Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Aghtamar

Coordinates: 38°20′25″N 43°02′13″E / 38.3403°N 43.0369°E / 38.3403; 43.0369
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Cathedral of the Holy Cross
The cathedral
AffiliationArmenian Apostolic Church
Ecclesiastical or organizational statusmuseum
LocationAkdamar Island, Lake Van, Turkey
Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Aghtamar is located in Turkey
Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Aghtamar
Shown within Turkey
Geographic coordinates38°20′25″N 43°02′13″E / 38.3403°N 43.0369°E / 38.3403; 43.0369

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Armenian: Սուրբ Խաչ եկեղեցի, romanizedSurp Khachʿ egeghetsʿi, Turkish: Akdamar Kilisesi or Surp Haç Kilisesi) on Aghtamar Island, in Lake Van in eastern Turkey, 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.


A detail of David and Goliath from the cathedral
General view of Akdamar Island in springtime
General view of Akdamar Island in springtime

During his reign, King Gagik I Artsruni (r. 908–943/944) of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan chose the island of Aght'amar as one of his residences, founding a settlement there.[1] The only structure standing from that period is the cathedral. It was built of pink volcanic tufa[citation needed] by the architect-monk Manuel during the years 915–921, with an interior measuring 14.80 m by 11.5 m and the dome reaching 20.40 m 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 Aght'amar Island was the location of the Armenian Catholicosate of Aght'amar. Khachatur III, who died in 1895, was the last Catholicos of Aght'amar.[2] In 1915, during the Armenian genocide, the church was looted, and the monastic buildings destroyed[3] and in July 1916 the Catholicosate was abolished by the Ottoman Empire.[4]

The church remained in disuse through the decades after 1915. 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 became a noted tourist attraction in the coming decades. In 2005 the structure was closed to visitors as it underwent a heavy restoration, being opened as a museum by the Turkish government a year later.[5]


The 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 seventh century Saint Hripsime church in Echmiadzin.[1]

The unique importance of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross 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. Some of this is speculation – for example, a few sources interpret Islamic and Turkic influences behind the artistic rendering of the reliefs, syncretised with Armenian influences. Some scholars[6] 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 example).[6]

Vandalism and decay[edit]

After the establishment of the Turkish republic, following the Armenian genocide, the church was exposed to extensive vandalism. The ornate stone balustrade of the royal gallery disappeared, and comparisons with pre-1914 photographs show cases of damage to the relief carvings. The khachkar of Catholicos Stephanos, dated 1340, was, by 1956, badly mutilated with large sections of its carvings hacked off. In 1956 only the bottom third of another ornate khachkar, dated 1444, was left – it was intact when photographed by Bachmann in 1911. The 19th-century tombstone of Khatchatur Mokatsi, still intact in 1956, was later smashed into fragments.[7] In the 1950s the island was used as a military training ground.[8][9]


Between 20 May 2005 and 21 July 2006,[10] the church underwent a controversial restoration program.[11] The restoration had a stated budget of 2 million Turkish lira (approximately 1.4 million USD) and was financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. 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, Patriarch Mesrob II (spiritual leader of the Armenian community of Turkey), a delegation from 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.[12]

The Church of the Holy Cross, 2013

Özdemir Çakacak, the governor of Van, described the restoration as "a show of Turkey's respect for history and culture".[13] A Turkish state department museum official added, "We could not have ignored the artifacts of our Armenian citizens, and we did not."[13] Signs heralding the church reopening declared "Tarihe saygı, kültüre saygı" ("Respect for history, respect for culture").[14]

According to Maximilian Hartmuth, an academician at Sabanci University, "the church was turned into a museum rather than re-opened as a place of worship following the restoration was, for example, claimed to be a wedge separating the monument from Turkey's Armenian community". The critics, writing for media such as Radikal, Milliyet, or Turkish Daily News, furthermore lamented that permission to mount a cross on top of the church was not given. Moreover, they argued the official name of the museum, the Turkish Akdamar (translating as "white vein") rather than the original Armenian Ahtamar – the name of the island in Lake Van on which the church stands and Surp Haç (Holy Cross) for the church itself would suggest this to be a Turkish monument. At the same time only sparing use was made of the word "Armenian" in official statements, With Turkey's Armenian community not granted their request to hold services in the church – and a large Turkish flag mounted at the site, it was argued by some[who?] that this project really announced the "Turkification" of this monument, the initiative being no more than a media stunt.[15]

Religious life[edit]

The church is now classed as a secular museum. During the ceremony held to mark the restoration there were images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk displayed prominently.[16] Armenian religious leaders invited to the opening ceremony refused to attend because the church was being reopened as a secular museum.[citation needed] It has the allowance to hold one religious service per year from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.[17]

The Turkish government stated that it would permit a liturgy to be delivered on 19 September 2010,[16] and the service took place as planned.[18]

Some 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.[19] Turkish officials said that the base was not appropriate for the cross the Patriarchate brought as it was made to support the original cross.[20] Later, the issue was solved. Since October 2, 2010, the cross sits at the top of the church.[21]

On 8 September 2013, the rite of baptism was carried out for a group of Armenian boys within the cathedral. This was the first time since the Armenian genocide that a baptism was performed in Van.[22]


Naming issue[edit]

Akdamar, ruler and attendants (915–921)

Hürriyet columnist Cengiz Çandar characterized the way the Turkish government handled the opening as an extension of an ongoing "cultural genocide" of the Armenians.[23] 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 Turkish society.

What do you think "our set" are trying to do? If you ask me, they would like "to appear righteous and benefit politically." And naturally they make a mess out of it. The initial plans were for the opening of Ahtamar to take place on Apr. 24. 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 day. 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.[24]

Çandar notes that the Agos issue published on the day of the murder of Hrant Dink 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 Dink,

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 opponent. 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?"[23][24]

Nationalist protests[edit]

The opening was controversial among some Turkish nationalist groups, who protested at the island and in a separate demonstration in Ankara. Police detained five Turkish nationalists 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".[12] 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".[13]

Answering to criticism[edit]

Historian Ara Sarafian responded to the criticism of the restoration project, stating that the project represented an answer to allegations of cultural genocide. He stated that the revitalization of the site was "an important peace offering" from the Turkish government.[25]



  1. ^ a b (in Armenian) Harutyunyan, V. M., "Chartarapetut'yun," [Architecture], in Hay zhoghovrdi patmutyun [History of the Armenian People], vol. 3 (Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1976), pp. 381-384.
  2. ^ Hewsen, Robert H. (2001). Armenia: A Historical Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 208. ISBN 0-226-33228-4.
  3. ^ Hewsen. Armenia, p. 232.
  4. ^ Kieser, Hans-Lukas. Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 262.
  5. ^ "Asbarez, 1st October 2010: The Mass at Akhtamar, and What's Next". Archived from the original on 2015-04-03. Retrieved 2011-02-08.
  6. ^ a b See additionally: Bivar, A. D. H. "Review of Aght'amar: Church of the Holy Cross". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 30 (1967): pp. 409-410.
  7. ^ Sirarpie Der Nersessian Aght'amar: Church of the Holy Cross (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 7, 49-52.
  8. ^ (in Turkish) "Paylaşılan Bir Restorasyon Süreci: Akhtamar Surp Haç Kilisesi." Mimarizm. February 26, 2008.
  9. ^ "Restoration Process".
  10. ^ "Van yatırımların karşılığını alıyor" (in Turkish). Anadolu Agency. 25 April 2014. Akdamar Adası'nda, Vaspurakan Kralı 1. Gagik tarafından 915-921 yıllarında yaptırılan Akmadar Kilisesi, Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı tarafından 20 Mayıs 2005 yılında başlatılan ve 21 Temmuz 2006'da tamamlanan restorasyonun ardından 29 Mart 2007'de uluslararası açılışla anıt müzeye dönüştürülmüştü.
  11. ^ Ziflioğlu, Vercihan (March 30, 2007). "Koç: Turkey has undertaken its cultural, historical responsibility". Turkish Daily News. Archived from the original on 2007-10-08.
  12. ^ a b "Ankara restores Armenian church." BBC News. March 29, 2007.
  13. ^ a b c Doğan, Ibrahim. "Restored Armenian church reopened with prayers as museum[permanent dead link]." Today's Zaman. March 30, 2007.
  14. ^ Herbert, Ian. "Turkish restoration of Armenian church leaves no room for apology." The Independent. March 30, 2007.
  15. ^ "Multicultural Pasts as a Problem in the Construction of National Programs of Cultural Heritage in Modern Southeast Europe,Paper read at the 10th Annual Kokkalis Program Workshop at Harvard University, February 7–8, 2007" (PDF). p. 2.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ a b Magister, Sandro. "Dormition in Turkey. Liturgy on the Black Mountain".
  17. ^ "Anadolu Agency". Anadolu Agency. Retrieved 2020-04-21.
  18. ^ Strauss, Delphine (September 19, 2010). "Armenian Mass a Sign of Growing Tolerance". The Financial Times. Retrieved September 20, 2010.
  19. ^ (in Turkish) "İşte Akdamar haçı Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine." Habertürk. April 10, 2007.
  20. ^ (in Turkish) "First ceremony in Surp Haç after 95 years." Hürriyet Daily News. September 19, 2010.
  21. ^ (in Turkish) "Akdamar Kilisesi'nin artık haçı var." Radikal. October 2, 2010.
  22. ^ First baptism ceremony held in renovated Surb Khach church in Turkey
  23. ^ a b (in Turkish) Çandar, Cengiz. "Ahtamar Kilisesi ya da sözde Akdamar Müzesi." Hürriyet. March 29, 2007.
  24. ^ a b Çandar, Cengiz. "The so-called 'Akdamar Museum'[permanent dead link]." Turkish Daily News. March 30, 2007.
  25. ^ "Armenian historian: Akdamar Church re-opening a "peace-offering" from Turkey." Hürriyet.

Further reading[edit]

  • Der Nersessian, Sirarpie. Aght'amar: Church of the Holy Cross. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • Jones, Lynn. Between Islam and Byzantium: Aght'amar and the Visual Construction of Medieval Armenian Rulership. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2007.
  • Maranci, Christina. The Art of Armenia: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Pogossian, Zaroui; Vardanyan, Edda, eds. (2019). The Church of the Holy Cross of Ałt'amar: Politics, Art, Spirituality in the Kingdom of Vaspurakan. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-40038-2.

External links[edit]