The Eastern Anatolian Region has a long and fascinating history, and this is reflected in the city of Van’s new museum. We have been waiting for this museum for years, but finally it is here, and it’s a tour de force.
The area encompassed by the modern province of Van has been the birthplace and home of many diverse cultures and civilisations throughout history, and the new museum instantly draws visitors into the epic story of the region, leading them through Van’s timeline via various exhibition rooms highlighting specific objects or themes. Indeed, there is so much on display that only a whistle-stop tour is possible here.
The ‘Obsidian Knob’
The museum’s first galleries cover Eastern Anatolia’s Stone and Copper Ages. But among the many intriguing items featured here there is one that caught my eye, which appears to have defied labelling or explanation. The description simply says ‘Obsidian Knob’. And, basically, this is what it appears to be. But what exactly is it? And why is it on display at all? Obsidian dominates the Van Museum’s stone collection because of its abundance in this volcanic region. It also played a key role in a trade network that stretched hundreds of kilometres away as early as the Neolithic: obsidian blades from the Lake Van area have been identified at the famous site of Göbekli Tepe and its surrounding area, all the way down into northern Syria and Iraq. While the ‘Obsidian Knob’ dates to slightly later – in fact, to the Copper Age – stone technologies were still very much in use at this time, and this is what makes the object so significant. This enigmatic exhibit is in fact an obsidian core from which pieces were struck in order to manufacture specific blades and tools. Its existence highlights the importance of obsidian well into the Copper Age: the brittle stone produces consistently sharp edges, for which newly developed copper blades were no match. This brings to mind an observation made by the former Saudi Arabian oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani: ‘Remember, the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.’ Technologies and epochs overlap.
The Hakkari stelae
Among the museum’s other highlights are 13 stone stelae discovered in a group in Hakkari, c.200km south-east of Van, in 1998. The stelae, which are of varying sizes, comprise representations of 11 men and two women, featuring possessions and motifs that appear to reflect the status, wealth, and achievements of the individuals represented. In the case of the males, they are clearly warriors, shown with weapons and slain enemies, as well as ingots possibly illustrating wealth. The two female figures are smaller and without possessions or other marks of status, but it is clear that their inclusion in the group makes them special.
The weapons depicted with the warriors appear to be of a type used in this part of the world between the 15th and 13th centuries BC, offering a possible date for the stelae. Several of the stones also feature depictions of yurt-type tents, indicating that their creators belonged to a nomadic culture that once lived across this rugged landscape. These stelae are the westernmost example of a monumental tradition that stretches east into Central Asia.
Treasures of Urartu
The Van Museum’s most spectacular artefacts, however, are undoubtedly those from the Kingdom of Urartu. This powerful state covered eastern Turkey, north-western Iran, Armenia, and parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia between c.860 BC and 590 BC, and left behind a rich legacy of gold and silver work along with many examples of extraordinary bronze artefacts and superb stone carvings. Artefacts from Ayanais, a fortress and temple complex dating to the mid-7th century BC, located just north of Van, are exemplars of the Urartian skill in bronze- and stone-working. Key artefacts from the temple include a helmet, shield, and the ‘Sacred Spear of Haldi’. These are diplayed in the museum next to a reconstruction of the temple that sits at the heart of Ayanais, dedicated to one of the Urartians’ most important deities, the warrior god Haldi.
The museum features another room devoted entirely to the fine, bronze horse and chariot equipment, weapons, and armour of the people of Urartu, who were master horsemen and charioteers. This room explores yet another testament to the Urartu’s advanced technological skills. At the fortress of Upper Anzaf, just outside Van, mysterious shapes carved into the rockface defied explanation for years, until archaeologist Erkan Konyar noted that the carvings matched the shapes of different chariot components. He proposed that after being softened in steam, lengths of wood could have been placed in these grooves to bend them into the desired shapes. When the wood cools and dries, it retains its new shape and can then be banded with an iron or bronze rim for strength to create, for example, a wheel. Other carriage componets could be shaped in the same way.
Also known from the Urartu are some 500 rock-cut inscriptions found throughout the region, as well as inscriptions on hundreds of objects and memorial or religious stelae, many of which are collected in this museum. These inscriptions record military campaigns, religious rituals, and deities in the Urartian pantheon, as well as dedications to public works. Written in cuneiform, the meanings of these inscriptions were lost for many years, and it was not until the 19th century that scholars began to decipher many of the languages used across the ancient Near East. Now these cuneiform inscriptions offer a valuable opportunity to improve our understanding of the region’s rich history.
The joy of travelling in Eastern Anatolia is the thrill of constantly encountering new opportunities to discover previously unknown or overlooked parts of its heritage, and nowhere is this better reflected than in the new Van Musuem.
ALL IMAGES: Nick Kropacek
Van Archeology and Ethnography Museum
Address: Yalı Mahallesi Kale Sokak No.2 I.pekyolu I.lçesi, Van
Open: 8am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday
If you would like to find out more about visiting the Van region and this new museum with Eastern Turkey Tours, visit the website www.easternturkeytour.org/tour/four-day-tour-of-lake-van-region.