Akhtamar Church Restoration: Religion & Politics Forever

AKHTAMAR ISLAND (Excerpted from AP)–An ancient Armenian church, perched on a rocky island in a vast lake, has become a modern symbol of the divisions and fitful efforts at reconciliation between Turks and Armenia’s whose history of bloodshed drives their troubled relationship. The Akhtamar church, one of the most precious remnants of Armenian culture 1,000 years ago, deteriorated over the last century, a victim of neglect after Turks carried out mass killings of Armenia’s as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around the time of World War I. Rainwater seeped through the collapsed, conical dome, treasure-hunters dug up the basalt floor, and shepherds took potshots with rifles at the facade. Next week, the church will showcase Turkey’s tentative steps to improve ties with its ethnic Armenian minority, as well as neighboring Armenia. Turkey completed a $1.5 million restoration of the sandstone building, and invited Armenian officials to a ceremony there on March 29 to mark what Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called a "positive" message. Armenia’s foreign minister welcomed the restoration, but said Turkey mistakenly believed the project would prove that it was dedicated to better ties with its neighbor. "A positive sign and a move on the part of Turkey would be the opening of the border with Armenia and establishment of diplomatic relations," the news agency Armenpress quoted Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying this week. He said the Armenian delegation could reach the church near the city of Van in eastern Turkey by land in a few hours if the border were open, but instead will have to fly to Istanbul, and then take another flight back toward the Armenian border. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara. The move hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia. Also, Turkey lobbied against a proposed resolution in the US Congress that would recognize the killings of Armenia’s in the last century as genocide. Some of Turkey’s 65,000 Armenian Orthdox Christians say they endure harassment in Turkey, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul in January, was apparently targeted by nationalists who detested his commentaries on minority rights and free expression. Patriarch Mesrob II, the spiritual head of the Armenian Orthodox community in Turkey, has asked the government to mount a cross on top of the church, which used to have one, and to allow religious services to be held there on occasion. The government has yet to respond, but placement of a cross could be sensitive for the Islamic-rooted government of Erdogan, who plans to attend the inauguration ceremony. The symbolism could upset some Muslims, and a parallel force, Turkey’s secular establishment, led by the powerful military, might regard it as a concession to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. The European Union urged Turkey in 2004 to consider registering Akhtamar in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The EU has also urged Turkey, a candidate for membership, to improve treatment of minorities. Relief carvings on the outer walls of the Akhtamar church depict Jesus Christ, barefoot and bearded, holding the book of Gospels; a sea creature devouring Jonah as he is tossed from a ship; Abraham grabbing his son Isaac’s hair and holding a knife as he prepares to sacrifice him; David with a slingshot facing the giant warrior, Goliath; and Adam and Eve, holding the forbidden fruit. "Akhtamar is an extroverted church," said Zakarya Mildanoglu, an ethnic Armenian architect who helped restore it. "It doesn’t hide its face." Reliefs also show the church’s builder, Armenian King Gagik I, in an ornate robe and crown, vines and grapes, eagles, bears, a peacock, cockerels, a man killing a lion, and a lion pouncing on a deer. Inside the church, deep blue frescoes show biblical scenes, though many have been destroyed and the walls have big, blank patches. Renovators replaced fallen roof stones to prevent more damage to the interior, restored the floor, strengthened walls and cleaned frescoes. The church still bears marks of ill treatment, with graffiti scratched next to some carvings. Akhtamar, called the Church of Sourp Khatch, or Holy Cross, was inaugurated in 921AD. Written records say the church was near a harbor and a palace on the island on Lake Van, but only the church survived. Many local residents supported the renovation because it could generate tourism. Some Turks posted critical articles on the Internet. A leader of an extreme nationalist party said he welcomed the restoration as long as it is not interpreted as a political overture. "We are not guilty of anything," said Mehmet Sandir, associate chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party. "Why should we be making gestures?"

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