I had never been to the town of Dogubeyazit, which faces the majestic Ararat mountains and looks as if it is protected by it. When the mayor, Ms Mukaddes Kubilay, elected as candidate of pro-Kurdish DEHAP Party, invited me and a colleague of mine, Oral Calislar, for a roundtable discussion on Kurdish question, I accepted enthusiastically.
Soon after we arrived in the small and busy airport of Van, we headed for a destination of great importance: island of Akhtamar, situated southside of Van, some 5 miles off the shore of Van Lake. The island is known throughout the world with its ancient Armenian church, called Akhtamar – or, Akdamar, as in Turkish. 1.100 years old, Akhtamar was one of the main temples of the Armenians. Its historical and symbolic value has been undisputable.
The symphatetic church, built with the lightbrown local stones, has been a ruin for decades, left as it was deserted. Its walls had deep scars, bullet holes, grafiti and all sorts of prints by vandalism. But a year ago, by the initiative of AK Party government, a restoration work was commissioned. Under the surveillance of a group of experts from universities of Istanbul, Ankara and Van, contractor firm Kartalkaya, of the local Zeydanli family, initiated the work.
As we approached the island, I did not expect much progress in restoration. After all it was not even a year under harsh climate conditions. But the visit around and inside the church was full of great surprises.
The external work was almost completed and internally and, according to Ahmet Mete Tozkoparan, who co-leads the Project, less than a couple of months were needed. Four young experts were in full action in recovering what was left of the fantastic frescoes. The floor was complete.
Outside, it was even a more fabulous sight. Facades, that depicted much of the iconography, some with references to Abbasi dynasty, were cleaned neatly.
Then, as suggested by Yalcin Karaca, an extremely knowledgeable archeologist from Van University, we were taken to the other side of the churchyard, where the team meticolously excavated what was left of the walls and rooms of the monastery and the school. Those of us who only remembered only earth on that part, were met with astonishment. Our hosts pointed out that the walls now faced the threat of the winter: Since they were fragile, the first strong rain would start to threaten to destruct it. They were expecting, in vain, some quick green light from the Department of Culture for covering them neatly. It looked urgent indeed.
Over tea with the gentle team we discussed a lot about the iconography of the church, that stood there, above us, majestically. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, we were told, took care of the work of restoration personally, and he even visited the site by a chopper, an unannounced appearence that even took place without the knowledge of the local governor.
Next week, the island will have another visitor. The Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, Mesrob II, will travel to Akhtamar to see what it now looks like. He will be, I am sure, as surprised as we were. I could easily call it the best restoration work ever done in Turkey. One certainly hopes for more.
The opening of the church will not only mean a lot for the Armenians, but also for the locals who expect more tourism and contacts. (For more information and updates: www.akdamarkilisesi.com)
firstname.lastname@example.org 03 July 2006
Restoration of Armenian church in Van complete