In the shadow of Mt. Ağrı, İshak Paşa's Palace

The most compelling image of the four, though, was that of the İshak Paşa Sarayı.

In the shadow of Mt. Ağrı, İshak Paşa's Palace

When I first began travelling around Turkey in the early 1980s, the essence of the 'remote' east of the country was summed up for me by four iconic images, captured on posters produced by the Ministry of Tourism.

Gracing the walls of every tourist office throughout the land and tacked to the walls of countless travel agencies, the scenes depicted on these posters looked impossibly exotic. The cliff-clinging monastery of Sumela, peeking out from verdant forest in the Pontic Alps behind Trabzon. Mt. Nemrut, topped by the colossal statues of Hellenistic deities caught against a blood red sunset, rearing up between dusty Adiyaman and apricot-fringed Malatya. The Armenian island church of Aktamar, surrounded by the improbably-blue waters of Lake Van and backed by a formidable wall of snow-capped peaks.

The most compelling image of the four, though, was that of the İshak Paşa Sarayı. The striped minaret, moss-crusted domes, turrets and monumental gateways of this fortified palace complex, picturesquely perched on a hilltop beneath a barren, jagged mountain ridge, simply oozed -- for me -- oriental exoticism. It still does. The restoration work carried out a few years ago (which for a while detracted from the ruinous grandeur of the palace) has mellowed, and with the light of early morning or evening playing on it, it is unquestionably one of the most dramatically beautiful sites in all of Turkey.

By Turkish standards, it is not an old building. Begun in 1785 by a local chieftan called Çolak Abdi Paşa, it wasn't completed until several years later, by which time Abdi Paşa had been succeeded by his son, İshak Paşa. The palace complex dominated the town of Beyazit, which controlled trade along the ancient silk route that ran across the Mt. Ağrı plain below it, close to the frontier between the Ottoman and Persian empires (essentially the same border which now exists between modern Turkey and Iran) a short way to the east.

The İshak Paşa Sarayı is not for the purist. Rather, it appears to positively revel in its eclectic mixture of architectural styles. The massive portal to the east of the complex harks back to the Selçuk era, but bears some Italianate ornamentation. Many of the internal rooms incorporate architectural features derived from medieval Armenian churches, including a star-vaulted roof, wall-set niches, and the kümbet (tomb) built for İshak Paşa and his wife that is surmounted by a pyramidal roof typically found in Armenian church design. That many features of the palace were in this style is unsurprising, as the architect is said to have been of Armenian origin. He also, according to local lore, had his hands chopped off by his patron to ensure that he could never repeat such magnificence for any future employer, and later died a beggar. The relief carving found in many of the internal buildings of the complex also betrays multiple influences, from the palmettes of the Roman and Byzantine eras through to the flowing Kufic Arabic script used to decorate classical İslamic buildings.

Despite the complex's naturally defensible hill-top position and sturdy walls, its real purpose was as a luxurious pleasure retreat for the paşa and his entourage. The harem (women's quarter) was furnished with 14 fireplaces (winters in the area are harsh and snowy), a kitchen, a spacious dining room and two semi-circular bathrooms. The selamlik (a greeting and meeting room traditionally reserved for men) here forms an entire suite of rooms, overlooking the plain of Mt. Ağrı to the north and the inner courtyard to the south. With glass in the windows, and gold-plated doors (removed to St. Petersburg in 1917 by a retreating Russian army) in the main gateway, the palace was an ostentatious show-house for a petty tyrant. Even the mosque, with its striking cylindrical minaret of alternating bands of cream and red stone, its Persian-style dome and intricate internal relief carving, appears to have been built as much for aesthetic enjoyment as for spiritual enlightenment.

The palace's glory years were to be short-lived. In 1822 Russian forces captured Beyazit. When they were expelled by Ottoman forces in 1829 they forced most of the local population to emigrate to Russia with them. An earthquake shook the palace in 1840, and even though it was partially re-occupied in the 1860s, the Russian threat remained. Travelling through region on horseback in the winter of 1877, the intrepid British adventurer Frederick Burnaby found the palace garrisoned by Ottoman troops, fearing an imminent Russian attack which they were ill-prepared to repel. Burnaby reported on his visit thus:

"On entering the barracks, sometimes called the citadel, the irony of fate was clearly shown. The large window-frames which had been bought to Beyazit by Mahmoud eighty years ago, and at vast expense, had all disappeared; their places were filled with pieces of Turkish newspaper. The marble pillars and carving in alabaster over the portico were chipped and hacked about, the harem of the former owner a dormitory for the troops. Four hundred soldiers slept in the rooms allotted by Mahmoud to his seraglio'.

A Turkish officer, who joined Burnaby on his tour of the palace, translated the simple inscription in the underground vault under the kümbet: 'Mahmoud Pacha, son of Issek Pacha, lies here."

The officer went on, more tellingly, to give his own opinion of Mahmoud, last lord of the Palace of İshak Paşa:

"He was a great rogue when he lived, but he is still now, and can do no- one any harm. Peace be with his bones."

The views out of the palace, over the plain of Mt. Ağrı, are incredible. Oddly though, the towering pyramidal bulk of 5,135-meter Mt. Mt. Ağrı, which dominates the entire landscape roundabout, is hidden from view by a mountain spur just to the north of the İshak Paşa Sarayı. Perhaps the architect and his patron believed that the grandeur of the palace would be muted were it to be seen set against the natural wonder of mighty Mt. Ağrı, legendary resting place of Noah's Ark.

İshak Paşa Sarayı aside, there's much else of interest in the area. Most obvious is the domed mosque, built during the reign of Sultan Murad around 1578, clearly visible at the foot of a sheer cliff behind the palace. Immediately above this is something far more ancient, a rock-cut Urartian tomb flanked by the relief carvings of two priestly figures and a deer, ready for sacrifice. Above this the walls of a citadel, almost certainly originally Urartian but now overlain by Byzantine and Ottoman walls, crumble grandly away on the ridge. Within an hour's drive of the palace are a meteor-crater reputed to be the world's second largest, a curious rock formation which some claim to be a fossilised outline of Noah's Ark, some hot springs and, of course, the ever-present majesty of Mt. Ağrı -- thrusting it's glacier-topped head into the clouds.

Not even the most upbeat of travel writers could describe Doğubeyazit, the modern town some six kilometers northwest of İshak Paşa Sarayı (and which replaced the old hilltop town of Beyazit) as pretty. Nonetheless, this scruffy little town buzzes with frontier atmosphere, and has enough decent hotels and eating places to keep all but the fussiest visitor happy -- at least for a night or two. Besides, if you want to see one of eastern Turkey's most iconic sites, you have little choice!

Getting to Doğubeyazit

The nearest airport is Ağrı and Turkish Airlines flies there five times weekly from İstanbul and twice weekly from Ankara. An hour-long bus ride links Ağrı with Doğubeyazit. Alternatively, you can fly to Van (daily from İstanbul and Ankara with Turkish Airlines) and take a two-and-a-half-hour bus journey.

Reaching İshak Paşa Sarayı

Taxi from Dogubeyazit takes 15 minutes, price around YTL 15 with waiting time

İshak Paşa Sarayı

Open Tuesday -Sunday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Entry fee YTL 5.


Where to stay

Budget: Hotel Isfahan; Tel (472) 312 4363. Most atmospheric of the town center hotels, with a mock-Alpine bar and basic but comfy rooms

Mid-range: Sim-Er Hotel; Tel (472) 312 4842. Five kilometers out of town, comfortable, and with great views of Mt ağrı plus a pleasant garden full of wild birds

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Last Mod: 01 Ağustos 2007, 11:16
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