A Citadel on the Silk Road

The İshak Pasha Palace

On a windswept promontory overlooked by snow-capped Mount Ararat, an Ottoman governor built an extravagant citadel to guard Turkey’s far eastern border. There was method in his madness, for from this mountain fastness, forbidding on the outside, refined within, he could control the lucrative Silk Road. The haunting İshak Pasha Palace was photographed for Cornucopia by the late Brian McKee

  • The İshak Pasha Palace (İshak Paşa Sarayı), Doğubayazıt, photographed by Brian McKee

Other than those to Tatvan and Alhat, our trips from Van were easily accomplished in a day, returning to our apartment for the night, to set out again the next morning. But Doğubayazıt and the İshak Pasha Palace – where tour groups might spend a couple of hours on their way from Van to Kars and Ani farther north – proved one of the most memorable sites on our travels, and repays an overnight stay.

The drive from Van is a very beautiful one, and while it can be done in roughly three-and-a-half hours, I would allow a little more time to take in the scenery and to have lunch in one of the many roadside kebab cafés dotted along the main highway. They are aimed not so much at tourists as at the freight traffic that uses this route between Iran and Turkey, and while they are all very simple, with limited menus, everything is fresh and well worth trying.

The roads are all now very modern, and although you can certainly take smaller byways, winding through villages, there is really not much of major historical importance to see as you journey northeast towards the border with Iran. The driving is easy, with clear signage, and we never left the main route.

Our plan was to arrive at the İshak Pasha Palace at sunset, and to return there the next morning at sunrise. We had judged it just right for mid-August, arriving in town with enough time to check into our hotel before heading out again. Most tour groups stay along the main road outside Doğubayazıt, but we wanted to be in the centre of the old town. There were many beautiful surprises during our stay, but one of the best was the Tehran Boutique Hotel. I always give my partner, Ai [the Japanese artist Ai Kijima], a wink when we book into any hotel labelled “boutique”, but, to our great delight, this one really deserved its name.

The owners, who seemed to be an entire family, are from Iran, and have transformed an old town-centre hotel into a truly modern boutique experience. We paid just $45 for a deluxe room with a terrace, and with a bathroom bigger than the entire room in most of the other hotels we stayed in on our travels.

Once we had checked in we drove directly to the palace, about ten minutes away, as the sun went down over the mountains to the west. It might have been built for this evening display of reflected light and the dance of shadows, as the walls change from a glowing red, to pink, to a darker red, with the wind blowing through empty corridors, almost as if the building were singing to us.

Back at our hotel we were again greeted by our very gracious hosts, who directed us to a restaurant for an evening meal of the local beef for which the region is justly famous. As in the roadside cafés, restaurant menus here are limited, but everything is fresh, home-made and unlike anything you might experience anywhere else in Turkey. It is not unusual to see a fresh side of beef hanging [in a butcher’s shop] directly across the street from a restaurant, and they simply go and select the cuts you order.

We knew we’d need a satisfying dinner if we were to be up to catch the sunrise this far east and in August. We were up before first light, and though the İshak Pasha Palace does not open to the public until 9am, we were able to see again the spectacle of the light shimmering and dancing on the walls.

We returned to our hotel for a delicious breakfast, and it was from the hotel roof that I photographed Mount Ararat. Then, back at the palace shortly after 9am, we were very happy to find ourselves the only visitor. I would not say that sunrise was a better time to see it than at sunset – you should see both – but it is in the early morning that the interiors of the complex truly come alive. In the mosque, light bounces off white marble. The reddish walls of the entrance hall and dining room have their own subtle glow. Indeed, apart from the kitchen, which is coated in years and years of soot from the ovens, every room shines in the early morning hours.

Finally, by around 1pm, the first tour group arrived from Van. Glad as I was that they had not been there sooner, it seemed sad that somewhere so amazing would not long delay them.

● Brian McKee stayed at the Tehran Boutique Hotel, Doğubayazıt; +90 472 312 0195

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