Stone Palaces

Backed into the hills above modern Doğubeyazıt, or “East Beyazit,” is a unique complex. Several metal signs announce the way to İshak Paşa Palace (Turk. İshak Paşa Sarayı).

The sign marking the turn.

Such repetition may suggest that the road is difficult or confusing. However, as the site is in full view from almost anywhere in town, I sense that there are other reasons afoot. “We are seriously invested in this,” the signs scold the indifferent traveler. “You cannot pass without stopping.” The agency need not worry. Our van, with its small group of intrepid adventurers, obediently noses toward the site.

The plain surrounding Doğubeyazıt.

At the top of the hill we pull into a nearly deserted parking lot. We unload and note the first reason why a visit here is a good idea: the commanding view. I squint into the sun and follow the route taken reach the spot. It is about three miles back down to the modern town. Painted concrete houses, asphalt, and dung mark its edges. But beyond that splash, definition is harder to come by. The afternoon sun makes it even more difficult. Flatland gives way to marsh and marsh gives way to a chain of small lakes and creeks. It is a wildlife haven, a pit-stop along the East Asia/East Africa flyway. Beyond the wetland, on the far horizon, stony ridges jut upward like shark’s teeth. I look in vain for the white cap of Ağrı Dağı; it is hidden by the ridge behind us.

My map gives a name to the wetland: Şeyhli Marsh, or “Marsh of the Sheykh.” I am reminded of the palace complex we have come to see.

The palace squats on an elevated platform.

The structure itself squats on an elevated platform slightly larger than a soccer field. Perimeter walls enclose a series of courtyards and inner structures. Our cultural guide, Uraz, rehearses a brief history of the area from the late 17th and 18th centuries. It is a fascinating tale, one that crosses the boundary from an age when masonry was an able protector, to the age of gunpowder and canon, when it was not. He tells us the story one İshak Paşa, the builder who gave his name to the structure, and how this complex was the last of its kind: a medieval dinosaur that stumbled forward into the modern world. We pause on the threshold to admire the ornate carvings. It may be a Ottoman dinosaur, but is certainly a beautiful one. We are surrounded by artistry in stone. It is a second reason to visit the site.

The decorated entrance of the İshak Paşa Palace.

Stepping around boards, steel, and piles of sand, we freely explore. A wheelbarrow-man waits patiently for us to pass. He is one of several craftsmen who labor here. Another man chirps something and Uraz pauses. He steps to one side and the mason stretches a string across the floor directly in front of us. I now understand the repeating road signs below. This is a place of serious investment. Old and new are being combined to give the obsolete a second life. Through this restoration effort, we sense the place as it once was, and now will be again. Courtyards, pantries, royal rooms, and even a dedicated Herem area are to be experienced. Elaborate fireplaces and piping (is that really a central heating system?) suggest the fury of an Anatolian winter.

View to the ridge behind the Palace.

The untold story of this place is the third and final reason why a visit here is a good idea. Looking through a gap in the wall I see the ridge that rises behind the palace. A mosque still stands across the gully, although what is below it and what is above it are in ruins. Below, the remains of Old Beyazit spill downslope. This was a thriving city when the Kurdish population was forcibly deported by the government and their homes destroyed. I want to know more about that story and how Old Beyazit became Doğubeyazıt. I fear it is not a pleasant one.

A second untold story lurks higher upslope, above the mosque. Here, literally, on the cliff edge, stand the stone walls of a still earlier settlement. If a rock cut tomb (flanked by carved reliefs) is any indication, these fortifications overlooking the Şeyhli Marsh were erected a thousand years before the time of Christ and almost three thousand years before the building of the İshak Paşa Palace. Here, crumbling in the summer sun, are the mysterious (and unexcavated) ruins of a Urartian city. If the linguists have it right, this name of this kingdom is well-known to readers of the Bible. Ancient Urartu is, after all, Ararat.