Iconic Armenian church braces for influx of visitors

Published 03.08.2019 00:07
The Akdamar Church was opened for religious services in 2010 for an annual mass.
The Akdamar Church was opened for religious services in 2010 for an annual mass.

Akdamar Church, on the eponymous island in Lake Van, will host a large number of visitors next month for a major Armenian Orthodox religious service, a once-in-a-year event that excites local businesses

After a four-year break, the religious service resumed last year. The four-year break was a result of province terror threat by the PKK, which has been active in eastern and southeastern Turkey for years.

The church, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Aghtamar and Surp Haç, was built between 915 and 921 A.D. by architect Bishop Manuel under the sponsorship of Gagik I Artsruni of the Kingdom of Vaspurakan.

After the 1915 incidents during World War I when province Armenian community in the area was subject to relocation, the church was abandoned. The building's restoration began in 2005 and opened as a museum two years later. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism approved a TL 4 billion budget for the project, which lasted two years and included several architects, engineers and archaeologists.

Believed to have been constructed to house a piece of the "True Cross," which was used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the church was restored in 2005 and opened in 2007.

The church is open to visitors as a museum but crowded events were barred due to terror threats. Van is one of the provinces in the region where the PKK often launched attacks, particularly in rural, isolated parts of the province. The terrorist group, active in the region since the 1980s, resumed its attacks in 2015 after a brief lull. Counterterrorism operations since then have reinstated safety in the region, which is dotted with prominent sites for Christianity and Islam. The ministry allows the church to serve as a house of worship one day a year, while it remains open as a museum.

Akdamar stands apart from other Armenian Orthodox churches in Turkey with its rich frescoes depicting the Story of Creation and scenes from the life of Christ that decorate the interior. Most of the frescoes are still distinguishable, and some of them are well preserved; however, in some parts they are severely damaged. On top of its architectural features, Akdamar Church's cultural attributions led it to be added to UNESCO's Tentative List of World Heritage in 2015.

Van Governor Mehmet Emin Bilmez said the island is one of the most valuable sites in the province and region and the church was among rare places of worship preserved in its original state. "Akdamar Island is important for Van, for Turkey and humanity. It is significant to show how our ancestors valued other faiths and preserved their places of worship. We continue this tradition of preservation. Bilmez told Anadolu Agency (AA) that they further improved the island, which was as abandoned as the church before the restoration and started supplying drinking water last year. The governor said they would also improve the surroundings of the church with landscaping work.

The church service is also hailed by local businesses for the influx of visitors. Reşat Yeşilağaç, chairman of the Hoteliers Association in Van, says they are pleased to host a large number of tourists coming for the church. "We will host them in the best way possible. It is our duty to promote Van and show this is a place of tolerance," he said.

With the increasing popularity of Turkey's famous overnight trains, the Eastern Express and Lake Van Express, eastern Anatolia has been overrun with tourists recently. Visitors touring the region's historical and touristic places rarely miss the chance to see Akdamar Island. It is especially popular with photographers in spring when it takes on a surreal beauty with its blossoming almond trees.

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