The island of Akdamar in Lake Van in Eastern Anatolia is famous for its Armenian church. Churches have a significant place in medieval Christian art. Churches came to express, throughout centuries, the people's feelings and their endurance in times of social disorder and political strife.
It will be possible to assess the aim for building the church of Akdamar in a better way if we go back to the time of its construction (915-921 A.D). As a result of the occupation of Eastern Anatolia by the Moslem Arab armies, the period from the end of 7th century to the middle of the 9th century has marked the stagnation of the Armenian art in the area. The settling of some Arab Emirs in Armenian towns, their fights with Byzantine armies, internal strives resulted in the impoverishment of local Armenian kingdoms. However, as Byzantine armies achieved success in their battles with the Abbasids, the Armenian princes recouped and consolidated their positions. The naming of Ashot Bagratuni of Bagradid dynasty as Armenian prince in 862 by the Abbasid Khalif constituted a turning point. Later, in 886, Ashot Bagratuni's nephew and namesake was given the title of King Ashot I by the Abbasids.
With the ascension of Ashot I to the Armenian throne, a renaissance was initiated in Armenian art by the Bagradid dynasty. During the 9th and 10th centuries, numerous churches were built. Rich feudal families started repairing the churches and monasteries on their land. The Bagradid kingdom consolidated its power but at the end of the 9th century they were unable to keep all the Armenian dynasties under their control and found themselves fighting against various feudal families. The Ardsruni princes from the small kingdom of Vaspurakan emerged as the greatest rivals of the Bagradids. The domain of the Ardsrunis, including the lands of their vassals, extended from Mount Ararat in the north to the Lake of Urmia in south-east.
When relations between Ardsrunis and Simbad, successor of Ashot I of Bagradids deteriorated in a marked way, Prince Gagik of the Ardsrunis concluded an agreement with the Abbasid ruler of Azerbaijan and received the crown of kingdom in 908. Following this, the Abbasid Khalif Muktadir sent Gagik a second crown.
After becoming king of Vaspurakan, Gagik embarked on a large scale construction program, with emphasis on building churches and monasteries, in effect competing against the Bagradid Kingdom. Among monuments built by Gagik, the Church of Akdamar (Aght'amar) is the most famous one, having become subject to various publications.
The church remained as a part of a monastic complex until the beginning of the 20th century, after which it was abandoned during World War I due to the fights along the Russian border and it was left in a bad condition for many years. The Turkish authorities restored the church between 2005-2007 and opened it as a museum. Recently in 2010, the government decided to open the church for religious ceremonies once a year which would be one day during the first half of September every year.
The name given to the island, Aght'amar, is explained by a well known legend among local population: A nobleman who fell in love with a beautiful girl named Tamar visited the island every night to see her. As he was crossing the lake one stormy night, his boat capsized and fighting the waves, he drowned uttering the words "Ach Tamar". Tamar, awaiting the arrival of her loved one, grieved deeply upon hearing the news of his death and died soon after. Hence, the island was called "Ach Tamar" (Aght'amar) ever since.
Historian Thomas Ardsruni describes in his book the coronation of King Gagik I and the churches and palaces he built. According to Thomas Ardsruni, Arab ruler Yusuf presented Gagik with a solid gold crown intricately embellished with pearls and other precious gems, a gold embroidered kaftan, a gold belt and sword, all in a ceremony in which Gagik, riding on a horse with gilded harness, shone like the sun. In his work, Ardsruni describes in great detail, the palace, the monastery, the church and the shops on the island of Aght'amar saying that buildings, streets and gardens were planned by Gagik himself. According to his description, there were orchards and terraced parks within the fortifications on the island. The palace rose like a hill in the center of the island and the glow of gilded cupolas could be seen from far away. The frescoes adorning the walls of the main audience hall portrayed the king sitting on the gilded throne, surrounded by the elite of the palace, in conjunction with festivities, musicians, dancing girls, sword clad soldiers, wrestlers, lions, wild beasts and various colorful birds.
The fortifications, churches and palace buildings were completed within the relatively short period of five years. Gagik assembled in Aght'amar the best craftsmen and artisans of his time and supervised their work. Presently, only foundations remain from this majestic palace whose grandeur we can capture reading Thomas Ardsruni. The descriptions related to Aght'amar Palace are reminiscent of palace decoration in Samarra where the Abbasid Khalifs, with whom Gagik had friendly relations, kept their residence.
One could perhaps get an impression of the decoration of the Aght'amar Palace from the wall paintings in the Javsak-ul Hakani Palace in Samarra, north of Baghdad, built by the Abbasid Khalif in 839 A.D. to accommodate his army of Turkish soldiers brought from Central Asia.
Plan and General Description of the Church
The Church of the Palace of Aght'amar was built by Architect Bishop Manuel in 915-921 A.D. under the supervision of King Gagik I. He was also the architect of the palace which no longer exists. The church which was dedicated to the "Holy Cross" is situated in a prominent place on the island and presents an impressive picture when approached from different directions. The various shades of red of the tufaceous cut stone used in the construction form a striking contrast with the deep blue waters of the lake and the snow-capped majestic mountains in the background. However, the church is more impressive with its figural relieves than its architecture. In fact, relieves blend perfectly with the architectural forms, putting the accent on decorative elements in the exterior rather than the interior.
The wall structure of the church is made of rectangular cut stones over a two-tiered base, similar to the other Armenian works in the area. A tufaceous mix was used as mortar between the stones. In order to diminish the weight of the walls, the stones used in the upper layers are smaller than those below. According to Thomas Ardsruni, the stones were brought from Aghznik, north of Diyarbakir.
As a protective measure against earthquakes common in the area, stones of different size were used along the same row, thus insuring better bond. This technique common in Armenian works coupled with the colorful appearance due to the different shades of tufaceous stones prevents monotony in the facades.
The church has a four-lobed clover-like, cross-shaped plan with a central dome. The domed central part has a square shape and is surrounded by four niches with semi-domes, one of which serves as the apse. The vaulted spaces in front of the eastern apse and the western entrance make the church longer along this axis (width 11.60 m., length 14.80 m). Four additional niches with semi-circular plan at each corner, between the exedrae serve to broaden the central domed main hall. The niches at the eastern end lead to a small rectangular cell on each side of the apse.
The dome covering the central hall rests on a high drum and transition to the dome from the square hall is achieved by means of pendentives. The exterior walls of the circular drum has the shape of a sixteen-sided polygon. The pyramidal cone on top is reminiscent of Seljuk gumbats (kümbet). This monumental central structure, rising vertically, is a striking architectural form emphasizing externally the central plan of the church. The height of the dome is 20.40 m. from ground level, exceeding both the length and width of the building substantially. This comparison underlines the architectural emphasis given to the vertical dimension. Earlier descriptions suggest that there was a stone cross on top of the conical roof. This would be quite a normal practice in the case of a church dedicated to the Holy Cross. An inscription at the southern facade informs us that the dome collapsed and was repaired. However, there is no conclusive information as to when and by whom the repair work was done. But all indications point to the period, at the end of 13th century, when Stephanos III was the Catholics of the See of Aght'amar. The exedrae surrounding the central hall have gable roofs. The small round niches at the corners form protruding on the exterior as either five of three-sided semi-polygons. Their cone-like covers have a balancing effect on the straight planes of the gable roofs covering the exedra. The interior of the church gets light through eight windows in the drum and sixteen windows in the exedra and niches.
The southern, western and northern niches of the church each have a two meter-high door. The southern entrance leads to the King's chamber. Early descriptions indicate that the stone parapet was ornamented with relieves of animal heads such as bulls, rams, goats and elephants among branches of pomegranate trees. The silver door was adorned with precious stones, pearls and gold encrustations.
A chapel was built in 1293 at the south-eastern end of the church and was dedicated to Saint Stephanos. A few years later Catholicos Zacharias I added a new chapel at the north-eastern end of the church (1296-1336). The section in front of this chapel which serves as entrance to the church must be from a later period. Catholicos Thomas built the large front section or fore-church, at the main entrance in the west. The floor of this part has been kept lower with four steps leading to the church proper. The front section has a central dome surrounded by eight vaulted chambers. At the end of the 18th century or early in the 19th century, a small belfry was built at the southern entrance. All these later additions spoil the balance and harmony of the original exterior and cover some of the original relieves adorning the church itself.
A noteworthy characteristic of the Aght'amar Church is that the exedra and niches surrounding the main hall are reflected on the exterior in the form of polygonal walls. These many faceted walls, cut like crystals, create an impressive and dynamic architectural effect further enhanced by the bold relieves and varying colors of the cut stones used in the construction. Differences are further emphasized by changing light which strike the surfaces from different angles. As in Armenian architecture in general, the internal plan of the building is not reflected on the exterior.
The plan of the Aght'amar Church was not new in Armenian architecture. This type of plan is known as the "Hrips'ime Type" in reference to the earlier dated Hrips'ime church (618 A.D.) in Vagharshapat, present day Echmiadzin in the Republic of Armenia. The Soradir Church of the Holy Cross at the Iranian border dated to circa 7th century A.D. is a similar example. An even earlier example is the Avan Church in Erivan (557-574). Although the exteriors of these churches look like Aght'amar, the figural relieves make Aght'amar distinctly different. In fact Aght'amar is foremost famous for the rich figural relieves which surround the exterior in bands or bordures and decorate the middle and lower part of walls with sculpture-like large size figures. Other typical features for Armenian architecture are blind niches with triangular interiors, capped with figural relieves in round-arched bands and narrow, tall windows with rounded arches. The windows are spread along the facades in an asymmetrical way with lower windows being smaller and upper windows larger. The polygonal mass of the church proper has been de-emphasized by windows with rounded arch tops having eyebrow-like bordure bands above with foliate motifs and vine branches.
The exterior with its rich figural relieves is in contrast with the relatively simple interiors. The inner walls have remnants of wall paintings, mostly disintegrated. They have been repaired during various periods.
Compared to other Armenian churches, the stone relief decoration of Aght'amar is original, in fact, unique. There is no other work comparable to Aght'amar either before or after.
Bold relieves surround the building in various bands and at different heights, sometimes erupting out of walls as sculpture, appearing at other times as bordures enhancing the architecture. They present a wide range of themes, ranging from religious subjects derived from the Bible and the Old Testament to worldly scenes such as palace life, hunting figures from daily life and a variety of animals.
The figural relieves of Aght'amar are flat but they are cut in bold relief. Thus, the figures appear as sculpture under the sun but become pale and disappear in overcast and foggy weather. Due to this characteristic, Professor M.S. Ipsiroglu refers to the church as a building of light and assumes that the architect was influenced by the sun cult predominant in Iran during the Sasanid Period between 3rd and 7th centuries A.D. when the teachings of Zarathustra prevailed as the religion of the region.
The long faces and large eyes of the Aght'amar figures bear similarities to those on the wall paintings and palace ceramics from the 9th-10th centuries A.D. Abbasid Period. The eyes and certain details of the figures were ornamented with colored gems in earlier times. Such decoration coupled with gilding and painting with different colors must have made the relieves more striking in those days. Such gems and paintings have not survived to our day.
It is interesting to note that religious subjects and figures related to the Ardsrunis were rendered much bigger than other subjects, sometimes threefold bigger. It appears that their importance and power were thus emphasized. As no background has been used in such pictorial representations, they are more striking and stand out from a distance. Palace life and scenes from daily life etc. are presented in bands surrounding the building.
The relieves of Aght'amar have been interpreted by art historians in different ways. It is possible to classify the relieves according to their subject matter, their place on the walls and even the way they are presented. Here, the relieves will be presented by going around the building, starting from ground level. This classification can be considered in four different levels. The lowest group has no links with the other groups due to the fact that the iconographic program commonly used in religious subjects has not been applied in this case. Another special feature of the Church of Aght'amar is that subjects from the Old Testament have been used alongside those from the Bible. Themes from the Old Testament are not common for Middle Age churches. Thus, Aght'amar is an exception rather than the rule in this respect. It is remarkable that most of the relieves have survived to our day without any restoration work.