The mountainous region of eastern Turkey is nestled between the Anatolian plain, Caucasus Mountains, and Mesopotamia. Political conflicts have affected the area in recent decades, but tensions have ceased and travel is now open for tourism.
The region has many OT-era Urartian sites and medieval Armenian and Georgian churches. Here is my 5-day itinerary to see the top sites. Each day required 5-7 hours of drive time, as the terrain is slow going.
Day 1: Around Van
Arrival–Ak Damar Church–Van Archaeology Museum–Van Castle
I landed at Van airport at 11 am. Flights to Van were hard to find, in part because it has become a hotspot for Turkish tourism, so book at least 2-3 weeks in advance.
We first headed to the southern shore of Lake Van. In Erdemit, we scouted out part of the 7C BC Urartian water canal, still in use today. Its retaining wall can be seen just west of the Van Cement Plant (Van Çimento). The canal’s source is a spring just southwest of Gülpınar.
Ak-Damar Church is on a small island 2 km from the shore. Most tours leave from the commercial pier, but I recommend using the municipal Akdamar Pier. We waited until 15 people gathered, then paid 35 TL for the round-trip ride. The island hosted a monastic community from the 7C; then, in the 10C, an Armenian prince built his palace and the iconic church on the island. The church and some monastic ruins remain. Akdamar church is one of the most visited historical sites in eastern Turkey and for good reason. The cross-in-square church with a central dome stands fully intact. Most stunning are the four registers of deep reliefs decorating the exterior, with mostly OT scenes, individual saints, and plants and animals, all in a rounded, two-dimensional style.
The visit to Ak Damar took us 5 hours total (an hour drive each way from Van to the pier, about an hour-long wait for the boat each way, and one hour at the site). Because the Van Archaeology Museum of Urartian Civilization closed at 5 pm, we had to bypass the Urartian fortress at Cavuştepe on the return to Van. This was disappointing because the ridgetop setting looks impressive.
The new museum of archaeology in Van features many remains from the Urartian empire that ruled over the region of Lake Van in the Iron Age (8-6C BC). Highlights include the Hakkarı Stellae and dozens of cuneiform inscriptions. Our 1.5 hours there went by fast in what is one of Turkey’s better museums.
Then we climbed the Castle of Van (Van Kalesi), the ancient capital of the Urartian empire. Little remains from that time period, as the site has been inhabited throughout history. The entire area is an open museum. The long, skinny outcropping is best approached from the west end. The hike up was 30 minutes, and we enjoyed the evening breeze and panoramic views on top. Be sure to drive around the castle to view it from all sides. From the modern mosques on the southern edge, we could see the famous tri-lingual Xerxes inscription on the south face, directly under the flag tower.
Day 2: Van to Kars
Ayanis Castle–Mt. Ararat–Noah’s Ark–Ihsak Paşa Palace–Tuzluca–Beş Kilisesi
This was a long day with 7 hours of driving time and 5 site visits, so we departed Van at 7:30. The first stop was the Urartian fortress called Ayanis castle. Drive through the village of Ağartı and park on the north side of the fortress, then hike up along the fortification walls. The splendid temple remains, with cuneiform writing and views of Lake Van, make this a nice visit. For publications of the site, see the online publications by the head archaeologist, Altan Çilingiroğlu.
After 45 minutes at Ayanis, we drove down to the shore to swim in Lake Van at Ayanis beach. The water was very clear and refreshing, though the high mineral content of this endorheic saline lake leaves a waxy feel on the skin.
From there, we headed north toward Doğubayazıt. The barren landscape has stunning lava fields from the volcanic Mt. Tendürek. Because of past tensions, this route north of Van is well-patrolled by Turkish Jandarma.
Mt. Ararat (Turkish, Ağrı Dağı) dominates the plain of Doğubayazıt. Though this has been the traditional resting site of Noah’s ark, the Hebrew text in Genesis 8 mentions the “mountains of Urartu,” not this specific volcanic peak.
We continued east toward Iran to visit the alleged site of Noah’s Ark—a 500-meter-long formation in the soil in the shape of a boat. You can enjoy a nice overlook from the visitor’s center and also hike 10 minutes to the formation.
Back toward Doğubayazıt, we visited the 18C Ihsak Paşa Palace and the nearby fortress with Urartian remains. The palace’s architectural decorations are detailed and well-preserved. The site is unique because Anatolia has few Ottoman palaces.
On our way to Kars, we had a nice tourist stop at the salt mines in Tuzluca, just off the highway. The huge cavern was naturally cold, so it was a nice break from the summer heat.
Some 30 km before Kars, we visited the Khtzkonk Monastery (aka Beşkilise) near Digor. This site is on the north side of the river canyon. The best route for visiting is to hike down 30 minutes from the highway. See the route I marked on the map. Though most of this 11C monastic site was detonated in the mid-1900s, the one extant church (St. Sergios) is an architectural gem with a unique circular exterior. For more of the site’s history, visit VirtualAni.org.
We arrived in Kars late and enjoyed a great meal at Hanımeli Kars Mutfağı (though I didn’t get to try the famous Kars duck!).
Day 3: Kars to Artvin
Ani–Şeytan’s Castle–Tbeti Monastery
We headed out early to visit the medieval Armenian capital of Ani, which is 40 minutes due east from Kars on the border with Armenia. The city once had 100,000 inhabitants, but feels entirely desolate, save for a few remaining 10-11C Armenian churches with superb masonry architecture. Armenian churches during this period emphasized the central dome. Some round churches are essentially a large dome, and you walk into the drum. After you pass through the fortified gates, go left to visit Tigren Honents Church. The best views of the terrain are from the citadel-fortress on the southern hill. Allow 3 hours to hike the area and take in the 5 main churches, the mosque, and the fortress.
After Ani, we headed north from Van and drove around the east side of Çıldır Lake (Turkey’s second largest freshwater lake), where we had lunch along the shore. Kütük Ev was a nice fish restaurant for lunch.
Our next stop was Şeytan’s Castle, a medieval fortress set in a deep river canyon. Park in the village of Yıldırmtepe, then walk about 30 minutes along the green canyon to the remains of this impregnable fortress. The stop took almost 2 hours, but was a highlight.
Our final stop for the day was Tbeti Monastery Church, north of Şavşat in Cevizli. The dome of this irregular cruciform church fell in the 1950s, but the walls and setting remain of this 10C Georgian church. A burial chapel was added to the south side.
We spent the night at Leşet Hotel, a riverside lodge with great food.
Day 4: Georgian Valleys
Dolishane Church–Öşkvank Cathedral–Ohktka Monastery–Parkhali Church
The Georgian valleys (between Artvin and Erzurum) were part of the medieval kingdom of Georgia. These steep, lush valleys contain many splendid Georgian churches. The churches we visited were mostly intact and stood in majestic settings. The entire region is being transformed by a series of 15 dams and tunneled roads along the Çoruh River valley. These make travel faster, but far less scenic. Roads in the region are windy, and the final ascent to many of the churches is a village road. A 4-wheel drive vehicle, or something with higher clearance, is recommended.
After a great breakfast at Leşet Hotel, we drove west to visit Dolishane Church (in Hamamlı/Artvin). Then we drove through Artvin and toward Erzurum. Because of limited time, we did not visit Ardanuc Kalesi and Rabat Kilisesi. We did stop along the road at Tortum Waterfall (slightly recommended) and Glass Floor Terrace for lunch (not recommended).
We visited the massive Öşkvank Cathedral in Çamlıyamaç. The domed-hall church has many architectural highlights, such as a carved donor panel on the southwest exterior and an elaborate side hall to the southwest. The area served as a monastery and administrative center, but only the church (and two small buildings) remain. Metal scaffolding fills the interior, while fencing surrounds the outside; these obstruct views of the church.
Instead of returning to Yusufeli through the massive tunnels, we chose the more scenic route over the ridge to Kılıçkaya. The 30-km, 90-minute trek left us with a flat tire and frayed nerves. The scenery is majestic, though it is a dirt road along a steep cliff for most of the drive. Take this route only if you enjoy series off-roading (and have an extra tire!).
Finally, we arrived at Okhtka Monastery (aka Dörtkilise), the finest of all Georgian churches thanks to its majestic setting, spectacular condition, and monumental architecture. The buildings to the northwest contained a scriptorium and refectory hall. The church was 5km up the valley from Tekkale, but after the new dam floods the village in 2023, this church might not be as accessible.
We were looking forward to ending our day at Parkhali Church and staying at nearby Karahan Pension (in Barhal, 1 hour north of Yusufeli). However, we got into a fender bender on the single-wide road descending from Dörtkilise. By the time we got the Jandarma report, we just got a room at Alamtur hotel in Yusufeli.
Day 5: Artvin to Kars
Işhan Church–Bana Cathedral–Downtown Kars
This was our final day, returning from Yusufeli/Artvin to Kars. Most of the drive was along the Oltu River basin, which will be flooded out soon.
The first stop was Işhan Church, a 10C Georgian church in a mountain village. Authorities from Erzurum recently excavated and nicely restored the church. We could not enter because the restoration project was not yet finished. They still had to install a glass walkway over the mosaic floor in the nave. The exterior has several Georgian architectural features—stepped-based, compound piers running through the arches and dedicatory inscriptions over the southern entrance.
5-Day Itinerary for Van & Kars
Bana Cathedral (in Penek, Erzurum) is a 7C tri-level rotunda church, like St. Gregory Church at Ani. The design pattern was peculiar—a cruciform church with a towering dome, set with a round arcade. The church is largely collapsed. Only the rounded exterior and part of the east arm remain.
Our trip ended in Kars with a visit to the Twelve Apostle’s Cathedral at the base of the Kars Castle. The church has a long history, having passed through many hands. Today, you experience the medieval Georgian architecture with a marble Russian iconostasis functioning as a Turkish mosque! The dome exterior has 12 standing apostles and the interior squinches the 4 gospel writers, all highly stylized.
Once we returned our dinged-up rental car, our 5-day trip through Van and Kars was finished. On our final evening, we checked out some of the peynirci (cheese-man) shops to get local Kaşar cheese.