Akdamar Island (also known
as Aghtamar, Akhtamar, and Aght'amar; ;
, ) is a small island in Lake
Van in the Eastern Anatolia region of
Turkey, about 0.7 km2 in size, situated
about 3 km from the shoreline.
At the western end of the
island a hard, grey, limestone cliff rises 80 m above the lake's
level (1,912 m above sea level). The island declines to the east to
a level site where a spring provides ample water. It is home to a
tenth century Armenian
church, known as
the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross
(915-921), and was
the seat of an Armenian Catholicos
1116 to 1895.
The origin and meaning of the island's name is unknown, but is
often attributed to an old legend. According to the tale, an
Armenian princess named Tamar lived on the island and was in love
with a commoner. This boy would swim from the mainland to the
island each night, guided by a light she lit for him. Her father
learned of the boy's visits. One night, as she waited for her lover
to arrive, he smashed her light, leaving the boy in the middle of
the lake without a guide to indicate which direction to swim. They
say his dying cries of "Akh, Tamar" (Oh, Tamar) can be heard to
this day at night. The legend was the inspiration for a famous
Armenian poem by Hovhannes
Akdamar (meaning "white vein" in Turkish) is the official name of
the island, but the original "Akhtamar" pronunciation is still used
by many of the Kurds who live in the area (there is no "kh" sound
in Turkish, but there is in Kurdish).
General view of Akdamar Island in
During his reign, King Gagik I Artsruni
908-943/944) of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan chose to reside on Agthamar Island, where he
founded a settlement, erected a large square palace richly
decorated with frescoes, built a dock noted for its complex
hydrotechnical engineering, laid out
streets, gardens, and orchards, and planted trees and designed
areas of recreation for himself and his court.
surviving structure from that period is the Palatine Cathedral
of the Holy Cross
( ). It was built of pink sandstone by the
architect-monk Manuel during the years 915-921, with an interior
measuring 14.80m by 11.5m and the dome reaching 20.40m above
ground. In later centuries, and until 1915, it formed part of a
monastic complex, the ruins of which can still be seen to the south
of the church.
Between 1116 and 1895 Aghtamar Island was the location of the
Aghtamar. Khachatur III, who died in 1895, was the last Catholicos
of Aghtamar. In 1915, during the
, the monks of
Aghtamar were massacred, the cathedral looted, and the monastic
Image:Surb Khach - Akhtamar - khachkar (1913).png|An Armenian
) dated to 1434 AD
(photo from 1913)Image:Surb Khach - Akhtamar - khachkar from 1434
(2000).png|Same khachkar in
2000Image:Surb_Khach_-_Akhtamar_-_relief_(1970).png|Relief on the
exterior walls of the church (photo from
1970)Image:Surb_Khach_-_Akhtamar_-_relief_(2000).png|Same relief in
The Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross
The Armenian Cathedral of the Holy
architecture of the church is based on a form that had been
developed in Armenia several
centuries earlier; the best-known example being that of the 7th
century St. Hripsime church in Echmiadzin, incorporating a dome with a conical
A detail of David and Goliath from the
The unique importance of the Cathedral Church of the Holy
comes from the extensive array of bas-relief carving of
mostly biblical scenes that adorn its external walls. The meanings
of these reliefs have been the subject of much and varied
interpretation. Not all of this speculation has been produced in
good faith - for example, Turkish sources stress alleged Islamic
and Turkic influences behind the content of the reliefs and
minimise native Armenian influences. Some scholars assert that the
friezes parallel contemporary motifs found in Umayyad
art - such as a turbaned prince, Arab styles
of dress, wine imagery; allusions to royal Sassanian
imagery are also present (Griffins, for
Between May 2005 and October 2006, the church underwent a
controversial restoration program. The restoration had a stated
budget of 2 million New Turkish
(approximately 1.4 million USD
) and was financed by the Turkish Ministry of
. It officially re-opened as a museum on 29
March 2007 in a ceremony attended by the Turkish Minister of
Culture, government officials, ambassadors of several countries,
Mesrob II (spiritual leader of the Armenian Orthodox community
of Turkey), a delegation from the Republic of Armenia headed by the Deputy to the Armenian Minister of
Culture, and a large group of invited journalists from many news
organizations around the world.
Özdemir Çakacak, the Governor of Van, described the refurbishing of
the church as "a show of Turkey's respect for history and culture".
A Turkish state department museum official added, "We could not
have ignored the artifacts of our Armenian citizens, and we did
not." Signs heralding the church reopening declared "Tarihe saygi,
kulture saygi" ("Respect the history, respect the culture").
Armenian religious leaders invited to attend the opening ceremony
opted to boycott the event, because the church was being reopened
as a secular museum. Controversy surrounded the issue of whether
the cross atop the dome until 1915 should be replaced. Some
Armenians said that the renovation was unfinished until the cross
was replaced, and that prayer should be allowed inside at least
once a year. A cross had been prepared nearly a year before the
opening, and Mesrob II petitioned the Prime Minister and Minister
of Culture to place the cross on the dome of the cathedral. Turkish
officials said it would not be appropriate to have a cross on or
hold a mass in what is now a secular museum.
The opening was controversial among some Turkish groups, who
protested at the island and in a separate demonstration in Ankara.
Police detained five Turkish nationals protesting against the
restoration of the church at Lake Van, who carried a banner
declaring "The Turkish people are noble. They would never commit
genocide." Demonstrators outside the Ministry of the Interior in
Ankara chanted slogans against the possibility of a cross being
erected atop the church, declaring "You are all Armenians, we are
all Turks and Muslims".
columnist Cengiz Çandar
characterized the way the
Turkish government handled the opening as an extension of an
ongoing "cultural genocide
" of the
Armenians. He characterizes the renaming of the church from
Armenian to Turkish as part of a broader program to rename Armenian
historical sites in Turkey, and attributes the refusal to place a
cross atop the church as symptomatic of religious intolerance in
What do you think “our set” are trying to
If you ask me, they would like “to appear righteous and
benefit politically.” And naturally they make a mess out of
The initial plans were for the opening of Ahtamar to
take place on Apr.
A real cunning idea...
As it is known to be the “Armenian genocide remembrance day in the
world,” a trump for propaganda would have been used on that
Then the date became Apr. 11. According to the ancient Armenian
calendar, Apr. 11 coincides with Apr. 24. They probably knew this
also. They were still pursuing another cunning idea. At the end, it
was decided that the opening of Ahtamar, now “Akdamar,” would take
place on Mar. 29, as a restoration opening of a museum-church,
without a cross or a bell.
Çandar notes that the Agos
published on the day of the murder of Hrant
featured a Dink commentary on the Turkish government's
handling of the Akdamar issue, which the late journalist
characterized as "A real comedy... A real tragedy..." According to
The government hasn't still been able to formulate a
correct approach to the “Armenian
question.” Its real aim is not to solve the problem, but to
gain points like a wrestler in a contest.
How and when it will make the right move and defeat its
That's the only concern.
This is not earnestness.
The state calls on Armenian historians to discuss
history, but does not shy from trying its own intellectuals who
have an unorthodox rhetoric on the Armenian genocide.
It restores an Armenian church in the Southeast, but
only thinks, “How can I use this for political gains in the world,
how can I sell it?”
Historian Ara Sarafian
some criticism of the Akdamar project, stating that, on the
contrary, the project represents an answer to allegations of
cultural genocide. He has stated that the revitalization of the
site is "an important peace offering" from the Turkish
Ian Herbert, writing in The
, records his own experiences traveling in
Turkey on an invitation from the Turkish government in the period
of the opening of Akdamar:
So desperate is Mr Erdogan's
government to demonstrate its tolerance of Turkey's 70,000 Armenian
minority that it took journalists around the country this
The trip revealed more than the government might have
intended: Armenian schools in Istanbul where only the Turkish
version of history - ignoring 1915 - is taught; Armenian priests
who need metal detectors at their churches because of the threat of
extremists; and, at the newspaper offices of the murdered
Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink, a stream of abusive emails from
Aktar, an academic of Galatasaray University also took a critical stance towards the loss of the
island's original name in his article titled "White Vein church and
others" (Akdamar means "white vein" in
- Harutyunyan, Varazdat M.
"Ճարտարապետություն" ("Architecture"). History of the Armenian
People. vol. iii. Yerevan, Armenian SSR: Armenian Academy of Sciences,
1976, pp. 381-384.
- Hewsen. Armenia, p. 232.
- See additionally: Bivar, A. D. H. "Review of Aght'amar:
Church of the Holy Cross" in Bulletin of the School of
Oriental and African Studies. 30:2 (1967): 409-410
- İşte Akdamar haçı, April 10, 2007,
- Ahtamar Kilisesi ya da sözde Akdamar
Müzesi, Cengiz Çandar, March 29 2007, Hürriyet
- Aktar, Cengiz. Beyazdamar kilisesi ve diğerleri,
March 23 2007,
- Sirarpie Der Nersessian
and H. Vahramian, Documents of Armenian Architecture,
Volume 8, Aght'amar, Milan, 1974.
- J. G. Davis, Medieval Armenian Art and Architecture: The Church
of the Holy Cross, Aght'amar, London, 1991.
- Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Aght'amar, Church of the Holy
Cross, Cambridge, Mass., 1964.