It’s Sept. 17, two days before church services will be held at the Holy Cross (Sourp Khatch) Church on Akhtamar Island. A multi-storey bookstore sits on one of the busiest streets of Van. At the top is a cafe, where mostly young people meet and freely smoke despite the countrywide smoking ban in Turkey—a happy surprise for me!
But this time the cafe is hosting a very different kind of event. Today, Osman Koker, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Birzamanlar Yayincilik (renowned for its book Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago, and exhibitions both in Turkey and abroad), and Ara Sarafian, the director of the Gomidas Institute based in London, are presenting their co-production—“Akhtamar: A Jewel of Medieval Armenian Architecture”—to an audience comprised of journalists from the U.S., Armenia, France, and other countries; representatives of the Turkish mainstream press, as well as the local press; groups of Armenians from Istanbul; and locals.
It was the first time an Armenian publishing house mainly publishing genocide studies and a Turkish publisher had joined forces to release a book about the great Armenian cultural heritage in old Armenia, launching the book where it belongs—in Van, the great Armenian city where that “jewel” had survived despite everything.
The book, with texts offered in both Turkish and English, contains Stepan Mnatsakanian’s survey of the Holy Cross Church from an architectural and artistic perspective, accompanied with architectural drawings by Edizioni Ares from Milan and photographs by Kadir Citak taken specifically for the book.
In his welcoming speech, Sarafian pointed out the various aspects of Sourp Khatch, such as the use of religious and secular carvings on the exterior walls of the church to exalt the rule of the Ardzruni Dynasty, or the presence of Islamic and Seljuk elements on the walls reflecting the integrated and cross-cultural history of the area. After all, the Armenian kingdom of Vasbouragan was very much engaged with its Muslim neighbors. “This eclecticism reflects the history and beauty of the church,” he stated, adding, “I want to hope that what has been done to protect Sourp Khatch will also be done for the few remaining examples of the Armenian cultural heritage that are still left amongst the thousands that have been destroyed in this country.”
Koker told the audience why he founded Birzamanlar Yayincilik, which mainly publishes books about the Armenian history in Turkey. He said he wanted to contribute to the efforts for change in the deeply-rooted mentality in Turkey—fed by the educational system—that disregards everyone except Turks and depicts Turkey as a land that only Turks inhabited in the past.
The questions that followed were mainly about the motives of the Turkish government for opening the church for the first time after 95 years; the boycotts by the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin and other Armenian circles; the failure of the Turkish government in placing the cross on the dome of the church; and particularly Sarafian’s views on the controversies surrounding the Armenian attendance at the service.
“I think [opening the Holy Cross Church for service] is a positive step and an opportunity for people—Armenians, Turks, Kurds, others—to respond in different ways,” Sarafian said. “In our case, we decided to take the Turkish authorities at face value, and to engage the Turkish audience with a Turkish- and English-language book on Akhtamar. I hope we publish other books, too. Perhaps the next one will be on Ani. In the old days, it was impossible to speak freely on Armenian issues in Turkey. This is not the case any longer. We can now introduce new voices into Turkey. Let Turkish officials use their advantages as in the past, but their powers of thought-control is limited. For example, the word ‘Armenian’ does not appear on the official sign greeting people on the island of Akhtamar. The monastery is described as having been built by the architect Manuel for King Gagik of Vasbouragan. The Museum of Van also does not mention Armenians. However, Turkish audiences know the meaning of these absences and can draw their own conclusions. This is also why they are open to alternative explanations of the history of this land.”
Sarafian concluded by saying, “The Akhtamar issue is part of a process of establishing bridges, ground rules, and trust. Where such developments will ultimately lead depends on many factors and for this reason what we do as groups and individuals matters. Let’s have sensible discussion of such issues, not only across the so-called ‘Turkish-Armenian divide,’ but also within the different sides of this divide.”
Osman Koker, despite his acknowledgment of the church service as a positive step, said the failure in placing the cross on the dome of the church was an indication of the government’s lack of courage and feelings of empathy. “The government wanted to display a gesture of good intentions to the world, but due to such timidity the gesture itself failed to serve its purpose,” he concluded.
It was an interesting, yet at the same time sad, experience to listen to Armenian songs playing from the bookstore’s music system and to see books about the Armenian cultural heritage of Turkey displayed prominently in the entrance of the shop—such as a colossal book about Armenian master silversmiths by the Aras publishing house (Istanbul), the only center in Turkey publishing Armenian literature both in Armenian and Turkish. The display of that book was particularly poignant because it showed the beautiful work of Armenian silversmiths in Van a hundred years ago. That tradition, like Armenians, was lost in 1915.