In Uzbekistan it was a fine exercise to picture nomadic hordes sweeping back and forth across the steppes, conquering and reconquering oasis towns, plundering caravans, establishing dynasties that melted into the sands.
In eastern Turkey, the stakes seem somewhat different. Here, on the banks of Lake Van and then on to trails through valleys and up into the mountains, a more stable culture established itself, protected itself with powerful fortresses, contented itself, more or less, within its broad territories. Here the Urartu lived. They built the Van Castle in the eighth century BCE, hundreds of years before the Athenian building boom. Their myths turn up again in the mythologies of the other dominant Iron Age peoples, most notably in tales we recognize from the Old Testament. They carved cuneiform texts extolling their heroes. Their castles dominated the trade routes.
Urartu was a sitting duck between eager forces from all directions. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Kurds, Brits, Russians all struggled to control the area. The great legacy of the Urartian people is their heirs: the Armenians. As a final insult, the historically dispossessed Armenians now have a kind of impoverished independence, essentially abandoned by Russia, but beholden to it still. Their homeland rests just across the border with Turkey. The border is closed, and the area is now majority Kurdish, newly rehabilitated in the Turkish mind.
So what we have are the ruins. The Van Castle was built on a strong hill on the shore of Lake Van. It’s the largest Urartu fortress in the world. The royal Urartian citadel Cavustepe, about twenty miles from Van, commands the trade route through the mountain valleys. Here, a gentleman, Mehmet Kusdman, who taught himself to read Urartian cuneiform, greets tourists and points out highlights like the perfectly cut stones that required no mortar and the deep cisterns cut into the mountain top.
Later, on the way to Kars, we passed Mount Ararat on the way to the Ishak Pasha Palace. This is a most unlikely place because it was built in the 1790s, 2300 years after the Urartians were crushed by the Medians and hundreds of years after the Silk Road had faded in significance. The palace is thoroughly Ottoman. Trade still trudged through the valley below, and palace guards rode down to collect the tolls. Meanwhile, given the look of the palace, the pasha and his family may well have gathered round to hear the next chapter of Northanger Abbey. The reading would begin in the ornate dining room, but the private reading would continue in the cold, stony bedrooms where iron bars, vertical and horizontal, interrupted the view of the bee hives, the green mountain side, the purpling of the distant mountains, the surprisingly yellow glow of the trade route through the valley. There must be a secret passage somewhere. Jane will find it.
And then there are the lava fields, miles and miles from the exploding mountain; piles of stone, big as fortresses, form an incoherent, inhuman architecture which welcomes, houses, protects, warms no one. A planet’s ruins so much more fearsome than our own.