because a light wind enhanced the visibility). Rubble walls proliferate because families in Kalecik rarely had the financial resources to invest in dressed or carved stone. Some of the walls, especially those at the narrow north end of the village (here the walls possess a graceful curve) and those overlooking the valley below (here the walls are flat but angled slightly from the perpendicular), might easily be part of a castle, but the flat, square and rectangular walls facing west and south are obviously those of houses built compactly together. Almost every roof is flat. Some of the houses in the centre of the village are large and were built by families wealthier than was locally the norm. The largest houses have small courtyards around which the rooms have been arranged on two or three sides. The largest houses appear to spread over three floors, but most Kalecik houses have only two storeys. Some of the houses are very small. Even today, a few ground floor rooms are used to shelter livestock overnight or to store food for human or animal consumption. The lack of space on the ridge has led to the construction of a few rooms above the narrow paths which meander back and forth, and, to access some houses, short flights of steps lead to rickety wooden footbridges that also cross the paths. More than one old mud-encrusted tandir (a wood-burning oven used primarily to bake bread) exists along a path a little wider than the majority, but such communal facilities are no longer utilized. Many houses, even those built originally by families of limited financial means, use flat spaces such as roofs as patios, workspaces or places to sleep during the hottest time of the year. The views north, west and south are good, but patios, workspaces or courtyards with a view to the east must be envied by families who live in houses facing the other directions. In truth, however, all the houses along the ridge have enviable views because they are so high up and overlook a village of stunning beauty. But the east-facing houses also overlook the valley floor below, a valley floor cultivated in an intensive but environmentally sound manner. The beauty of the fertile valley floor is enhanced by the otherwise dry and barren surroundings. Somewhat unexpectedly, Kalecik proved one of the trip’s highlights.

In the village itself I saw only a handful of people, two boys, a man responsible for some sheep and goats, and a woman in her garden. There were more sheep, goats, hens and cockerels than humans. The lack of people was due partly to the number of houses that lie abandoned. However, there was another reason for the lack of people. It was nearly midday and the temperature was about 38 degrees centigrade and rising. Most sensible people were indoors.

I had already seen some remarkable villages on the trip, but Kalecik was, perhaps, the best. Although small compared to many villages encountered in the mountains south of Lake Van, Kalecik’s location along the narrow ridge high above the fertile valley, its linear arrangement, its castle-like appearance and character, and its remarkable stock of houses, almost all of which are built from the same delightful stone in a style that establishes an overall unity despite individual buildings varying considerably in size and layout, made for something very special indeed. While some of the villages earlier in the trip were themselves outstanding, many were similar in appearance and character (this is only to be expected because the villages are located in a relatively small region dominated by mountains and deep valleys, and because those responsible for building the houses had to utilize almost exactly the same raw materials). Kalecik may not be unique (I suspect that a few similar settlements exist in the hills to the north-east and the north-west of Nusaybin), but it was the most distinctive village I encountered in 2013.

There is very little information about Kalecik anywhere, but two articles accessible on the internet suggest that Christians once lived in the village (I suspect that no Christians live there now) and that the population had declined from 416 in 1997 to 187 in 2010. The most remarkable views of the village are obtained about half a kilometre south of Kalecik on the road to Nusaybin (here the road ascends so you view the village from a slightly elevated position) and from the same road directly below the village.

N.B. Nusaybin is on the border with Syria, and the border fence runs along the south edge of the town (in parts of Nusaybin, buildings, including houses and apartment blocks, are no more than 10 metres from the fence). Despite the tragic war still unfolding, on the day of my visit to Nusaybin and Kalecik I could walk to the fence and peer into Syria, until recently one of the Middle East’s most beautiful nation states. Oddly, there was no indication of the war. In fact, all the buildings across the border looked intact. True, the land was devoid of human or animal life, but everything appeared very peaceful, albeit in a distinctly eerie way (not even a single motor vehicle ran along the roads). This said, do not undertake a visit to the Nusaybin area without first ensuring that conflict does not rage on nearby Syrian territory. Stray bombs have found their way from Syrian to Turkish soil and claimed the lives of innocent Turkish citizens.

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Yavuzlar, near Baskale, Van, Turkey.

To find Yavuzlar, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Baskale, Turkey”. From the centre of Baskale follow the main road north (the road eventually goes through Guzelsu on its way to Gevas and Van) for about 10 kms to a junction on the right. Take the road to the right. The road first goes south and then north-east (as if heading toward the border with Iran). After about 10 kms the road arrives in the large village of Albayrak. Yavuzlar lies about 7 kms further along the same road in a north-easterly direction. Asphalt seals the road all the way to Yavuzlar. Public transport to and from Yavuzlar is very infrequent (it is a little more regular between Baskale and Albayrak), but almost everyone with a motor vehicle will provide you with a lift all or part of the way.

With a river behind me and the village of Yavuzlar in front, I was confronted with a view exactly like parts of Cappadocia (a very popular tourist destination in Turkey). Tufa rock has been eroded into an eye-catching jumble of peaks and chimneys; caves have been enlarged into homes and storage facilities, some of the latter still in use; and houses have been built wherever the land is sufficiently flat. Where the ground is devoid of vegetation, the pale tufa reminded me of the eroded tufa hills near Goreme (Goreme and the area immediately surrounding it are Cappadocia’s most famous tourist attractions), but small patches of fertile ground have, as in Cappadocia, been cultivated with great care to maximise food production. In fact, my first impression of Yavuzlar was one of gardens, small fields and orchards, all of which lie close to the river. Most of the village houses stand below a hillside dominated by the tufa peaks and chimneys. The hillside is penetrated by two small valleys, but in August the streams in both are dry. One valley, as I soon found out, leads to particularly attractive but dry and barren slopes, so much so that I thought I had strayed into parts of Texas, Arizona or Utah. It is in this valley that you can enter a hole in the ground resembling a small cave. Once in the hole you notice that a tunnel has been cut within the rock, yet again in the manner known so well in Cappadocia, and the tunnel ascends about 40 metres to an opening with stunning views along the valley. In places the tunnel benefits from steps cut into the rock, but the steps are quite badly worn. It was a bit of a scramble, especially for someone my age, but, with the help of a man aged about thirty and a boy aged about fifteen, I got to the top from where I could take some excellent photos.

Because it was about a kilometre away, and Yavuzlar and its immediate surroundings have so much to offer, I did not ascend a flat-topped hill higher than all the others where it is said that the ruins of a castle exist. However, the hill featured in quite a few photos because it adds significantly to the area’s already considerable appeal. What also adds to the area’s appeal is the friendliness of everyone I encountered. It was not long before a gang of children were following me as I undertook my first look around, but even the boys were well-behaved (perhaps because adult males were always nearby who would have reprimanded them for any bad behaviour). It was not yet mid-morning and many women were engaged in chores in their back yards or gardens. Four young women aged about sixteen to twenty washed clothes at a source of water in someone’s dusty garden, but were happy to chat with an unknown foreign male.

One family invited me into their house to rest in their best room, the room with a large flat-screen TV, a sofa, two easy chairs and a tall cupboard with family treasures displayed behind glass doors. The four daughters of the house, who were aged from about thirteen to eighteen (I did not see the mother), came in and out of the room, once to bring tea and biscuits, and the rest of the time to chat or look at my photos of Hilary and Pippa. The house was interesting in that it had an old stone core, but two concrete and breeze block rooms have been added as the family had grown in size. Quite a lot of Yavuzlar’s old stone houses have external walls that are covered with plaster or mud. Such walls are always painted a bold colour, but sometimes more than one colour is used to create strikingly simple patterns. The house that I entered had plaster walls, which helped to disguise the transition from the old to the new parts. Almost every house in Yavuzlar, old or new, has a flat roof. Families in the village are not rich, but almost every house has electricity, a satellite dish and plumbed water flowing into the kitchen and the bathroom. As far as I could tell, every house is clean and tidy. The villagers also make an effort to look after the streets, the paths and the open spaces. However, I found that people took great care of the environment in almost every village I visited. It is in the towns and the cities where litter, piles of garbage and mounds of building material make life in Turkey quite a trial.

It was inside the house where I first met the man aged about thirty. He was keen that I see everything that Yavuzlar has to offer, but I was not allowed to leave until I had had something to eat: cheese, yoghurt, a most unusual cacik that was itself almost a cheese, and a sweetened round bread. Somewhat embarrassed with yet more outstanding hospitality, I pulled a packet of biscuits out of my rucksack and left it in the house to be shared among the children.

Not long after leaving the house we were joined by the boy aged about fifteen. Additional to the things identified earlier, we walked to a cliff near the river where caves had been enlarged to create much bigger spaces, all with remarkably flat walls and ceilings. At least one of the spaces had once been a church, yet another aspect of Yavuzlar that reminded me of Cappadocia. We also crossed the fields near the river where people grow wheat and other crops. To irrigate the fields, narrow channels carry water from the river. Two men were scything down the stalks of wheat from which the grain had already been harvested. When we approached, the men stopped work to provide us with glasses of tea. Earlier, in the village itself, I noticed that there were a lot of dogs, albeit old and not in good shape. Once used to protect flocks of sheep and goats, they were now retired and did not look as if they would live much longer. The plain between Baskale and Yanal Koyu is dominated by pasture, so, that morning, I had seen many flocks of sheep and goats. Inevitably, every flock had at least one dog to protect it. While the dogs in Yavuzlar were too old or weak to pose a threat, those on the plain looked fit, fierce and very agile. They were happy to attack most things, cars, vans, small lorries and tractors included.

Yavuzlar was one of the trip’s highlights, partly because of the people I met, and partly because the remarkable scenery was far more exciting and extensive than I had expected. This is a place where austere, bleached, verdant and other-worldly landscapes combine in such an intimate but thrilling manner that you cannot help but be impressed. Add to this that the village itself is so picturesque, that a castle seems to exist on the flat-topped hill (if nothing else, the flat-topped hill provides outstanding views of Yavuzlar below) and that two remarkable ruined Armenian churches are only a few kilometres away, and you have a village that is unlike almost any other. Yavuzlar ought to be far better-known, but even Turks and Kurds rarely bother to visit. I felt exceedingly lucky to have seen Vanadocia.

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Kirmizikopru, Elmayaka and the Monastery of the Holy Cross, near Bahcesaray, Turkey.

From Bahcesaray I walked toward the village of Kirmizikopru with the river to my right (briefly, the river widens to conform with the flattening of the valley itself), orchards to my left and high peaks in all directions. The driver of a lorry with cattle in the back gave me a lift into Kirmizikopru itself, where I turned right as if ascending the asphalt road to Hizan in the west. About half a kilometre from Kirmizikopru I made another right turn onto a dirt road leading to the village of Elmayaka. Because Elmayaka is some way up the mountain slope, the road begins to ascend immediately, but I was very lucky. About a kilometre from the asphalt road the driver of a van stopped and offered me a lift to the village.

Arriving at my destination I found that part of the village occupies the top of a rocky outcrop with outstanding views to the west, the south and the east. The rocky outcrop has steep walls to the west and the north, but to the east and the south the land slopes gently away. Here, more houses have been built, and beyond the houses are fields and orchards. Below the village, beehives had been arranged near a hairpin bend. Most of Elmayaka’s houses have been constructed with rubble stone and many spread over two storeys. Flat roofs are the norm. A few houses have balconies and small patios, and the houses in the oldest part of the village, the part on the rocky outcrop, huddle together as if for reasons of security or to off-set the worst effects of the winter. To the north of the oldest village houses, a dirt track enters a pretty valley where a stream, pasture, small fields, a few orchards and cypress trees lead the eye toward the most distant mountain slope, the slope marking the end of the valley. Positioned higher than the track on what looks like a platform that may have been artificially levelled stand the ruins of the Monastery of the Holy Cross. In typical fashion, Armenians a long time ago had built a monastery in a very remote but beautiful location.

The track for most of the way to the monastery is quite level and easy to negotiate, and a source of water about half way to the ruins kept me refreshed. Because the track then ascends by a series of hairpin bends, I decided to risk a short cut along a rarely used path leading though undergrowth and rock to just below the platform on which the monastery stands. Small fields and fruit and nut trees are immediately below the platform, in just the same way that similar fields and trees had been when the monastery functioned in the distant past, and the monks used the surrounding land to produce food for human and animal consumption. One more effort and I was on the platform itself. Inevitably, from such an elevated position at the end of the valley, the views from the monastery toward Elmayaka are outstanding.

It is reassuring to report that the monastery remains more or less as T. A. Sinclair (a renowned scholar specialising in eastern Turkey) found it when he visited the site in 1970, so I will let him describe what I saw:

“The church… may date from 1408 and the zhamatun (the hall in front of the church) was probably rebuilt in the late 17th century. The date of the monastery’s foundation is 10th century or even earlier. An arm of John the Baptist was reverenced here, being kept, for the last century of the monastery’s history, in a bronze arm, which has been preserved in Persia.

“A large zhamatun, both broader and longer than the church, extends from its w. face. The church is larger than is usual for the district, but is still a nave without cupola. The apse is flanked by two rooms each on two storeys: the height of the lower rooms is much less than that of the upper rooms, so that steps can be contrived between the upper rooms and the main apse (drop of 3 feet from bottom of steps). The masonry on the exterior is excellent. Khatchkars (Armenian for ‘stone crosses’) high on s. face, round central window. The zhamatun is longer e. – w. than n. – s. The three spaces on the central e. – w. axis are more than twice as wide as the other six. The central square is cross-vaulted, and the corner vaults run e. – w.”

The church has a rectangular ground plan and the ceiling of the nave is higher than you think it will be from the the exterior. The ceiling is barrel-shaped, but I am confident that the roof, when complete, would have been pitched. Columns to the west of the church clearly indicate where the zhamatun would have been. I briefly searched the land immediately around the ruins to see if any khatchkars have survived, but the area has been so extensively trashed by vandals that I was unsuccessful in my quest. As is always the case with Armenian ruins, local people have engaged in digs hoping to find gold, silver or other valuables buried by Armenians just before being murdered or forced to flee from April 1915 onwards. Needless to say, such “treasure” is rarely found because Armenians rarely had the time or the opportunity to bury their most valuable possessions.

It was a delight to find the monastery in such reasonable condition, and to be in such a remote spot where lots of wild flowers, butterflies and lizards added to the visual interest. Not far from the ruins two Kurdish boys aged twelve and fifteen were asleep, but they roused themselves when I walked past. The boys were responsible for a large flock of sheep and goats that had found shelter from the sun among trees and rocks about 100 metres from the ruins.

It was now about 1.30pm and the hottest time of the day. I decided to walk along the track to Elmayaka rather than rely on the short cut. I stopped to consume a litre of water from the source beside the track, filled an empty bottle and soaked my handkerchief before putting it around my neck. It was now an easy walk to the village, which I wanted to examine more closely because of its outstanding location and interesting vernacular architecture.

I arrived just below the first old stone house in the village, a house which had been built on a rocky outcrop about 20 metres above the track. A young woman aged about sixteen waved and asked if I was thirsty. I was thirsty, despite the water recently consumed, so she invited me into the house. I walked around the rocky outcrop, ascended some steps and a sloping path, and arrived at the front door of the house. The house was spread over two storeys. When the door opened I peered into a large rectangular room to find my host, her mother, a female friend of the mother who had called for a chat, and my host’s younger brother and sister. Dad was working in Bahcesaray. I slipped off my boots and sat on a sofa, where I consumed two glasses of chilled water.

I could not believe my luck: I was in one of the old stone houses. The room in which we sat was in effect the best room because it possessed the TV, a sofa, easy chairs and some heavy pieces of furniture storing some of the family’s most treasured possessions. Bedrooms led off to one side of the room, and the kitchen, the toilet and the bathroom led off from another. The storey below had only one large room because of the sloping land on which the house had been built. The ground floor room was used to store food for human and animal consumption. Through the kitchen, where there were a few electrical gadgets, a washing machine and a very large fridge freezer, a door led onto a small patio, this being from where my host first made her presence known. The patio was not very large, but it was where the women of the house could sit and chat, engage in household chores (the day of my visit the fleeces of two sheep were being cleaned), enjoy some glasses of tea or, perhaps best of all, marvel at the outstanding views, views either up the valley to the ruined monastery or west along the valley leading eventually to Hizan.

I was encouraged to freshen up at a sink beside the bathroom before being offered some food. Some bread and cheese would have been more than enough, especially because it was daytime during Ramadan, but I was in for a surprise. The young woman disappeared into the kitchen while I chatted with the other people in the room (opportunities such as these rarely present themselves in Turkey. Because segregation of the sexes is still routine in most of the country, especially in the east, to be, as an unknown male, in the company of so many women at once is most unusual, especially when no adult male known to the women is also present. I was in a very privileged position). A table was pulled up in front of me and, fifteen minutes after she had begun preparing the food, the young woman returned with a tray almost a metre in circumference. I could not believe what I saw. There was bread and cheese alright, and both were home-made. In fact, two loaves of bread arrived and the white cheese was flavoured with herbs and chives. There were tomatoes, spring onions, olives, helva, watermelon, and a wonderful dish of spinach and cress cooked with egg. But what I liked the best, so much so that I had a second bowl, was the soup, a soup which contained tomatoes, macaroni and goodness knows what else to enhance the flavour. I tried a little of everything, the bread included, and the meal ended with four glasses of tea.

The young woman who fed me so well was obviously very intelligent. However, her parents had refused permission for her to attend high school (quietly, she made it clear to me that she was unhappy to be denied an education beyond the age of fourteen). Her sister, aged twelve, was in middle school, but her chances of benefiting from education beyond fourteen were also very slim. The son was only nine, but I was confident that he would complete his school education. Poverty might be the main reason why both female off-spring are likely to miss out on educational opportunities, but out-dated ideas about gender also play their part, especially if the son is allowed to attend high school. No doubt mum and dad feel that a secondary education is wasted on girls who will, in all likelihood, be married by the time they are sixteen or seventeen. What a depressing state of affairs.

I made to go, but could not do so until taking two loaves of bread shaped like very large Polo mints and a bag of the herb and chive cheese. What could I do other than take the address of the family and send them something from England. The kindness of total strangers had reached a new level, but similar kindness would persist until I left Turkish Kurdistan in a fortnight’s time.

I had a walk around the village with its houses stacked one above the other so every family has an uninterrupted view to the south. As I looked around, women urged me to walk a little further to see something worthwhile: an interesting house, a view over the valley far below, or a view toward the mountains enclosing Kirmizikopru. Next, I started to descend to the asphalt road. A few modern concrete and breeze block houses exist at the eastern extremity of the village, but they do little to dent the magnificent views.

Not long after returning to the asphalt road, the driver of a vehicle stopped and drove me into Kirmizikopru. In Kirmizikopru I took photos of a restored bridge and elderly men playing chess in the shade cast by some buildings lying between the river and the road. On my way to the monastery the very same men had been sitting in the shade on the other side of the road. When the sun moved to the west and flooded the morning’s shady spot with sunlight, the men had carried their chairs across the road to where a sunny spot was now in the shade. I suspect that moving their chairs had been the day’s most exacting task.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

The monastery featured in the photos below belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite/diaphysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite/diaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

The mountain road from Derince to Bahcesaray, Bitlis and Van provinces, Turkey.

To find Derince, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Hizan, Turkey”. From the centre of Hizan follow the road west for about 3.5 kms to a junction where a road goes south and then south-east. Follow the southbound road as it goes through Gayda and remain on it until arriving at a junction where another road goes south to Pervari. Ignore the Pervari road by continuing east for about 5 kms. You now arrive at a road junction where the asphalt road swings to the left to ascend a mountain and a dirt road continues east along the valley. Follow the asphalt road, which, after 3 kms, arrives at the westernmost edge of Derince. It is now quite obvious which road leads to Bahcesaray. The road goes more or less due east and crosses the boundary dividing the province of Bitlis from the province of Van.

The easiest way to enjoy the Derince to Bahcesaray road is with your own transport, of course, but with your own transport you risk missing the chance to engage more intimately with the scenery and the local people. But be warned: traffic along the Derince to Bahcesaray road is very light, and public transport would appear to be non-existent, except possibly on days when markets are held in Hizan and Bahcesaray. This said, minibuses run regularly from Tatvan (a large town on Lake Van with many hotels) to Hizan (where no hotels operate at present), and the occasional minibus runs from Hizan to Gayda, so you can get part of the way to Derince quite easily. The roads from Tatvan to Hizan and from Hizan to Derince are almost as beautiful as the road from Derince to Bahcesaray.

I was dropped at a beautiful spot in the valley where the road to Bahcesaray swings to the left to ascend a mountain by a series of hairpin bends. The man who had given me the lift (from just outside Hizan) drove along a dirt road leading further up the valley toward a distant village, a village which I saw below and to the south when further along the road to Bahcesaray. Down the valley, in the direction we had just come, a small village of old stone houses was perched above the road.

I decided to wait in the hope a vehicle would come in the direction I required. I did not want to ascend the steep road with both my bags. It was a delightful place to wait. The valley had steep walls on both sides, a river tumbled gently over rocks glistening in the sunshine, and I could see lots of trees and wild flowers.

Forty-five minutes passed without a single vehicle going either way, so I began to ascend the road. I had walked about a kilometre when I heard behind me the unmistakable sound of a small car struggling up the hill. The driver and his companion kindly gave me a lift for about 2 kms. The men were going as far as the first village along the road, a village half way up the mountain. We arrived at the point where a dirt road leads from the asphalt road to the nearest houses in the village.

We had driven to the edge of Derince, a village larger than many in the area. A majority of Derince’s houses are built of stone and have been positioned on the side of the mountain so as to secure uninterrupted views south. Gardens, fields, orchards and trees add significantly to its beauty. Even the modern concrete and breeze block houses look quite appealing, largely because of the stunning mountain scenery that surrounds them.

I had to press on so bid the two men farewell. As I continued to ascend, superb views opened up to the south with the village of Akca far below. I soon arrived in the village of Kalkanli, which is smaller than Derince despite being strung along the main road. Women and children were busy with chores close to home or in the nearby fields. One family group harvested the recently cut wheat stems to feed livestock during the forthcoming winter.

I walked past a small mosque without a minaret. Below the road were some of the village houses. One pitched roof comprised of sheets of rusty corrugated iron, but all the other roofs were flat. I examined how the flat roofs had been made. The walls of each house supported beams made from logs. Stone flags rested on the logs and a layer of mud or concrete lay on top of the stone flags. Occasionally, thin branches lay between the logs and the stone flags.

In need of a rest, I stopped to overlook a small playground and the valley far below. Two men aged about twenty arrived from behind a small elementary school and asked where I was going. They sounded quite concerned when I said Bahcesaray. I was beginning to share their concern; not one vehicle had moved along the road for quite some time.

I had walked about 500 metres (just below the road was a productive lemon grove) when one of the two men rode up on an old 125cc motorbike. Moments later his companion arrived with 3 metres of rope to tie my large bag to the bike. I was offered a lift of about 3 kms to reduce the length of the walk.

With the road still ascending, I resumed the walk. About 1.5 kms further along two boys aged twelve and fifteen were sitting under a tree about 50 metres from the road. The boys’ vantage point was above the road and commanded spectacular views to the east, the south and the west. They were responsible for a large flock of sheep and goats, which, because it was now midday and the temperature almost at its highest, had sought shelter among some nearby trees, bushes and rocks. The boys urged me to join them, which I was happy to do to have another short rest. They kindly provided me with glasses of tea.

I continued along the road. The views were more remarkable the higher I got. Near the summit, where Bitlis province gives way to Van province, I stopped to take in the stunning views to the west. I looked across a few fields of wheat to Kalkanli and Derince, but could see far beyond both settlements. With the highest mountains to the east and the south, those to the west gradually descended in size, which meant that the panorama was one I would long remember.

I arrived at the summit and could not believe my luck: if anything, the views to the east were even more remarkable than those to the west! My immediate surroundings were quite barren and austere, but the road descended quickly past slopes covered with rock and grass. The road entered a very pretty valley where, about 4 kms away, trees provided intimacy and scale to what was otherwise magnificent mountain scenery. I stopped again to take in my surroundings. To my right, at a position higher than the highest point on the road, a small army camp stood about 200 metres away. Directly ahead lay the pretty valley into which I had to walk to access Bahcesaray. I suspected that a small settlement or two had to exist among the trees, but could see no evidence for this from where I stood. To my left, far below, beehives had been arranged just above a narrow stream tumbling out of the surrounding mountains. Flowers grew on the slopes above and below the beehives. But the strangest thing of all was that, beside a hairpin bend between me and the beehives, a lorry stood beside the road. From a distance the lorry looked roadworthy, but, when I arrived beside it a little later, I realised it had been involved in a crash. Because the front of the vehicle had hit something very hard, the windscreen had sustained a thousand cracks but without breaking up.

I walked past the beehives beside the stream. Although most of the beehives were the common cube-shaped variety, there were a few old cylindrical-shaped ones similar to those that were once so popular in the Hemsin region near the Black Sea. Some of the cylindrical-shaped beehives had been woven from wicker and therefore resembled baskets, but others had been fashioned from planks to more obviously look like those found in the Hemsin region. The latter resembled slim barrels, but they lacked the bulge that barrels have at what might be called the waist.

About half a kilometre nearer the trees I came across more beehives. The second group of beehives were on a gently sloping shelf above the road. Two men were responsible for the beehives and they urged me to join them for a rest. I left my large bag beside a vehicle they had parked on the road and ascended to where they had erected two tents, one to sleep in and one to store the honey they had harvested. I was urged to enter the tent where the honey was stored in a large cylindrical metal drum. At first I was reluctant to enter the tent because of the many bees that were inside, but it soon became apparent that they were not going to sting. I was offered some tea and encouraged to scoop honey from a honeycomb still in its rectangular wooden frame. The honey tasted sublime. I learned from the men that they remained with the beehives for almost four months. Roughly once a week they drove to Bahcesaray to buy supplies, their favourite time being when the town came to life with the weekly market.

I resumed the walk and soon came across a sign that caused me considerable concern: Bahcesaray still lay 20 kms away! It was now about 3.00pm and I was worried I might have to walk all the way to my destination (still no vehicle had passed going east, despite the fact that the asphalt road remained in good condition). At least the temperature was slowly declining and I would soon be in the shade cast by the trees that lay ahead.

At last I entered the valley where it narrows and supports the trees. Houses existed among the trees, as did small fields and orchards. Women were busy in their gardens. Sheep, cattle, horses, butterflies and lots of birds added interest to the scenery, which was still dominated by mountains. White clouds had built up in the deep blue sky and they looked especially pretty when, in the foreground, a few cypress tress provided a splash of deep green.

It was interesting to walk along a valley supporting humankind after having come over the highest, very sparsely populated section of road where Bitlis province gives way to Van province. High mountains were still everywhere, but houses and hamlets peeped from among the trees. Women worked in the fields, orchards and gardens; boys and girls took responsibility for small numbers of sheep, goats and cattle grazing on the pasture; and birds and butterflies flew among the attractive vegetation, which included a surprising number of flowers. So benign had my immediate surroundings become that I momentarily thought I had strayed into a remote part of upland France or Spain. However, the vernacular architecture and the women’s clothes soon brought me to my senses.

It was now 6.00pm and, although about twenty vehicles had passed me on their way west, for over six hours only one car had gone east, and that car had been driven only 200 metres ahead of me to a small shop in a village from where family members picked up a few things for iftah (the meal that concludes the daily fast during Ramadan).

I arrived at the edge of Kirmizikopru, a village beside a river with a very pretty restored bridge. The bridge has a single high arch that reminded me of similar bridges in the Hemsin region. I saw a man sitting under a tree. The man said that Bahcesaray was still 4 or 5 kms away, which meant that, if I had to walk all the way, I could get there just as iftah began. But I was told that a walk to Bahcesaray would be unnecessary. I was urged to rest while some food was prepared, then the man would drive me to the town after I had eaten. I could not believe my luck.

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Gokbudak and Begendik, Siirt, Turkey.

To find the villages of Gokbudak and Begendik, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Pervari, Turkey”. From the centre of Pervari note that two roads run east, one slightly more northerly than the other. Both villages lie about 15 kms east of Pervari, Gokbudak along the more southerly of the two roads and Begendik along the more northerly one. Traffic is very light on both roads and minibuses extremely infrequent, but a mixture of walking and hitching will get you to both. However, only a very lucky person can visit both villages in a day. Set aside a day for each village and incidental pleasures can be relished without worrying about the time. The mountain scenery is spectacular along both roads. Although Pervari does not have a hotel, alternative accommodation exists, especially during the school holidays.

I got to the village of Gokbudak with a lift of about 7 kms in a heavily laden lorry and by walking the rest of the way. The scenery is outstanding from start to finish. Mountains, deep ravines, tributaries that tumble down the slopes to meet the main river, and patches of intensively cultivated more level land ensure there is always something to enjoy, even when steep ascents and descents begin to take their toll on your feet. As for Gokbudak itself, in many ways it is a smaller version of Begendik, as the following will confirm. The village has been built on a mountain slope facing south with views over intensively farmed land along a pretty valley floor. The houses are stacked in such a manner that every family enjoys uninterrupted views. The great majority of houses are built with rubble stone. Cubic or cuboid in shape, the houses have flat roofs. Usually constructed over two storeys, they rarely have verandas or balconies, but the flat roofs can be used for many purposes, not least for sleeping on during the hottest time of the year. Ground floor rooms are sometimes used to shelter livestock overnight or to store food for human or animal consumption. Narrow, meandering paths, sometimes steep and eroded because of the lie of the land, provide people with access to their homes. As far as I could tell, everyone works the land in some shape or form. Cultivation of crops is undertaken by every family, but some families also rear sheep and goats on pasture on the surrounding hills and mountains. Few families deem themselves comfortably off, but you can tell that everyone eats well. Many houses have access to satellite TV. The village is too small to support any shops or a tea house, which means that there is a strong emphasis on self-sufficiency. This said, some families possess their own motor vehicles. Just as I arrived in the village, a minibus owned by a villager pulled away to take passengers to Pervari, the nearest town of any size. However, I was advised that another minibus would not leave for Pervari until the following morning.

I was impressed with how welcoming everyone was and how well-behaved the local children were, even the boys aged about eight to fourteen. I was encouraged to look everywhere I wanted, the small mosque included, and some of the women engaged in short chats as they undertook chores in and around their homes. The females who would not risk a chat, or even succumb to eye contact, were those aged about fourteen to twenty-five. Soon to be or recently married, they could not risk compromising their honour in any shape or form. This is quite insane, if only because the same idea about honour does not apply to males of the same age.

I left my overnight accommodation at 7.00am with hardly anyone on the streets. I got to the eastern extremity of Pervari, began to descend to the road leading to Begendik, and was offered a short lift by a driver dropping an elderly couple at their home about 2 kms away. With no vehicles passing for the next ninety minutes, I walked about 6 kms before given two short lifts of about 2 kms each. By the time I was in the third vehicle of the morning I could see Begendik perched on the slope of a mountain on the far side of a valley. However, because of a very steep descent with many hairpin bends along a dirt road to a bridge crossing a river in a deep ravine, and a steep ascent almost as demanding with many twists and turns, it took an additional fifty minutes to reach the outskirts of the village.

The road from Pervari to Begendik, a distance of about 15 kms, is every bit as dramatic and diverting as the road from Pervari to Gokbudak. Begendik is a much larger village than Gokbudak and has two sections. The smaller section, which you come to first from Pervari, has a lot of modern buildings, but the larger section has almost nothing but rubble stone houses with flat roofs that have been built on the mountain slope to ensure everyone enjoys uninterrupted views south. Some of the houses are very large and benefit from balconies, satellite dishes and water tanks, the latter located on the flat roofs. On the wide valley floor below both sections of the village is an area of highly productive gardens, fields and orchards. Because mountains completely surround Begendik, families exploit the pasture on some of the slopes to rear large flocks of sheep and goats. In the village itself are donkeys, mules, horses, goats, cows, calves, cockerels and hens. One of the few modern buildings in the larger part of Begendik is a mosque where construction workers are currently building a minaret that will be 30 metres tall (I met the mosque’s hoca as well as some of his congregation). The population of Begendik is large enough to support a few shops. There are only five or six shops altogether, but they provide a few local people with a livelihood and ensure that some of life’s necessities are easily accessed by the villagers themselves. One shop in the smaller part of Begendik provided me with a much-needed litre of chilled fruit juice and, later, a can of chilled cherry juice.

On the road leading to Begendik, when you are still about 4 kms from your destination but can see the village across the wide valley only a kilometre away as the crow flies, your attention soon drifts from the delightful view of the houses tumbling down the mountain slope to take full account of the surroundings. Some of the mountains enclosing Begendik have an austere and barren appearance, an appearance which contrasts sharply with the fertility of the valley floor that has been cultivated with such care and attention to detail.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Ayranci and Danali, Batman, Turkey.

To find the villages of Ayranci and Danali, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Batman, Turkey”. From the centre of Batman go slightly north of east for about 15 kms and you will find the small town of Besiri. Ayranci is about 5 kms south-west of Besiri and Danali is about 1.5 kms west of Ayranci. A road from Danali leads west toward Batman, so, if using a mixture of public transport, walking and hitching to undertake the visits, a round trip can be done through scenery that is frequently very attractive.

My plan for the day was to visit the village of Ayranci to see the ruins of Mor Kyriakos, a large Syriac Orthodox monastery, before returning to Batman via the village of Danali, but the excursion took less time than I had expected. As a result, I was able to squeeze in a 2.5 hour trip to Hasankeyf (Hasankeyf is not featured in a post because, as one of eastern Turkey’s most iconic destinations, it is widely known. This said, visit Hasankeyf as soon as you can because parts of the extensive site are once again threatened by plans to construct a dam along the River Tigris).

At the minibus garaj in Batman everyone said that the best way to Ayranci is via the small town of Besiri, so I boarded the first departure for Kurtalan. The short journey was a delight because, near the village of Ormegoze, the road ascends into the hills and, with Besiri below, you secure extensive views to the east and the north. One passenger pointed to a distant village and said, “That is where my family live.” The man got off the minibus with me and another male passenger, so we entered Besiri together. They led me toward Belediye Caddesi, a pretty tree-lined street with small shops, offices, tea houses, lokantas and bakeries constituting the town’s commercial core (but there was very little activity, no doubt because it was Ramadan and the temperature was rapidly rising as midday approached).

I was pointed in the right direction for Ayranci, then we said farewell. I made a right turn along Camii Caddesi before confirming directions with two elderly men. Very soon, a dirt road ascended into the hills south-west of Besiri. After about forty-five minutes the road crossed a small plateau with tall communications’ aerials and a few military installations, the latter deserted because the ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party was holding. The tall aerials and military installations looked incongruous in the dry and barren surroundings. A little later I arrived at the lip of the plateau and, below, saw the village of Ayranci. The road was still a dirt road and it descended the steep hillside with three or four hairpin bends. To my right I could see Danali and, directly ahead about 3 kms away, another village. In Ayranci itself I saw a modern mosque, lots of old stone houses, some modern concrete and breeze block houses and the ruins of Mor Kyriakos.

Ayranci lies directly below the steep hillside that I had just walked down, and I was struck immediately by how vulnerable the houses must be to falling rocks. In fact, rocks of all sizes are scattered on the pasture between the hillside and the village and among the houses themselves. A honey-coloured stone has been used to build a majority of the old houses, most of which are spread over two floors. Traditionally, ground floors have been used to shelter livestock at night or to store food for human or animal consumption; some ground floors are still used for these purposes. Living quarters for humans are above the ground floor. Most houses have flat roofs and rubble walls, and squares and rectangles invariably greet the eye. Dressed and carved stone is very rare. Modern houses are the usual concrete and breeze block structures of no architectural merit. Because every house benefits from electricity, satellite dishes are common. The family in one old stone house had bought a new fridge freezer. The fridge freezer was delivered by two large men who had driven it on the back of their open-topped lorry. The lorry had come from a distribution depot in Batman along a dirt road from Danali.

The ruined monastery lies inside a circuit of linked wire fence and behind a padlocked metal gate leading through the main entrance. This meant I could not access the interior, but, in a perverse way, I was reassured by what I found. The monastery has obviously been identified as worthy of preservation, hence the security arrangements. Even without accessing the interior (various structures, including the bulky church itself, are arranged around a large courtyard. The roof of the church appears to be intact, although damaged),  by peering through the fence along the north edge of the site I could tell that this was an important survival from the past. Moreover, the south facade of the monastery presents a quite stunning sight. Here is a long, tall curtain of wall crowned by cavities that were once windows, and the wall is pierced with a very pretty, slightly bow-shaped main entrance enlivened by some intricately carved stone. Just below the arch is a large inscribed panel written in Aramaic.

I called at the mosque for some water. After drinking four cups and filling my bottle, I set off for Danali by crossing some undulating fields. Danali lies about 1.5 kms from Ayranci and I used the minaret of the large new mosque to ensure I was heading in the correct direction.

Danali has a few old stone houses and the ruin of what was described to me as a house, but the ruined “house” is so large that it could have once belonged to a monastic complex (later, someone said that a ruined church exists in the village).

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

The monastery featured in the photos below belonged to the Syriac Orthodox Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite/diaphysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite/diaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image