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Van Kalesi: the Rock of Van

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The narrow outcrop known as Van Kalesi – 1.5km long, over 100m tall and perhaps 300m wide at the base – holds the nearest visitable Urartian fortification to Van. Equipped with its own spring, it was an eminently suitable stronghold. As you pass the northern face, note the arched niches, which originally belonged to an Urartian temple, set in the base of the cliff, behind an Ottoman-era mosque and türbe. These once held stelae; cuneiform inscriptions on the base of one document the life and works of a powerful Urartian king.

Entry is from the car park and ticket booth on the northwest side, where there’s also a decent restaurant/café and a replica of an old Van house, built of mud brick and home to one of the famous Van cats. Just west of the tea gardens is a large stone platform (possibly a jetty) made of limestone blocks, some over 5m long. Two inscriptions adorn the structure, both in the Assyrian, rather than the Urartian, language, praising the Urartian king Sarduri I (844–838 BC).

From the “jetty” or ticket booth, a path ascends the gentler north face of the Rock and leads, eventually, to the citadel on top. A slight diversion south from the route leads to the single most impressive part of Van Kalesi, the rock tomb of Argishti 1 (785–760 BC), which is set in the sheer cliff face on the south side of the Rock, west of the summit area. As the door is gated and locked, you’ll need to be guided by one of the security officials who hang out near the ticket booth – expect to give a small tip. The tomb is reached by a set of worn steps, fortunately protected by metal railings. The carved rock face above the stairs is covered in well-preserved cuneiform inscriptions relating Argishti’s conquests. Take a torch to explore the interior, where the fixing holes for votive plaques can still be seen. Several more anonymous rock-cut tombs are scattered on the south face of the Rock, east of the summit area, but take care – the path is badly worn, and the drops deadly.

The most prominent building on the top today is a restored Ottoman-era mosque. The arch-roofed building next to that is a medrese, while the former barracks of the Ottoman garrisons stand close by. The curious steps cut into the limestone are actually the foundation bases for cyclopean Urartian walls; the mud-brick ones visible today are much later. The new-looking sections of crenellated wall on the eastern part of the Rock are just that, but probably follow the line of ancient walling.

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