It’s 2017, and a group of underwater explorers are investigating the depths of Lake Van in the Anatolia region of Turkey. Locals have regaled the team with fantastical stories of priceless treasures buried deep beneath the surface. But what they are about to discover is a hidden secret which has been kept out of view for thousands of years.
Lake Van had actually divided opinion before this moment. Archeologists familiar with the region had warned the divers that little lay in the lake’s waters. At this stage, it wasn’t clear what the truth was, but the team decided to investigate anyway.
But why would the divers have invested so much effort in exploring Lake Van based merely on rumor, you ask? Well, the truth is that the body of water is located in a historically important region of Turkey. Given that, the stories of hidden wonders beneath the surface of the lake were worth following up.
Lake Van’s eastern shore was actually home to the capital of an ancient civilization around 3,000 years ago. This was the Urartu kingdom – a territory which encompassed parts of modern-day Turkey, Iran and Armenia. Due to a lack of concrete sources, there are many aspects to this civilization that remain mysterious today. Having said that, historians have developed a broad picture of the place and its people.
Before Urartu emerged as a unified entity, the territory was made up of several different kingdoms which eventually came together. By the 9th century B.C., then, Urartu had established itself as a singular domain. And though it isn’t quite certain why this happened, it may have been a reaction to the threat posed by the Assyrian kingdom.
Sadly, any visitors to Iran, Armenia and Turkey will find little evidence of the Urartu kingdom today. But there are still some remains dotted around the region which provide us with some insight. Not far from the modern Armenian capital of Yerevan, for instance, you will find the ruins of a Urartian fortress. From this, we can ascertain that the civilization’s forts were protected by huge stone walls with strong foundations.
Historians have also discovered more about Urartu thanks to a limited number of texts that have survived. At first, it seems that the civilization utilized basic pictograms to convey messages. But over time, the culture picked up the cuneiform writing system from nearby Mesopotamia. This then developed into its own unique form.
The Urartu kingdom began to thrive largely thanks to the fertile lands it was based on. And the people of this civilization were really spoiled for choice. They could grow important foodstuffs such as barley, wheat, cherries, pomegranates and apples. Farmers could also produce wine – arguably making them the first people to ever do this.
But they didn’t just cultivate fruits and vegetables. The people of Urartu also tended to livestock, too. Given the fertile lands of the region, it was possible to keep animals such as cows, sheep, horses and goats. On top of that, minerals like copper, gold, silver, iron, tin and lead could also be found in the area.
And the Urartu kingdom itself was well-placed geographically to do business with other wealthy neighbors in the region. You see, it was located along a trade pathway that linked civilizations in the Mediterranean and Asia. Mountains looming at both the northern and southern ends of the territory acted as a natural defense. But its eastern and western ends were still vulnerable to attack.
But who was in charge of Urartu? Well, the society was ultimately controlled by a monarchy, which itself delegated to a small group of advisers. Beneath these senior consultants were officials who looked after places of worship and oversaw development projects like roadbuilding.
Like most civilizations, it seems that religion was an important aspect of life for the Urartians. The belief system itself seems to have developed as a mixture of original ideas and those taken from other cultures. There’s also evidence to suggest that the Urartu people offered gifts and animal sacrifices to their gods.
The capital of Urartu was called Tushpa, and it developed upon a limestone platform along the eastern edge of Lake Van. In fact, Tushpa later came to be known simply as Van. And this was no small town; Ancient History Encyclopedia claims that the settlement’s population may have soared to 50,000 at its height.
The urban planners of the Urartu kingdom were also impressive for their time. They showed their innovative architectural finesse through the construction of a remarkable 50-mile-long canal that allowed water from a nearby mountain to flow straight into the capital city. This, in turn, permitted the growth of impressive gardens for fruit farming.
And the Urartu Kingdom was tactical when it came to dealing with its nearby neighbors. On the one hand, it might seek to create partnerships with surrounding territories. But sometimes it would take a stronger stance – demanding goods and even slaves in return for peace. Yet there are still examples in which the kingdom thoroughly conquered domains nearby.
The kingdom also wasn’t afraid to send its leading figures directly into harms’ way, either. Ancient History Encyclopedia notes that kings would personally lead the armies into battle. Soldiers were equipped with swords, spears and strong shields – the latter of which would have been adorned with imagery depicting mythical fearsome creatures.
Urartu had several rivals during its time – such as the Medes, the Scythians and the Cimmerians. But the principal enemy of the kingdom was apparently the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Having said that, though, things weren’t quite so clear-cut. You see, there’s evidence that the two domains actually traded with one another, too.
But all good things come to an end, and in around the 7th century B.C. the Urartu kingdom was sadly wiped off the map. We don’t actually know how it met this violent fate, but between 640 and 590 B.C. the civilization’s cities were destroyed. Who was behind these attacks remains unclear, but experts believe it may have been either the Cimmerians or the Scythians. It also could have even been by forces ostensibly under Urartian control.
Regardless of who the culprits were, it was the Medes who ultimately benefitted from the Urartu kingdom’s destruction. They took control of the lands once held by the Urartians and later became part of Cyprus’ Achaemenian Empire. But the Urartu language managed to survive for some time longer, according to Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Still, a number of settlements established by the Urartians outlived the kingdom itself. And some of these places still bear their Urartian names even today. Though it was a long time before the civilization was recognized as an important force of the Bronze Age. In fact, proper archeological works on the ancient kingdom only started in the 19th century.
Historians are now sure that the Urartu kingdom was a central location of the ancient world. Yet it has been difficult to uncover evidence that could paint a truly clear image of life there. With that in mind, any discoveries that could tell us more about the place are essential.
Perhaps that’s why researchers from Van Yüzüncü Yil University were so keen to explore the waters of Lake Van. The rumors suggesting that there were some astonishing secrets underwater were clearly worthy of taking seriously. So, a team of divers was rounded up and they soon got down to work.
This team of underwater explorers was headed up by a photographer and video producer called Tahsin Ceylan. Accompanying him were divers Cumali Birol and Murat Kulakaç, as well as an academic from Van Yüzüncü Yıl University’s fishery faculty named Mustafa Akkuş. And together, they were ready to discover something amazing.
Ceylan spoke to Hürriyet Daily News about the reasons behind the expedition in November 2017. He explained, “Many civilizations and people had settled around Lake Van. They named the lake the ‘upper sea’ and believed it had many mysterious things. With this belief in mind, we are working to reveal the lake’s secrets.”
So, what exactly did the underwater explorers find as they undertook their mission at the bottom of Lake Van? Well, it appeared as if they’d taken a dip into a long-lost fortress. The group had found an archeological wonderland with walls measuring up to 13 feet in height.
Speaking to Hürriyet Daily News, Ceylan explained that he and his team had been researching Lake Van for a decade. But this discovery might just have topped everything else they’d found. He said, “We have shared all these findings with the world. Today, we are here to announce the discovery of a castle that has remained underwater in Lake Van.”
Ceylan went on, “I believe that in addition to this castle, microbialites [carbonate mud deposits] will make contributions to the region’s economy and tourism. It is a miracle to find this castle underwater. Archeologists will come here to examine the castle’s history and provide information on it.”
It must have been quite the experience for Ceylan and his fellow divers to roam around this long-forgotten fort. After all, they’d discovered potential evidence of a civilization lost to time and nature. Deep beneath the waters of Lake Van, walls made of stone loosely placed on top of one another stood preserved.
Ceylan explained more about the astonishing discovery to Hürriyet Daily News. He said, “The walls of this castle cover a wide section. The excavations need to be done underwater but we don’t know how deep the walls are. A three-to-four-meter wall section can be seen and the castle ruins cover an area of one kilometer.”
This remarkable revelation is an extremely exciting prospect for those within the archeological community. After all, the waters of the lake are alkaline. And this has meant that the castle has been wonderfully preserved over the time in which it has been submerged.
In Ceylan’s own words, “Since the water of Lake Van is alkaline, the castle has not been damaged and has kept its characteristics underwater. We have detected the castle’s exact location and photographed it and have made progress in our research. We now believe we have discovered a new area for archeologists and historians to study.”
Based on immediate observations, the divers suggested that the underwater fortress might date back some 3,000 years. As such, this would mean that it had once been a part of the Iron Age Urartian time period. And this is a welcome discovery – given how many gaps there are in our present-day knowledge of the territory.
But how is it that this fortress came to be lost in the first place? Well, experts believe that the boundaries of Lake Van extended over time. While this fortress had once evidently been situated at the edge of the lake, it eventually became submerged by the rising waters.
A number of old structures can also be found at the edge of the lake’s present boundaries. These formerly inhabited buildings would have been abandoned when the waters of Lake Van started to rise. And an academic from Van Yüzüncü Yıl University’s fishery faculty called Mustafa Akkuş spoke to Hürriyet Daily News about this very point.
Akkuş said, “As the lake waters rose, people withdrew but the structures stayed there. Even though most of them are in ruins, they are still there. We need to protect these structures first. Other castles in the country have been damaged, but the lake has hidden the castle here and preserved it.”
But could the experts have got it all wrong? Despite all the excitement that the divers’ discovery caused, there is a need for caution. You see, there are doubts that the underwater structures were actually built during the Urartian period.
The website Live Science started doing its own research not long after the discovery started circulating in the press. Speaking to several archeologists who weren’t involved in the underwater expedition, the site discerned that the walls may have been raised in another period entirely. It’s possible, these experts claimed, that they were actually constructed during medieval times.
Kemalettin Köroğlu is a professor of archeology with Marmara Üniversitesi. Speaking to Live Science, he explained his reasons for doubting the claim that the fortress dates back to Urartian times. Köroğlu said, “The walls [seem] medieval or late antique period rather than Urartu. [The Urartians] never used any material between ashlar wall stones to connect each other.”
And Stony Brook University history professor Paul Zimansky had more cold water to pour on the claim of the castle’s age. He said that it’s possible the medieval walls were built using Urartian ruins by people in later times. But ultimately, it’s all subject to speculation until more stringent archeological works are undertaken on the underwater site.
As diver Ceylan himself commented to Live Science, “The area needs to be thoroughly researched by [an] archeologist. For the time being, there is no team here to conduct dives and [examinations of] the castle.” Hopefully, more work can be done in future to help get to the bottom of this fascinating mystery.