The Fortress, The Castle, The Pasha’s Bedroom

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.

 

Irrigation, farmland, village, and distant mountains

Irrigation, farmland, village, and distant mountains

Van Castle

Van Castle

Ishak Pasha Palace from below

Ishak Pasha Palace from below

The town below the palace

The town below the palace

The Pasha's dining room

The Pasha’s dining room

Winding passages straight out of Northanger Abbey

Winding passages straight out of Northanger Abbey

Reading Jane Austen in the Pasha's bedroom

Reading Jane Austen in the Pasha’s bedroom

Proximate lava field, distant volcano

Proximate lava field, distant volcano

The view from the Ishak Pasha Palace. Once more, the Silk Road to nearby Persia

The view from the Ishak Pasha Palace. Once more, the Silk Road to nearby Persia

Endangered species: the Van cat

Endangered species: the Van cat

The ancient observatory

The ancient observatory

And steep as well

And steep as well

The long trail to the top

The long trail to the top

Watch tower and Lake Van beyond

Watch tower and Lake Van beyond

The broken tower at Van

The broken tower at Van

Gate to the castle

Gate to the castle

Climbing to the Van Castle, capital of the Urartian kingdom

Climbing to the Van Castle, capital of the Urartian kingdom

Farm village beneath Cavustepe

Farm village beneath Cavustepe

"And I built This Noble Castle and..." blah blah

“And I built This Noble Castle and…” blah blah

Mehmet gives a cuneiform lesson

Mehmet gives a cuneiform lesson

Perfectly fitted stones at Cavustepe fortress

Perfectly fitted stones at Cavustepe fortress

The Silk Road to Persia

The Silk Road to Persia

No barren rock here

No barren rock here

2 thoughts on “The Fortress, The Castle, The Pasha’s Bedroom

  1. Hi Peter,

    Caught up on all your recent posts today. It shows the value of being the brave soul that you are: what what sights you get to see from daring to travel to these parts. I’d never have the guts to go to Uzbekistan, and some of the rocky conveyances you describe would have me vomiting all over my fellow passengers, I fear.

    Had no idea there were castles in 800 BCE. And how can modern royals with names like Prince Charles compete with fellows named Gignek I or whatever his name was.

    So many wonderful photos of structures –– the blue mosque is amazing, but today, with news my mom has a blot clot in her vein and Steve B, telling me on the phone in a bare whisper “I’m a wiped out fellow” put me in the mood to appreciate most the one with the red flowers on the barren rock, and “I built this noble castle, blah, blah. The former reminded me of a Zen story that I’d forgotten.

    Ancient Master Shi-t’ou once remarked: ‘The solid rock oes not permit even a pin-head to enter.’ When Master Yo-shan heard this he replied: ‘I plant a flower on the rock.’ Steve

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