Sassounian: Strangely, Turkey Did Not Publicize Correcting Signpost of Armenian Church

I just learned that the Turkish government has quietly corrected the signpost near the historic Holy Cross Church (Sourp Khach) on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, by indicating its “Armenian” origin.

For decades, Turkish authorities systematically concealed the true identity of thousands of Armenian churches and monuments so no one would remember that Armenians lived for thousands of years in lands presently occupied by the Republic of Turkey. By not disclosing the traces of Armenian civilization, Turkish officials calculated that there would be no need to explain the disappearance of Armenians—another manifestation of Turkish denialism.

Back in 2007, the Turkish government held an elaborate opening ceremony after renovating the 10th Century Holy Cross Church. While some Armenians naively participated in this Turkish propaganda exercise, I wrote several critical editorials pointing out that Turkish officials did not permit Armenian church services (except once a year), and refused to allow a cross displayed on its dome. Instead, the Sourp Khach Church was officially designated as a museum and placed under the administration of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and not under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul. Since then, a cross has been placed on the Church dome.

One issue that I failed to mention back in 2007 was the inscription on the signpost leading to the Church. The original signpost made no reference to Armenians either in English or in Turkish. Below is the heading and first words of the previous inscription, written in English:


“Akdamar Island & Monumental Museum. Fee 5 TL [Turkish Liras]. Akdamar Island and Church. Akdamar Church was built by the monks of architects Manuel between 915-921 by the order of Vaspurakan King Gagik I….”

Last week, during a chance encounter in a Glendale Armenian bookstore, Senem Cevik, Assistant Professor at Ankara University, showed me two different photos of the Holy Cross Church signpost. The first, taken by her a year ago, showed the foregoing inscription. The second, taken by one of her colleagues last month, displayed the new inscription that refers to the building as an Armenian Church:

“Akhdamar Armenian Church of the Holy Cross. The Church was built by monk/architect Manuel between 915 and 921, by the order of Gagik I, King of Vaspurakan. Built at the form of a four-leaf clover and under the plan of a cruciform, the church was covered by a dome from inside and by a pyramidal cone from outside. The church has two gates, one at the southern and another at the western side. During subsequent periods, the Chapel of Zacharias I, a jamatun and a bell tower were added to the church and the Chapel of Saint Stephanos was built separately. Built in the name of the Holy Cross, the church has been transformed into a monastery in 1131. On the stone reliefs of the façade of the church, religious scenes taken from the Old and New Testament, palace life, hunting scenes as well as human and animal figures are depicted. These depictions are important as they distinguish the church from similar ones. There are various wall paintings representing descriptions taken from the Bible on the inner side of the church’s walls.”

This new inscription clearly designates Holy Cross, both in English and Turkish, as an Armenian Church. However, there is still a problem. While the church’s name is correctly written in English as Akhtamar, in the Turkish language inscription it is referred to by its Turkified name, Akdamar.

I can only speculate as to why the Turkish government did not make a public announcement regarding the revised inscription of the Sourp Khach Church signpost. Here are some possible reasons:

—Oversight by low-level Turkish officials who did not realize the P.R. value of publicizing the change.

—Reluctance of high-ranking officials to draw attention to the change, fearing that they would appear ridiculous taking credit for something so obvious that should have been done a long time ago.

—Concerns by Turkish officials that making public the revised text would impress the outside world, while triggering criticism at home for catering to Armenians.

—Preoccupation of newly-elected Turkish leaders with other urgent matters. They may yet make an announcement at a later date.

It is equally puzzling that no one on the Armenian side, including the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, has made any mention of the revised inscription reflecting the Armenian origin of Holy Cross Church.

One hopes that this single rectification of the Akhtamar Church signpost would be a prelude to similar recognition of Armenian cultural heritage in museums, churches, and monuments all across Turkey, including the City of Ani.


Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


  1. i was in Van this past Friday the 24th and visited Akhtamar. there was no mention of Armenian at that time. the remainder of the text is the same. so… either they changed it back or it never was changed and misinformation has been passed on. also visited Ani on Sunday the 26th where the signs are even a worse abomination of the truth.

    • thanks for the input. We should have Armenians visiting Akhtamar post pictures of the sign with the date it they were taken. Some crowdsourced validation would be a good thing to do.

  2. It’s progress but only a drop in the bucket. They need to correct all those Turkish tourism books and information showing Armenian churches with the notation underneath: “Early Christian church – origins unknown.”

  3. In the same vein, historians, anthropologists and other academicians as well as those who write about “ancient Turkey,” must be both educated and reminded that the “ancient” relics, “ancient” art work, “ancient” churches and findings from “digs dated to an “ancient” civilization and culture are artifacts of Armenian civilization that was highly developed and should so be noted when reference is made of “ancient” Turkey. However, in reading such articles, especially in the National Geography, I am astonish that highly “educated” researchers, rarely if ever, make mention, acknowledge or give recognition to the historical fact that when they reference an “Ancient” civilization in what is modern Turkey they are talking about Armenia and what belongs to the Armenian people and not to Turkey.

  4. It is sickening to see the disingenuous Turkish leaders play politics with our houses of worship under their illegal occupation. The fact that this sacred Monastery of such historic significance was left to crumble and decompose for centuries and only renovated and saved by desperate and relentless Armenian intervention and through foreign pressure, and most likely by financial donations from Armenians abroad, and the fact that after all these painstaking efforts the Monastery can only be used once a year for religious congregation under Turkish demands and dictatorship, and also the fact that for 364 days out of the year this place of worship is being used as a tourist site to fatten the Turkish treasury, should tell you all about how these corrupt and opportunist Turkish leaders are using the Armenian issues to portray a “benevolent” Turkish image abroad by falsely presenting themselves as progressive and benevolent leaders.

    I would like to see how the Turks in their European ghettos would react if they were told their mosques can not have minarets and loud speakers to broadcast their so-called namaz because it is irritating and disruptive to the local non-Turkish population and businesses. Better yet, that they can only pray in their mosques at the beginning and the end of Ramadan, as dictated by the state, and that for the rest of the year the mosques will be closed and used as parking lots to help the city or town with shortages of parking places and in the process help the local government with some additional revenue.

    The Armenians must never trust the Turkish leaders because when they do something seemingly good for the Armenians, rest-assured they are up to something evil. These Armenian sacred places of worship and other historical sites will truly be free when they are liberated and under the control of the republic of Armenia.

  5. did a bit of reading on Senim Cevik and she is a denialist in sheep’s clothing; being a polite and diplomatic one makes her more of a threat. what concerns me is how this alluded Sassounian when he decided to use her as a source; moreover if such a photo of the sign existed why was it not included with the article rather than being merely quoted.

    here is the abstract from Cevik’s article “The Armenian Diaspora and the Need for the “Other”.

    “The Armenian diaspora is one of the most dispersed communities in the world. Contrary to the dispersed population the Armenian diaspora continues to thrive as a strong ethnic identity. This could be linked to the presence of an enemy “Turk” image in which all bad
    images are projected. This is due to the need to have “enemies” for sustaining the identity and in-group cohesion. In the context of the Armenian diaspora the concept of “other” has become a reason for existence that legitimizes the victim identity rather than a simple
    need. The collective memory that is created by the need for an enemy and “other” is then intergenerationally transmitted while evolving to a different story. Youth, who are raised with feelings of enmity can pose a threat for the future of the Turkish-Armenian relations.”
    to Dorothy and RVDV – Turkey/Turks are not capable of progress whether they be small steps or outright recognition of the Genocide. we should not expect them to do so and when it appears as if they have done something beneficial it is almost without doubt a cover-up to fool naive Armenians as they have for centuries.

    • The concept of the “other” and “enemy” has been used to describe Turkey and the psychological issues it has with its history. It’s a real phenomenon as we all know. And Senim Cevik is trying to discredit Armenians as a hate filled group, by projecting it back at us. It’s a cheap attempt and very easy to pick apart. By portraying Armenians as hate filled and irrational she’s trying to kill the message (Armenian Genocide) by killing the messenger.

      Frankly, Turkey has earned its image she’s complaining about. How could there not be feelings of enmity when the Armenian presence on its homeland was utterly destroyed, and then covered up by the successor government of the Turkish Republic.

      Note: I have not read Cevik’s article and I’m inferring things from what koko has quoted here.

    • There is also another aspect to what Senim Cevik and other Turks are doing with such articles. They’re hitting back at us because 1915 stings and they feel the shame. It’s about their own identity and connection to bloody chapters in Turkish history. This is their way of coping with it, by trying to find something negative about us and use it to explain things away, or numb the sting and shame they are internalizing.

      That’s my armchair psychology contribution :)

  6. Yote titegh Teghin voski …chenk havadar turkin khoski’.. ” One day we could forgive turkey for the Armenian genocide..not by us begging down on our knees…but only when turkey gets down on her knees & begs for forgiveness ” Garegin Njdeh

  7. Koko,
    Her name is Senem, not Senim. Her views on the Genocide is not the issue here. Of course I disagree with her analysis on the Genocide and I have told her so.
    For the purposes of this article, she gave me the photo of the new signpost that clearly shows the description of Holy Cross as an Armenian Church. I don’t what is there not to believe. If you don’t believe me, send me your email address and I will forward to you the photo. I could also give the photo to the Armenian Weekly to publish it. The only reason why the photo did not accompany the article is that my weekly columns are editorials published in my newspaper, The California Courier, and editorials never have photos. They are not news items.

  8. Harout, the spelling is my typo but clearly was referring to the same person. since i happened to be there just 8 days ago and the word “Armenian” was NOT on the signpost in question it made me question the accuracy. as far as the Genocide being the issue, it is always the issue when we are dealing with Turkey and its denialist regime. i do not doubt that you misled anyone intentionally but seeing the mindset of the source (Senem Cevik) gave rise to the authenticity of her claim. with the enemy becoming even more savvy than they have been in the past one can’t help but be suspicious. sebastaci Murad’s quote above sums it up. unfortunately, i do not have a photograph but i know what i saw along with 4 family members. we even had a discussion as to how curious it was that everything (architect, bible, Vaspurakan etc.) were mentioned but not the word “Armenian”. for what it is worth to you or my fellow readers what i saw with my eyes trumps that of anything a denialist says or shows. OR, as i stated in my first comment, “Armenian” was added a month ago and then was removed sometime before October 24th – which is when i saw it. my email is [email protected]

    • {“for what it is worth to you or my fellow readers what i saw with my eyes trumps that of anything a denialist says or shows”}

      Sorry friend, what you saw with your own eyes does not trump what Mr. Sassounian writes: he says he has a picture of the sign containing the word ‘Armenian’.
      He has offered to forward the evidence to AW.
      So he must have it.

      I do _not_ doubt that what you say you saw is what you saw.
      But eyewitness testimony does not trump hard photographic evidence.

      The only way to resolve this it to compare before and after pictures side-by-side: was ‘Armenian’ erased ? Was the entire sign changed, missing ‘Armenian’ ?
      Do you have a picture of what you saw ?

      It is quite possible that some local bureaucrat put in ‘Armenian’, and later got overruled by the AKP Neo-Nazis in Ankara, and the sign was changed again. Who knows.
      I remember some Kurdish mayor put up the name of his town on a highway sign in three languages a few months ago: Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian.
      I believe the signs were later removed (not 100% sure though).

    • It’s completely possible to that the sign has been changed. Photographs are a only split second snapshot in time after all.

      There must be people who visited Akhtamar with pictures of that sign over the course of the past year. Maybe we can have a public call for such pictures to be put online and see if we can piece together what the sign said over time. Armenian Weekly and other online Armenian sites with a large audience could do this.

  9. Avery, before you condescendingly respond to my comment, read what i wrote carefully and in its entirety.

    #1) i did not say what i saw trumps what Sassounian writes, what i said was that it trumps what a denialist says or shows.
    #2) the last sentence in my previous comment clearly states that it may have been added and removed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.