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Akhtamar Church of the Holy Cross
Akhtamar Island
Akhtamar Island
Akhtamar Church close-up
Akhtamar frescoes close-up

X AD - Lake Van, Turkey

Arm: Աղթամար

Aghtamar Island, with the Xth century Church of the Holy Cross is the premier attraction in the Lake Van area. The island also had other religious buildings, a harbor, a palace, and residences, all of which are now destroyed. These structures were both home to the Arzruni royal family, and the Holy See of an independent Armenian Catholicosate from 1113 to the end of the XIXth century.

The facade of the Church of the Holy Cross is covered in fanstastic relief sculptures depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Inside there are faint remains of frescoes.

The Armenian chronicler Thovma Ardzruni competently reports the important building work accomplished by Derenik and his son Gagik, kings of Vaspurakan. He provides interesting information about the building of the harbor, church, palace and other edifices on the island of Akhtamar. Of all those buildings there remains but the church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross), erected between 915 and 921 by the outstanding architect, sculptor, and painter, Manuel, under the patronage of King Gagik Ardzruni. This is one of the finest jewels of Armenian architecture, and that is why it has received the special attention of both Armenian and foreign academics. In its design and conception of volumes and surfaces, this sanctuary is an intellectually original variation of the cruciform and central cupola'd churches of the high Middle Ages, of which the church of Surp Echmiadzin of Zoradir is a specimen discovered by Italian archeologists at Vaspurakan. It differs from them in an unprecedented richness of shapes and particularly in the number as well as variety of its mural high reliefs, which constitute an innovation in Armenian architecture.

Because if those magnificent high reliefs it is truly difficult to consider the church of Akhtamar only from the standpoint of architecture. Three bands of high reliefs cover all the walls of the church and are grouped according to the theme they represent. Side by side with religious subjects, Old and New Testament, are found numerous scenes from daily life such as hunting, work, and festivities, which are precious sources of information on the customs of the 10th century and mark the entrance of lay ideas into the realm of art. The high reliefs, representing among others the Virgin Mary, Christ, the Apostles, David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, Adam and Eve, King Gagik, hunting and the harvesting of grapes, are rendered with extraordinary dynamic realism; they portray authentically spiritual and ordinary life and illustrate the national character as well as human kind. All the interior walls and even the cupola are covered with beautiful frescoes, the best of which is the one painted on the high altar wall representing the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, sitting on a white ass. Because of its novel conception, its high reliefs and frescoes of rare artistic value, the church of Akhtamar deserves a particular place in the history of not only Armenian, but also world architecture. Akhtamar now lies in Turkish territory on Lake Van. [Paragraph Source: Monuments of Armenia]


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ARMENIAN CHURCH IN TURKEY TO BE RESTORED -- The Turkish Government has allocated $1.9 million to rebuild the ancient Armenian Church of Akhtamar (Akdamar) on an island in the middle of Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. Currently underway, the stabilization and conservation of the Church and its excellent stone relief, will enable it to again function as a place of worship.

The Historical Heritage Protection Foundation (TMKV), based in Istanbul, and the New York-based Landmarks Foundation spearheaded the effort and are working closely with architects appointed by the Patriarch of the Armenian Church, His Beatitude Mesrob II, as well as prominent American and Turkish Universities.

Decades of political wrangling kept the 10th century structure from being maintained, but this year, with the help of the Patriarch of the Armenian Church, His Beatitude Mesrob II, an intervention to save the endangered structure is underway. Verkin Arioba, director of TMKV, indicated, "The Armenian Patriarch in Turkey supports the project. He is refreshingly modern and forward thinking." TMKV Chairman Savit Osman Avci, a former Speaker of the Turkish Assembly, played a pivotal role in getting permits from Turkish authorities.

"Armenian architects were consulted to ensure that Akhtamar's reconstruction meets international standards," added David L. Phillips who led a study at American University involving architects from around the world including Armenia. "The Church is a world famous example of the spectacular medieval Armenian ecclesiastical architecture. Its restoration will promote rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia particularly if Turkey agrees to open its border with Armenia allowing normal travel, trade, and tourism."

An Advisory Board organized by the Landmarks Foundation and the Historical Heritage Protection Foundation consists of archeology and fresco experts including Frank Matero, Chair of Preservation, and Dana Tomlin, Professor of Landscape Architecture and GIS Geographic Information Systems at the University of Pennsylvania, who are members of the committee. "Cooperation among the University of Pennsylvania, Istanbul Technical and Van Universities are an important component of this project" said Arioba.

The University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with the Turkish Universities, will offer a course in which students will analyze opportunities and constraints for the utilization and protection of Akhtamar Island. The course will employ state-of-the-art information technology to document the existing site, to identify its vulnerabilities, to explore its potential, to make recommendations for its future and to anticipate the impact of those recommendations.

Turkish Daily News Oct 7 2006

Restoration of Armenian church in Van complete Saturday, October 7, 2006

With the church refurbished, the number of tourists to the province will increase, says the provincial culture manager

ANKARA - Turkish Daily News

A project to restore the Armenian church on the island of Akdamar in Lake Van is complete, according to reports.

Cahit Zeydanlý, the owner of the company that restored the church, said the restoration process began in May 2005. The process involved the cleaning of the roof and the frescos and figures inside and outside the church, laying floorboards and putting in windows, he said, noting that they had found 34 rooms in the church during the restoration.

He said the rooms were cleaned up but were not restored because they weren't included in the project.

"The restoration was finished on Aug. 30 at a cost of YTL 2.6 million," said Zeydanlý, noting that five experts supervised the efforts.

"Right now, we are in the process of refurbishing the environs of the church. We built a pier and walkways on the island. Toilets, guard posts, ticket booths and gift shops were built. We are also building a cafeteria behind the church. These will be complete soon too."

He said the church on Akdamar was the second Armenian church he had restored, noting that the Armenian church in Bitlis his company had rebuilt was now being used as a house of worship.

Zeydanlý said they were aware of the dangers of restoring the church and consequently were in constant contact with the government, Armenian officials in Turkey and around the world. He said an Armenian architect had helped them throughout the process.

"The church is a registered work of art. That's why it was very important to pay the utmost care on the rehabilitation of the church."

He had talked to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan about the church, said Zeydanlý, noting that Erdoðan was very interested in the process. "The past problems between Armenians and Turks are harming the current state of relations. I hope this church will help in finding a common ground. This restoration is the proof that Turkey can handle such projects. The opening ceremony may take place on Nov. 4. We are expecting the prime minister at the ceremony."

A tourism boost to the region:

Van Culture and Tourism Manager Ýzzet Kutuoðlu said a science board and their bureaus had constantly checked the progress of the restoration process and were pleased with the end result.

"The number of tourists coming to Van will increase with the completion of this project. There are some groups who want to come even now. However, we don't want anyone here before the restoration is complete."

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Armenian Kids Kicked out for praying in Akhtamar Church

By: Nanore Barsoumian
Aug 21 2010

AKHTAMAR, Turkey (A.W.)—A group of Armenian children from Armenia were told to leave Sourp Khatch Church on the island of Akhtamar this month for lighting candles, singing, and praying.

The children, who were winners of Hay Aspet’s (Armenian Knight) television contest, were on a visit to Turkey.

Karin Tonoyan, the founder and director of Hay Aspet, told News.am that the children wanted to light candles in the church, “but policemen said that it is forbidden, as ‘it is a museum and the walls will be stained.’ I told the children to stand in the center, not to stain the walls. The children started singing and praying; but suddenly a policeman came and told us to leave the church.”

Tonoyan said that the kids left the church, but continued to sing outside it. They were not allowed to burn incense by the khatchkars (cross-stones) or gravestones in the church’s surrounding area.

“The children tried to burn incense near one of the khatchkars but a Turkish policeman came up and stepped on it,” Tonoyan said.

A video clip posted on YouTube shows the kids singing “Der Voghormya” (“Lord Have Mercy”) as they are being told to step outside, where they continue singing the hymn. To watch the clip, click here.

Established in 2005, Hay Aspet Educational Philanthropic Fund is an organization based in Yerevan that aims to encourage youth patriotism and activism in schools, through extracurricular activities, after-school programs, and campaigns. One of their recent projects was organizing a children’s trip to historic Armenia, which ended on Aug. 17.

Watch the video

Church Mass at Akhtamar

Cross Controversy Mars Historic Church Service In Turkey

Karine Simonian, Satenik Vantsian

VAN, Turkey -- For the first time in nearly a century, Armenians have been allowed to conduct a religious service in a recently renovated island church in eastern Turkey, in an event that Ankara intended as a show of tolerance toward its Christian minority.

But the Sunday Mass was boycotted by many Armenians because of the failure by Turkey to place a cross atop the building.

The September 19 Armenian Orthodox service on the Lake Van island of Akhtamar, conducted by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenian community, lasted for 2 1/2 hours and attracted many visitors, including representatives of the foreign diplomatic corps in Turkey and the mayor of the city of Van.

Hundreds of Armenian pilgrims also attended.

Those who came to Akhtamar but could not attend the main ceremonies due to limited space inside the Cathedral of Surb Khach, or Holy Cross, were reportedly allowed to go inside for a minute or so to get a glimpse of the historic service.

The liturgy came after a $1.5-million renovation of the 10th-century Armenian church, completed by the Turkish government in 2007. But it was reopened as a museum, not a church, with no cross placed on its dome. Still, Ankara allowed Armenians to have a once-a-year liturgy there.

The Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin initially agreed to send their delegates to the Akhtamar service following a pledge by the Turkish side that a cross would be installed by the time of the Mass. But the Armenian clergy later withdrew its participation, citing the failure of the Turkish authorities to honor their promise. Turkish officials said the 200-kilogram cross was too heavy for the church's roof and would be placed at the door of the church instead.

Armenians responded by canceling their trips to Turkey. Critics said the Mass was merely a campaign to improve Turkey’s image and promote its bid to join the European Union.

In the end, an estimated 1,000 Armenians traveled to Van to attend the liturgy out of an expected 5,000 worshippers.

Among the pilgrims were some from Armenia, the United States, and Europe, but the majority of them came from Istanbul, which has a relatively large community of ethnic Armenians.

The red stone church of Surb Khach is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey.

Van’s large Armenian community was expelled in 1915 during the upheaval that accompanied World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

The World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, which Armenia recognizes as the first genocide of the 20th century, still remains a major stumbling block to reconciliation between the two neighbors. Ankara rejects the term genocide and says large number of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed.

Efforts at normalizing relations between the historical foes stalled in April when Armenia froze an internationally backed peace deal signed in October 2009.

The Akhtamar event was widely viewed as an opportunity to build more cultural bridges between Turks and Armenians.

One elderly pilgrim at the September 19 Mass said Catholicos Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, should have come to Turkey and shown that “the local Armenians are also his flock.”

“The cross will be set up one day. This is not that important,” he said. “This church has not had a cross for 100 years. Did people want this church to be restored or destroyed?”

In Armenia, hundreds attended an alternative religious service held at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking the capital, Yerevan. They denounced the service on Lake Van as a publicity stunt.

Clerics From Armenia To Attend Church Mass In Turkey

Ruzanna Stepanian

Two high-level representatives of Catholicos Garegin II will attend a landmark religious ceremony to be held in a 10th century Armenian church in southeastern Turkey next month, the Armenian Apostolic Church said on Monday.

The church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross) will see its first mass in nearly a century on September 19, three years after being reopened following a $1.5 million renovation funded by the Turkish government. The latter has allowed Turkey’s surviving Armenian Christian community to hold religious services there once a year.

Ankara has promoted the decision as proof of its commitment to tolerance and a gesture of goodwill towards Armenians. Still, it has resisted calls to return the church, perched on the legendary Akhtamar island in Lake Vane, to the community currently led by Archbishop Aram Ateshian.

Garegin’s chief spokesman, Father Vahram Melikian, described the one-day reopening as a positive but insufficient step. “The Mother See of Saint Echmiadzin hopes that the decision will be revised and the church will be returned to the Armenian community that will use in full,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

Melikian said Ateshian, who will preside over the mass, has asked the supreme leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church to send representatives to the high-profile ceremony expected to draw Turkish state officials. Garegin has accepted the request and will be represented at the event by a bishop and another senior cleric from his headquarters, added Melikian.

It is not clear whether Armenian government officials will also attend it. The Armenian ministries of foreign affairs and culture said Monday that they have received no formal invitations from the Turkish side yet.

Garegin’s decision could cause controversy in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora where many regard the one-off mass as a Turkish propaganda ploy. The matter was discussed on Monday by a sucommission of President Serzh Sarkisian’s advisory Public Council.

Ruben Safrastian, a Turkey scholar chairing the subcommission, said Ankara wants to exploit the mass for political aims. “Having scuttled the process of normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations, Turkey is now trying to show the world that it is trying to normalize those relations,” he said. “In all likelihood, it has prepared that event for this purpose.”

The discussion was initiated by the Van-Vapurakan non-governmental organization uniting descedenants of Armenians who lived in the Van region and survived the 1915 genocide. Its chairman, Romik Hovnanian, accused the Turks of seeking to mislead the world and “drive a wedge” between Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora.

Built between 915 and 921 A.D., the Akhtamar church is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey. Hundreds of Armenian churches built there since the early Middle Ages were destroyed, ransacked or turned into mosques during and after 1915 the mass killings and deporations.

See also

External links