The dramatic landscapes between the Black Sea and Lake Van include the snow-capped volcanic peak of Mount Ararat. The name Ararat is a derivation of “Urartu”, an enigmatic Iron Age kingdom that wielded great power over a huge highland territory. We visit a number of their spectacularly situated citadels, built during the political upheavals of the 1st millennium BC.
The kingdom was taken by the Armenians, whose conversion to Christianity in AD 301 by St. Gregory the Illuminator brought a new religious landscape to the region. Our tour ends at the mountain-ringed Lake Van - a fitting end to an exceptional journey, having explored a region far beyond the reach of most tourists.
- Explore the remote Kingdom of Urartu and its palace complexes
- Tour the dramatic Medieval walled city of Ani, home to many ruins
- Admire spectacular scenery from dense forest to volcanic craters
- Learn more about the history of these little-visited parts of Turkey
- Observe incredible architecture in each of the locations we explore
- Historic Churches
This morning we land in Ankara via Istanbul, and transfer to our comfortable hotel in the bustling city centre.
Ankara has only been Turkey’s capital since 1923, though its roots go back to the Hittite civilisation of the second millennia BC.
Our travels through north-east Turkey begin at Ankara’s superb Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. The museum’s vast collection is housed in two Ottoman buildings near Ankara Castle, and covers all periods of Anatolia, from early Palaeolithic to Classical times. Exhibitions here feature masterful Urartian metalwork from the 9th century BC, majestic Hittite reliefs, and artifacts from one of the world’s first ‘cities’, Çatal Höyük .
This afternoon we journey to Amasya, on the banks of the Yeşilırmak River, nestling between the Canik and Pontus mountains. A birthplace of sultans, the city is today famous for its traditional wooden black and white Ottoman houses and riverside walks.
We spend the bulk of the day in Amasya, beginning with an ascent to the spectacular rock-carved Tombs of the Kings of Pontus on the side of Mount Harşena, dominating the town on the north bank of the river. This handsome royal necropolis consists of five tombs from the 3rd to the 2nd century BC, offering splendid views across old Amasya and the river.
For the remainder of the day we will walk through the historic core of Amasya, visiting (depending on time and restoration works in progress) a number of fine Ottoman buildings which may include the Büyük Ağa Medresesi, a curious octagonal seminary, the Mosque of Beyazıt Pasha, the Mehmet Pasha Mosque and the Yorgüç Camii. The Sabuncuoğlu Museum of Medicicne and Surgery, housed in a beautiful Ilkhanid Mongol insane asylum, is well-worth a look. We’ll also visit the city’s Archaeological Museum, housing some 24,000 artefacts recovered from the local area, including a bronze statuette of the Hittite war-god Teshup and Roman sarcophagi and statuary.
In the late afternoon we depart for Tokat and overnight there.
This morning we visit Tokat’s excellent museum, housed in the Arastalı, a beautifully-restored Ottoman-era bedestan (market hall). There is one case devoted to Comana Pontica, the next site we visit, and some well-displayed finds from the Hittite, Phrygian and Roman periods. Tokat has a proud artisan tradition and this is reflected in the ethnography section, where the town’s copper and block-printing crafts are highlighted.
Later we drive a few miles to Comana Pontica, under ongoing excavation by the Middle East Technical University of Ankara. Once a major cult sanctuary to the goddess Ma flourishing during the time of the Kindom of Pontus and under the Romans, the site is today set in lush farmland by a river.
In the afternoon we have a long but beautiful drive over the forested Pontic range to the Black Sea at Ordu.
We leave our hotel and drive to Kurul Castle, a mountain-top sanctuary cum settlement erected in the 2nd century BC. Excavations here are ongoing, and raised much excitement in 2016 when a three and half feet high marble statue of the mother goddess Kybele was unearthed. After, we drive along the attractively lush Black Sea coast to Giresun and stop for lunch.
This afternoon we visit Giresun Museum and the rock-carved Church of Virigin Mary. Both are situated on a rocky promontory, the historic core of Giresun, with charming 19th century Greek and Ottoman Turkish houses radiating out along narrow, twisting streets.
We spend a whole day in and around Trabzon, beginning at the Hagia Sophia, an important 13th century Byzantine church which was converted to a mosque in 1584. It became a museum in the 1960s but was controversially restored as a mosque in 2013.
Later today we travel to the Sumela Monastery, a famous Greek Orthodox complex perched high on the slopes of the Altindere Valley. One of Turkey’s foremost historical attractions, the monastery was founded in 386 AD and was in use right up until 1923, when it was abandoned following the ejection of the local Greek population. Restoration of the monastery is behind schedule, so it is likely that we will only be able to view the monastery form the beautiful forested river valley below.
This morning we head inland, travelling east through the mountains to the altitudinous city of Erzurum, situated some 2,000 metres above sea level. Once an Armenian capital, the city was transferred to the Eastern Roman Empire in 387 AD and became an important military base in the wars against the Persians.
Following lunch we explore the local Archaeological Museum, with its fascinating collection of semi-nomadic artefacts dating back as far as 4200 BC. We also enter the impressive Cifte Minareli Medrese. Established as a theological school in the late Seljuk period, the building became a gun foundry in the 17th century and, later still, an arsenal and armoury.
We drive further east to the high plateaus this morning, where we find the city of Kars on the closed Armenian border. Possession of Kars was hotly disputed in the 19th century, with the Russians eventually claiming it from the Ottoman Turks. It briefly returned to Turkish control during the First World War, before being reluctantly relinquished to the Armenians. It was recaptured in 1920 and has been a part of Turkey ever since.
This afternoon we enjoy an engaging walking tour of the city’s main sights, stopping at the rocky citadel, the early walls of which date back almost 2,000 years. We also visit a selection of the Kars best sites, including the 10th century Armenian Church of the Holy Apostles and an area of late 19th century Russian Baltic-style houses.
Today we take an excursion to Ani, to explore the atmospheric ruins of the medieval Armenian settlement. Known as “the City of 1001 Churches” this former capital of the Bagratid Armenian Empire was ransacked by Mongols in the 13th century, and subsequently reduced to rubble by a major earthquake. Its crumbling churches and castles rise majestically from the grassy plains, and offer a ghostly reminder of a once-great civilisation sadly destroyed.
In the afternoon we return to Kars, for the opportunity to explore this fascinating city at our own leisure.
On our final full day in Turkey we travel to Doğubeyazit. This is the last of the Turkish towns before Iran, and lies in sight of magnificent 5,00m plus Mount Ararat, on which legend states Noah’s Ark came to its final rest.
Doğubeyazit has a long and rich history, with one rock-cut tomb dating back to the Urartian period, almost three millennia ago. Here we explore the glorious, semi-ruined Ishak Pasha Palace. Built in the Ottoman period, the palace is a rare surviving example of its type, and includes a harem section, as well as its own mosque and dungeons.
We enjoy a last supper as a group in Doğubeyazit.
We transfer to the airport in Ağrı and catch our return flights home.
We fly from London via Istanbul to Trabzon, located on the historic Silk Road, and we check into our hotel upon arrival.
Today, we tour Trabzon, the last outpost of Byzantium and a focal point of trade to Persia and the Caucasus. We also visit the 13th century Church of Hagia Sophia, with its impressive Byzantine frescoes, and the citadel that overlooks the sea and modern city.
Today we travel to the Sumela Monastery, which is spectacularly built into a sheer cliff that peeps out from densely forested slopes. It dates from the 6th century and boasts some fine frescoes. The monastery was hastily abandoned in 1923 following the population exchange between Greece and the newly founded Republic of Turkey. We then drive over the Zigana Pass and follow the old Silk Road to Erzurum, the highest city in the country.
We walk around the austere yet fascinating historic city of Erzurum, visiting a number of atmospheric buildings left by the Saltukid and other Islamic dynasties. These include the 13th century Çifte Minare Medrese (Double-minaret religious school), the glazed-tile adorned Yakutiye Medrese, a number of elegant tombs with conical roofs, and the Ulu Cami (Friday Mosque), notable for its wooden dome.
Our exploration of early Armenian history continues today at Ani. It was a natural fortress, defended on two sides by deep ravines. Later, we admire the frescoes within the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and then we return to Kars to visit the citadel and Church of the Holy Apostles.
We drive to Dogubayazit this morning, a garrison town close to the frontier with Iran. The main focus here is the romantic 17th century Işak Paşa Saray, dramatically situated on a limestone ridge with superb views over the Ararat Plain below. There is a Urartian rock-cut chamber in the cliff-face behind the palace, flanked by relief-carved figures. Views here are just stunning.
We drive over the Tendurek Pass, past frozen lava flows, and get our first tantalising glimpses of startlingly blue Lake Van. We navigate the northern shore of the lake, passing beneath towering Mt Suphan to the Medieval city of Ahlat with monumental tombs and elaborately carved gravestones.
We descend into the deep valley carved by the river Bitlis and make a stop here to visit a charming 7th century Armenian church, which is now used by local Kurdish villagers as a barn. From here, we then head to Akhtamar Island and visit the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral.
Today we explore Old Van, including the mighty Rock of Van and the burial chambers of the Uratian King Argishti. Later, we visit the remains of the city that stood at the foot of the ‘rock’ complete with Ottoman mosques and Armenian churches.
We drive south deep into the heart of the mountains to visit the fairytale fortress of HoŞap, which was built by a Kurdish chieftan in the 17th century. Our final visit today will be to the Uratian citadel-palace of Cavustepe.
We fly back to London from Van, via Istanbul today.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Meals - Most meals included
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in programme; tips included
- Field Notes
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