Holy Cross church on Aghtamar island to operate as museum

08.08.2009 12:46 GMT+04:00 Print version Send to mail

/PanARMENIAN.Net/ Holy Cross Armenian church, recently restored in Turkey, operates as a museum, Alexander Sotnichenko, leading analyst of St. Petersburg Center for Middle East Studies, told a PanARMENIAN.Net correspondent. Even if the church has a cross on its cupola, that won’t change anything, the expert finds, because as far as he is aware, there is now the Turkish flag fluttering there.
“Turkey’s actions are maneuvers for both the West and Russia,” Russian analyst said, noting in the meantime that Turkey conducts literate information policy. “Turkey recently invited Russian and foreign journalists to show them ancient Armenian monuments and prove that there was allegedly no conflict between two nations. Besides, I don’t think Turkey will mind if Aghtamar becomes a new tourist center,” Russian expert noted.
Turkey just wants to show that it has respect for the ethnic groups which formerly inhabited on its territory. But despite its “reasonable” political steps, it should perceive the difference between restoring a church and opening a border.
“By normalizing ties with Armenia, Turkey seeks to increase its influence in Caucasus,” Russian analyst said, adding that Baku has fears of Armenian-Turkish ties normalization process.
“Turkish-Azerbaijani relations are no longer as warm as they used to be. In 1990’s, Turkish government had closer ties with Azerbaijan. But now it acts against Azerbaijan’s interests, as it is more interested in normalizing Armenian-Turkish ties.”



from Gibrahayer e-magazine

The story of a Church without a Cross
Turkish restoration of Armenian church leaves no room for apology
By Ian Herbert in Van - 30 March 2007 - Across a blue salt lake on an island surrounded by snow-capped mountains in eastern Turkey, Armenian Christians were invited yesterday to witness how the Turkish nation has restored one of their most holy sites.
       From the bas-relief etched out of red tufa stone, to the frescoes on the high conical roof, most of the ancient treasures were back on view again at the 1,000-year-old Church of the Holy Cross, on the island of Aghtamar in Lake Van, eastern Anatolia. Except for the cross; the same cross which was visible in early sketches of the church and photographed in 1908, just before Armenians were rounded up, never to return, in the city of Van at the beginning of what they describe as their genocide at the hands of the Ottomans.
       The church's restoration had been sold to the world - and specifically to the US, whose House of Representatives is about to consider a resolution labelling the Armenian deaths genocide - as proof that Turkey want to put things right with the Armenians. But, despite the protests of the restoration project's Armenian architect, a cross was ruled out - as is any immediate prospect of this Christian church being consecrated so Armenians might, occasionally at least, pray here again. "The church is reopening as a museum and doesn't need a cross," Yusuf Halacoglu, the head of the Turkish Historical Society, insisted this week. "Around 22,000 Ottoman buildings have had crescents taken off when attacked. Other countries don't give as much attention to that."
       The insensitivity set the tone for yesterday's ceremony which, despite the Turkish posters everywhere declaring Tarihe saygi, kulture saygi ("Respect the history, respect the culture"), was a painful and almost provocative statement of Turkey's national identity. The Armenian architect/bishop Manuel, who started building the church in AD 915, employed Armenian master carvers to create Christian reliefs of Adam and Eve, Noah's flood and David and Goliath. But Turkey has appropriated the holy site in a three-year, $2m (£1m) rebuild and was making no secret of the fact. The Turkish crescent and a giant Ataturk hung from the front of the church where, after a triumphal rendition of the Turkish national anthem, the culture and tourism minister, Atilla Koc, Turkey's most senior government representative, made his address. "We protect the cultural diversity and assets of different cultures," he proclaimed during a speech in which the word "Armenia" was not used once.
       Perhaps it was just as well that only 29 people from Armenia had travelled here - by road, via Georgia, because the Turks would not open the borders to their cars or Van airport to their planes. But those who did make the journey bore witness to the most extraordinary man in the place.
       Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan believes his people were the victims of genocide - he calls it medzegherm(the great slaughter) - and he would like the Turkish government to say "a simple sorry to my people to ease the tensions". But he was prepared to take the Turks' Aghtamar gesture at face value in the hope that Armenians and Turks can live together. "The government ... has courageously completed the restoration project," he said when he clambered to his feet. "It is quite a positive move in Turkish-Armenian relations and I offer my profound thanks." His only request was that the Turks allow the church to become the site of annual pilgrimage, concluding in a Christian ceremony, once a year.
       It remains to be seen whether Turkey's modernising Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan can let that pass. It is an election year and a rising tide of nationalism is being fuelled in large part by the EU's frostiness about Turkish accession. Antagonising those who consider further concessions to the Armenians an "insult to Turkishness" might be politically contentious. It might also explain why Mr Erdogan, a progressive who started the Aghtamar project and has also launched a History Commission to investigate the events of 1915, thought it best not to attend yesterday's ceremony.
      So desperate is Mr Erdogan's government to demonstrate its tolerance of Turkey's 70,000 Armenian minority that it took journalists around the country this week. The trip revealed more than the government might have intended: Armenian schools in Istanbul where only the Turkish version of history - ignoring 1915 - is taught; Armenian priests who need metal detectors at their churches because of the threat of extremists; and, at the newspaper offices of the murdered Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink, a stream of abusive emails from nationalists. (Dink's last article communicated his exasperation at the Turks' initial selection of 24 April - the day when Armenians mark the anniversary of the round-up of intellectuals in 1915 - as the day of the Aghtamar church reopening. That date was later changed.)
       With the Armenian government unwilling to join Mr Erdogan's History Commission, Patriarch Mutafyan invokes the memory of Levon Ter-Petrossian, Armenia's former president, and his search for common ground. Mr Ter-Petrossian wanted a monument on the countries' border with the inscription, in Armenian and Turkish, of the words "I'm sorry". It was never built.
       The Turkish Foreign Ministry said yesterday that a request by Patriarch Mutayfan that the cross be returned to Aghtamar was being referred to the culture ministry. "I'm praying that one day it will be there," another Armenian church leader, George Kazoum, said before the ceremony.
       For now, the Armenians can only take comfort from the crosses which no one can take from them. They were bathed in sunshine yesterday, away from all of the Turkish stage-managed razzmatazz, on gravestones in the Aghtamar churchyard which have stood here through 1,000 years of snow, storms, earthquakes and human carnage.

more Aghtamar photos from BBC







the following is taken from the Worcester T&G for Sunday  March 25, 2007


Restored Armenian church sign of Turkey’s good will

By Christopher Torchia THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Frescoes of saints inside the Akdamar church shown after Turkey completed restorations. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey— An ancient Armenian church, perched on a rocky island in a vast lake, has become a modern symbol of the divisions and fitful efforts at reconciliation between Turks and Armenians whose history of bloodshed drives their troubled relationship.
The Akdamar church, one of the most precious remnants of Armenian culture 1,000 years ago, deteriorated over the last century, a victim of neglect after Turks carried out mass killings of Armenians as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around the time of World War I. Rainwater seeped through the collapsed dome, treasure hunters dug up the basalt floor, and shepherds took potshots with rifles at the facade.
Next week, the church will showcase Turkey’s tentative steps to improving ties with its ethnic Armenian minority, as well as neighboring Armenia. Turkey completed a $1.5 million restoration of the sandstone building, and invited Armenian officials to a ceremony there being held Thursday to mark what Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called a “positive” message.

An Armenian deputy culture minister and other prominent Armenians plan to attend the church’s opening near the city of Van in eastern Turkey. Armenia’s foreign minister welcomed the restoration, but said Turkey mistakenly believed the project would prove that it was dedicated to better ties with its neighbor.
“A positive sign and a move on the part of Turkey ... would be the opening of the border with Armenia and establishment of diplomatic relations,” the news agency Armenpress quoted Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying this week. He said the Armenian delegation could reach the church by land in just a few hours if the border were open, but instead will have to fly to Istanbul, and then take another flight back toward the Armenian border.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara. The move hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia. Turkey also lobbied against a proposed U.S. congressional resolution that would recognize the killings of Armenians in the last century as genocide. Some of Turkey’s 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians say they endure harassment in Turkey, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population.
Hrant Dink, the ethnic Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul in January, was apparently targeted by nationalists for his commentaries on minority rights and free expression.
Patriarch Mesrob II, the spiritual head of the Armenian Orthodox community in Turkey, has asked the government to mount a cross on top of the church, which used to have one, and to allow periodic religious services there.
The government has yet to respond, but placement of a cross could be sensitive for Erdogan, who plans to attend the inauguration ceremony, and his Islamic-rooted government. The symbolism could upset some Muslims, and Turkey’s powerful military might regard it as a concession to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
“It speaks well of the Turkish government that they paid for it and took the initiative to make it happen,” said David Phillips, an advocate of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation who helped gather international restoration experts and architects for the church project. But he noted that Turkey views the site as a museum rather than a place of worship.
“It runs the risk of being viewed as an antiquity, instead of a living symbol of Armenian culture and spiritual life,” said Phillips, executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity in New York.
Relief carvings on the outer walls of the Akdamar church depict Jesus Christ, barefoot and bearded, holding the book of Gospels; a sea creature devouring Jonah as he is tossed from a ship; David with a slingshot facing Goliath.
“Akdamar is an extroverted church,” said Zakarya Mildanoglu, an ethnic Armenian architect who helped restore it. “It doesn’t hide its face.”