The tiny island of Akdamar, just off Lake Van’s southern shore, is home to the exquisite tenth-century Armenian Surb Khach or 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. A metal cross has been erected on the conical dome of the church, and there’s now an altar inside; services are held at irregular intervals.
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 that 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 and scattered beneath the almond trees to the east of the church.
The frescoes inside, formerly in a shocking state, have been sensitively restored. It’s possible to make out New Testament scenes such as the Baptism of Christ, the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion. Outside, to the south, are the partially excavated remains of the monastery complex of which the church was once a part.
Clamber up the steep hillside behind the church for spectacular views down over the church to the lake and, beyond, to the magnificent peaks that ring the lakeshore and run all the way down to the Iraqi border. Be wary, though, of plodding tortoises, and gull-infested cliffs that drop sheer into the azure waters below.