The Cathedral of the Holy Cross Akdamar (Aghtamar) Island, in Turkey's Lake Van, is a medieval Armenian Apostolic cathedral, built as a palatine church for the kings of Vaspurakan and later serving as the seat of the Catholicosate of Aghtamar. During his reign, King Gagik I Artsruni (908-944) of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan chose the island of Aght'amar as one of his residences, founding a settlement there. The only structure standing from that period is the Cathedral. It was built of pink volcanic tufa 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. In 1915, during the Armenian Genocide, the monks of Aght'amar were massacred, the church looted, and the monastic buildings destroyed. When the writer and journalist Yaşar Kemal visited the island of Akhtamar in 1951, he discovered that it was about to be demolished. Using his contacts he helped stop the planned destruction. The church is now classed as a secular museum. During the ceremony held to mark the restoration there were images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) displayed prominently. Armenian religious leaders invited to attend the opening ceremony opted to boycott the event, because the church was being reopened as a secular museum.
To those who know nothing about Lake Van, count me among them before my visit, Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey, located in the far east of the country in the provinces of Van and Bitlis. It is a saline soda lake, receiving water from numerous small streams that descend from the surrounding mountains. Lake Van is one of the world's largest endorheic lakes (having no outlet). The original outlet from the basin was blocked by an ancient volcanic eruption. Although Lake Van is situated at an altitude of 1,640 m (5,380 ft) in a region with harsh winters, its high salinity prevents most of it from freezing, and even the shallow northern section is only occasionally an exception. The lake was the center of the Armenian kingdom of Ararat from about 1000 BC, afterwards of the Satrapy of Armina, Kingdom of Greater Armenia, and the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan. Along with Lake Sevan in today's Armenia and Lake Urmia in today's Iran, Van was one of the three great lakes of the Armenian Kingdom, referred to as the seas of Armenia.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross Akdamar
Some controversy surrounded the issue of whether the cross on top of 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 that the base was not appropriate for the cross the Patriarchate brought as it was made to support the original cross. Later, the issue was solved. Since October 2, 2010, the cross sits at the top of the church.
The church is situated on a small rise on the island with beautiful views of Lake Van. In front of the church is a courtyard which probably served as a cloister with a row of monk cells overlooking the lake on one side. The name given to the island, Aght'amar, is explained by a local legend. A nobleman who fell in love with a beautiful girl named Tamar visited the island every night to see her. As he was crossing the lake one stormy night, his boat capsized and fighting the waves, he drowned uttering the words “Ach Tamar”. Tamar, awaiting the arrival of her loved one, grieved deeply upon hearing the news of his death and died soon after. Hence, the island was called “Ach Tamar” (Aght'amar) ever since. Local folklore also tells that the lake is enchanted and that angels go in and out of the water. In the springtime, when the island’s trees are blooming with fragrant flowers, the island is a place of truly enchanting beauty.
There were other buildings on the site including this partially collapsed chapel to Saint Steven. The church of Saint Stephen, a single-vessel nave with transverse arches some 11m long and 6.8 m wide, was built in 1293 southeast of the church of the Holy Cross and restored in 1602. At the beginning of the 20th century the western part of the nave had collapsed. An ancient cemetery was also present east of the church. The cemetery had already been largely disrupted and many cross-stones broken.
The justly famous exterior features bas-relief carvings and friezes of biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, St. George slaying a dragon, Christ Pantocrator, and Madonna and Child. On the west I s an image of King Gagik presenting his church to Christ (a theme that can also be seen in the Hagia Sophia and most other great religious buildings). A richly carved border runs around the entire church, populated with animals and figures that may represent the months of the year.
On the back or North side of the church is an image of what I think is King Gagik I presenting his church to Christ (a theme that can also be seen in the Hagia Sophia and most other great religious buildings). Above his image is a frieze depicting the temptation of Adam and Eve by the snake. At the top is an image of Saint Mark the Evangelist holding a copy of his gospel. Mark the Evangelist is often depicted holding a book with “pax tibi Marce” written on it or holding a palm and book. I think the bottom plaque may represent Jesus.
The story of Daniel in the lions' den (chapter 6 in the Book of Daniel) tells how Daniel is raised to high office by his royal master Darius the Mede, but jealous rivals trick Darius into issuing a decree which condemns Daniel to death. Hoping for Daniel's deliverance, but unable to save him, the king has him cast into the pit of lions. At daybreak he hurries back, asking if God had saved his friend. Daniel replies that God had sent an angel to close the jaws of the lions, “because I was found blameless before him.” The king has those who had conspired against Daniel, and their wives and children, thrown to the lions in his place, and commands to all the people of the whole world to “tremble and fear before the God who closed the jaws of the lions”. The following bas-relief shows a group of people being thrown to the lions, either a continuation of the Daniel story or a depiction of the martyrdom of Christians in The Roman colosseum.
The Orthodox military saints are on the whole more prominent in the respective devotions of their churches than the Catholic ones, especially as the military crisis of the Byzantine Empire deepened. They are usually shown fully equipped for fighting, unlike many Catholic military saints. The most important are Saint George, Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki (these two very often paired, riding on horseback or on foot in icons), Saint Theodore the General, and Saint Theodore the Recruit. Here we see Saint George slaying the dragon on the left, Saint Theodore(s) in the middle and Saint Demetrius is depicted spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, who according to story was responsible for killing many Christians. Lyaeos is commonly depicted below Demetrius and lying supine, having already been defeated, Lyaeos is traditionally drawn much smaller than Demetrius.
King Gagik I
At the apex of the western exposure is the figure of King Gagik I presenting his church to Christ (a theme that can also be seen in the Hagia Sophia and most other great religious buildings). The church is also entered from the west through the small door seen above.
In the narthex or antechamber of the church is stone tablet inscribed by Kachadur III Shiroyan (1864-1895) from June 1884. This active catholicos reorganized the seminary on the island of Aght‘amar and built up a library of manuscripts housed in a new residential building (1884). He also undertook the restoration of several churches and monasteries, among which that of Saint George of the Mountain and endowed the Akhavank‘ house, outside the walls on the opposite shore, with a new residence and a school. In the walls of the narthex are several richly carved stones which were recycled to build the narthex.
The church of the Holy Cross, is a tetraniche (4 niches) tetraconch measuring 16.1 x 13 meters with two lateral chambers on the west side, a sixteen-sided drum and dome with a pyramidal roof, built in 915-921. A tetraconch, from the Greek for “four shells”, is a building, usually a church or other religious building, with four apses, one in each direction, usually of equal size. The basic ground plan of the building is therefore a Greek cross. They are most common in Byzantine and related schools such as Armenian and Georgian architecture. The dome was reconstructed in 1293 and then restored in 1556 and 1602. A tribune is an ambiguous, and often misused, architectural term which can have several meanings. Today it most often refers to a dais or stage-like platform, or in a vaguer sense, any place from which a speech can be prominently made. The south conch has a tribune with balustrade, originally accessed from the royal palace by way of a double outside staircase. This was removed in 1790 to allow the construction of a bell tower with a rotunda. The church interior was entirely covered in frescos, partially preserved, representing, on the dome and drum, the Creation and the Original Sin, and on the other walls, Christ and numerous Gospel scenes, from the Annunciation to the Second Coming.
I hope you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. Akdamar (Aghtamar) Island) is definitely a place to visit if you around Lake Van.
Details of the Bas Reliefs: http://virtualani.org/aghtamar/index.htm
Monastery and Catholicosate of the Holy Cross of Aght‘amar: https://www.collectif2015.org/en/Le-Monastere-et-Siege-Catholicossal-de-la-Sainte-Croix-d-Aght-amar.aspx