As dramatic as the title of this story is the landscape that awaits after a long, long journey across Turkey: Lake Van in the very east of the country and Akdamar island floating in the middle.
I had just researched an article for bootsnall about lakes and their monsters and Lake Van had popped up. Given that I was already in the country, love legends, mystery and romance, my natural reaction was to go and have a look. Who knows, I might get lucky and see the Lake Van monster myself.
As always, I took the long distance coach from the Aegean Sea where I live right across to the other end. I was on the road for something like 22 hours, but Turkish coaches are very comfortable, stop every 3 or 4 hours and, as not all that many tourists use them, I get to meet the locals which always makes for great entertainment. The coach drivers, which are formally addressed as ‘captain’ are also very accommodating and will drop you where you want to go as long as your destination is along the route. My nice driver was no exception and when I told him the name of the hotel I had booked, he said: “Oh, that’s right along the way. I’ll stop for you.” And he did.
Luckily when we came close to Lake Van it was daylight again and I had a chance to see the vast expanse of Turkey’s largest lake, deep, huge and cold, rising out of the morning mist illuminated by the first rays of the sun. The lake is surrounded by Turkey’s highest mountains, with some steep drops down into the lake.
My hotel, the Merrit Sahmaran, was located right on the shore of the lake, that’s why I had chosen it and I couldn’t have made a better choice. A glamour granny’s dream, with luxurious rooms, a pool, a tiny gym and a spa offering 15 kinds of massages and beauty treatments, all for EUROS 55 a night for a single room. But best was the view of the lake. I went to see the manager and told him what I do and even got a reduced room rate, free transport and, best of all, a free trip to Akdamar island. It happened to be the manager’s day off and he came with me, so I not only got a private boat but a knowledgeable private guide into the bargain.
My first question was about the monster. As I had found out during my research, much had been written about the monster, a student even had made a video about a sighting and it was mentioned that there was a statue depicting the monster somewhere in the city of Van. The first thing the manager did, when I mentioned the monster was burst out laughing. When he had calmed down, he said: “Ok, yes, the monster. I’ll call it for you. It’ll come at midnight.” In short, nobody took my quest for the monster seriously and to cut a long story short, I didn’t find the statue either. I asked many people, including the tourist office, but nobody could point me in the right direction. The statue has remained as elusive as the monster itself.
Never mind the monster, Akdamar island has a lot to offer as it is. The western side of the island is formed by a sheer lime stone cliff which rises 80m above the level of the lake. Towards the east, the island levels out and that’s where the center piece of Akdmar island is located, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
King Gagik I Artsruni of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan (10th century) chose Akdamar island as one of his residences and built a square palace, parks and gardens, an elaborate system of streets an drains and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and adjacent monastery inhabited by monks. Nothing but the cathedral remains. In 1915, during a dark period in Turkish history, the last Ottomans persecuted Armenians and in the process, the monastery on the island was razed, all monks were murdered and the cathedral was looted and fell into disarray.
During a restoration program between 2005 and 2006, the cathedral was restored and now every year a religious ceremony is held on the island which attracts thousands of visitors who come by boat.
The cathedral is unique because of its conic dome and the amazing array of elaborate bas reliefs. Our boat docked at the far side of the island and we climbed up to admire the cathedral and the spectacular views form the island’s highest point toward shore.
And the love story? Legend has it, that an Armenian princess by the name of Tamar lived on the island. She was in love with a boy from the mainland and he swam every night across to be with her. She used to lit a light in her window to show him the way. One day her father, the king, found out and , enraged, smashed the light. The boy, who was on his way, drowned and his last words were “Akh Tamar” (Oh, Tamar), which is, always according to legend, where the name of the island came from.
They say, that on a silent night, his dying words can still be heard over the water. How is that for romance and mystery?
The best way to get to the island is from either Edremit of Gevas from where boat services run. Both towns can be reached by dolmus, the Turkish local min buses. The boats don’t run on a fixed schedule, they leave when there are enough passengers.
Akdamar island is definitely a must see and if you can manageto visit in spring you will have the added pleasure of seeing a sea of purple because the Judas trees which are everywhere on the island will be in full bloom.