Armenians Celebrate First Baptisms at Aghtamar Since 1915

Special to the Armenian Weekly

For the first time since 1915, the Armenian Church performed the rite of baptism at the Church of the Holy Cross (Sourp Khatch) on Aghtamar Island in Lake Van.

Clergy gather in the courtyard outside the Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar following the Badarak on Sept. 8. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
A crowd of pilgrims gathers outside the Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar, following the first baptism at the church since 1915. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

Two adults and three youths, including a boy from Armenia named Van and three Armenians from the town of Van, were baptized. The identity of the fifth person to be baptized wasn’t immediately clear. She had made her way to the altar during the ceremony and announced that she wished to be baptized. The church honored her impromptu request.

The five baptisms were conducted on Sept. 8 at the conclusion of a church service—itself a rare event at Aghtamar—that had drawn more than 1,000 visitors from around the world. The Divine Liturgy, which Armenians refer to as the Badarak, has been performed only once each year at Aghtamar since 2010, after a genocide-induced hiatus of 95 years.

Bartev Karakeshian, a parish priest from Sydney, Australia, was among six visitors from his parish who made the pilgrimage to Aghtamar for the ceremony.

“We came just for this event,” he told me. All 6 people in his group had traveled 25 hours solely for the purpose of attending the Aghtamar ceremony as pilgrims. But when Father Bartev arrived at Aghtamar, the other clergy recognized him as a former member of the Istanbul Armenian community, and they invited him to participate in the ceremony. So, he said, “I read the confession, and gave the communion.”

Clergy gather in the courtyard outside the Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar following the Badarak on Sept. 8. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
Clergy gather in the courtyard outside the Church of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar following the Badarak on Sept. 8. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

A photograph of him standing at the altar and reading the confession appeared in a major Turkish daily newspaper the next morning. The daily newspaper of Van printed a photograph of Father Bartev administering communion. For a moment, and by chance, Father Bartev had become famous.

In Turkey, press coverage of the baptisms, both before and after the ceremony, appeared to be matter-of-fact. The media largely announced the event without an expression of opinion.

But some in Turkey were opinionated, and a small group of Turks protested the baptisms on the morning of the event. Turkish police, who had a significant presence on and around the island of Aghtamar, did not allow the protesters to board boats to the island. The day concluded peacefully, without any significant incidents, and the protests of the Turkish group went unheard by most.

Rosine Dilanian was one of the six Armenians who traveled to Aghtamar from Sydney. This was the first trip to Aghtamar for each person in her group. “This was a dream for us,” she said. “We have all been to Armenia, but not this part of Armenia,” she added.

Sourp Khatch at Aghtamar Island on the evening of Sept. 8, after the annual Badarak. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
Sourp Khatch at Aghtamar Island on the evening of Sept. 8, after the annual Badarak. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

I spoke to groups of pilgrims on the island after the ceremony. I encountered Armenians from Yerevan and Istanbul who had traveled here expressly for this event. I met the group from Australia. I also spoke with a woman from Los Angeles who, as with the others, had traveled to Aghtamar solely because of the Liturgy. Raffi Hovhannissian, the presidential candidate and former Foreign Minister of Armenia, was also present.

The Armenians whom I met from Yerevan had traveled through Georgia to get past the closed Turkish-Armenian border. The Armenians from Istanbul told me, through an interpreter, that they couldn’t speak any Armenian. They explained, in Turkish, that they had flown to Van from Istanbul for the ceremony and that they would stay just one night.

By late afternoon, most of the Armenians appeared to have left the island, and the remaining visitors were Kurds, for whom Aghtamar is a picnic destination, rather than a holy site of great significance.

I watched the progression of the crowds all day long. I had been one of the first people on the island that day, at about 8 a.m. I departed on the last boat at 7 p.m.

During my 11 hours on the island, I enjoyed being able to publicly celebrate my heritage, and to exercise a privilege that is rarely available in the lands of historic Armenia. I had traveled here to do research and photography for a book about historic Armenia—a sequel, of sorts, to my current book, Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide.

The Church of the Holy Cross is commonly known as Aghtamar because of its location on Aghtamar Island. The site was abandoned during the Armenian Genocide. During the decades that followed, this unique 10th-century cathedral fell into ruin and was vandalized.

After ignoring the problem for nearly a century, in 2007 the Turkish government completed repairs to the cathedral. The building was opened as a museum, and since 2010 the Armenian Church has been allowed to conduct a Divine Liturgy, or Badarak, once yearly. The ceremony that was conducted on Sept. 8 was the fourth that has been allowed since 1915.

Two young women from Van are baptized at Sourp Khatch, the Church of the Holy Cross, at Aghtamar on Sept. 8. Three others were also baptized that day during the same ceremony. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
Two young women from Van are baptized at Sourp Khatch, the Church of the Holy Cross, at Aghtamar on Sept. 8. Three others were also baptized that day during the same ceremony. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

The woman who was baptized on this day along with her two daughters was an Armenian living in Van. Her family had been forcibly converted to Islam after the genocide. She is one of the so-called “hidden Armenians” of the region.

“But they knew they were Armenians,” said Father Bartev, the pilgrim from Sydney. “They kept saying, ‘We are Armenians, We are Armenians.’” Among all of the Armenians at Aghtamar that day, their journey was the shortest, but also the most difficult.

Van, the teenage boy from Yerevan, was brought here to be baptized by his father. “His dream was to come to Aghtamar,” said Father Bartev.

The Liturgy began at 10:30 a.m. and lasted about two hours. The baptisms were conducted immediately following the Liturgy with a ceremony that lasted about 30 minutes. At the conclusion of the baptism, the clergy formed a processional outside to the courtyard, where they joined the pilgrims in singing hymns. The Liturgy was conducted by the acting head of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, Aram Ateshyan.

Several hours after the baptisms, the sun had stopped shining on Aghtamar and the last boat back to shore was ready to depart. All but a handful of the 1,000 visitors had long gone. As I boarded the boat back to Van, I anticipated another year-long hibernation of Armenian culture on Aghtamar. But I was happy that for one long day, the sun had shined bright.


Matthew Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif. He is the author of Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide, the best-selling book about Armenia in the U.S. Armenia and Karabakh is the winner of three national book awards and was featured in the Los Angeles Times, which praised the book as “a fresh view on ancient Armenia.” The book includes photography by Robert Kurkjian and is available for $25 from, from independent Armenian booksellers, and from Barnes and Noble.

Matthew Karanian
Matthew Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif. He is the author of ‘The Armenian Highland: Western Armenia and the First Armenian Republic of 1918’ (Stone Garden Press, 2019). For more information, visit


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience on Aghtamar. My hope is that one day Liturgy can be conducted weekly at this beautiful church in our historic homeland. I also need to be there for a Liturgy one year in the very near future.

  2. I recently visited Aghtamar as part of a tour of Eastern Turkey. Our Turkish tour guide, who was very respectful towards the Armenian homeland, told us that services were permitted once each year. I am happy to see this article describing the most recent service. I wish I had been there.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful photos, the photo of Sourp Khatch during the evening is stunning. I am looking forward to your book on historic Armenia.

  4. on the centennial of our peoples’ greatest tragedy, the requiem should be at akhtamar and 1.5 million Armenian should attend, and turn it into the biggest spectacle and pave the way for many more million true owners of the land to repatriate

  5. It is unfortunate that the author of the article repeated the myth that Holy Cross church was in some way falling into ruin before its destructive 2006-2007 “show restoration”. It was actually in very good condition, almost entirely intact, and under no danger of collapse. I speak here as someone who has visited Aghtamar almost yearly since 1984. Another error is to say that this 2013 ceremony was only the fourth allowed since 1915. Before 2006 anyone could conduct impromptu services inside the church if they wished, and I witnessed such events taking place on numerous occasions, including one led by the late Archbishop Ashjian. Archbishop Ashjian also conducted a wedding service there in 2000.
    The “restoration” was nothing more than an exploitation by politicians and self-seeking organisations that destroyed much of the church’s historical integrity. Its conversion into a museum then imposed massive restrictions on visitors. Maybe the average Armenian tourist is happy to be herded like sheep into the church during this once-a-year tightly-controlled access, and then stand meekly before its cheap and tacky chipboard altar. But I hope that at least some of you have contempt for such bland superficialities and can understand what I am talking about when I decry with anger the castration of meaning that the 2007 restoration/destruction inflicted on Holy Cross church. It turned an evocative place, a relic of the Genocide, a “survivor” of it, into a Disneyland-like tourist attraction for Turks. Maybe the attending priests should have done with the pretence, set aside their vestments, and worn Mickey-Mouse hats instead.

    • Wow. Touché to Steve for a politically realistic description of events. I surely did not know all this.

  6. I am very happy to know that Sourp khatch has finally served part of the purpose that it was built for. I also like to thank Mr. Karanian for sharing his wonderful experience with us. But I also like to see the cathedral return to its rightful owners one day. ( atchkernous poshi togh tchi tsanen)!

  7. We have to stop referring to this as a “restoration.” It has been repaired not restored. Nothing has been done to the important frescoes that almost completely covered the walls. They are now almost all lost due to moisture and light and damage. It is, of course, a blessing that we are finally able to use this church at all, but it is in need of restoration. I am left wondering if the turk flag and photo of Ataturk were removed during this ceremony. Also, were our people allowed free-of-charge entry into this holy place now converted into a tourist trap “museum”? Did they suspend the ridiculous charge for using the outside toilets? Or did they double the price? This church is studied in university art history classes throughout the world. It is the first church in the world to have relief on the exterior. And the narratives embedded in those reliefs are of the highest quality. This church is internationally acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest works of art. It needs to be restored. Those frescoes are as important, if not more so, than any the Vatican owns. They document the unwavering faith of our fathers. They are clear evidence of a highly skilled, creative people whose work the world still acknowledges. The Turks will never restore them. They speak too clearly of the people they butchered. All money made by the Turkish government from turning our churches into museums should be turned over to the Armenian Church to help with their restoration. And, of course, the church will never belong to them. No university class refers to it as a Turkish church. It was, is, and always will be an Armenian church.

    • I wish people would stop referring to the term “restoration” as if it were a good thing. Nowadays, a restoration is to building conservation what a lobotomy is to psychiatric health problems. Only the backward would still advocate either such treatment. Unfortunately, the Armenia Church has that backwardness in quantity. In Armenia, the Church has the legal right do whatever it wants to the country’s architectural heritage, and it has been responsible for the destruction by restoration of dozens of churches in Armenia – with most of the work funded by the Church’s oligarch allies.

      There is no ongoing preservation problem with the Aghtamar frescoes. The work done on them was actually the only good aspect of the 2007 work! They are now much clearer and more visible, though the method used by the Italian team to touch them up seems a bit dated (they used slightly different colours to visually distinguish new work from old – but it gave the frescoes a distracting mottled effect). The Italians also did not know the Armenian alphabet and so messed up some of the painted inscriptions.

      The problem with the restoration was that it fundamentally altered the original appearance of the church complex and destroyed large sections of the original structure. The original floor paving of the jamatun was destroyed and replaced by machine-cut slabs, the original earth roof of the jamatun was destroyed and replaced by a bizarre-looking pitched roof clad in stone. All of the original cornice of the jamatun was destroyed, along with all of the surviving roof tiles on the side chapel. A large window was inserted into the south-east side of the jamatun, perhaps because the restorers wanted the interior to be better lit for tourists. The relief carvings on the church were literally scrubbed clean (using brushes and soapy water) removing much of their surviving traces of colouring as well as all of their 1000 years of patina. Large sections of the original roof tiles of the church were also destroyed. Unfortunately, none of this destruction bothered Armenian commentators at the time – they were only interested in whether the church was to have a cross on its roof or not. Restrictions after it was turned into a “museum” included the forbidding of any form of religious expression inside the church. There are hidden security cameras in the church, so even if there is no guard present the interior is still under surveillance. At the time of the opening, propaganda was made from allowing Armenians to light candles inside the side chapel, but this right was later removed. And the right even when it existed was a fake – as soon as Armenians left, a guard would come and extinguish the candles and remove them.

  8. Turkey is fooling a lot of Armenians.

    Can you imagine if Germany had never acknowledged the Holocaust, and indeed denied it with the full force of the state, and if it had never paid reparations, and if it had pursuaded the US Congress to not recognize the Holocaust – can you imagine Jews going to Germany today and attending some ceremony once a year or so in a synagogue that had been remodelled a bit and then making a big deal out of it?

  9. I am very surprised, Steve, that in your last paragraph you begin with calling this a restoration and then outline exactly those elements that deny it is a restoration but rather a repair.
    The work done on the frescoes is an abomination not a restoration. You are obviously not an expert in artistic works.

    • Perouz has probably not been to Aghtamar, but has certainly never looked at the frescoes before 2006 or he would know that their condition has been much improved. He also seems to have no understanding of what the term “restoration” means, and is advocating its use. Restoration is ALWAYS a destructive activity, and it is considered by experts to be a mostly obsolete and discredited technique that rarely has a legitimate place in building conservation. Bad though the damage to Aghtamar was, we can at least be thankful that the frescoes were not ruined by a Turkish-style (or Armenian-style) repainting “restoration”.

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