The Insult at Akhtamar

Sourp Khatch (Holy Cross) Church on Akhtamar Island in Van, 2013 (Photo: Dr. Khatchig Mouradian)

It was built in the early tenth century by the architect Bishop Manuel during the reign of King Gagik between 915 and 921. The Holy Cross Cathedral on the island of Akhtamar on Lake Van is considered a jewel of traditional Armenian church architecture. Later in the tenth century, it was the seat of the Catholicos of Armenians. This icon has stood proudly in the heart of the Armenian Highlands for centuries (including the Ottoman period) providing its people a beacon of hope and anchoring their historic presence on this sacred land. In 1915, the world stopped in this region and all of western Armenia. The Armenians of Van, despite their valiant resistance,  were murdered or forced to leave their homeland and retreat east or seek a new life outside of the Highlands. Tears of anguish stained the holy walls of the cathedral as the last Badarak was offered in the summer of 1915, and the period of abuse began. To this day, cultural genocide of Armenians continues as the land remains occupied. Monuments are in decay, and the voices of the truth are silenced.

Over the years, the church was subject to neglect and destruction as sections of the complex were lost. At one point, it was slated for demolition, but local intervention prevented that tragedy. In 2005, the Turkish government, sensing political and financial advantages, decided to allocate funds for a “restoration.” The work was controversial as a limited number of Armenian experts participated in a cathedral noted for its brilliant relief work on the exterior and exquisite artwork in the interior. The cathedral opened as a secular museum in 2007 with mixed reviews from the Armenian community. Always adept at dividing the Armenians to protect their interests, the Turks gained the support of some who felt the work was an improvement over decay. Others protested the manipulation as the cathedral renovation did not include a cross on the dome and was marketed as a museum. To add insult to injury, press statements and public documentation hardly mentioned any connection to Armenians and focused on the renovation as a reflection of Turkey’s commitment to the cultures of Anatolia. How pitiful that they claim this as an act of benevolence for a culture that they criminally attempted to extinguish! 

Despite the setbacks, then Patriarch Mesrob II attended the opening in 2007. Others refused to attend. He immediately petitioned the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for the installation of a cross on the cathedral and for the right to celebrate Badarak in the sanctuary. Initially, both requests were denied or delayed. The Turkish government responded that the reason for the absence of a cross was a structural concern, not religious. At that time, there were discussions by several members of Congress on the confiscation and protection of Armenian churches in Turkey. This dialogue eventually led to a non-binding resolution on the “return of churches.” It is clear that Turkey moderates the hold of oppression when they see an opportunity of self interest. Allowing the cross and an “annual” Badarak was sold as another benevolent action of a tolerant protector of history. Since 2010, a Badarak has been held in the cathedral in September and attended by Armenians from Armenia, Turkey and elsewhere. A final example of Turkish duplicity is the naming of the cathedral site as the “Akhtamar Museum,” which is the Turkish word meaning “white vein” versus the historic name of the island and Armenian Akhtamar. This distortion was written about extensively in the Turkish media by enlightened journalists before Erdogan clamped down on the free media. The church was opened with huge Turkish flags and pictures of Kemal Ataturk, the man responsible for the western front against the First Republic and massacres in Cilicia. Some brave columnists tied the naming and public displays to a broader program of the Turkification of what remains in the western highlands. Our own Hrant Dink wrote about this issue in Agos at the time of his murder.

There is no question that the motivation of the Turkish government is political and public relations intentional while controlling the actual purpose of the edifice. We are all too familiar with the denial obsession and continued discrimination of Turkey over the years. Not surprisingly, the division or ambivalence of Armenians have made their job easier. When the controversy began, there were academics and politicians who saw this as a positive gesture by Turkey despite the distortions and lack of transparency. The most significant support was ironically offered by the Patriarchate in Istanbul. Tragically, Mesrob II was unable to see the results of the issues he petitioned for – a cross was placed on the dome in 2010 – as he took ill and was unable to perform his duties after the summer of 2008. Archbishop Aram Ateshian was elected vicar and then Locum Tenens to manage the affairs of the Patriarchate until a new election could be managed. His tenure proved to be very divisive and disruptive as power and influence prevailed over the best interests of the church. Divisions on how to proceed were on full display leading to a series of delays, reversals and government intervention. Archbishop Aram was generally viewed as a divisive figure of the community and worked diligently to please the Turkish government and retain power. He issued a notorious pro-Turkish statement on the Genocide during the centennial and when the German parliament issued its recognition statement. His subordinate mentality continued with Akhtamar as no effort was initiated to correct the distortions and lack of religious freedom. The election of a new Patriarch eventually took place in 2019 and concluded with the election of Sahag II Mashalian. He has continued the divisive pro-Turkish policy with a counterproductive statement after President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide. He referred to the recognition as “using the 1915 incidents for politics saddens Armenians.” Incidents? Really! A senior Armenian clergyman refers to attempted annihilation of his people as an “incident.” This is how Armenians are represented in Turkey. The insult of Akhtamar is our responsibility also. If we can’t tell the truth to ourselves and the world, what right do we have to lament our current state?

Our leaders must never subordinate themselves to the truth.

There is an alternative approach. Start with the unedited truth. Our leaders must never subordinate themselves to the truth. The esteemed publisher and columnist Harut Sassounian had some simple advice for Mashalian: stop volunteering embarrassing statements that undermine the community and simply say nothing if the political pressure is too intense. The assumption here is that most of the pro-Turkish statements by Ateshian and Mashalian are motivated by attempting to get in the good graces of the latest “pashas.” It is outrageous to make statements that are not in the interests of Armenians in order to gain favor with a government that oppresses our rights. This sounds like a replay of the years before the Genocide when Armenian officials were caught up in the pseudo-euphoria of the post-1908 period…only to be eventually betrayed. 

I understand and acknowledge the incredible strain that common Armenians feel in Turkey. Hidden Armenians in the provinces fear for their lives to reveal their identity. Armenians in Istanbul walk a fine line between tolerance and overt discrimination. I respect the reluctance of our common brethren. We should have higher expectations of our leadership. They have a responsibility to our history, to our sacrifices and to the truth. I call it the Garo Paylan model of courage and humility. He doesn’t have an institution like the Patriarchate to shield him. He is a lone representative of our people in a den of duplicity. This man defines integrity and commitment. This is the alternative to the duplicitous behavior that plagues the one official institution the Turks must deal with…our church. Has Mashalian petitioned for a return of the “Akhtamar Museum” to expand its religious calendar, or has the property returned to the Patriarchate? Will he speak on the desecration of Armenian churches that has been reported lately? Will he attempt to leverage the UNESCO submission of Turkey on Armenian sites (Ani) to ensure the historical accuracy of the work and not the despicable tourist railroad that Turkey is conducting? Will he use his office to assist scholars and artists who are working to save what remains in the highlands? This position demands the courage to do what is right, not to act as another tame subordinated Armenian. The sacrifice of our martyrs and the future aspirations of our people demand this commitment.

The Turks are in full manipulation mode with Akhtamar. They behave publicly as the grantor of grand gestures of tolerance and privately do everything to remove the legacy of our people. The Holy Cross Cathedral stands proudly as a survivor. Today, the second class Armenians are granted one Badarak a year and the worshipers are imported. The indigenous population was removed and those hidden live in fear. Does the Patriarch have the will to discuss what happened to the parishioners of Holy Cross? I think Paylan has and continues to raise the “inconvenient truths.” In this way, he is doing more for Turkish society than they will ever acknowledge. In the absence of colluding with the government, what does the Patriarchate fear? Our people are discriminated against. Our institutions are under duress. Our people have been divided, and our monuments are at risk. As the old saying goes, “Other than that, things are great.” Showing up once a year at Holy Cross on the command of the pashas is meek and uninspiring. It reflects the continuation of Turkish meddling in the religious affairs of a minority…a right supposedly guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne. The Turks manipulated the election by preventing any candidates from Armenia (although any celibate clergyman born in Turkey is eligible) thus allowing only two pro-Turkish candidates (Ateshian and Mashalian). A divided community, manipulated by its leadership, was too weak to mount a legitimate challenge to this oppression. It is time for Armenians to stop accepting the crumbs offered by the Turkish masters. We need to stand for the truth with courage and integrity. Anything less dishonors our past and threatens our future.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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2 Comments

  1. I personally experienced this fact, while on my first visit to Western Armenia in 1995 we chanted the Hayr Mer and Der Voghormia in every church we went into, that privilege was denied to us in 2007. As we started chanting a man came and told us that it wasn’t permitted since – this is not a church it’s a museum – he told us.

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