The Impossibly True Story of the Sunken Castle in a Turkish Lake
Secrets and treasures of the ancient world are scattered all across the globe. One of the most incredible discoveries in the history of exploring the ancient world was recently unearthed completely by accident.
Let’s head to Turkey to dive deep into the ancient waters of Lake Van to marvel at the find of the century: a sunken castle. The history and legends surrounding this impossible treasure are waiting just beneath the surface.
It Started with an Earthquake
Lake Van is a lovely spot in Turkey that has attracted visitors for as long as anyone can remember. The scenic vista includes not only the lake itself, but sprawling foliage, a massive mountain and the Holy Cross Cathedral built just at the edge of the cliff.
The Whole Thing Should Be Frozen
One thing to keep in mind as you learn more about Lake Van is that the lake is actually at a very high altitude. It sits 5,380 feet above sea level, above the point where water is expected to freeze.
So, What's Down There?
Lake Van has fascinated scientists for years. As a large, ancient lake with no outlets, its waters have served as a repository for thousands of years’ worth of history. Investigations into the lake’s history have been largely concerned with the ecology and climate surrounding such a strange natural formation. For decades, no one thought to search the lake for man-made history.
Legends of a Hidden Temple
The discovery of the ruins wasn’t totally without precedent. Stories and legends always hinted at ancient civilizations and long-vanished empires that had once inhabited the land. As far back as the 1950s, rumors and speculation had implied that something ancient could be buried deep within Lake Van.
Lost and sunken cities — real, imaginary or something in between — have long fascinated and excited the general public. Atlantis is the most famous lost-city myth in Western culture, but that fabled cautionary tale isn’t the only one to surface (pun intended).
The Perfect Team
The eventual team that discovered the ruins in Lake Van was formed at Yan Yüzüncü Yıl University, also located in Van. The school’s motto is "A Gateway to the Future," yet representatives from the school were destined to open a door into the past.
The lead diver on the exploratory mission was Tahsin Ceylan, an experienced underwater explorer and photographer with decades of experience in underwater activities. Over the course of his career, Ceylan has conducted numerous dives in the Red Sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and other waters throughout Turkey.
The team led by Ceylan had actually been diving in and documenting finds in Lake Van for a decade when they made their discovery. Ceylan’s interest started as an investigation into a mythical creature, but the broader purpose of the mission was to photograph and document all manner of life and vegetation growing beneath the water.
Whatever Ceylan and the other explorers expected to find down there, nothing could have prepared them for the sight they uncovered in the cold, dark waters of Lake Van. At the bottom of the lake, a massive castle was submerged, preserved in pristine condition.
Immediately, Ceylan and his team began snapping pictures and gathering as much evidence as possible to help them make sense of what they had actually discovered. It was truly a find without precedent in local archaeology, and it brought many of the assumptions local authorities had made about the area’s history into question.
So, Who Built the Castle?
Initial reports suggested the castle originated in what is known as the Urartian Era, a relatively brief kingdom that came and went during the Iron Age, spanning 860 BC to 590 BC. The Urartian kingdom began as a group of smaller kingdoms that banded together with Lake Van at their center.
The discovery of the castle in the waters of Lake Van caused a great deal of excitement and speculation among lovers of strange history. In particular, the discovery seemed to provide concrete proof of an ancient, semi-mythic empire believed to have once occupied that land.
The Stone Lion
The theory that the sunken castle belonged to the Urartian people was seemingly confirmed very early in the discovery process. In their examination of the castle stones, Ceylan and his team discovered a lion etched into the rock.
Surprisingly, the discovery of the castle didn’t come as much of a surprise to some within the archaeology community. In a paper published in 1958, Charles Burney and G.R.J. Lawson described the possibility of a medieval castle on the north shore of Lake Van. They speculated that the castle had been built out of reused blocks from an ancient civilization.
Secrets of the Stone
Other experts believe there are deeper truths than what the lion suggests. Archaeologist Geoffrey Summers examined the evidence and concluded that the stones of the lost castle told a different story than that of a proud kingdom that had toppled into ruin.
After the initial fervor around the discovery began to die down, archaeologists and other experts examined the evidence more closely, and a number of them concluded that Summers, Burney and Lawson were on the right track. It was incredibly likely the castle was constructed up to a thousand years later than believed, during the medieval period.
Others say this argument is actually backwards, and it was the Urartian people who did such a large amount of recycling. This theory also hinges on the architecture of the castle, arguing that the stones weren’t assembled in any way that fit with how the Urartian people went about their business.
What Lies Beneath
Although many theories have been debated, expeditions have continued to explore the castle and the remains of the city that once surrounded it. Some sections of the castle continue to stand strong against the cold water and the ever-present pressure, but other areas have collapsed entirely and are nothing more than pebbles scattered across the lake’s floor.
But Who Built the Castle?
No one can be sure when or why the castle came into being. However, a scholar named P. Hulin put together a report that argued a comprehensive theory about the origins of the castle and its role in the eventual downfall of the Urartian kingdom.
Hail to the King
The legend says that Rusa became King of Urartu upon the death of his father, King Sarduri II. While Sarduri was alive, Rusa was known and feared as a great conqueror of the surrounding regions and peoples, gobbling up lands to feed the expansion, wealth and power of the Kingdom of Urartu.
A Clash of Kings
With Rusa wearing the crown, the Urartian’s ancient enemies, the Assyrians, saw an opportunity to incite their own people to rise up against him. They attempted to join forces with other people and kingdoms who had been destroyed by Rusa in his wild days as an unchecked prince and marauder.
Suddenly, Rusa had to play defense against an aggressive, attacking force. Records indicate the Urartian people were unprepared for the ferocious and very well-organized assaults launched against their borders by the enraged Assyrians. Tiglath-Pileser III wasted no time after the passing of the former king before launching his attacks against the new one, and it took all of Rusa’s resources to defend his lands.
For survival, researchers believe the Urartians may have left the area and abandoned the castle to be swallowed by the lake. Urartu was invaded constantly, each time requiring them to build back up from the ashes of the attempted conquest. The kingdom continued to shrink, piece by piece.
Battered and weary from constantly defending themselves, the Urartu people eventually capitulated to the invaders. The Assyrians — recently conquered themselves by a conglomeration of Medes, Scythians and Nabopolassar of Babylon — wiped the kingdom from the face of the Earth, leaving the great castles and structures to fall to ruin or be swallowed by the sea.
Myth Beyond the Myth
The legendary story of the mad king and the downfall of the kingdom has a wrinkle that takes it further into the realm of ancient myth. During an earlier examination of Lake Van in the 1950s, P. Hulin discovered an etching that shows Rusa interacting with the ancient god Haldi.
After the Fall
As the people living in the area began to conform to a new way of life and develop their new Armenian identity, the memories of Urartu faded and then disappeared. It became one of the mythical paradises we describe in stories and myths, similar to the stories told about Atlantis and Camelot.
While the story of mad King Rusa makes for quite a story, archaeologists continue to express doubts that the castle dates back that far. The nature of the stones and the style of architecture used to construct the castle are more in keeping with medieval techniques and fashion.
Print the Legend
Prior to the discovery of the Lake Van castle, there was little to no actual evidence that the Kingdom of Urartu was an actual historical entity and not just a hodgepodge of myths and legends used to cement a shared cultural heritage and identity. With the discovery of the castle and the sunken city around it, suddenly all bets were off.
It’s believed that the castle and its surrounding buildings were absorbed into the lake as the faults beneath the area continued to shift, allowing the water to swell and grow deeper at the castle’s location. It’s also possible the rising water levels played a role in the kingdom being unable to defend itself from the mounting number of threats.
More to Find
The discovery of the castle beneath the waters of Lake Van has led to even more questions about the area, its history and its people. Scientists and researchers continue to flock to the cold, dark waters of the lake to try their hand at unearthing even more secrets.