The main attraction near Van is the Armenian island church of Akdamar, but nearby St Thomas and the splendidly isolated church on the island of Çarpanak are almost equally worthwhile. The ancient Urartian settlements at Çavuştepe to the south and Ayanıs to the north also make excellent day-trips from Van. In the rocky foothills to the east there are more church remains at Yedi Kilise, whilst the area to the south of Van is the most physically impressive in Turkey, featuring rugged mountains dotted with isolated settlements such as Çatak and Bahçesaray. En route for the wild mountain town of Hakkari is the imposing castle at Hoşap and, beyond it, the remote but substantial Armenian churches of Surb Bartolomeos and Soradir.Read More
On the tiny island of Akdamar just off Lake Van’s southern shore, stands the exquisite tenth-century Armenian Akdamar Kilisesi, the church of the Holy Cross. Recently restored to the tune of US$1.5 million by the Turkish government, it stands as a glimmer of hope of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.
The church was erected between 915 and 921 AD, at the behest of Gagik Artsruni, ruler of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan. The small building is gracefully proportioned, but what makes it so special are the relief carvings, which run in a series of five bands around the exterior. As well as animal scenes there are several depictions of Bible stories including Jonah appearing to dive from a boat into the jaws of a most unlikely looking whale (south facade) and David taking on Goliath, sling in hand (south facade). King Gagik himself is carved in bold relief on the west facade, presenting a model of Surb Khach to Jesus. A number of khatchkars – the Celtic-looking, obsessively detailed carved crosses that the Armenians used both as celebratory or commemorative offerings and as grave markers – are also set into the facade.
Inside the frescoes, formerly in a shocking state, have been sensitively restored and it’s easy to make out New Testament scenes such as the Baptism of Christ, the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion.