The ridge abruptly rises near the lake’s edge. It is more than a half mile long and hundreds of feet high. The flat ground extending from its base (undoubtedly a flood plain from more remote times) renders the promontory all the more stunning. Walls and towers cling to the rock like barnacles. I wonder why these man-made constructions were thought necessary. The plunge to the flat is so vertical, so awful, that the ridge ably protects itself. Inside these defenses, built with or without human hands, rests the citadel of Van (Turkish, Van Kalesi). It straddles the ridge like the ancient horsemen who built it. Since those days of Iron, every power that has ruled from the rim of the lake has, in one way or another, left its mark here.

View to the Citadel at Van. Note the promontory rising from the plain. Image from H. F. B. Lynch, Armenia Travels and Studies II (1901: Fig. 138).

Our group of seven picks its way up the path. It is weedy, unkept, and delightfully free of guardrails. As I listen to Uraz, it strikes me that just as the citadel is physically centered at a crossroads of cultures, it is narratively centered in a context of conflict. The story, only partially told, is an ugly one, involving Urartians, Assyrians, Achaemenids, Turks, Armenians, Russians, and Germans. Many have fought and died within sight of this scarp. Whole populations have been massacred here.

“Watch the ground,” cautions Uraz, “sometimes you can find bullets.”

As if waiting for this cue, Tanner reaches down and picks up a oddly symmetrical shape. It is the size of a man’s finger and heavy as lead.

“Like this?” he whispers to me.

“How do you do that?” I whisper back incredulously. The boy missed his calling. He should be an archaeologist! He grins and stuffs the treasure in his pocket.

A bullet found along the trail leading up to the citadel. Is this a Minié ball?

A watchman appears and greets us as we continue up the scramble. He leads us along a trail that curls to one side of the ridge. We descend slightly and encounter a narrow ledge, enclosed by a metal fence. The watchman pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks the gate. We follow him down some broken stairs, around a corner, and come face to face with a series of smooth limestone walls. A tomb yawns beyond.

Greg inspects the cuts.

The surfaces are twenty feet high in places, and covered with thousands and thousands of marks. They are bullet-like in shape and cut into the rock. It is cuneiform. Wedge-writing. The technology of ancient Mesopotamia.

Cuneiform characters (detail).

A 5th century (AD) report of these marks by the father of Armenian history led to the discovery of this site by the West. Moses of Khoren wrote (see my previous blog, “Lost Love, Lost Kingdom”): “Over the whole surface of the rock, as if it were on wax, she (Queen Shamiram) caused many characters to be traced.  The sight of these marvels throws everyone into amazement.”

Inspired by this report, the French Oriental Society initiated a search for this site of “many characters.” In 1827, Friedrich Eduard Schulz, a German orientalist, was selected for the task. He seemed the perfect candidate (as his obituary would later reveal; see Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1: 1834: 134). Schulz was young, educated, and bold. As reported by Henry Willock: “His zeal led him to visit unfrequented countries; and the danger which necessarily attends such enterprises gave additional excitement to this great impulse of his mind” (!).

Schulz spent months in travel and study, laboring to learn the languages of the locals. Eventually he located the city of his quest and the inscriptions found on the Citadel where I now stand and on the adjacent hill known as Toprakkale. Even though he could not read the odd marks before him, he painstakingly recorded 42 of the inscriptions (subsequent study would confirm the accuracy of his work).

Later that same season, Schulz ventured east into the mountains of Kurdistan, searching for more ruins. Disregarding the warnings given about local unrest, he placed himself and his party of six or seven persons in the care of a local chieftain. Neither he, nor his party, would emerge from the mountains again. Reports suggest that he was gunshot in the back by the very men he trusted to guide him.

Miraculously, Schulz’s inscription notes were spared and appeared, years later, in Paris. At the time, though, no one could read them. Cracking the baffling code of these “Vannic bullets” would require another half century of work. After Schulz’s death, the site slipped again into obscurity.

I stand on the ledge. It rises higher than my reach. I run my hand across the smoothed wall directly in front of me, then push my thumb into one of the indentations. I pause and wonder. Did Schulz stand in this same place and contemplate the mystery of these same marks, 183 years ago?