The scene outside the church. (Photo by Talin Suciyan)
VAN (A.W.)–“Victory is in the realization of mad men’s dream…” This, written in big Armenian letters along with a photo of Akhtamar Island’s Holy Cross Church, ran on the front page of the local daily newspaper Van Times on Sept. 19, produced in cooperation with the Istanbul-based Agos weekly on the occasion of the Holy Mass ceremony in that church, which took place on the same day.
Cheering headlines were common on the front pages of other local newspapers, too. While newspapers like SehriVan, Bolge, Prestij, and Vansesi were presenting the event as “a contribution to the world peace and a bright example of tolerance,” other newspapers like DoguAnadolu were sinking deep into details by criticizing their colleagues for missleading the public by presenting the Mass as a first after 95 years, and not 92 years―matching it with the date of the Armenian uprising of Van in 1918, in an attempt to fuel more historic hatred against “traitor Armenians.”
In 1951, Yasar Kemal, a reporter of Kurdish origin, witnessed the beginning of the demolition plan on the island of Akhtamar while visiting the region. He used his contacts to stop the destruction of the site and raised awareness of it through his writings. This is how a masterpiece of world and Armenian medieval architecture was saved for today’s Mass ceremony. The church, however, was left in a dilapidated and abandoned state until 2005, when the Turkish government decided to begin restoration efforts.
In an interview to the Armenian Weekly, the governor of Van, Munir Karaloglu, who followed the event from a helicopter flying over the island, said that restoration was carried out by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey, and that it cost nearly $1.5 million. In 2007, it was finished and opened as a museum. Today a restoration and renovation project is being considered for the rooms of a seminary outside the walls of the church, which is also part of the monastery complex on Akhtamar Island.
“Maybe we cannot rebuild those rooms in their entirety, but we can conserve what is left of its walls and restore them,” said Karaloglu. “It would be difficult to build a new dome and cover the top, but we will work to restore and show the general architectural design of those few rooms of the monastery complex. The cost of this restoration process will be fully covered by the government of Turkey.”
Answering a question about an incident that happened a month ago—when students from Armenia attempted to pray inside the church, but were stopped—Karaloglu said that although it is clear that the architectural design and purpose of the building is to serve as a church, its legal status is a museum, and the temporary permission to perform a Mass there on Sept. 19 does not affect its legal status.
Regarding this once-yearly permission, Karaloglu explained how “during the opening ceremony of the church in 2007, the Patriarch of the Armenians of Turkey Mesrop Moutafyan expressed his wish to do a Mass ceremony in the Holy Cross Church of Akhtamar at least once a year [on the second week of September, which matches the Holy Cross Day in the calendar of the Armenian Church]. Till today this request wasn’t fulfilled. This year, after renewing their request, I, as the governor of Van, stated that we can bring this to reality, and we had the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to perform the Mass once a year in this church.”
By noon on Sept. 19, only several dozen Armenians from Armenia had arrived to the island, with the same number coming from the diaspora. According to the representative of the Spiritual Council of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, Father Tatul Anus, the number of Istanbul Armenians who came for the Mass was nearly 700.
Despite the lack of official numbers from that day, Turkish newspapers estimated the presence of 4,000-5,000 people. During the liturgy, however, local Turks and Kurds outnumbered Armenians several times; some of them had come out of curiosity, others for a weekend getaway on the shores of Van.
Official guests included the general director of cultural monuments and museums, Osman Murat Suslu; the mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya; the governor of Gevas province of Van, Yusuf Guni; the mayor of Gevas, Nazmi Sezer; the mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbas; the ambassador of Germany in Ankara, Eckart Cuntz; and several diplomatic mission representatives in Turkey from the United States, France, Netherlands, Sweden, and other countries.
The Holy Mass started at 11 a.m. with the sound of ringing bells played by a tape, and ended after two-and-a-half hours. As Patriarch Mesrop Moutafyan is permanently ill, the Holy Mass was headed by the president of the Religious Council of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, Archbishop Aram Atesyan. Fifty-five official guests attend the Holy Mass inside the church—a small space at 45 m²—while others watched the ceremony from the big screens placed outside of the church. While 148 Turkish and 63 foreign journalists covered the event, only Turkish State Official Television TRT was allowed to enter the church during the ceremony.
After a very long absence, a liturgy was finally performed in the church. But, in spite of promises by Turkish officials, the church’s dome still missed its cross. A few days prior to a referendum in Turkey on constitutional changes, the deputy minister of culture and tourism, Ismet Yilmaz, had said that a cross would not be placed on top of the cone-shaped dome of the church, citing technical difficulties.
“The reconstruction, which was carried out by Italian specialists, makes it impossible for the dome to support the 2-meter, 200-kilogram cross,” he said. “If we put up the cross without making any changes, even a breeze will harm the dome. We plan to invite other specialists to solve this problem.”
While the government was very careful not to do anything that could be used by the nationalist opposition during the referendum, many accused the Turkish authorities of reneging on their promise to place a cross on the church’s dome ahead of the much-awaited Sept. 19 Mass, prompting hundreds of pilgrims to cancel their visit. Critics say the Mass was merely a facelift to improve Turkey’s image and promote its bid to join the European Union, which has been pressuring the country to grant more freedom to its minorities.
According to Omar Khashram, a major Arabic news channel correspondent and analyst on Turkish issues, the government has goodwill towards minorities, especially Armenians, but is facing huge pressures from the nationalist opposition.
“You may believe the official explanations of not putting the cross, or may not, it’s up to you,” Khashram said. “But an Armenian priest here told me that this is a great step, we appreciate it and we demand more later on, but we do not work to abort this kind of positive moves.”
“I think that Armenians should take advantage of this event and work harder to get more rights, because the political atmosphere in Turkey is not easy at all,” he continued. “When they decided to open this church, huge pressure was put on the government, even from Azerbaijan. I think we should work gradually to achieve better results.”
After the Holy Mass, Archbishop Atesyan gave the Sunday speech. “What matters for us is that this building, which is being preserved as a museum, will be passed on for the future generations. This church is a masterpiece of art and culture, and that’s why it belongs to the whole of humanity. We thank the government of Turkey for renovating and protecting this church,” he said.
Although Archbishop Atesyan considers the Mass to be an important gesture from the Turkish government, secular and religious leaders from Armenia and the diaspora called for a boycott after it became clear that a cross would not be installed in time for the ceremony. The majority of Armenians who arrived from Armenia were journalists, many of whom came with financial support from various international organizations. The diaspora media, on the other hand, did not dispatch many journalists to Akhtamar, even though the Turkish prime minister’s office sent invitations offering to cover all expenses.
In a recent interview with reporters, the senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), Giro Manoyan, said that because of the enormous violations of international agreements and human rights in Turkey, some are feeling content enough that they have such an opportunity to pray inside the church―at least once a year. “This is what Armenians of Turkey are saying,” he told reporters. “They’re telling us, what else do you want? Here we are going to pray in the church.”
“Of course, we also want to pray in that church,” said Manoyan, “but we want to pray 365 days a year, not the day that Turkey chooses.”
According to Manoyan, Turkey continuously tries to connect the problems of its minorities with the original countries of those minorities. “In fact, all those monasteries and cultural monuments belong solely to Armenians, not necessarily the Republic of Armenia; there are other legal owners of those monuments. All these issues must be discussed on legal grounds and not be used as a political bargaining chip in Turkey’s relations with Armenia,” he said.
The editor in chief of Agos weekly, Rober Koptas, pointed out that while the restoration of the Holy Cross Church and the Mass are important steps, they were accompanied by some major problems, too.
“The Turkish government is using this event as a cheap propaganda tool for its political goals,” he said. “Maybe in the beginning the government had some noble motivations, but during the last three-and-a-half years, their moves were painted with absolute political calculations. This event would have been more meaningful if it was going to help the Turkish government and the people to face their history, but we understand now that this is just another diplomatic gesture. Whenever the Turkish government faces difficulties on the political ground they take such small steps to win more time. The last issue in this chain was about the placement of the cross on the dome of the church. In April, they stated that the cross would be placed on the church, but a few days ago they stepped back pointing to ‘technical difficulties.’ Armenians all around the world can see and analyze these facts and that’s why they are boycotting this event. If the Turkish government really had good intentions they would have done their best to prevent the boycott.”
According to Koptas, the Turkish government wants to paint a tolerant image for the world. “They want to tell the world that they don’t put any differences between Turks and Armenians and they don’t have any complexes regarding the Armenians, but this itself is a problem, because they do not regard Armenians as equal as Turks,” he said.
“If they want to use this event to create a decent dialogue with Armenians, they should also listen properly to the other side,” he added.
According to local newspapers in Van, Governor Karaloglu has promised that the cross will be placed on the church within six weeks, and ordered that it be temporarily placed on a stand near the entry of the church during the day of the Mass. The many excuses given by Turkish officials, however, for the postponement have not been viewed as sincere by many critics; after all, if it is possible to do it a few weeks later, why not do it before the liturgy, to make sure that more people come, including those from Armenia and the diaspora?
Renowned journalist and Zaman newspaper columnist Yavuz Baydar told the Armenian Weekly that the placement of the cross should have been included in the restoration process of the church. “This issue must be solved quickly because there can’t be a church without a cross, like there can’t be a mosque without a crescent,” he said. “However, I am not concentrating on the issue of the cross because there are more positive things to look upon. Today, the Mass in this church is of a huge importance.”
“No one must forget that civil society movements in Armenia and Turkey, all those who voted for political change in Turkey, are supporting this process to have more cordial relations with Armenia, and to be able to face their history,” said Baydar. “Eventually, this is not only a policy of Ankara, but the representation of the will of a wide range of people and organizations in Turkey,” he added.
Speaking about the cross problem, Turkish writer and journalist Baskin Oran told the Armenian Weekly that “sometimes the AK Party has the courage to begin a process, but it doesn’t have enough courage to complete it, because the AK Party is a coalition of different groups in itself.”
“If Erdogan was stronger, like Turgut Ozal was in some periods, we would have witnessed the placement of the cross on the church today,” he said. “However, I don’t think that this is an important issue. The important thing is that when Turkey does such moves and sees that the country is not falling apart, it will have more courage to go further in the normalization process.”
According to Oran, until now, Turkey has been trying to assimilate the non-Turkish Muslims in Turkey, while dealing with the non-Muslims through ethnic and religious cleansing, because it is not possible to assimilate the non-Muslims. “What we are seeing today is that those who suffered our ethnic and religious cleansing are coming against us like zombies, while those whom we wanted to assimilate are carrying their guns and going to the mountains,” he said. “Both were the wrongdoings of our nation-state, and the opening of this church today serves to acknowledge those mistakes.”
Today, only about 40 Armenian churches remain from the 2,500 that once dotted Turkey; the rest were destroyed, ransacked, and turned into mosques or schools. Why has only this site been restored and presented to the world, while other Armenian churches and monasteries in the region are left to their bitter fate? The alternative, said Oran, was to have nothing at all.
“I think that there are at least as many churches in the Republic of Armenia which need restorations,” he said. “But I know about other restoration projects that have started, too. This is a long way, and while you’re at the first step of a 100 steps road, you cannot ask why you didn’t make those 99 steps too… We should not forget that we are breaking a 87-year-old nation-state mentality, which is a very dangerous mentality. We are bringing back the Ottoman Empire’s good values, which is about recognizing the heterogeneous and multicultural nature of this country,” he added.
Regarding the fate of what remains of the Armenian cultural and religious heritage in the region, Governor Karaloglu explained how “a hundred years ago, there was a huge Christian Armenian population living in this region, and all their churches and monasteries are left abandoned here. Maybe the church of Akhtamar was the most famous among all of them, that’s why it was done first and it is the most talked about. But we also started to put plans of renovation for other churches too, such as the Monastery on Carpanak Island [Gdouts, in Armenian]. The plans will be submitted to the Higher Council of Cultural and Natural Heritage Protection, and only after their approval the project will be put into implementation.”
“We also have another restoration plan for the Seven Churches monastery, which is called Varaka Vank by the Armenian community,” he said. “Also another restoration plan is being studied for the church of Surb Thomas, five kilometers west of the Altinsac (old name, Kantzak) on the shores of Lake Van. Whenever we finish these study plans, we will start searching for funding to initiate these projects. Most likely, we will look for international foundations interested in preserving the cultural and architectural heritage in the world.”
Istanbul-Armenian architect Zakaria Mildanoglu was included in every step of the restoration project of the Holy Cross Church in order to avoid any possible disagreement over the process. Mildanoglu told the Armenian Weekly that the region of Van, which is historically the Vaspurakan region of ancient Armenia, had nearly 220 monasteries—apart from the churches, which numbered more than 400.
“There are some people in the Turkish government who have the willingness to work on the restoration of more Armenian churches and cultural monuments,” he said. “There are projects encouraged by Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay, being carried out on Varaka Monastery, and the churches on Lim and Gdouts islands of Lake Van. The initial plans are already set. There will be also cooperation with architects and professionals from Armenia, as it had been in the case of Surb Khatch of Akhtamar.”
Mildanoglu said that another restoration project is in process, too. It’s the renovation of Surb Giragos Church of Tigranakerd (Diyarbekir), which is the biggest Armenian church in the Middle East and still belongs to the Armenian Patriarchate. The project is mainly funded by the Armenian community of Turkey, in addition to many other Armenian organizations and associations from abroad.
“I think that this a step towards the right direction, but there are still too many steps to be taken,” said Kapriel Chemberdjian, a Syrian-Armenian philantrophist and president of the Pyunik PanArmenian Benevolent Fund, who is also one of the donors for the renovation project of Surb Giragos.
“I have some hope. For example, today, there are only two Armenians living in Diyarbekir, and the restoration of the Armenian church there needs more than $3 million. But that’s not a problem, the church of Diyarbekir is worth restoration regardless of anything, because it is ours. We may be able to do a Holy Mass ceremony there once or twice a year, but not more, because there are no Armenians left there. But our cultural heritage will be preserved,” he said. “We should also think about how to protect and claim ownership of these monuments, while there is no Armenian population. I think that this an important problem too.”
While plans are still being researched, these churches need immediate attention to protect them from both people and nature.
A day after the ceremony, a group of Istanbul Armenians, along with priests from the Patriarchate, visited the Varaka Monastery, seven kilometers west of the city of Van. The dome of the Surb Nshan Church of the monastery complex no longer exists, and the bending columns inside the church have been fixed with tied metal sticks by the local Kurdish guard, Mehmet.
Mehmet, who is being paid the lowest wage (asgari ucret, in Turkish), said that “although I am not a mason, I am doing everything in my hand to help this church not to pull down.”
“I wrote more than 100 requests to renovate this place, but I didn’t get a reply. I only had some woods and thin metal plates once, and I covered the open dome with that, so the rain water doesn’t fill inside the stones and harm them more,” he said.
The situation in Varaka Vank, however, appears to be better than that of Saint Thomas in Altınsac, which doesn’t have a guard at all, like most of the other remnants of Armenian churches and monasteries in Van and throughout Turkey.
“Many people believe that Armenians buried their treasures inside their churches before they were gone,” said the guard of Varaka Monastery. “That’s why some people always try to dig inside these places or vandalize the walls in search of those treasures, ruining and destroying the site in the meantime.”
One of the visitors, an Istanbul-Armenian, who was listening to the guard, had an emotional moment inside the church after learning that locals were using the monastery as a stable for their animals.
“Myths about buried treasures might be true or exaggerations,” he said. “Nevertheless, besides restoring and renovating these monasteries and churches, probably local people should also be educated about the real treasures, which are not under the ground, but on the surface, right in front of them, and they are in a desperate need for human care and protection.”