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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Turkey features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Reconsidering Turkey: why the time to go is now

Reconsidering Turkey: why the time to go is now

Turkey is the most accessible of the Middle Eastern nations. A natural land bridge, it connects the eastern part of Europe to the Caucasus, and the viridian Bl…

09 Apr 2018 • Marco Ferrarese
Middle East and North Africa: 10 spectacular sights off the beaten track

Middle East and North Africa: 10 spectacular sights off the beaten track

The Middle East and North Africa have plenty of world-famous attractions – Petra and the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the souks of Marrakesh, the mi…

27 Mar 2018 • Gavin Thomas
The best aerial views in the world

The best aerial views in the world

Got a head for heights? If you're craving a new perspective on your travels, the best thing to do is get up high. From mountain-top panoramas to cityscapes, her…

17 Oct 2017 • Olivia Rawes camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right