Great vision, and a bit more courage…

Great vision, and a bit more courage…
Alin Ozinian*
One of the strong princes of the Ardzrunis, Prince Gagik Ardzruni I, was the one who formed the kingdom of Vaspurakan (Van) in A.D. 908. The Kingdom of Van was composed of 36 different residential regions and boasted 200 churches.
Under the reign of King Gagik I of Vaspurakan this Armenian kingdom experienced great economic and cultural developments. According to historical sources, despite the fact that the local region was full of architectural feats and monuments from the fourth century onwards, the greatest architectural strides in the region began to occur during the 10th century. The most famous and successful architect during the reign of King Gagik I was Manuel, and he was set to work to show his architectural genius. Manuel, who was also a painter and a sculptor, built architectural masterpieces throughout the first half of the 10th century in Vaspurakan.

Of the complex of structures boasting a palace, cathedral and port that Manuel built between A.D. 915-921 on Ahtamar Island, the most famous of Lake Van’s four islands (keeping in mind that in times before, Van Lake actually had seven islands), only the Aziz Haç Church has survived until now. The church underwent much damage in 1915 and the years following it, continuing to decline over time. People who visited the church dug recklessly in attempts to find gold and other valuables that some believed were buried there; these sorts of activities continued through the republican period of Turkey, with certain propaganda leading to the full-scale destruction of both the interior and exterior structure of the church. In the end, the church was abandoned to its own fate. With the church in ruins by the 1970s, visitors to the island see the church were reduced to a trickle of Armenians from the diaspora, and even these stopped when, after the 1980 coup, visits to the island were tightly controlled and sometimes not permitted at all.

Restoration wins great approval

With the approval of Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafian, and under orders given on April 20, 2005, by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, restoration efforts were begun on the church on May 22, 2005, by the Kartalkaya company owned by Cahit Zeydanlı and under the watchful control of both the Turkish and Armenian ministries of culture. The restoration process included renewing and restoring the church’s interior and exterior walls, cleaning up stone reliefs that had been erased from the outer walls (which led to them becoming visible once again), fixing the roof and installing new flooring. In order to avoid any possible disagreement over the restoration process, Armenian architect Zakaria Mildanoğlu was included in every step of the project. For the stones used in the Akdamar church, stone expert and restorer Paolo Pagnini was brought in from Italy. Interestingly, over the course of the more than TL 2.5 million restoration project rooms that belonged to a seminary outside the walls of the church were also discovered. But these were not restored, as they had not been figured into the original restoration project. The restoration project finished in July 2006 and was met with great approval by Armenian as well as many other foreign architects and restoration experts.

On March 29, 2007, the Akdamar Church Memorial Museum opened with a ceremony. There were 356 people present at the opening ceremony, including the culture and tourism minister of the time, Atilla Koç, as well as Turkish Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II, Armenian Deputy Cultural Minister Gagik Giurjian, various Turkish and Armenian diplomats, MPs, artists and journalists. However, unfortunately there were some important details during the opening of this museum church that wound up clouding the pleasure of some of those who were seeing the site for the first time. These included the fact that there was no cross on the church (which technically opened as a museum), combined with the news that prayer would not be allowed in the church; there were also many Turkish flags and Atatürk posters of an exaggerated size that were hung on the outside of the museum. Added to all this was the fact that the mayor of the Gevaş Municipality had warned that translations into Armenian would not be allowed. Despite all this, Armenia did attend the opening in an official capacity, sending its deputy ministers and its diplomats.

A few months ago, it was announced that with the assistance of the Turkish Armenian Patriarchate, the church would open one day a year for a “haç yortusu” or “cross festival,” and that in addition, in order to help the church regain its original appearance, it would be receiving the necessary cross on its roof. However, a few days before the referendum on the constitution, it was announced that, as Van Governor Münir Karaloğlu put it, “due to technical difficulties and the fact that this is a difficult task” a cross would not be placed on top of the cone shaped dome of the church.” This whole “We will not place it, we’ll place it, we’re placing it, maybe later we’ll place it” set of comments in connection with the cross to be put on top of the church were not found to be very sincere by the Echmiadzin, Beirut Catholics, the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Armenians in the diaspora and the historians invited by the prime ministerial offices from Yerevan, as well as various scientists and civil society organizations. As a result, all of these various groups and people wound up boycotting the ceremony held at Akdamar on Sept. 19.

The mass began at 11 in the morning, with the sound of taped church bells ringing. When the sound of the bells rang out, the mass began, led by head pontiff Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the general deputy of the Turkish Armenians’ Patriarchate’s Spiritual Congress.  Some of the notable names in attendance at the ceremony included Germany’s ambassador to Ankara, Eckart Cuntz; the general director of cultural heritage and museums, Murat Süslü; Van Mayor Bekir Kaya, Gevaş Provincial Governor Yusuf Güni, and Gevaş Mayor Nazmi Sezer. While there were around 750 Armenians from İstanbul in attendance, there were very few Armenians from the diaspora or from Armenia present.

Of course, the reason for the negative reactions to this particular ceremony was, as we all know, the fact that the cross had not been placed, as had been promised, on the dome. And in fact, it was very difficult to understand how it was that this ceremony had not been entirely cancelled, as the ceremony had already been labeled a “cross placement” ceremony. As for me, I had the opportunity to converse with Zakaria Mildanoğlu, who helped oversee the restoration of the church, about the “technical difficulties” referred to by the governor when explaining why it was the cross would not be placed on top of the church. Mildanoğlu noted that, in fact, these sorts of technical problems were an area of expertise for him, and that just one month’s work would actually be enough to fix and strengthen the dome so that the cross could be placed atop it. Later, when I spoke with the governor, he told me, “We are planning on placing the cross in two months’ time.” But since this was the problem, why was the work on the dome not started one month in advance? Everyone now has suspicions that the real problem was actually one of intention, suspicions which don’t seem that out of place. And this question of “intention” is actually quite interesting. While this island on the southeast part of Van Lake may have at one time been called after the Aziz Haç Church, today its name comes from the legend of “Ağ Tamar,” which turned into “Ahtamar,” with all its resonance of unrequited love. The latest changes to the name of the island turned it into “Akdamar” though, with the reason given for this being that local people pronounce it this way. But in speaking with many Van residents, it was painfully clear that in fact, everyone could pronounce “Ahtamar,” and so that the real reason for the newer manifestation of this name must be ideological.

When will we understand that these steps are actually being taken for Turkey?

Prior to the mass on Sept. 19, a call was sent out by Prime Minister Erdoğan to Yerevan. At a joint press conference held with Azeri leader İlham Aliyev, Erdoğan noted that the permission granted for the mass at Akdamar was a sign of Turkish tolerance, saying: “We hope that they will not leave this gesture unreciprocated and that they will show the same tolerance in return. There is a saying: ‘Do a good deed, and throw it into the sea. Even if the fish don’t understand what you’ve done, Halik [Allah] knows’.”

Unfortunately however, with these words, the prime minister proves all those who are opposed to dialogue, and all those “so-called” democrats, right. Just as he doesn’t see how what has been done is to really protect a historic structure that lies within Turkish borders and belongs to Turkey, and to protect the rights of humanity and minorities, Erdoğan also doesn’t understand just how the people in the region will benefit economically from these types of touristic projects and how hopeful they are about all this even now.

For as long as we don’t remove the idea of “reciprocal” politics from our heads, for as long as we continue to view steps actually taken for Turkey as gestures made for other countries, everyone will continue to see Turkey as an actor that plays to Europe and America, and no one will have the power to change these thoughts.

Actually, the actions that have been attempted at Akdamar in recent days have been signals of what is really quite great political volition and vision. But it is as though there is still a very large deficiency of courage at hand. “Let’s fix the church, but maybe the cross will go on later. The name cannot be Akhtamar, it should be Akdamar. Prayers are forbidden aside from that one day, but let’s see what Yerevan does.” All of these statements wind up cheapening the actual courage that we saw.

There is one truth at hand of which everyone is already aware. According to a report prepared by İstanbul Patriarch Mağakya Ormanian, there were 2,538 churches, 451 monasteries and 2,000 schools belonging to the Armenian community under the Ottoman Empire between 1913-1914. Now in Turkey, there remain 42 Orthodox churches, 12 Catholic churches, five Protestant churches and 16 schools. These churches do not belong to the Armenians spread all over the world, or to the government in Armenia or anything. Repairs made years later on a church that had fallen into ruins, in an atmosphere where three years of talk goes back and forth on whether a cross will actually be placed on the church, does not mean that we can say Armenians are really being shown tolerance. At the same time, it shows a real lack of consciousness of the injury done to the Armenian people — people who have already experienced so much pain over the past century — with these words.


*Aline Ozinian is a researcher in the field of Turkology.




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