My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Aktamar, Lake Van contd: the pilgrim's perspective

As we stepped ashore on the Island of Aktamar after our short boat trip across Lake Van from Edremit it soon became clear that for the first time on our pilgrimage we were to share the site with tourists.
Sadly the groups already ashore made it difficult for us to find any chance for peace, prayer and contemplation within the church. In any event the guard on duty told us that we could not say the Lord’s Prayer there as a group, so we had to find our own moments for private prayer.
Whilst I knelt silently and I hoped unobtrusively in a dark corner within the church the building was besieged by noisy groups who seemed to care little for the sacred space, whilst they listened to poor and inaccurate information from guides who seemed to have little accurate knowledge of the place. Indeed one group were more interested in getting back earlier to their hotel to allow shopping and swimming time before supper! 

This tenth century Church of the Holy Cross is truly beautiful and as so often on this pilgrimage we were blessed with fine weather to be able to view it in detail from outside as well as within. For it is justifiably famous for the very fine carved bas-reliefs on all four sides illustrating biblical stories from both Old and New Testaments. As I walked around the church, starting with the south side and dodging tourists and tombstones, I looked with awe at depictions of David and Goliath, the Madonna with Jesus, the Isaac sacrifice, the Jonah story, a rather playful vineyard scene: then on the East side St John the Evangelist, John the Baptist and Gregory the Illuminator, (whom we met at Ani): to the North, Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego and the fiery furnace, and Adam and Eve: and so round to the Western side with a rather wonderful relief of a church and Jesus Christ. Sadly the frescoes inside the church, Christian images of the gospel stories, have been badly damaged and it needed some patience and a very cricked neck to work out the meaning of much of the imagery. I was sorry I didn’t get a good image of Gregory the Illuminator, in bas relief alongside St John the Evangelist and John the Baptist on the East façade, but there is a very good website which provides extensive detail and drawings of all the various images at  and very much more besides. This is all very comprehensive, for those who wish to delve much deeper into the detail of these various sites. Reading that website and from our own observations it is apparent that much of historical and architectural importance is being allowed to collapse and decay, through vandalism, some officially sanctioned it would seem, even politically motivated. This is sad and disturbing…
a view of the graveyard at Aktamar
And be warned – there are also some YouTube videos where ill informed guides seem to have little idea of the difference between Old and New Testament stories, mixing them up in sad ways. I listened to one such guide who is heard to say about Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego that they were told to walk through hot ashes to show they believe in Jesus!! A strange interpretation indeed of the Old Testament story of the fiery furnace from the book of Daniel! A big Turkish flag flies on the island, which had been clearly visible from our boat as we approached. It seems that the Turks only want to preserve the island on their terms, as an interesting archaeological site, not as a sacred Christian building. There is apparently no guide book available for the inside of the church, but I found it hard to believe that someone somewhere isn’t even as I write this putting one together somewhere. There is certainly a demand for one, in both Turkish and English. Or is there? Given that there is plenty of information online, and that tourists nowadays take their tablets out with them to call up all the detail they seek, and to take all the photos they want, then perhaps the paper guidebook has nearly had its day?

Restoration? Rebuilding? of monks' accommodation
Outside the church some workmen are busily building replicas of the monks’ cells that would have been there… but they are only making them one story high and there is good evidence that these would have had two stories. Again the restoration work may be ill conceived and inappropriately destructive?
Are the Turks deliberately trying to hide the Armenian Christian heritage in Anatolia? The new name for the island given to it by the Turkish authorities of Akdamar, meaning White Vein, is claimed by some to be part of a deliberate cultural cleansing. What I experienced within the church made me uneasy for the future of such a beautiful sacred artefact.

looking back as we leave the island
Our time on this lovely island was all too short and after enjoying a hot cay in the weak and not too warm sunshine outside the island’s café it was with some sadness that we strolled down to catch our boat back to the mainland. On the way to the jetty I dipped my hands in the water of the lake. The concentration of minerals left the skin feeling silky smooth; as good as any hand cream! On the boat the wind dropped and the snowy mountain tops in the distance glistened in the setting sun of early evening. It wasn’t too far to go to our next hotel. I hoped our driver was feeling better. It had been a very long drive for him today. So we made our way further round the lake, through the new road tunnel towards Tatvan, past smart new villas with lake views, and were waved through an army checkpoint, before offloading at our last hotel stay of this trip.

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