By Amberin Zaman
Special to the Los Angeles Times
AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey — Perched atop this island in Lake Van, the red stone church of Akdamar is prized by Armenians the world over as one of the finest surviving monuments of their ancient civilization.
After withstanding more than a millennium of desecration, looting and war, however, one of the holiest sites of the Armenian Orthodox Church is facing ruin.
Rainwater seeping through cracks in the dome is washing away biblical frescoes that adorn the interior. And as dirt and moss build up inside the cracks and force them open, the dome could collapse at any time, according to Mete Tozkoparan, an archeologist here in remote Van province in eastern Turkey.
“We must start restoration work immediately if the church is to be saved,” he said.
As a government official in this predominantly Muslim nation and director of the state museum in Van, Tozkoparan is not permitted to comment on why the work has not begun, he said.
But Huseyin Celik, the minister of culture and a member of the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, does not mince words: “What we are up against is an undeclared policy by certain narrow-minded individuals within the state of discrimination against Armenian monuments in Turkey.”
Victims of that alleged policy include a cathedral in Ani, near Turkey’s border with Armenia. Authorities have rejected funding from Western governments for the structure’s restoration, saying they will carry out the work themselves.
“The fear of these policymakers is that if Christian sites are restored, this will prove that Armenians once lived here and revive Armenian claims on our land,” Celik said during a recent interview in Van. Restoring the church on Akdamar, he said, will be a priority for the new government formed by his party, which won a majority of seats in parliament during the Nov. 3 election.
Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians remain bitterly divided over allegations that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians were massacred in eastern Turkey during and after World War I. Turkey denies charges of genocide. Its officials insist that Armenians took up arms alongside invading Russian forces during the war and that most of the victims died of starvation and exposure while fleeing the combat.
The “genocide section” at the Van museum features a grotesque collection of skulls and bones, the remains of people allegedly slaughtered by Armenians. The display is intended as evidence that thousands of Turks also perished in the fighting.
In recent years, with quiet U.S. encouragement, officials, journalists and businesspeople from Turkey and Armenia have been holding low-profile meetings to explore ways to overcome the dispute and pave the way for diplomatic and trade ties between their countries.
Progress has been slow. Yet a steady trickle of ethnic Armenians, including members of the diaspora, has begun to visit Turkey to rediscover roots and visit holy sites. For many, a highlight is the 20-minute boat ride to Akdamar Island, which lends its name to the church and to a fine Armenian cognac.
The name is explained by a popular legend. A nobleman who fell in love with a princess named Tamar would swim to the island for nocturnal trysts. One stormy night he drowned in the choppy waters, uttering a guttural “ach” and her name. Upon news of his death, the princess died of a broken heart. The island has been called Ach Tamar — or Akdamar — ever since.
The church was built in the 10th century by Armenian King Gagik I and is said to have once served as the ecumenical seat of the Armenian patriarch. Built in Armenian style, with a conical dome, the church is unique on account of the ornate relief work — a zoo of birds, snakes and lions intermingled with angels, saints and warriors — that decorates its facade.
According to Tozkoparan, shepherds would use the figures for target practice. In January, visiting museum officials intercepted looters seeking gold and other treasures falsely rumored to be buried at the site.
The Van museum is responsible for maintaining the structure but lacks the funds to do so. Yet when the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce offered, before the current government took office, to finance a $2 million restoration plan, the federal Culture Ministry turned it down, citing “technical shortcomings.”
The real reason was that some of the funds were believed to have come from Armenian sources, said an archeologist familiar with the project who declined to be identified. Undaunted, the Istanbul group recently submitted a revised plan. The ministry says it will make a decision by year’s end.
Hrant Dink, editor of Agos, a small Armenian-language weekly published in Istanbul, said Turkish authorities “know very well how much the restoration of such monuments could boost tourism revenue, yet their paranoia always seems to be stronger than their common sense.”
“All this nonsense will soon end,” pledged Celik, the culture minister. “If we Turks expect tolerance in the West, then we should extend the same tolerance at home.”