ARMENIA: A Journey Through History

Excerpt from Chapter 1 - Pages 19-20


(The City and the Lake)

Van (the city, known also in ancient times as Tospa, Tushpa, Shamiramashen, and Yervandashen) lies at an elevation of 5600 feet above sea level, just east of the southeast corner of the lake of the same name. Founded during the early Urartian period (proto-Armenian, before 800 B.C.) it is the capital city of the Vilayet, or Province of Van, earlier known as Vaspurakan. As a walled city, it lay immediately to the southwest at the foot of the Citadel of Van, the long and narrow, free-standing rock about three-quarters of a mile long and 360 feet high, that had been made into a fortress during the Urartian realm, also known as the Vannic Kingdom.


The Fortress of Van Rising Above the Site and Remains of the Old City

Beyond the ancient walled city to the south and east were the fertile fields and farms called "Aygestan" (Gardenland).

The walled city was destroyed during the upheavals at the turn of the century and the first two decades of the 20th century. The site, at present, is desolate except for some ruins of churches, mosques and public buildings.

Prominent on the smooth wall built on the Citadel is an ancient (8th century B.C.) cuneiform inscription.

The population of the city in about the year 1900 was approximately 30,000, of which two-thirds were Armenian. But the present-day city, just to the east has a population of about 60,000, most of whom are Kurds.

Throughout its turbulent history, Van and the region surrounding it fell under the dominion of Medes, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, and Seljuk Turks (Battle of Manzikert, 1071 A.D.).

Van was finally conquered in 1543 by Suleyman I, after which it came under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it lies in the secular Republic of Turkey.

Catholicos Mkrtich I "Khrimian Hayrik" was Van's most famous son. He was a very progressive educator, and during his years there, he founded a girl's school and published a periodical "Eagle of Vaspurakan." This much-loved churchman, when Patriarch of Constantinople (before his election as Catholicos of All Armenians) became famous for his remark about Armenia not having an "iron ladle" with which to share in the "herriseh banquet" along with the European powers - referring to the land grabbing by the Europeans which took place at the Berlin Conference of 1878 following Turkey's defeat in the Russo-Turkish war.

The Armenians of Van, during the time of the massacres instigated by Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1895-1896, stubbornly held off a Turkish seige.


Lake Van (known in much earlier times as Bznunyats Dzov) is land-locked, at an elevation of 5400 feet above sea level. It is heavily laden with mineral salts which give the clear water a distinctive blue color. Unfortunately, the water is unfit for drinking. Vestiges of early waterworks indicate that fresh water was being brought into the city from mountain sources in conduits as early as the Urartian period. Credit is usually given for that ingenious system to the fabled Assyrian Queen Shamiram.

A ferry plies the 60-mile width of the lake, between Tatvan in the west and Van (at the nearby port of Iskele) in the east. It carries, in addition to people and vehicles, a railroad train over this segment of the east-west railroad across Anatolia. As such, this ferry is an important link, through Van, of international trade.

About three kilometers off the southern shore of the lake is the island of Aghtamar with its Holy Cross Church, at one time the Cathedral of the Holy See of the Armenian Church. The site is touted by the Ministry of Tourism as one of the most important tourist attractions in east central Turkey.


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