Van—no, not the boxy vehicle we drag children or drum-sets around in, but the city cupped by the Zagros mountains and resting on the side of the great Lake Van. Van is the city center of Kurdish culture. Hidden in the eastern part of Turkey unknown to most tourists--unknown even to most Turks - it beckons.
The beauty of its setting gave it the title “Pearl of the East” even in antiquity. Now a town of about half a million, it is today often imagined to be as conservative politically and culturally as, say, Erzurum, about 240 km to the northwest. In fact, visitors are surprised by Van’s modernity and relative openness. Strolling though the city streets, one cannot help but notice the throngs of people walking about—women with shopping bags in hand or pushing strollers, men proudly wearing their hats, women displaying their hair or in scarves. In Van, one is meant to see and be seen, and the city exudes tolerance.
Most hotels are centrally located; the elegant yet affordable Tamara Otel on Kazim Karabekir Cad. comes recommended and is managed by Mr. Halitoglu. The immaculate cobblestone streets display the cleanliness of its people, and the sidewalks are repeatedly swept throughout the day; restaurants follow suit. Famous for its breakfast culture, even in the late morning Van offers plenty of opportunities for eating. It is easy to find a spot and sample the local delicious honey with buffalo cream (kaymak), hot flat bread, and tea or cay (chai). Add to that feta cheese seasoned with thyme, hard boiled eggs, olives, and peppers, and that is a true Kurdish breakfast. The Seval Cahlate Salonu on Yeshil street is a favorite.
Later in the day, a chat with the locals might open up several topics of conversation - Kurdish sovereignty, free press, and the future of the Kurdish people in Turkey. The new government has been listening to Kurdish complaints, and last year opened up the only Kurdish TV station. But the Kurdish station which broadcasts from Brussels is still a favorite.
Van is a dynamic but ancient place, and its long history dates back to the Urartians (c. 900 BC). The remains of an Urartian castle are still to be found on a hill in the southern part of the city overlooking the ruins of a town occupied continuously from its founding to the 20th century—a span of some three thousand years. A chronicle of the city would have to mention, at the least, Alexander the Great, the Armenian Kingdom, the Romans, the Sassanids, the Byzantines, the Seljucks and finally the Ottomans and Turks. Ancient Van was, however, destroyed by wars and invasions from 1915 - 1920. The devastation was so extreme that only a few church walls and two minarets remain standing amidst the rubble. Still, a stroll through the ancient city rewards the imagination with a sense of how life must have been.
New Van was built 5 km to the north of the ancient city, and is as modern as most other Turkish cities. The locals know how to have a good time, and many remind their visitors that beer and wine were created in this area, and drink may have something to do with their openness. Night falls and the music strums out of every other building; Turkish and Kurdish songs are in the air. In the bars couples sit on one side, and single men and women on another. Still, they all mingle once the music has moved them to dance. The night lasts long in Van.
A traveler in eastern Turkey or the Middle east generally cannot help but ponder the long struggle and divide between the East and the West, but at least in progressive, open Van, the East does not really seem so “Other,” and the West no longer so reassuring.
Christina Perdue is a traveling writer/poet who has visited the Middle East, West Africa, Europe, North, South and Central America. For more information on Christina please see her blogs at: http://yavirac.wordpress.com/ as well as http://www.thisfabtrek.com/photography-journey.php.
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