Standing alone on the small island of Aght’amar in Turkey’s Lake Van, the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross is the only remnant of a former ruler’s island getaway, but the former religious center is under fire for its conversion to a secular museum.
Originally built in the early 900’s, the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross was part of a large religious complex that accompanied then king Gagik I Artsruni’s home which once sat on the island. The church was built in a blocky architectural style that makes the building seem rather uninteresting from afar, but up close the church is almost completely covered in ornate bas-relief carvings. While there are a number of decorative flourishes, the majority of the carvings actually illustrate stories from the Bible such as David and Goliath. Some scholars have argued that the scenes depict more directly Turkish vignettes but most agree that the influence is mainly Biblical.
After King Artsruni’s reign ended, the church became the home of the Armenian Catholicos of Aghtamar (the equivalent of a local Patriarch) until the late 1800s. The church was looted during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the monastic buildings destroyed. The church was almost demolished in 1951, but a Kurdish writer was able to save the site, which had fallen victim to years of vandalism and violence.
The church was finally restored in 2005, however, since it was now under the jurisdiction of the Turkish government it was reopened as a museum and not a place of worship. This secularization did not sit well with many Armenians who felt that a piece of their religious past was being lost. However, despite protests and outrage, the museum was opened anyway.
Visitors can now take a ferry to the church and take in this excellent piece of the region’s religious history; just leave the religion at the door.