Orenkale, near Baskale, Van, Turkey.

To find Orenkale, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Baskale, Turkey”. From the centre of Baskale, follow the road south for about 12 kms to Orenkale (do not make the mistake of following the main road to Hakkari. The road to Orenkale lies to the west of the road to Hakkari). You are on the correct road if, after about 8 kms, you pass the small village of Erkonagi. Public transport to Erkonagi and Orenkale is non-existent, but almost everyone with a motor vehicle will provide you with a lift all or part of the way.

I decided to risk a visit to Orenkale, a village about 12 kms to the south of Baskale said to have a castle and a medrese (a seminary for training hocas, or religious leaders for the mosques). I asked for the road leading to Orenkale and began to walk out of town. The first car that came my way had two men in it. Sitting on the back seat were the son and two daughters of one of the men. The men said that they were driving to within 4 kms of Orenkale and would be delighted to take me that far.

T. A. Sinclair’s description of the area surrounding Baskale gives an insight into the unusual scenery encountered all the way to Orenkale:

“The wide valley’s surface, generally undulating or flat, is nevertheless deeply scored in places by ravines making for the River Zab; mostly unseen, the river flows down the middle line. Much of the surface is covered thinly by light grass: the rectangular ploughed areas are conspicuous against the plain’s light green. On the east (looking toward Iran) the crowded, many-coloured hills rise gradually. On the west the plain’s edge is sharper, and the green hills go up more steeply. They rise eventually to the high range which limits the Hosap Plain to the east. Baskale, the highest town in Turkey and the former capital of the district (Armenian Greater Aghbak) stands at the edge of the plain on this side, high enough to survey its southern half.”

The road meandered in and out of small valleys and over low ridges, but never ascended or descended very steeply. Hills and mountains remained a constant in the middle distance, but, almost the whole way to our destination, the views were extensive. Rectangular fields do, indeed, mingle and alternate with the more extensive patches of pasture, and large flocks of sheep and goats, and a few herds of cattle, graze where they can, which means that you must watch for large and ferocious dogs used to protect the livestock. The wheat in one field had been harvested and the hay removed to create large stacks around the boundary.  The field had been turned into a temporary football pitch where boys had formed two five-a-side teams. The boys chased after an old leather football with considerable enthusiasm. So bees could benefit from the many wild flowers, hives had been arranged in no fewer than six different places. Because the cloud was building up, the scenery assumed a more bleak appearance than would have been the case had the sun been shining (trees are very rare on the plain, and the absence of trees increased the sense of bleakness). However, the cloud somehow enhanced the atmosphere and the sense that something special lay ahead. I found the area quite enchanting, despite the presence of the large and ferocious dogs.

We arrived in the small village of Erkonagi, which commands outstanding views over the plain toward Iran, in these parts only 30 kms to the east. We stopped in front of a large stone house with a flat roof and, after being introduced to the man who owned the house, I was urged to stay, first for some tea and then for a meal. This I did, even though rain was threatening and I was about 4 kms from Orenkale.

After the meal, which was eaten as the sky continued to darken with cloud, the males returned to the salon for more tea. After half an hour I explained that, if I were to visit Orenkale and return to Baskale before nightfall, I would have to leave very soon, not least because a storm was threatening. I said farewell, took a few last photos of everyone who had been so kind to me, and set off for Orenkale. For most of the way the road ascends and descends very gently, which made the walk much easier than would otherwise have been the case. However, to access Orenkale the road descends quite steeply to a bridge over a fast-flowing river, then ascends for much longer to enter the village itself. Although the village stands on a fertile plateau above the river, far above is a mountain summit crowned with the ruins of the castle. Orenkale’s castle ruins are more extensive than those at Baskale, but cannot compare with those at Hosap. However, they are located so dramatically on the mountain summit that this alone makes the journey worthwhile. The other things that make the journey worthwhile are the ruined medrese in the village and the wild flowers that prosper in the pasture all the way along the road. Perhaps the most common flower of all is a blue flower resembling a large thistle. In places there were so many thistle-like flowers that a blue mist seemed to hug the ground.

I arrived at the edge of the village where a young man aged about twenty greeted me with handshakes and a few words in Kurmanci. We walked together to the centre of the village where I found the remains of what must once have been a remarkable medrese. By now, with the first drops of rain falling from the sky, I had attracted a gang of male children and five adults, the latter very surprised that a foreigner had arrived in Orenkale, especially without a car.

Sinclair notes that the design of the medrese:

“is accommodated to the steep south-eastward slope. The two lines of rooms either side of a courtyard lie along the slope… The two end walls of the courtyard are closed by walls only. The building as a whole, owing to the width of the rooms, is longer at right angles to than along the courtyard’s axis. The line of rooms on the downhill side had a higher external facade than the other, but the rooms on the uphill side are built from foundations at a slightly higher level. Of the uphill rooms those on the lower storey have been engulfed by earth up to the arches of the doors…

“The outer door, in a recess with a keel-shaped arch, comes directly into the courtyard’s ne. side. Each line of rooms was reached from a portico. The upper portico on the nw. is fronted by walls at either end leaving a gap between of two-fifths the total length… The tall stone piers that supported both the wooden floors and, on the se. side only, the roof, of the porticoes’ upper storeys still stand; the beam-holes for the floor and for a balustrade can be seen. The ground floors of the porticoes are fronted by arches joining the piers…

“Each room’s courtyard-side window has an arch which is completely filled by a stone lintel. Hearths in each room. Instead of the two southerly rooms of the se. side’s ground floor, a prayer hall has been contrived.”

The ruined medrese, and the castle high above the small settlement, confirm that Orenkale used to be an important town, but now it is a remote village composed almost entirely of old stone houses whose builders utilised basic construction methods. A few houses have been built with concrete and breeze block, but such houses are in the minority. Some old stone houses have small patios and verandas, and a few walls have been covered with mud or plaster and painted. Dry stone walls enclose fields and many of the gardens.

The rain discouraged any idea about ascending the mountain to examine the castle, but I was taken to somewhere from where I could see the ruins clearly, although from a distance of about half a kilometre. The castle occupies the whole of the gentle hilltop. To the west the slope is steep, and at the south end of this side of the hilltop the wall is carefully preserved. In fact, a tower survives. At the castle’s north-west corner is the ruin of a mosque. Remains of the minaret stand on a tower at the north-west corner of the mosque and the castle.

Sinclair has a few last helpful things to say about Orenkale:

“The village is high above the south-west corner of the plain. The castle stands at the top of a steep slope rising from the village’s north side. When the Husrev Pasa Medresesi, which stands amid trees on a slope in the village, was built (1653), the settlement, presumably larger than at present, was probably divided between the castle and the present site, and the castle is very likely to have been the residence of the medrese’s endower. The latter, a brother of the bey of Hakkari, perhaps built one of the two turbes (tombs) beneath the castle on the far side (the north) from the village. When the family of the Hakkari beys was finally evicted from Baskale by the Ottoman authorities (1845 – the last of the family to occupy Baskale was a woman, Halime Hatun), it was given Pizan (Orenkale’s old name) as a residence.”

I set off for Baskale, but two boys soon caught me up. The boys wanted to show me a carved stone on a rock wall beside the fast-flowing river that pours out of a remarkably pretty valley west of Orenkale. We followed a path beside the river on the same side as the mountain crowned with the castle. Sure enough, not far from where the river tumbles over a small waterfall, an unusual example of carved stone was about a metre above my head. The carving had been made in the natural rock itself and was probably very old. Curves dominated the design, which I was unable to distinguish as anything in particular. But what this seemed to prove is that Orenkale has much to reveal, despite its current small size.

I thanked the boys for their kindness and set off along the road to Baskale. I was caught in a second downpour, but, for part of it, sheltered with two shepherds under their umbrella. Twice I thought I would have problems with dogs, but, after barking loudly and threatening to chase me, they decided I was not a danger to their flocks of sheep and goats.

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