I picked my way through the sad mounds one day in order to see the famous inscription that Xerxes had ordered to be carved on the rock around the year 482 BC. Western history gives little praise to Xerxes, writing him up as an eastern despot. He was certainly a keen self-publicist, and his inscription is by far the most imposing in Van, being carved large on a prominent section of the sheer rock face. It is about eighty feet above the ground and about thirty feet below the top of the rock, so that the craftsmen must have done their work suspended on ropes or cradles with a terrifying drop beneath them. When I returned to London I looked up a translation of the inscription, and found that it had really been intended to honour Darius, Xerxes' father, who had conquered Van. But one would have had difficulty working this out from the text. It mentions Darius just twice in passing, and concentrates almost entirely upon the glory of Xerxes. It is long, rambling and somewhat repetitive, but the gist of it runs,
A great God is Ahuramazda, the greatest of the gods, who created this earth, who created the heaven, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Xerxes king, the one King of many kings, the King of kings... I am Xerxes the great King, King in this great earth far and wide... Me may Ahuramazda, with the gods, preserve, and my kingdom, and what has been done by me.
After leaving his mark on Van, Xerxes had swept on through Anatolia to build his mile-long bridge of boats across the Hellespont, and add Greece to his lists of conquests. And because, with Xerxes, the Greeks and Thermopylae, I had entered a time scale I could relate to, with events and people which have become a part of the fabric of Western history and culture, I felt the greatest thrill at seeing this particular inscription.
I had a more illuminating glimpse into the more nebulous Urartian civilization when I crossed the mountains south-east of Van, to visit the site of Çavustepe. On a low slender ridge overlooking the road and the site of Urartian canal was what has been unearthed of the palace of King Sadur 11, built around the year 750 BC.
One of the most helpful aspects was the book the guide showed me of a French archaeologist's reconstruction of the palace, a grand place of tall tapering buildings, not unlike those of Assyria or Babylon. Turkey is frequently frustrating in the total absence of any kind of information at historical sites, even though there is always someone to collect an entrance fee. Nor is there any way of knowing if the guide imparting copious details is not making it all up, as I found to be the case on several occasions when I knew something of the subject. Perhaps these drawings were equally fanciful, but they seemed to make sense of the excavated remains. Substantial portions of wall were still standing, cyclopian walls of enormous irregular blocks of stone, beautifully though irregularly cut and fitted to one another like a jigsaw. In contrast there were highly polished basalt slabs at the entrance to a temple, and finely inscribed cuneiform tablets besides them recording the history of the place. The excavated foundations showed well-proportioned rooms built around courtyards containing water cisterns. There was also what was claimed to be the royal loo, and this homely and essential provision, although now no more than a hole in the ground (like many modern Asiatic loos), was a help in imagining real-life Urartians looking out on the same plains and hills that I could see, as well as upon their canals and their aqueducts, their gardens, vineyards and orchards so long obliterated by warfare and by the destructive passage of time.
These mountains were always a haven for bandits or guerilla fighters, and were now home to what was reckoned to be many thousands of young armed PKK activists, scattered in small mobile training camps, which doubtless was why the bus was stopped so often by the military, and why unsmiling armed soldiers came down the aisle to scrutinize everyone's papers. Even my passport was checked and rechecked, though I wouldn't have thought I could be mistaken for a young Kurdish insurgent.
Another day I went by bus to visit Hakkari, deep in the heart of ancient Kurdistan, where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet in wild mountainous country. There was some doubt as to whether I would be allowed to bicycle there in the current unrest, and in any case it would mean a long hard ride of around one hundred and thirty miles, only to have to return over the same route. As a compromise I changed buses on the way so as to spend a few hours in the village of Güzelsu. Güzelsu means sweet water and presumably refers to the Hosap river which is spanned here by a very pretty triple-arched bridge built in 1500 by Zeynel Bey, a local Kurdish war-lord cum robber baron. The fairy tale Hosap Castle perched on a great needle of rock high above the village was what I had come to see. In its heyday it was a notorious stronghold from which the lawless war-lords preyed on all who dared to pass through these mountains, and many hapless traveller had mouldered away in its grim dungeons. Its teeth had been drawn a long while since, however, and now there was little left of the interior, in fact it was rather like a hollow tooth with only the splendid outer shell left virtually intact. The best view of it was from the road where it still appeared dauntingly impregnable. When I climbed up to its battlements I found the eroded walls of a much larger Urartian stronghold confronting me across the valley.
The drive up to Hakkari was extraordinary. Although we were never higher than nine thousand feet, the way led through narrow precipitous valleys, more continuously rugged for their height than any mountains I've seen. Ravines led off the main valleys into ever deeper fastnesses. Green rivers, contrasting with the stark rock, ran down through them. These would become rushing torrents as soon as the rains came, making the region even more difficult to traverse. What dwellings there were could seldom be seen from the road, but were tucked into the folds of the ground. The whole land had a secret closed in look. Xenophon's description of the difficulties of the Ten Thousand fighting their way through these canyons was easy to relate to the scenery. Nothing had essentially changed from his account of their march. I was looking at the very vantage points the Greeks had fought so hard to secure; often they had ousted the defenders from one summit only to find they had climbed another equally high, and having again routed them from that too, had seen them occupying yet a third. It was also easy to imagine the frustrations and dangers of commanding the rear division in these long narrow valleys, as Xenophon had done, the van getting ever further ahead as they rushed on to secure the pass before the enemy got to it first, and all the time the Greeks at the rear coming under attack by spear and arrow from the cliffs above.
In order to photograph bridge and castle together I had to climb down to the river where the `Sweet Water' was rather marred by the accumulation of centuries of smelly rubbish heaps. I had just managed to negotiate these and get myself in position when a tractor drove on to the bridge, and stopped in the middle. The driver saw that I was wanting to take a photograph and made a helpless shrug with his shoulders to let me know he had broken down. The usual huddle of men sitting around watching immediately got up and pushed the tractor off the bridge! When I climbed up to the road again, I was invited into the motor mechanic's shed for a glass of tea. Kurds as well as Turks have a commendable pride in the places they inhabit, even though it doesn't extend to conservation, and they love people to show appreciation of their towns and villages by taking photographs. The men enjoy having their own photographs taken too, but this is not so helpful, because they strike stiff unnatural poses, or else rush into the foreground of some study of a mosque or such like, and ruin the composition.
Hakkari marked the limit of normal travel in this direction, a raw hilltop town with little to commend a night's stop there, even though, with all the stops, it had taken some six hours to reach it. The road, such as it is, continues south through similar rugged mountains, bending around to the west to run close to the Iraqi border. All of it is the haunt of the PKK, who cross and recross the borders of both Iraq and Syria with an ease impossible for anyone else, including conventional government troops.
I sat in the small tea gardens in the centre of Hakkari waiting for my bus back to Van. Fierce-looking men with hooked noses, huge black moustaches and dark flashing eyes, wearing the traditional voluminous trousers and rough turbans, sat drinking tea and avidly watching cartoons on the outdoor television. A few were in western garb, and I thought these might well be government agents for they were not interested in the cartoons, but watched the viewers over the top of their newspapers. The few women who shuffled past the garden seemed aged and bent under their enveloping shawls, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet. At the very summit of the town just beyond the tea garden sat Atatürk in bronze on a mettlesome charger, and above him was a banner with the over familiar sentiment `HOW WONDERFUL TO BE ABLE TO SAY I AM A TURK' writ large. I wondered idly how the Scots, the Welsh or the Irish would react to banners with `HOW WONDERFUL TO BE ABLE TO SAY I AM AN ENGLISHMAN' adorning their main squares and carved into mountain sides?
The superficial air of normality in Hakkari felt ominous. The authorities had the place under tight security, even though there were few obvious signs of it. The clearest indication of this was that no one at all tried to talk to me, which was so unusual as to make me nervous. At the same time I had the distinct feeling I was being watched. I could feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck, and had to stop myself from continually glancing over my shoulder. Not a single small boy appeared to ask for a pen, or stood around on one leg plucking up the courage to deliver his two or three words of English or German. It seemed a very sad place, and it was a relief to finally board the bus and ride back down through those marvellous wild canyons to the plains of Van, and drink tea with my friend Osman in the carpet shop, his purring white cat in my lap, its mismatched eyes closed in contentment.
This extract is from Beyond Ararat, a Mountain House paperback available
through 'Print on Demand'