Few tourists make it to Van, and even fewer visit the ancient castles of Hoşap and Çavuştepe. But for archaeology and history lovers, that’s a big part of their appeal. If you’re willing to make the effort, there’s a high chance you’ll have each site all to yourself.
Hoşap Castle is an impressive fortress which dates back to the 17th century. Çavuştepe, meanwhile, was established by the mighty Urartu kingdom over 2,5000 years ago. But despite being from two entirely different historical eras, the two castles are neighbors on the same highway.
Visiting both sites from central Van makes for a relatively easy and incredibly cheap day trip. (Learn more about transportation down below). But if you only have a couple of days in the area, make visiting Akdamar Island and Van Castle your top priorities.
Located in Güzelsu Village, about 50 km southeast of Van, the sight of Hoşap Castle atop its large natural outcrop is surprisingly impressive.
The well-preserved structure was largely built – or at least reconstructed – in 1643. But given the castle’s location, it’s highly likely the Urartians once built something here, too. Presuming that to be the case, the site would’ve then been conquered by the same succession of kingdoms that controlled Van Castle.
Next would’ve come the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Seleucids, the Byzantines and the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, among others. Later, the Seljuk Turks would invade the region, after which came various Islamic tribes.
In the 13th century, a group known as the Black Sheep Turcomans gained control over much of eastern Anatolia. Then, in the 1400s, they transferred Hoşap to the Kurdish Mahmudis tribe. And from this point onward, the history of the area becomes much more clear.
Years later, the Kurds would maintain their control over the Hoşap region as vassals of the White Sheep Turcomans and then the Persian Safavids. But the Mahmudis would side with the Ottomans in the Ottoman-Persian war which lasted from 1532 to 1555.
According to some historical testimonies, Hoşap castle was first established around this time. However, 1643 is the date inscribed on its entrance. Most likely, Hoşap was merely renovated and expanded around then. Incredibly, the Kurdish Mahmudis would even occupy it into the 19th century!
Approaching the castle from the main road, you’ll notice that the ruins are much more extensive than the castle itself. The remnants of the old outer wall now run through the sleepy modern town of Hoşap. Abandoned lookout towers, meanwhile, rest on the distant hilltops.
Approaching the inner section of the castle, I fully expected it to be closed for renovations based on comments I’d read online. But given Hoşap’s proximity to Çavuştepe, I decided to come anyway to see what I could find.
And to my pleasant surprise, the entrance door was open and the guard waved me right in.
Visitors enter the castle via its impressive circular entrance tower. Above the door are two carved lions and a Persian inscription commemorating the castle’s 17th-century construction. Or, as mentioned above, perhaps its restoration.
The tower is 26 meters in diameter and you’ll encounter a mix of old stone and natural bedrock as you step inside. Walking up a dimly lit staircase, you’ll soon find yourself within the castle walls.
This lower portion of Hoşap Castle was used for defensive purposes. Walking around, you can find some of the remaining bastions in addition to former guardrooms. The Kurdish Mahmudi tribe, in fact, was said to have up to 60,000 soldiers!
While there’s an additional upper section containing the harem and other lodging areas, it was off-limits during my visit due to excavations.
No signage exists on site, but there was supposedly a hamam, or bathhouse around here as well. And as you explore, you’ll encounter numerous vantage points offering views of the surrounding town and mountains.
Hoşap Castle was damaged in 1839 when the Ottoman Empire attempted to implement major reforms via the Edict of Gülhane. The government sought to centralize its authority which meant taking away power from various tribes who’d ruled semi-autonomously for years.
While details regarding Hoşap are murky, there was likely some resistance, and presumably, a violent crackdown to quell the local uprising.
Left abandoned for decades, the first archaeological excavations began here in the 1970s.
Regarding Hoşap’s current restorations, it’s still unclear when the castle will become an officially promoted attraction with tickets and defined opening hours. While it seemed like the castle had just reopened before my visit in mid-2020, it’s also possible that I got lucky.
If you get there to find it locked, wait around for awhile and try to attract the attention of a guard.
Heading back west on the bus from Hoşap, I carefully scanned the scenery for the ancient Urartian fortress of Çavuştepe. While I’d mentioned it to the driver upon boarding, it’s typical around these parts to have to remind them again once you’re near your destination.
Thankfully, another man on the minibus pointed out the nondescript hill in the distance for me. Otherwise, I likely would’ve missed it.
From the bottom of the hill, Çavuştepe really doesn’t look like much. And confusingly, there are no signs or trails of any sort. I later learned that there is in fact no official way up or down the hill. You simply climb up wherever you like. With that in mind, be sure to wear decent shoes.
While I got off the bus at the western end near the flagpole, I decided to keep walking through the field to see how far the long hill extended. I eventually spotted the remains of a once-formidable wall, and decided to start my ascent from there.
The wall, though impressive, contained nothing inside. And so I kept climbing further upward. I soon noticed a guard post where I saw a man sitting outside.
In modern times, Çavuştepe is best known for its watchman, Mehmet Kuşman. He guarded this site for nearly six decades, and throughout that time taught himself the Urartian language! In fact, he’s one of the only people in the entire world to speak it fluently.
With his know-how, he’s even helped archaeological teams decipher the ancient inscriptions. You can read more about his fascinating story here.
Kuşman, however, just retired this year (2020), and I encountered a much younger man, possibly his son.
The first excavations at Çavuştepe were carried out from 1961–1986. They resumed once again in 2014, and are still ongoing as of 2020. But there’s still no visitor information whatsoever on-site.
Therefore, before coming here, be sure to visit the Van Museum and Van Castle to acquaint yourself with the Urartian civilization.
But to briefly summarize, Urartu was an Iron Age kingdom that lasted from the 9th-6th centuries BC. Based at Tushpa (Van Castle) on the shore of Lake Van, their empire encompassed eastern Anatolia, Armenia and northwest Iran. Their primary god was Khaldi, while they were known for their advanced weaponry and ornate jewelry.
Like Van Castle, the Urartians built their fortress at Çavuştepe across a long natural outcrop. The castle was comprised of two sections: the ‘Upper Fortress’ and the ‘Lower Fortress.’
It wasn’t until after my visit that I realized I’d missed the Upper Fortress, which was situated on the high hill just east of the guard room (see pic above). The guard had just told me to head west, so it’s possible the hill was off-limits due to excavations.
The Upper Fortress once housed a temple to Khaldi, the Urartian storm god and supreme deity. And judging from pictures, it appears to be similar to the open-air ritualistic areas one can see at Van Castle.
Continuing west along the hilly outcrop, I encountered more impressive remains of the fortress walls. They’re largely comprised of a volcanic rock called andesite, similar to basalt. Look closely and you’ll see that no mortar was used.
This formerly massive fortress was originally established by King Sardur II (r. 765 – 733 BC). As such, it was known in Urartian times as ‘Sardurihinilli.’
Sardur had a reputation for being a warrior king, though he did suffer a defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, Urartu’s primary rival. Today you can still visit his interesting tomb dug into the side of Van Castle.
Moving onward, I encountered the foundations of all sorts of rooms, most of them likely used for storage. As we know from other Urartian fortresses like Erebuni, the Urartians were keen on storing copious amounts of grains in their castles.
In contrast to the outer walls, most of the rooms at the top were built of mudbrick.
Much imagination is required at Çavuştepe. Unlike Van Castle, no subsequent kingdoms would rebuild atop the original foundations.
But even if the ruins don’t blow you away, the hill provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside and mountains. Furthermore, Çavuştepe is an almost guaranteed escape from crowds and selfie-takers.
The main highlight of the Lower Fortress is the temple to the god Irmushini, immediately recognizable for the smooth basalt blocks at its entrance. The cuneiform inscription, the code of which was cracked by Mehmet Kuşman, commemorates the temple’s construction.
The interior walls are said to have once been decorated with floral motifs of various colors. But this is hardly evident to the naked eye today.
As for the deity worshipped here, Irmushini was the local deity of Çavuştepe / Sardurihinilli. In addition to storm, sun, moon and war gods, the Urartian pantheon included numerous local deities. And considering how large their empire was, they had nearly 80 gods and goddesses in total!
As at most of their temples, the Urartians likely performed regular ritual animal sacrifices in this space.
As you continue further west, the fortress becomes increasingly dense. Urartian palaces were crowded, busy places where eunuchs, concubines, accountants, artisans and guards all lived and worked.
And despite only foundations remaining, the sheer volume of different rooms provides a sense of how bustling this place would’ve been in its day.
Exploring the fortress, you’ll encounter a couple of different roads, and seeing everything requires making a few loops around. As you walk down the central road, notice the stone jars in the ground, likely used for storing grains.
Some of the rooms contain what appear to be tables, stoves, and even toilets! You’ll also encounter various manmade pits which were likely cisterns.
As you approach the far western end, the rooms become more elaborate and in a better state of preservation. It was perhaps here that the royal family themselves once lived.
I walked until I could walk no further, and then stopped for awhile to appreciate the views that the Urartian elite would’ve admired each day. From the edge, the only direction left to go was down.
As mentioned, sturdy hiking shoes come in handy here, though the bare rocky section does provide decent grip. Returning to the highway, it shouldn’t be long before a minibus appears, taking you back to where you started your day.
Hoşap and Çavuştepe are situated along the same highway (D975) which connects Van with Hakkari Province.
To get there, you can hop on a minibus from central Van bound for either Başkale or Yüksekova. There’s no need to head to the otogar (bus terminal) and you can find the bus on Van’s central avenue, Cumhuriyet Cd.
Unfortunately, knowing just where to wait for the bus is very confusing, as there’s no signage at all.
I consulted the Maps.me app, which often has very accurate and detailed information regarding specific bus stops. It shows a bus stop labeled as ‘Hoşap Castle Dolmus Station’ a few hundred meters south of the Buyuk Asur Hotel.
Arriving at the spot, I saw no signage. I decided to wait around there anyway, carefully checking the destinations of all southbound vehicles. But after an hour of waiting, the bus I needed still hadn’t appeared.
Just as I was about to return to my hotel to ask for better info, a Yüksekova-bound bus suddenly drove past me and I managed to flag it down.
Upon my return later in the day, the minibus would stop at a parking lot on a hill behind a bunch of ATM machines. This turned out to be right across the street from the Maps.me location. It’s possible, then, that the buses normally wait at this spot before departure. It’s confusing because it’s on the wrong side of the road, but they likely do a quick U-turn right after setting off.
The bus to the castles will eventually make a left turn, and from here you have the option of getting off at either Hoşap or Çavuştepe first. I would recommend visiting Hoşap first, as you’re much more likely to find a Van-bound bus than one heading east. Be sure to remind your driver when you’re near the castle.
Later at Hoşap, simply wait by the road for a Van-bound bus. This may take awhile. Be sure to watch your map throughout the entire ride so you can tell the driver when to stop at Çavuştepe.
Finally, when finished at Çavuştepe, wait for another Van-bound bus back to the city.
Note: At the time of writing, the Google Maps listing for Hoşap Castle (Hoşap Kalesi) is incorrect. The actual castle is located just behind ‘Hosap Market.’ See the map above for the correct location.
Van can be reached in a number of ways.
Van has an airport with direct flights from Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities.
If you don’t have time to explore the entire country by car or bus, Van would be a good place to fly into from western Turkey. From there, you can head west by bus to Diyarbakir (about 6 hours) and then continue onward to places like Mardin or Urfa.
Alternatively, you can head north instead. The ride from Van to Doğubeyazıt takes three hours and then you can continue onward to Kars.
Van is also where many people stop en route to Iran, and there is a train route linking it to Tabriz and Tehran. Accordingly, the city gets many Iranian tourists, or at least it did in the pre-corona days.
For those exploring more of the Lake Van area, the nearest big city on the lake is Tatvan, about 2 hours from Van by vehicle. You can also take a ferry across the lake to get there.
I stayed at a hotel called Buyuk Asur, situated right on the main road, Cumhuriyet Cd. It was recommended to me by the manager of Hotel Kent Ani in Kars. While I didn’t have a reservation, they luckily had some rooms available.
The location is as central as you can get in Van. Additionally, the manager spoke perfect English and he was incredibly helpful and kind. We had numerous evening chats over tea, and he gave me a lot of interesting information about the region.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.