Could Van Fortress be the prototype for the fortress in “The Lord of the Rings”?

The heroic defense of Van is remarkably similar to the Battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Lord of the Rings”.

Usually, when fans of the famous English writer and poet John Tolkien see photographs of the ancient Urartian fortress on Van Fortress, they are surprised to find that it is the legendary fortress from “The Lord of the Rings”.

Fans of the film adaptation especially remember the episode of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, where the ancient Numenorean fortress of Hornburg stands against countless hordes of orcs in the Helm’s Deep valley.

This legendary and practically impregnable structure, which seems to emerge from the surrounding cliffs and at times merge with them, leaves an indelible impression. And it turns out that this grand creation of the writer’s imagination, brought to life by the artists of the film, exists in reality. Moreover, it existed thousands of years before the author’s birth and the fictional races he created.

Where could Tolkien have drawn this image from? He never visited Armenia during his lifetime, but he was a highly educated person, teaching at Oxford and holding the position of a professor of the Anglo-Saxon language. Undoubtedly, he communicated with his colleagues, and Orientalist professors, and could have seen photographs of Van Fortress, which was drastically different from anything familiar to the inhabitants of the plains.

The main difference is that Hornburg blocked the northern entrance to the valley, while the fortress of the Urartian kings towered over the city from the west.

In the 1st millennium BCE, the Van Fortress served as the residence of the Urartian rulers. This city – Van or ancient Tushpa, as every Armenian knows – was the capital of the Kingdom of Urartu, and more recently, in the early 20th century, it was the capital of Western Armenia.

Russian generals and officers of the Caucasian Front referred to it as the “Armenian Moscow.” Like the fortress, it has witnessed countless invasions by “orcs” from various regions on all four sides of the world over the past thousands of years. The most recent of these invasions, 100 years ago, destroyed and leveled the Armenian part of the city, which had at least 3,000 years of history. This was the ancient Tushpa, and now, in its place, there is an extensive wasteland beneath Van Fortress. However, something remains.

Since Lake Van is saline, or rather, contains a lot of soda, and its water is unsuitable for irrigation, King Menua built a 70 km long water canal at the end of the 9th and beginning of the 8th centuries BCE to provide fresh water to the capital city of Tushpa and for irrigation purposes. He built it for centuries and millennia. Menua was the father of Argishti I, the founder of Erebuni.

This grand structure, with some sections of its masonry reaching a height of 15 meters, still functions reliably to this day, without interruptions, for 2,800 years, supplying fresh water to the areas of the modern city of Van. The water flow ranges from 2 to 5 cubic meters per second. Scientists believe that the engineering characteristics of the ancient Menua Canal are comparable to modern hydraulic structures. These were our ancestors, this was their thinking, and this is how they built for the ages, knowing that their descendants would benefit from all of this.

The ancient rock surrounds the city of Van to the west. It was the study of this rock that marked the beginning of what is now called Urartuology.

In 1827, the French Asiatic Society sent a young scholar named Eduard Schulz to the Van region. Over two years, he made sketches of the rock and cuneiform inscriptions. However, in 1829, he was killed by Kurds in the mountains near Julamerk, and the materials he collected were taken to France and published in 1840.

It turned out that the cuneiform script on the rock did not belong to Assyrian culture and could not be attributed to the Arabic language, as previously assumed. By the way, Movses Khorenatsi, the founder of Armenian historiography who wrote the History of Armenia in the 5th century, did not mention Urartu at all. Eduard Schulz was sent to Van specifically to verify Khorenatsi’s account of the existence of Assyrian inscriptions there.

The first attempt to decipher the Van inscriptions was made by Hinks, who published a special article about these inscriptions in 1848. However, besides identifying some ideograms similar to Assyrian ones, Hinks’ work did not yield any significant results in understanding the Van cuneiform.

The rock near Lake Van is 1,800 meters long, 60 meters wide, and 80 meters high. The western part of the ridge used to reach directly to the lake shore. In our time, the water level in the lake has changed significantly, and Van Fortress is no longer in close proximity to Van as it was in Urartian times, but is located 4 kilometers from the shore.

There were several gates to enter the fortress: the Khorkhor Gates, the Tavriz Gates, and others in different parts. Only the central Khorkhor Gates were intended for horse-drawn carriages; the others were accessible only on foot. The rock had special caves for burials. In those times, our ancestors cremated the bodies of the deceased and placed the remains in a columbarium – a repository for urns.

Ancient ornaments have been preserved in the upper caves of Van Fortress. The rooms with high ceilings remained cool even in the summer heat. These were probably the palace halls and chambers of the Urartian kings.

Almost half a century later, it was discovered that the inscriptions on the western slope of the rock were the Khorkhor Chronicle, written by the Urartian king Argishti I – one of the main documents on the history of Urartu.

However, soon the First World War began, and a large part of the inscriptions was severely damaged by artillery explosions. What was happening then was no less intense than the battles at the legendary fortress from John Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

Among the episodes of the heroic self-defense of Armenians in 1915, the most famous is the defense of Musa Ler, thanks to Franz Werfel’s famous novel, where all these events are described in detail.

The defense of Van was equally heroic and of much greater scale, although a monumental work on this subject has still not been published. In some places where the Armenians managed to self-organize, the population resisted the executioners. Surrounded by Turkish troops, the inhabitants of Van, Mush, Sasun, Urfa, Musa Ler, and other settlements defended themselves. The Turks brutally suppressed these uprisings, but in some cases, the Armenians managed to win and hold out until the arrival of liberation forces from allied armies. The Armenians displayed such bravery and courage at that time that they will be remembered for it throughout the ages.

All 450 Armenian villages around Van were destroyed and burned. Long before the fateful date of April 24, pogroms had already begun in the region, and the survivors fled to Van.

On April 19 (April 7 according to the old calendar) 1915, Turkish soldiers attacked a group of women from the burned village of Shushantz, who were trying to seek refuge in Van, right in front of a German orphanage. The defenders of the city intervened, a shootout ensued, which turned into the assault on Van. The headquarters of the self-defense was located in a large house that used to be a Dominican school for Armenian Catholics. It was led by Aram Manukian, who was able to organize the defense flawlessly and resist all enemy attacks. Aigestan, the Armenian part of the city, was divided into five defensive districts, where more than 70 positions were established in total.

But at the same time, out of a population of over 50,000, including refugees from villages, the residents of Aigestan actually had no more than 1,500 fighters, armed with only 505 rifles and 750 Mausers.

Under the command of the governor of the region, Jevdet Bey, who was the brother-in-law of Enver Pasha, there was a contingent equivalent to a division, consisting of twelve thousand regular army soldiers with artillery and machine guns. A large number of bandit military formations also participated.

To command the operation, a Venezuelan-born officer of the German army named Rafael de Nogales Mendez arrived among the Turks. He recorded all the events in his diary: “On the day of my arrival, the siege of Van began. Innocent children and women, whose only sin was being born Christians, were burning alive every day. At the cost of unprecedented sacrifices, we could slowly advance towards the center of this stubborn city, where Armenians continued to fiercely defend themselves among the burning ruins of their homes, fighting to the last breath for a free Armenia and the victory of the Christian faith… I cursed the moment when fate turned me into the executioner of my fellow believers. The Armenians resisted us desperately, and their courage was worthy of the highest praise. Wherever our troops went, they were met with accurate barrages of fire. Every house turned into a fortress, and they had to be conquered one by one.”

Almost all the quarters of Aigestan were covered in thick smoke, through which tongues of flame rose. From the top of the long and narrow Van rock, which resembled the crest of an advancing wave, the Turkish artillery constantly fired, giving no rest to the defenders day or night. A few kilometers to the south, Aigestan was situated. Mortars from the fortress fired upon Aigestan. The Turks used ancient copper cannons from the fortress, of which there were about 25. The projectiles fired from these cannons caused significant destruction to the thick adobe walls of the buildings since instead of piercing through them, like conical-shaped shells do, they pounded them, causing each floor to collapse one by one. Many two and three-story buildings were made of unbaked bricks and collapsed on top of each other.

For each defensive position, the leaders of the defense allocated a brigade of stonemasons who would rebuild the damaged areas at night since artillery couldn’t aim accurately during the night. And in the morning, the Turks would see the walls restored again. But the most difficult part was still to come.

The Armenians only had ammunition for a couple of days, yet they held out for a month. How was this possible? Children would collect fuses from fallen Turkish shells and extract bullets from the walls of houses. Then our craftsmen would make new cartridges from them. The battles raged day and night, often turning into hand-to-hand combat. To boost the spirits of the defenders, a music orchestra called “Fanfare” from a school near the front line played music. The besieged sent letters with messengers, seeking help from Zoravar Andranik and the Russians.

The commanding general of the Russian army of the Caucasus Front, General N. Yudenich, ordered the formation of a detachment consisting of Armenian militia and Cossack regiments to be sent to aid Van. Within the city itself, the Armenians managed to dig a tunnel under the main Turkish arsenal and blew it up at night. Upon learning about the approaching Armenian and Russian forces, the Turks fled from Van. The city’s residents greeted the liberators with the sounds of the orchestra on May 18.

It was the birthday of the Russian tsar. A telegram was sent from the capital of Western Armenia to Moscow, composed by Aram Manukian: “On the day of Your Majesty’s birthday, which coincides with the day of the entry of Your troops into the capital of Armenia, wishing the greatness and victory of Russia, we, representatives of national Armenia, ask to be taken under Your protection. And may the autonomous Armenia live as a small fragrant violet in the luxurious and diverse bouquet of the great Russian Empire.”

A monument commemorating the heroic self-defense of Van will be erected in the Ashnakar district of Armenia for its 100th anniversary. However, only Van and Musa Ler managed to defend themselves and achieve victory. All other Armenian regions were depopulated.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Western Armenia, with their burned cities and villages, migrated to Eastern Armenia. Despite the war, research continued.

From 1915 to 1917, when Van was occupied by the forces of the Russian Empire, excavations were conducted by an expedition of the Russian Archaeological Society under the direction of academics I.A. Orbeli and N.Ya. Marr. This expedition was fortunate enough to uncover a stele with the annals of Sarduri II. Eventually, it became known that Tushpa had been the capital of the Urartu state for most of its history. During the reign of Rusa II, the capital was moved to Rusahinili, while the coastal rock of Van continued to serve as a defensive outpost.

After 1918, there were no Armenians left here, at least not officially. The exact number of hidden Armenians in Turkey, ranging from 700,000 to 7 million, remains uncertain even for Turkish intelligence. But it will soon become clear, as the Bible says, “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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