Fire and Ice

The eastern edge of the modern country of Turkey is a place of rupture. This certainly rings true in the political arena as one contemplates the competing claims of Turks, Armenians, and Kurds. History has not been kind here. But rupture is also a fair descriptor in other, deeper, ways. I think about this on the drive from Van to Doğubayazıt.

Months later, the devastation of the earthquake is still visible.

When leaving the city of Van, we were surprised to discover whole streets lined by abandoned buildings. Some had been apartments; others, businesses and factories. Exterior walls of concrete block were awkwardly peeled away, as if by some ridiculous force. With these partitions missing, we were able to peer from our passing vehicle, like voyeurs, into the private lives of people we would never know. Their wires and pipes and curtains danced nakedly in the wind. Only later would we locate the missing inhabitants; new homes were assigned them, homes of thin trailer steel, the kind arranged in tight rows and given by agencies that specialize in humanitarian disasters. A few months before (23 October 2011) our arrival, an earthquake of a magnitude 7.2 rocked the city. Hundreds were killed. Thousands were displaced. Van has not yet recovered from the shock that originated some nine miles underfoot.

Volcanic flows at the base of Mt Tondrak.

Now, some 60 miles north of the city, we squeeze between the Iranian border and the slopes of Mount Tondrak (Turk., Tendürek Dağı). I look left and see evidence of another kind of rupture in eastern Turkey. Tondrak, to the geologist, is a shield-volcano. The corners of its gaping mouth are visible even from a distance. But it is not the 12,000 foot elevation of this distinctive blow-hole that is most striking. The profile of summit is relatively low. More impressive are the flows of hardened lava that accumulate in layers around the broad mountain base. These rise, fall, and cover the ground like the folds of a frilly skirt.

The view reminds me that the boundary that separates Turkey from Iran, or Turkey from Armenia, is petty when compared to the tectonic boundary that separates the great plates of the earth’s crust. Here, beneath the surface of eastern Turkey, a collision of titanic proportions is taking place. Arabia collides with Eurasia, and Anatolia, the perennial victim, is wrenched. It shudders and seeks an escape to the west. The scale of this action is staggering to contemplate. The dynamic that rocked the city of Van and causes Mount Tondrak to burp and vomit, continues to work, pushing, shoving, folding, quaking. Whole ranges are created in the process, from the Alps to the Himalayas.

I suddenly feel quite small.

And then I feel even smaller.

Our vehicle pulls off the road and stops. Uraz says, “Everybody out.” He points. “Our first view to Ararat.” I stand transfixed, looking across the plain that falls from Tondrak’s flank. In the distance I can see a second line of hills. Nothing outstanding here. Clouds creep along the edges of these low rollers. “Where’s the mountain?” I stupidly ask.

“Not down there. Up here.”

First glimpse to Agri Dagh.

I raise my eyes above the plain, above the hills, and above the clouds. Suddenly in the haze the outline emerges.

It is not a low-profile affair like Tondrak. It is the mother of geological wonders: a true stratovolcano. It rises majestically from the plain, without competitor, to a height of nearly 17,000 feet. It wears ice like a stocking cap, even in August.

Wilkerson dares to give voice to the question of the group: “What were we thinking?”