A Winter's Journey

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Snow had transformed the eastern Turkish landscape into a white expanse, blanketing roads and natural features. Still, it could not hinder me from following the tracks left by the long-extinct Anatolian lion. One winter's day, I took a boat from Gevaþ on the shores of Lake Van towards the island of Akdamar, where I would begin my journey of discovery. The scenery was harsh and wild in its formidable winter guise, yet equally enchanting. When the idea first came to me of seeking out an Urartian lion, history had whispered to me that winter was the time best fitted for my journey, in which lions would await me at beginning and end. Some of these lions, carved in reliefs, were to be seen in the church on Akdamar Island and others on the walls of Ishakpasha Palace in Dogubeyazit . In this eastern landscape woven with legends, I would perhaps hear the echo of their roars over the snow. Instead, I was met on my arrival at Akdamar not by lions but by gulls resting on the jetty. In spring, the almond trees adorn the island like a bride with their white blossoms were now in deep winter slumber.

Founder of the church, King Gagik I of Vaspurakan, and its architect, the monk Manuel, were both in their eternal rest. I began to look for the lions on the church walls, adorned with the loveliest 'stone zoo' that I have ever seen. Passing by peacocks, bears, bulls, gazelles, mountain goats, deer, and parrots, I found them. One of the lions was winged, and two stood beside Daniel. Others were hunting prey. Snow had gathered in the grooves and hollows of the carvings. They were too high up to touch, but I looked at my fill, admiring the skills of those long-gone craftsmen who had created them. As I boarded the boat, the gulls screeched with joy at my departure. I returned to Van for a hearty breakfast of herb cheese, garlic sausage with eggs, and honey and butter, and when I could eat no more of this delicious repast, I set out again on my 185-kilometer journey over ice and snow. The weather of Van is full of surprises. After three hours of heavy snowfall, the clouds dispersed to reveal an azure blue sky. But th

the cold was by no means diminished, and horses by the side of the road breathed out white steam, and laundry hung on lines in the gardens was frozen stiff. Seventy-five kilometers beyond Van, I would turn onto the Dogubeyazit road, which would carry 110 kilometers to Ishakpaþa Palace, where more lions awaited me. The road soon became so slippery with ice that I was obliged to stop and fit chains onto the tires, which, unlike lions, had no claws to grip the frozen ground! At Seytan Bridge - Devil's Bridge - I got out of the car to see Muradiye Falls and felt the freezing wind slash at my face like a knife. The waterfall, also known as Bend-i Mâhi , had frozen. Its back was turned to the road as if to shield the lions that might drink its water from the sight of hunters. From the wooden bridge, I could see great chunks of ice being swept along by the river. At Gonderme, the temperature was minus 20 degrees Centigrade, giving no sign that I was approaching the extinct volcano of Tendurek, once a fiery furnace. But it

had left its trace in the pitted surface of volcanic tuff. Steam rising from streams formed snake-like trails of mist, revealing their invisible courses.

In the villages of single-story cottages through which we passed, the only sounds which broke the deep winter silence were shrill school bells and the shouts of children rushing out of the pink painted primary schools into the playgrounds at breaktime. When I reached the town of Caldiran, I stopped at the hilltop monument commemorating the victory of Sultan Selim Yavuz at the Battle of Chaldiran and gazed out over the plain. Just beyond the town, I saw a man wading up to his waist in Lake Kaz carrying a pitchfork in his hand, like a vision of Poseidon with his trident. He was a farmer gathering marsh grasses as fodder for his hungry cattle waiting on the lake's edge. After crossing the 2644 meter high pass of Tendurek, I entered the province of Agri. Keeping my eyes on the summit of Agri Dagi (Mount Ararat), rising amidst gaunt hills, I continued on my way. Many mountaineers have failed to return from this mountain, which looks deceptively easy to climb from a distance. Learn more about traveling to Turkey.

About 15 kilometers from Dogubeyazit, the rocky outcrops visible through the white snow acquire a reddish tone. And this natural tone, combined with the setting sun's effect, created views of magical beauty. When I passed Dogubeyazit and reached Ishakpasha Palace overlooking the town, the building was enveloped in a blue halo. Next to this splendid building, whose construction took nearly a century, rose ancient walls built by the Urartians, for whom lions were the symbol of their civilization. I reached out to touch the relief lions around the great gate of the harem and thought of Agri Dagi, which had erupted with lion-like roars millions of years ago and then fallen silent. The lions, more powerful than human beings, had become extinct like the mountain, their tracks wiped out by time.

But the carvers who venerated their strength immortalized them in stone, allowing us centuries later to imagine their roars echoing in these mountains.