Dual Survival: Man and Church in the Lake Van Region of Historic Armenia

Story and photos by Mathhew Karanian
(Special to the Armenian Weekly)

If you’ve ever watched a reality survival show on television—one of those shows were a couple of adventurers get dropped off in a desert with instructions to survive long enough to make it back home—then you might be able to conjure up an image of me hiking in Historic Armenia.

I was on the shore of Lake Van, researching and photographing the Armenian churches of the region.

My goal for this day was modest: hike to the ancient Armenian monastery of St. Thomas, a monastery that looks older than the treeless mountain that it’s perched upon. Survival was the last thing on my mind.

But my priority for the day changed when I was about mid-way through the 90-minute trek to the top.

The 10th to 11th century Armenian Monastery of St. Thomas rests on a hilltop above the southeast shore of Lake Van. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
The 10th to 11th century Armenian Monastery of St. Thomas rests on a hilltop above the southeast shore of Lake Van. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

This was roughly about the same time that my supply of water ran out. Remember, survival had been the last thing on my mind. So, of course I hadn’t carried any water.

The mid-day temperature was pushing closer to 100 degrees, and I had begun to reminisce about better times—like the time, earlier that day, when the mercury hadn’t yet risen above 90.

The mid-day temperature was pushing closer to 100 degrees, and I had begun to reminisce about better times—like the time, earlier that day, when the mercury hadn’t yet risen above 90. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
The mid-day temperature was pushing closer to 100 degrees, and I had begun to reminisce about better times—like the time, earlier that day, when the mercury hadn’t yet risen above 90. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

I still wanted to see the church.

But now that the risks of dehydration and heat stroke had been added to my itinerary, my priority was to make it back down the mountain. I wanted it all! I wanted to see the church, and I also wanted to survive.

I was hiking with Khatchig Mouradian, the Editor of the Armenian Weekly. He and I had the same goals. Better yet, he also had some water. He offered me half of what remained in his bottle. We were brothers in arms, and would share our water supply, 50-50. I reached for the bottle. It contained about two ounces of warm water.

I was incredulous. “Really, Khatchig, I can only have one ounce?”

Yes, he replied. “We will need the rest to survive.”

I took a drink, and we continued our ascent.

There were no trees to shelter us from the sun as we scrambled up the mountain, but every two or three hundred feet there was some dwarf scrub that cast just enough shade to offer a bit of relief from the heat. We dashed from brush to brush, like soldiers in battle, until we had reached the monastic walls of St. Thomas.

We dashed from brush to brush, like soldiers in battle, until we had reached the monastic walls of St. Thomas. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
We dashed from brush to brush, like soldiers in battle, until we had reached the monastic walls of St. Thomas. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

We discovered that the survival of the church was also at risk.

A Remote Treasure

The buildings of St. Thomas were constructed in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and are stoically sited on a mountaintop overlooking the southeast shore of Lake Van. The main surviving building, the cathedral, is about one thousand years old.

The current peril to the structure is caused, at least in part, by local people who are acting upon a long-discredited myth. Some of the Kurds who now live in Historic Armenia believe, incorrectly, that there is buried treasure at Armenian churches.

And so some of these treasure seekers dig for gold and jewels wherever they see the ruins of an Armenian site. Judging from what I observed at St Thomas last month, some people appear to have believed that there was treasure hidden in the ground beneath this church, too.

We saw holes dug in the earth near the foundation, at the entrance, and in the church yard. These excavations have undermined the foundation of St. Thomas, and similar burrowing undermines other churches, such as the nearby Karmravank, where treasure hunters have also sought supposedly long lost gold.

The ruins of Karmravank, on the southeast shore of Lake Van, a short distance from the Monastery of St. Thomas. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)
The ruins of Karmravank, on the southeast shore of Lake Van, a short distance from the Monastery of St. Thomas. (Photo by Matthew Karanian)

According to the discredited myth, Armenians buried gold and other valuables beneath the altars and near the points of entry to their churches. Ask a Kurdish villager if the Armenians supposedly did this while fleeing during the Genocide, or whether they buried their gold as a matter of routine in the years before the Genocide, and they are apt to just shrug their shoulders.

The odds of buying a winning lottery ticket are better than the odds of finding buried treasure at an Armenian church, because the odds of finding the buried treasure are zero. There’s no treasure. But people still buy lotto and they still dig for treasure.

Even if the legend was true, which it isn’t, any treasure would surely have been dug up many years ago. Still, logic and truth have not deterred treasure hunters, even now, a century after the Armenians were expelled from this area.

As a result, the only treasures that really exist in places such as St. Thomas and at nearby Karmravank—the sacred structures themselves—are at risk of being destroyed.

We made it safely back down the mountainside, and found plenty of shade and water. We lived to share the story of yet another ancient Armenian site that may not survive.

 

Matthew Karanian is an author and attorney, and he practices law in Pasadena, Calif.  He has spent several years working in Armenia as both law professor and Associate Dean at the American University of Armenia. His latest book is ‘Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide. He is currently working on a new book about Historic Armenia that will be published in 2015. Book details at www.ArmeniaTravelGuide.com and at www.Amazon.com 

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 www.historicarmeniabook.com

9 Comments

  1. What a sad commentary on the extreme poverty of the Kurds under Turkey and their lack of respect for the human heritage of ancient Armenia. The Turkish government has a responsibility to the world community to protect these historic sites.

  2. In response to rkeeler…How about asking the Armenian government to do the same with the historical mosques there! At least in Turkey, there are still Armenian churches standing, with one in Van having been completely restored! In Armenia, they bull-dozed down one of the last two that were left while celebrating all the while! There remains only one intact mosque in all of Armenia!! Because they’re Christian, no one questions them!

    • On the contrary no one questions Muslims because that is considered “islamophobia”. Armenia was never Turkish land, modern eastern Turkey was on the other hand Armenian land. Did you forget where you came from?? A clue: 1000 years only.

  3. Mr. Karanian is dead right .the Treasures -for us-are those churhces and monasteries-as yet- there.Int´l instances such as U.N should be alerted by our Church Leaders in N.Y. and elsewhere to take notice and suggesto to great Turkey,it is time for Repairs…restorations,as begun in Bolis(istanbulla) and Dikrankert area (Diarbakira!!!!

  4. Would anyone kindly have any information about a village on the shores of Lake Van called Alyur (Turkish name is Ozyurt)where my grand-parents were from, been trying every resource without any success.
    Thanks

  5. I know about Artamed(famous for its apples).Sorry don´t know about Alyur…keep searching on various sitges.Armenpedia Wiki pedia etc.,

  6. If you travel around the Armenian plateau, from Malatya to Sepastia to Bitlis to Van to Erzerum to Diyarbakir, and other places in the region, you will see many ruins just like these on mountains and hilltops. Almost all are virtually inaccessible, but like the pyramids and ancient Urartian ‘perts’, they stand as silent sentinels that attest to Armenian architectural prowess that is many thousands of years old. They also show us (and the Turks), very clearly who built all the Seljuk monuments that dot the same area, with both Armenian structural elements and decoration, albeit with a slight Islamic twist. The lesson, I think is that even though the Turks tried to eliminate the Armenians, they really can’t take the ‘Armenian-ness’ out of Turkey….it is permanent, as Armenians are the essence of the place – predating Turks by many thousands of years! Like fingerprints, Armenian monuments will remain – hopefully, forever.

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