No announcement yet.

Armenian History Floats on the Waters of Lake Van in Turkey

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Armenian History Floats on the Waters of Lake Van in Turkey

    Balkan Travellers, Bulgaria
    Feb. 26, 2008

    Armenian History Floats on the Waters of Lake Van in Turkey

    Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff

    view photos at 70

    We sit in the restaurant across the road from the dock, waiting for
    the boat to pick up enough passengers. We help ourselves to some tea,
    >From cups that are unusually dirty for Turkey. It is as if they have
    been washed in the lake. Actually, no; it is as if they have been
    washed in a different lake, because the high sodium carbonate content
    in the waters of Lake Van are said to clean everything like washing

    We move our chairs so that we can watch the pier and forget about the
    minor annoyance. The 3,750 square kilometres of water in Turkey's
    largest lake may not remove stains from cups, but they definitely do
    cleanse the mind.

    >From this part of the shore we can see the dramatic peaks in the
    distance. Just before the place where the lake lets out into a kind
    of open sea, Akdamar Island looms on the horizon.

    >From the shore, about 800 metres away, the view is somehow
    reminiscent of the dawn of creation. The tall, reddish silhouette of
    the single surviving church looks like the eye to which the entire
    mighty universe surrounding it owes its existence. It is a carefully
    painted detail, a focal point where the broad swathes of water and
    mountains converge.

    For the Armenians of the ninth and tenth centuries things looked like
    this: in the area around the lake their country was enjoying its most
    successful period. When the Seljuk Turks attacked in 1064, Akdamar
    was the Armenian rulers' last stronghold. Now, Akdamar is for them
    what Kosovo Polje is to the Serbs and Lake Ladoga to the Finns; it is
    a symbol of former grandeur, as well as lost territory.

    A group of young Kurds save us from the long wait. They are students
    >From the local university, who have come in hopes of catching some
    rays on the island. They snack on sandwiches as the boat approaches,
    and we, the four tourists on board, watch as the small red detail
    grows. This is the stone Church of the Holy Cross.

    It is the only remnant of the large-scale construction undertaken on
    the island by Gagik I of the Vaspurakan dynasty, from 915 to 921AD.
    According to Thomas of Ardsruni, a tenth-century chronicler, it was
    the Armenian king himself who planned the orchards and terraced parks
    within the fortifications. He erected a palace that rose like a hill
    in the centre of the island, and gilded its cupolas so that their
    glow would dazzle passers-by.

    Historical records attest to the extreme lavishness of the Armenian
    sovereign's castle: the frescoes on the walls of the audience hall
    depicted the monarch on a gilded throne surrounded by the elite of
    the palace, amongst feasting courtiers, musicians, dancing girls,
    sword-bearing soldiers, wrestlers, lions, wild beasts, and various
    colourful birds.

    That Gagik was not too sparing in his expenditures from the royal
    coffers is also obvious from the fact that the entire construction
    was completed within just five years. To this end, the best builders
    and craftsmen were summoned to the island, with the king himself
    supervising their work, in his spare time when he was free of regal

    Today, there is nothing left of the palace and its former grandeur,
    and the only surviving church is not in a particularly good
    condition. Despite being considered one of the most exquisite
    monuments of early Armenian architecture, it can fall apart at any

    Once we disembark on the pier we are welcomed by a notice that takes
    us quite a while to read, as we attempt to decipher its rather unique
    English. It tells us that the "reliesf [sic] that are connected with
    christian's religion on the lover part of church wals and the reliefs
    that are connected with islam's religion on the upper, part of it's
    wals have been existed lagether with on walls are succesfull and
    interesting sampleform islam and christian pictures programs."

    We start moving towards the ruins, hoping that they will turn out to
    be more comprehensible than the notice. We stand in front of the
    church, which is incredibly tall for its small size. Its cross-shaped
    floor-plan is only 12 by 15 metres, while the central dome rises to
    about 20 metres. This was typical of Armenian as well as Georgian
    churches, which usually jutted so dangerously high that the
    architects had to leave them nearly windowless, in order to keep them
    >From falling down. For this reason, semidarkness prevails in most of

    The Church of the Holy Cross is no exception. It has an eerie
    feeling, not only because of the dim light but also because of the
    frescoes, which appear as if drawn in charcoal and tinted with indigo
    blue. We are shocked by the floor, which is covered with straw and
    shows the unmistakable signs of the structure?s having been used as a

    It would be wrong to assume that this is evidence of some form of
    religious or ethnic disregard for historical relics. We find this out
    further inside the church, where we notice the remains of an
    extension built long ago in order to adapt it to serve as a mosque.

    Back outside, we begin to circle around the church. Its walls turn
    out to be adorned with uncommon, strikingly expressive reliefs. Some
    of them are so bold that they almost erupt into sculpture.

    The Old Testament scenes depicted on the lower part of the façade are
    larger, and often defaced. Adam and Eve's faces have suffered the
    worst damage; they are literally scraped off. The depictions of
    Delilah cutting off Samson's hair, David and Goliath, and Abraham and
    Isaac are in better condition.

    According to one story, the builders of the Church of the Holy Cross
    were influenced by a cult to the sun, borrowed from the Zoroastrians
    in Persia. Some researchers have come to this conclusion because of
    the dramatic way in which the sun's movement changes the reliefs,
    turning them into three-dimensional, almost live figures at one
    moment and into ghostly shadows at another.

    Zoroastrian or not, the authors of these scenes cannot have studied
    their natural sciences books very carefully, because on one of the
    walls Jonah is depicted in the gaping maw of a monster with ears and
    sharp teeth, which bears very little resemblance to a whale.

    According to historian Samuel of Ani, 11 centuries ago the Armenian
    kingdom surrounding Lake Van comprised eight cities, 72 strongholds,
    and over 4,000 villages, where nearly a million people lived. There
    are scarce remnants of this civilisation, but amongst them the Church
    of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island is one of the most prominent.

    The fabulous blend of architecture and sculpture in this unusually
    severe but still enchanting scenery remind us of the eternal struggle
    of the human spirit to find its reflection in the elements while at
    the same time giving them new life in its own image; to define God
    and at the same time see itself mirrored in him.

    It is the wind that reminds us of the existence of God now, as it
    carries the fragmentary notes of the local imam's noon prayer. His
    voice drifts in with the waves but makes no particular impression on
    the Kurdish students, who have finished their sandwiches and are
    splashing in the water.

    >From the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, the saints with
    gouged-out eyes stare at us in silence: Gregory the Illuminator, St.
    John the Baptist, the prophet Elijah, the King of Nineveh.

    Akdamar is one of the few places in the world where history lives
    alongside the present, just like the spiritual easily coexists with
    the material. And you realise that the best way to make the step
    between the two is to sip another Turkish tea, from a cup washed in
    the waters of Lake Van.

    Read more about Turkey on

    Send your comment to [email protected] e-mail
    address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript
    enabled to view it

    Read more about Armenian historical heritage in Eastern Turkey in Ani Fades Away in the No Man's Land between
    Turkey and Armenia