The island of Aghtamar in Lake Van in eastern Turkey was the center of the Armenian kingdom in the 8th and 9th centuries. The island, surrounded by city walls, has been home to the Aghtamar Church, built between 915 and 921. One of the most magnificent buildings in Mesopotamia, the Aghtamar Church, is located about 45 kilometers from the city of Van. It was the seat of the Catholicosate of Aghtamar, one of the highest-ranking religious positions for Armenians in Van. It was established as an independent see in the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1113 by the Artsrunis dynasty of the Kingdom of Vaspurakan, which reigned until the arrival of the Turks in the 16th century. Its last Catholicos, Khacadur II, was killed in 1895 during the massacres in the Armenian Highlands. The office remained, albeit vacant, until the Armenian genocide and was formally abolished in 1916 by the Ottoman state (Kevorkian & Paboudjian, 2012).
The church is considered to be one of the most important examples of Medieval Armenian architecture. The cathedral – alongside a nearby Armenian community- existed for centuries without encountering any serious obstacles until the beginning of the 20th century. Its fate, however, changed right before World War I when the local tribes attacked the Armenian community. During the Armenian genocide, which started in 1915, an estimated 1 million Armenians lost their lives. The priests of Aghtamar Church were also killed in these massacres. Hence, in addition to its historical and religious significance, the church was engraved in the collective memory of the Armenians as a site of a massacre. Like other Armenian properties, historical artifacts, and buildings, Aghtamar Cathedral was also looted after 1915. Following the massacre and forced displacement of the Armenians, the destruction of their culture in Anatolia went on for decades to come. Although Turkey transitioned to a multi-party system in 1950 (considered as an important milestone in the democratization of Turkey), state policies toward non-Muslims did not change. A decision taken by the Turkish government in 1951 allowed the destruction of historical artifacts left behind by the non-Muslim communities. Thanks to the efforts of the famous writer Yaşar Kemal (1923-2015), who was a journalist at the time, the Aghtamar Church was removed from the list of monuments that were to be demolished. In the following decades, the church remained abandoned as it lacked an Armenian congregation, making it vulnerable to the vandalization of various groups, including “treasure hunters.” The Armenian genocide is not recognized by the government of Turkey, but some people, including leftists and intellectuals, memorialize the event on April 24 every year to honor the Armenians who were killed or deported.
During the 1990s, some media outlets published stories about how Aghtamar Church was about to collapse. They claimed that necessary steps to restore it were about to be taken. However, these promises were not kept for either Aghtamar or other structures representing the Armenian cultural heritage. In fact, a nightclub was built next to Aghtamar and remained operational until the intervention of the World Council of Churches in 1992.
At long last, in 2002, a campaign called “Project to Save Aghtamar” was launched thanks to the efforts of civil society activists and writers. The campaign collected tens of thousands of signatures for a petition drawing attention to the church’s desolated condition and preventing its collapse. The signatures were presented to the Turkish Embassy in France, where a large Armenian diaspora lives. As a result of these efforts, the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce announced that it could take the initiative to protect the church and pledged $1 million to restore it.
Relations between Turkey and Armenia could not be built upon strong political and economic foundations because of Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it adopted a new foreign policy called “zero problems with neighbors.” In line with this policy, Turkey-Armenia relations were re-examined, and diplomatic deliberation between the two countries ensued. The restoration of Aghtamar Church was considered one of the steps toward improving the ties between the two sides. The restoration process began in 2006 and was completed on March 29, 2007. Among those attending the opening ceremony of the newly restored church were the Armenian culture minister, the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, and representatives from 30 countries, in addition to Turkish government ministers. A protocol was signed in 2009 to normalize the relations between Turkey and Armenia, but many of the decisions reached could not come to fruition. Despite the strained relationship, the first church service was held at the church on September 19, 2010.
Kevorkian, R. & Paboudjian, P. (2012). 1915 Öncesinde Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Ermeniler. (Armenians in the Ottoman Empire Before 1915), tr. By, Çev. Mayda Saris. Aras Yayıncılık.
Looking from the perspective of the Turkish state, the primary aim of the project was to take a step to improve relations with Armenia. In addition to sharing the same purpose with Turkey, Armenia aimed to protect the Armenian cultural heritage. Yet the restoration process of a desolated Armenian church has meaning beyond a simple diplomatic tool. Particularly for the Armenian communities in the diaspora and Turkey, this project implies a certain degree of normalization, a recognition of their history, and a chance to pray in the lands from which their ancestors were exiled. For them, it also implies recognizing their historical existence by the state of Turkey.
When considering a memorialization project including Armenians, it is essential to remember a few important points. One of these has to do with the Turkish state's concentrated efforts to erase the history and memory of Armenians from this land. In this context, this project is a rare positive step. The presence of both Armenian and Turkish senior officials at the opening ceremony suggested the possibility of improving relations between the two countries. At the same time, Armenians who participated in the first religious ceremony on September 19, 2010, arrived in Turkey under conditions where their identity and history were recognized to a certain degree. A local newspaper in Van initiated a campaign to host Armenians returning to their native city years later for the opening ceremony. A total of 2,000 families volunteered to host the guests. This project, aside from what happened at the official and diplomatic levels, is also important for initiating dialogue between Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish societies.
Although a new project to complete the restoration started in 2013 with funds of 1.2 million lira, this does not mean that all the problems have been solved. The most serious issue is the decision by the Ministry of Culture, taken in December 2009, that the church is only open for worship one day a year. Another challenge is the ministry considers the building a museum rather than a religious monument, implying that Aghtamar Church is not officially recognized as a church. Armenians are uncomfortable with the notion that its status is a matter of negotiation. In addition to all these, the insistence of the Turkish government to call the church Akdamar, instead of its Armenian name Aghtamar, is problematic. Finally, the actions by racist political parties in Turkey against the recognition of the historical existence of Armenians are another factor making memorialization efforts difficult. In protest of the first religious ceremony at Aghtamar, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party led Muslims in the city of Kars, north of Van, in prayer. The denial of the Armenian genocide is a foundational policy of the state of Turkey, so the fate of Aghtamar Church is intertwined with this reflex. The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 led to increased political pressure on Armenians in Turkey, heightening anxiety among the Armenian community it could be targeted. Photographs of a man performing the call to prayer in Aghtamar Church were widely published by the media. Such actions aim to deter both the Turkish government and civil society from memorialization work and Armenians from asking for their collective rights.