While most ancient fortresses in Turkey only require a few hours to visit, think of Van Castle as a full day outing. Not only is the fortress massive, but it also has a lot more surprises in store than first meets the eye. Van Castle was the headquarters of Urartu, one of the most overlooked kingdoms of the Iron Age. It was then continuously occupied by various civilizations for the next 2,000 years.
What’s more, is that as of 2020, the brand new Van Museum has opened to the public. It’s one of Turkey’s biggest archaeology museums and the absolute best place to learn about Urartu and the Kingdom of Van.
Additionally, the following guide will also tell you how to get to the old city of Eski Van, just next to Van Castle. While technically off-limits, it’s relatively easy to access if you know the way.
But first, who exactly were the Urartians?
A Brief History of Urartu
Urartu was a powerful civilization that lasted from the 9th-6th centuries BC. Centered at the city of Tushpa on the shore of Lake Van, their territory was accordingly called the Kingdom of Van, or more simply, Urartu.
Urartu’s vast territory encompassed much of eastern Anatolia, Armenia and northwest Iran.
But how did Urartu begin? A millennium before it appeared on the scene, the land was controlled by a group known as the Hurrians, rivals of the Hittites.
But around the 13th century BC, after a crushing defeat at the hands of the Hittites, the Hurrian Empire collapsed. Various independent kingdoms then controlled the region over the next few centuries.
The local culture that developed during this time would greatly influence Urartu when it emerged to unify the area in the 9th century.
Known throughout the ancient world for their skills in iron-working, farming and irrigation techniques, the Urartians were also adept at making incredibly refined jewelry.
It’s remarkable, then, that hardly anything was known about Urartu until archaeological excavations in the 20th century. Urartu, however, is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, for it’s the region where Noah landed with his ark (also known as Ararat).
Today, the best place to learn about Urartu is Van, the former site of Tushpa and what we now call Van Castle.
This massive walled fortress was constructed across a huge natural outcrop. It functioned as its own city, complete with temples, palaces, tombs, storage facilities and more.
But the castle was also used by numerous other civilizations who later occupied the area, many remnants of which can still be seen.
To this day, historians still aren’t really sure how the Kingdom of Van suddenly collapsed in the 6th century BC.
The beginning of the end likely started with an invasion by the Assyrian King Sargon II in 714 BC. Though King Rusa II (r. 684-645) tried to revive the kingdom, reconstructing many of its fortresses and towns, Urartu’s power would continue to decline.
The kingdom was then repeatedly attacked by nomadic tribes like the Scythians and Medes before suddenly disappearing from history.
The next major power to occupy the Kingdom of Van’s territory was the Persian Achaemenid Empire. For the next two thousand years, however, the land’s inhabitants would largely consist of ethnic Armenians.
Some argue, in fact, that the Armenians are the Urartians under a different name. Unlike the Armenian language, however, Urartian is non-Indo-European in origin.
But directly related or not, Urartu would greatly influence ancient Armenia. And that nation would in turn shape the culture of eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus for centuries to come.
the Van Museum
The current Van Museum opened up in the spring of 2020, and it’s fantastic. While dedicated to the history, archaeology and ethnography of Van Province as a whole, it’s largely focused on the Urartian civilization. Not only is this the best museum to learn about Urartu, but it’s also one of Turkey’s best archaeology museums period.
It would be a good idea to visit the museum before seeing the castle. Be sure to start your day early so you don’t feel too rushed inside. At the time of writing, entry tickets only cost 10 TL, an amazing deal considering how much there is to see.
In addition to a historical overview of Urartian history, religion and culture, the museum introduces visitors to various Urartian castles and temples established throughout the region.
It includes representations of nearby fortresses such as Ayanis, along with models of Çavuştepe (accessible as a day trip from central Van). There are also numerous carvings of deities from Urartu’s vast pantheon.
In total, the Urartians worshipped nearly 80 different gods. But none were as revered as Khaldi (or Haldi), the sky god who aided the Urartian kings in war.
Other prominent deities included Teisheba, the storm god, Shivini, the sun god, Shelardi, the moon god, and various other local deities. The Urartians often depicted their gods with wings in a manner similar to their rivals to the south, the Assyrians.
At a place called Meher Kapi within Van Province, archaeologists discovered a stele with the names of 63 gods and 13 goddesses. And next to their names, the number of bovine sacrifices owed to each deity was inscribed.
Like many other cultures of its time, the Urartians regularly carried out ritual sacrifices at open-air sanctuaries, some of which you can see at Van Castle.
Also on display at the museum are collections of Urartian art and various ritual artifacts. The Urartians were adept at pottery and especially at jewelry. Their art was so refined that it often stunned visitors from neighboring kingdoms.
Another highlight of the museum is its collection of Urartian stelae. Also like the Assyrians, the Urartians wrote using cuneiform. And they left lots of inscriptions wherever they settled.
While some inscriptions praise Khaldi and the king, others merely mark boundaries or mention how much grain was placed in a storage room. You can also see examples of original cuneiform on-site at the fortress.
The museum also covers Urartian weaponry, architecture, clothing, cuisine and a whole lot more. And it has info on the later civilizations that controlled Van as well. As mentioned, the museum is huge, so it’s best to set aside at least a few hours for it.
Exploring Van Castle
Making it to Van Castle is a lot more confusing than it ought to be. There’s a large fence entirely surrounding it, and if you’ve headed to the museum first, you’ll have passed an opening with a guard.
It turns out that this is not an official entrance. The actual entrance is all the way on the opposite end, facing the lake. And given the shape of the fence, it’s quite a distance if you’re on foot.
Thankfully, in my case, the kind guard let me in through the eastern opening, as long as I promised to later purchase a ticket. I did, of course, and like the museum, it only cost 10 TL.
As I headed west toward the ticket gate, I noticed some kind of ritual area behind a modern mosque. While technically off-limits, there is indeed a way to get over there. But more on that later.
Walking all the way along the base of the fortress, it seemed to go on forever. At 1250 meters long and roughly 100 meters high, the natural outcrop is remarkably huge. There’s simply no other castle in Anatolia like it.
The history of Van Castle extends far beyond the fall of Urartu. It was conquered by the Achaemenid Persians, then used by the ancient Armenians, and then by various Persian and Roman kingdoms. The Arabs later took over, and so did the Seljuk Turks.
The castle was largely destroyed by Tamerlane but later rebuilt by the Ottomans. Even the Russians briefly occupied it in the 20th century! Today, most of the surviving walls were constructed during the Ottoman era.
After buying your ticket, you’ll pass by a replica of a traditional Van house. The logical place to go next would be the smooth, gently-sloped walkway up the northern side of the fortress.
On the way up, you’ll pass through a recently refurbished Ottoman-era gate and lookout tower.
Sadly, there’s no informational signage of any sort atop the fortress. It’s often unclear when certain parts were built and by whom. Some of the older-looking walls, however, are believed to date back thousands of years ago from the Urartu era.
While you can walk up to the main castle, you may first want to head all the way over to the edge of the outcrop. This is a great place to take in the views of the modern city of Van in the distance.
From here, you’ll also notice that there’s another section of the castle across a large gap. Though you’ll likely see people over there, don’t attempt to jump! There is a way to get over there, but more on that below.
Over on the south side of the hill, you’ll spot the ruins of some mosques within a large grassy field below. This area is Eski Van, or Old Van. We’ll also cover how to get there shortly.
For now, head back in the opposite direction, toward the main castle. Then continue heading west toward the lake.
The minaret of the Süleyman Han Mosque can be seen from all over the area, though the mosque itself is a small, simple structure. From the Middle Ages onward, Van Castle was in use by various Islamic kingdoms.
From here you can keep heading forward in the direction of Van Lake. This is Turkey’s largest lake, famous for its mesmerizing blue color. But to truly get acquainted with it, it’s best to take a day trip to the excellent Akdamar Island.
There are numerous other structures to see along the top of the bedrock. You can find an arched building that appears to be some kind of stable or storage room, likely built in Ottoman times.
Past the brown tower at the western edge of the castle, you’ll encounter an area that was completely smoothed down by the Urartians. It appears to have been used as some type of temple, with plenty of space for sacrificing large animals.
Over on the south side, facing Eski Van below, is a former Urartian tomb. While once accessible to visitors, it’s now completely gated off. You can, at least, still see the cuneiform inscription by peaking through the bars.
This was the tomb of Argishti, who ruled from 790-765 BC. This influential monarch helped greatly expand Urartu’s borders eastward. And it was during these campaigns that he founded Erebuni Fortress – the precursor to Yerevan, the current capital of Armenia.
Don’t feel too bad about missing the chance to go in, as there’s another tomb you can enter on the other side (more below).
From here you can gradually walk down the western slope of the outcrop. Now at ground level, note the ancient wall constructed of massive stone blocks. This is believed to be the oldest surviving portion of Van Castle, and likely the base of a much higher tower.
Following it all the way around, you’ll eventually come across a small cuneiform inscription. It was inscribed by King Sarduri I (r. 840-830 BC), the ruler who founded Tushpa and Van Castle itself! Like many Urartian inscriptions, it praises the monarch’s might and influence.
From here, it’d be logical to simply walk directly to the Eski Van area. But a huge gate now makes this impossible. Your only option is to backtrack all the way north. On the way, at least, you can try visiting the open-air sanctuary behind the small mosque.
This large, artificially flattened area features two carved niches which likely housed tall stele like those at the museum. Or perhaps statues. This space probably functioned as an open-air temple where sacrifices to the gods, namely Khaldi, took place.
There are also rocks with fine cuneiform inscriptions lying around. They’ve sadly been vandalized with graffiti.
At the time of writing, this section of the castle was officially closed to visitors. While you can just walk up a narrow path from behind the mosque, some local youth will be there to ‘guide’ you the way. They’ll expect a tip in return, of course.
As mentioned earlier, Van Castle is quite a confusing place to visit. By now you’ve already seen the ruins of Eski Van from the top, in addition to the separate portion of the castle.
But even if you’ve bought a ticket, the only way to reach them it seems, is to sneak in. Don’t worry about getting caught, as everyone in town is doing it – even families with grandparents and small children!
To make it to the other side, walk back to the side of the fortress facing the city center. As you head north, on your right you’ll see a park behind a fence. This can easily be hopped over. Next, approaching the fortress, you’ll see an entire portion of the barbed wire fence missing.
Note that along the way, numerous children will be offering to guide you to this area, but you can easily get there yourself. But if the fence eventually gets repaired, the Eski Van area seems to be accessible via the large modern mosque further south.
Once in this ‘secret’ portion of the site, one of the first landmarks you’ll encounter on your right is a ruined Armenian church. From the time the Urartians left the scene over 2,000 years ago, this part of Anatolia was the Satrap (province) of Armenia under the Persian Achaemenids.
And even after later Persian and Roman kingdoms took over, the Armenians never left. Later, in the 10th century, Van was controlled by the Armenian Vaspurakan Kingdom, those responsible for the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island.
Look closely and you can see the faint remnants of frescoes on the walls, in addition to numerous crosses inscribed on the rockface.
The Armenians, in fact, were here until quite recently. The entire Eski Van area was once a bustling, densely populated town filled with shops, houses and roads. It was also two-thirds Armenian.
Sadly, it was completely razed to the ground in the early 20th century – just one of many events of what we now call the Armenian Genocide.
The area is also home to a number of old mosques which range from the 12th-16th centuries. Of special note is the Ulu Cami. It was likely built in the 1100s by the Alat-Shahs, a group of Turcomans who controlled the region after the Byzantine defeat at the Battle of Manizkert.
Its circular minaret has amazingly withstood all the turmoil and natural disasters of the past millennium. Elsewhere in the area, meanwhile, is the 16th-century Husrev Pasha Cami which has recently been restored.
As mentioned, Van Castle was occupied by the Achaemenid Persians following the decline of the Urartians. And from Eski Van, you can see an inscription on the rockface left by legendary monarch Xerxes the Great in the 5th century BC.
While the inscription was entirely written in the cuneiform script, there are actually three languages here: Persian, Babylonian and Elamite.
The inscription praises Ahura Mazda, the prominent deity of Zoroastrianism, and claims Xerxes to be the ‘king of kings.’ The smooth section of the rock was amazingly and mysteriously carved at 20 meters off the ground. It was originally made by Darius, but left blank until the reign of his son.
Fascinatingly, this is one of the only Old Persian inscriptions ever found outside the borders of modern Iran. That’s pretty remarkable considering how in addition to Persia, the Achaemenids controlled all of Anatolia, Egypt and most of Central Asia.
For those interested in this period of history, there are numerous Achaemenid-era artifacts on display at the Van Museum.
Around Eski Van, there are a few other ruined structures to check out, many of which you can go inside. As you walk along the edge of the castle, look back up to spot a tomb opening on its south side.
If you still have the energy, this is where you’ll want to head next. Just try to memorize the approximate location as it’s not visible from the very top of the castle.
You can start your ascent from nearby the fence through which you entered. Walking up, you’ll be rewarded with more amazing views. Then try to find the correct path which leads to the tomb. Just be careful, as it can get very slippery.
The tomb belongs to Sardur II (r. 765-733 BC), the son of Argishti. While Sardur was a feared warrior king, he also suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Assyrians.
There are multiple rooms here, and the sheer size of the tomb is impressive. It must’ve required tremendous time and effort to clear out so much rock.
Looking outward, the tomb offers even more marvelous views of Eski Van down below.
More Around Van
As you’ll notice during your time at the castle, there’s surprisingly little development along Van Lake. The city center is 3 km inland and, disappointingly, offers no views of the gorgeous lake. But it’s a fun city to spend time in regardless.
Van is a vibrant, welcoming city that feels surprisingly modern given its age. Sadly, in 2011, the city experienced a devastating earthquake that killed around a hundred people. Thankfully, it’s managed to rebuild itself over the past several years.
Today, you’ll find modern shopping complexes, countless restaurants and cozy coffee shops that play international jazz. It’s easily among the most ‘hip’ cities of Turkey’s east.
Aside from Van Castle and Akdamar Island, one of the main things to do in Van is to visit one of its Cat Houses, or Kedi Evi. Van is home to its own unique breed of cats known for their different colored eyes!
The more respected of the two Kedi Evis is situated near Van Yuzuncu Yil Universitesi, several kilometers northwest of the city. Much easier to reach, however, is the Cat House on Melen Cd., in between the castle and the city center.
This is the one I visited, but was disappointed to see the cats appear rather dirty and distressed. No staff were present for awhile, and then two random guys showed up and started smoking near the cats. It turned out they did indeed work there! I quickly left, and would advise cat lovers to visit the more well-known Kedi Evi instead.
If you’re visiting Van and looking for some more ancient archaeological sites, there are two additional castles you can visit in a single day. There’s Hoşap, a Byzantine castle not far from the border with Iran, and Çavuştepe, yet another Urartian fortress. Click here to learn more about both.
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.
Van Castle lies about 3 kilometers to the west of the city center. Based on the advice of the manager at my hotel, I walked to the castle (stopping at Kedi Evi/Cat House on the way) and then took a dolmuş (minibus) back.
The reason he said to do it this way is because the minibuses heading west tend to go off in random directions as they get closer to the lake. But the ones heading east will predictably drop you off in the city center.
I’d read online that there are numerous minibuses riding around with ‘Kale’ written on them, meaning they will take you to Van Castle. But I didn’t actually see any, and the hotel manager’s advice seemed to be sound.
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.