Apigian-Kessel: The Furor over Akhtamar Continues

I know somewhere in my religious upbringing I was taught not to hate. I was also made to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts. In this case it’s not the Greeks I am concerned about. For the foreseeable future, my focus remains riveted on the Turkish government.

I am not from Missouri, but show me, show me that some miracle has transformed the bloody ways of the savages from the Mongolian steppe who now attire themselves in fancy suits and are armed with degreed educations, but are still denying their genocide of the Armenians. They pay millions of dollars to American lobby groups and former politicians who once wooed our vote but now take Turkish blood money to support the lavish lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Honor, ethics, and character be damned!

You see, I just can’t get over the fact that my Armenian Keghetsi grandparents from Tzerman village in 1912 sent their only son and eldest child Mamigon out of the isolated interior of eastern Turkey to spare his life at the hands of the Turks who laid claim to historic Armenia. Unfortunately, it is the part of the world where fate placed the Apigians along with their other children, three young daughters. They all perished in 1915, along with one-and-a-half million other Christian Armenians.

My grandparents made a wise decision. They knew of the Hamidian Massacres of 300,000 Armenians in the mid 1890’s during the bloody sultan’s reign and sacrificed the companionship of their son, the man who became my father, to save his life. The 1915 genocide of the Armenians was particularly devastating and ruthlessly cruel—and the recent renovation of a monastery on Akhtamar Island has done nothing to make me trust the Turks.

Why did they change the name of the nearly $2 million church renovation project from the Armenian “Akhtamar” to the Turkish “Akdamar”? Why are they calling it a museum instead of a church? Why hasn’t a cross been placed atop the church? It’s too heavy, they say, and will be placed somewhere else on the structure. Having employed some of the finest architectural minds on the project, didn’t they know this beforehand?

Was the prevailing Turkish thought, “Let’s just smooze the Armenians? They are a small, naive people. They will come.” Well, not as many as they thought; mostly Armenians from Istanbul attended. You can’t blame emotion taking over the decision for displaced Armenians to make the trek, pouring a good deal of money into this historic trip to the homeland of their parents. But are they remembering how and why their parents left?

Anti-Armenian sentiment has caused the Turks and their brothers, the Azerbaijanis, to destroy our cemeteries, khatchkars, churches, and monasteries in their attempt to further rewrite history with the intention of eradicating all semblance of anything Armenian, the people indigenous to Anatolia. Nothing doing say those of us from Sepastia, Van, Boursa, Izmir, Moush, Zonguldak, Kharput, Keghi, Trebizon, and elsewhere Armenians have left their imprint.

A CNN news report by Ivan Watson said, “The area was strangely deserted.” He showed the magnificent interior and exterior of Soorp Khatch (Holy Cross) Church with its soaring walls, high reliefs, and frescoes of rare artistic value. They depict religious subjects from the Old and New Testaments such as David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, Christ and the Apostles, Abraham and Isaac, as well as Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Others are of the Virgin Mary, the harvesting of grapes, and of King Gagik under whose patronage architect Manuel designed the church.

Accommodations for travelers were insufficient. It is said they were taken in by locals. Who were the locals—Kurds and Turks? How peacefully did the Armenians sleep? It is said they want tourists to flock to the area. So, why did the Turkish government torment the Armenian gentleman who tried to open a hotel there until he finally abandoned his project?

The CNN report also showed a Catholic priest from Austria stopped by a guard from continuing his inspired chanting and prayers inside the beautiful place of Armenian worship because “It was a museum and a political situation existed. The church belongs to the Armenians but the land does not. It belongs to Turkey.”


Joe Dagdigian recently returned from a trip to Armenia and has this to say: “I visited Akhtamar a while back and it is a stunningly beautiful spot. When I visited even though it was a tourist site, there was nothing on the signs or tourist information indicating it was Armenian! Now it’s a museum? If it is a museum, they have to tell the history of the site and of the people that lived there and what happened to them. How come no one is demanding if it is a museum to present the story of the place?”

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”


  1. A good, strong article by Betty Apigian-Kessel.

    The notion that we Armenians have to jump on a plane and fly to Turkey every time it stages a dog and pony show is rather absurd.

    What next, Turkey renovates some old Armenian house somewhere with $5 worth of spackle and paint from Home Depot, and we all have to jump on plane to watch some intimidated Armenian priest perform a house warming?

    The sad truth is that when the Turks say “Jump,” too many Armenians ask “How high?”

  2. Well said Serpouhie. Our furor is justified and we shouldn’t hide it.
    I believe the sage advice offered by Harold Nicholson lends some important lessons for Armenians in our dealing with Turks.
    The great British diplomat and writer Harold Nicholson believed there were two kinds of negotiators: warriors and shopkeepers. Warriors use negotiations as a way to gain time and a stronger position. Shopkeepers operate on the principle that it is more important to establish trust, to moderate each side’s demands and come to a mutually satisfying settlement. Whether in diplomacy or in business, the problem arises when shopkeepers assume they are dealing with another shopkeeper only to find they are facing a warrior.
    Ditto Boyajian. A sad truth indeed.

  3. Akhtamar’s Holy Cross church was built around year 950, about 1,090 years ago  The Turkish Republic is 90 years old.  The 1090 year old church is Armenian, but the land it sits on belongs to the 90 year old Republic of Turkey… Hmmmmm…. Turkey and the Ottoman Empire did not exist when this church was built, so how can this church be a “Turkish museum”?
    This mathematical puzzle should be cleared to visiting tourists in Turkey when they read a customary explanation that every archeological/historical site turned into a museum has about the background/history of the structure.  But there is none at Holy Cross…. Hmmmmm
    Who is going to tell them the story of Akhtamar island… about the princess Tamar and her secret love who swam through lake Van lake for their clandestine meetings…. who is going to tell this story… Wait…even the name has been changed?  How can a 90 year old country change the name given to an island more than 1,090 years ago?  it is called Aktamar now?  Hmmmm

    The name changed, the cross taken out, the Turkish flag flying on it and no Armenians around… but the church is Armenian and the country is Turkey.

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