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

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Church of the Holy Cross on Aghtamar on Lake Van: our Pilgrimage continues

“Van in this world, paradise in the next.” 

Church of the Holy Cross
I found this Armenian proverb as I was browsing through Armenia Travels and Studies Volume 2, by H F B Lynch. We were approaching Lake Van, which Lynch describes as “here the luxuriance of the Bay of Naples, there the austere features of a Norwegian Fjord.” Writing in more troubled times than now, he muses that this Armenian proverb might be justified in happier situations, but the perversity of man was converting this heaven into a little hell. This country, he writes further, is “one of the fairest and most favored of the old world”, and “like a book which may borrow much from the work of other writers and yet produce an effect on the reader which is wholly new, so one opens the landscape of Lake Van with that particular emotion which only very beautiful and original objects can produce.”

lunch of fish - presumed pearl mullet from the lake?
There is a pleasant looking lakeside resort called Edremit just the other side of Van towards where we are to pick up the boat to take us to the island of Aghtamar (Aktamar). It has a promenade, in need of a little smartening up, a small marina is being built, there are many small cafes along the road, which is lined on the lake side with what look like many miniature bandstands, but are actually little picnic huts with conical roofs and open sides containing the standard wooden picnic benches and tables that are so common everywhere. And they all have splendid views. This is clearly an up and coming lakeside resort. I was surprised not to see more boating activity but I guess the place was now shut for the winter with cold and snow on its way. The snow poles still present along the roadside out of town reminded us that winters here can be very harsh.

Edremit existed as a settlement before Christianity came here. Its name comes from the Armenian name Artamet, meaning "Near the Fields" in Armenian. This is appropriate situated as it is on the shores of the lake with fields of grapes and apples beyond. The population here suffered two genocides, the first Armenian genocide of 1894–1896, and then again in 1915-1923 when Armenian, Assyrian, Greek and other Christian numbers were decimated and Turkish families took over.  Before 1915 Artamet had 10 Armenian churches and 1 Greek church. Thousands of their historical monuments were annihilated as well. We have to appreciate this.

There is a lovely Armenian legend surrounding the original name for the island of Aktamar. It involves the love story of an Armenian princess called Tamar, living on the island, for her lover, a commoner boy on the mainland. Each night he would swim over the 3 km separating the island from the mainland, guided by a light she held for him. One night her father, disapproving of course of such a liaison, extinguished the light. The boy became lost and drowned, and when they found his body the words Akh Tamar or Oh Tamar were frozen on his lips. After another excellent traditional Turkish lunch we were taken by boat to the island. It was a half hour journey – there is a shorter boat route from further around the coast near Gevas but the longer trip allowed us to savour the lake views and then watch to see who would be first to spot the little church, dedicated to the Holy Cross, snuggled into the side of the island as we approached the landing stage.

It is something of a miracle that this beautiful church, built of pink volcanic tuff on this grey limestone island has been preserved as well as it is, given its turbulent and violent history. The island itself was once a palatial residence of a king, one King Gagik 1 Artsruni of the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, who reigned from 908-943. He built a large palace for himself and founded a large settlement with gardens and orchards and places of recreation. During the period from 1116 to 1895 the church was the seat of an Armenian Catholicus, something akin to a church bishop. All that remains today from that period is the church, built during the years 915-921 by a monk Manuel. During the Armenian genocide of 1915 the monks were massacred and the monastic complex of which the church was central, fell into ruins.

The church and island was a military training ground for a period and many large bullet holes were made in the beautiful façade which were to challenge later attempts at restoration. In 1951 the church was going to be destroyed by the Turkish government but was mercifully saved by the writer and journalist Yaşar Kemal and became a tourist attraction. It underwent some controversial restoration in 2005/2006 and became a secular museum for a while before being restored to its status as an Armenian Christian church.

The cross that now sits atop the dome once again, as a symbol of the true religious purpose of the building, was itself the center of controversy. Apparently the Turkish government resisted such a cross and there was some concern over the weight which the church would be able to support, but in 2010 a cross was indeed erected, albeit half the weight of that originally proposed. In 2011 the earthquake in the region cracked the dome, possibly weakened by the newly erected cross.

Since 2010, once a year on the feast day of 19th September, the Turkish authorities allow a patronal festival service to be held but otherwise the church is very much just a tourist attraction.
Tomorrow there will be more about this wonderful but still threatened church...

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