Permanent Delegation of Turkey to UNESCO
Province of Van, District of Gevaş
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Akdamar Church (the Church of the Holy Cross) is located on Akdamar Island in Lake Van within borders of Gevaş District of Province of Van. Situated in the region of Eastern Anatolia, Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey. Akdamar Island, also known as Aghtamar, Akhtamar and Ahtamar, is the second largest of the four islands in Lake Van. It is about 700.000 m² in size and located about 3 km from the shoreline.
The Church was built between 915 and 921 AD by Architect Bishop Manuel, under the supervision of Gagik I Ardzruni, an Armenian King who reigned over the Kingdom of Vaspurakan as a vassal under the Abbasids. The first information about the construction of the church was given in the 10th century by Thomas Ardzruni, the chronicler of the deeds of King Gagik. The construction date is also confirmed by the inscription on the church's west façade and texts written in the late 18th century and early 19th century.
Akdamar Church has a four-lobed clover-like, cross-shaped plan which called “Hripsime Type” in reference to the Hripsime Church at Vagharshapat, built in 618 AD. The church was built of volcanic tufa, with an interior measuring 14.80 m x 11.5 m and the dome reaching 20.40 m above the ground. The central part, domed with a conical roof, has a square shape and is surrounded by four niches with semi-domes, one of which serves as the apse. Four additional niches with semi- circular plan at each corner, between the exedra 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 exedra and niches surrounding the main hall are reflected on the exterior in the form of polygonal walls.
The wall structure of the church is made of rectangular cut stones over a two-tiered base. In order to diminish the weight of the walls, smaller stones were used in the upper layers than those below. As a protective measure against earthquakes common in the area, stones of different size were used along the same row, insuring better bond. This technique is common in Armenian works. In addition, the colourful appearance due to the different shades of tufa stones prevents monotony in the façades.
The stone relief decoration of the church has an extraordinary place among well-known medieval art pieces. Bold reliefs 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 as well as earthly scenes such as palace life, hunting figures from daily life, floral and geometric figures and a variety of animals.
A significant depiction on the west façade displays King Gagik presenting a model of the church to Prophet Jesus. The Abbasid Caliph Muktadir is depicted in the middle of the east façade, in the grape vine relief, sitting cross-legged, wearing a crown and has a nimbus halo. Jonah thrown overboard, Mary with Baby Jesus, Adam and Eve's expulsion from heaven, David's fight with Goliath, Samson killing a Philistine, three young Jewish men and Daniel in the lions' den are other prominent figurative scenes from façades of the church.
The interior of Akdamar Church was decorated with frescoes, which are rare in Armenian Art. The frescos depict the Story of Creation and scenes from the life of Christ. Most of the frescoes are still distinguishable and some of them are well preserved, however, in some parts they are severely damaged. The well preserved frescoes might have been painted over at a later date.
From the date of construction, several buildings have been added to the Church and the building was repaired several times. According to an inscription located on the southern façade, during the period of Catholicos Stephanos III (1272-1296), the dome and the rooms on the eastern corner of the building were repaired. Also, Chapel of the Saint Stephanos was built as an independent structure on the southeastern side of the church. In the period of Catholicos Zacharias I (1296-1336), Saint Sergios Chapel was built adjacent to the northeast corner of the church. However, the construction date of the narthex (gavit) next to the west facade of this chapel is unknown. The large narthex (zhamatun), adjacent to the church's the western cross arm, was erected in 1763, during the period of Catholicos Thomas III, according to the inscription on the western entrance. Bell tower in front of the southern entrance of the church is dated to the beginning of the 19th century.
During the tumultuous history of the Catholicosate, the church centre was moved to different locations together with the political authority. When the Ardsruni and Bagratuni vied for political dominance and legitimacy, the Armenian Catholicosate moved from Dvin to Aghtamar in 927 and to Arghina in 947. In 1021, Senekerim-Hovhannes Ardsruni, king of Vaspurakan, surrendered his crown to Byzantium under pressure from Seljuk Turk incursions and resettles in Cappadocia with his royal household. In 1116, Catholicosate of Akdamar was established by Archbishop Davit as an independent episcopate of the Armenian Apostollic Church and kept its existence for almost eight centuries, until 1895. The church was abandoned during World War I.
In 2005-2006 the Turkish government carried out a rehabilitation project to preserve the historical identity of the Akdamar Church. In 2007, the church was opened to visitors as a monument museum. In 2010, the government decided to open the church for religious ceremonies once a year.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Akdamar Church has survived as the most important example reflecting the culture and art of the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, which ruled over the region of Van between 908 and 1021 AD as a vassal of the Abbasids, and became the centre of the Armenian Catholicosate for a period of time. As one of the most sublime examples of Armenian religious architecture, the church denotes.
King Gagik I as the most powerful Armenian leader of the period and Vaspurukan Kingdom as a cultural and political centre.
Akdamar Church, which thoroughly reflects the cultural diversity of Vaspurakan Kingdom and the interaction between different religions in the 10th century with its architectural features as well as decorations, has a significant place in the history of world architecture. Bishop Manuel, the architect of Akdamar Church, ranks among the geniuses of Armenian Architecture along with Trdat, the architect of the Cathedral of Ani.
Decoration program of the Akdamar Church is unique in Medieval Armenian Art with its rich figural reliefs which surround the exterior in bands or bordures and decorate the middle and lower part of walls with sculpture-like large size figures. Manuel not only wrapped the church’s exterior with friezes, but did so in order to fuse sacred and profane images into a new royal iconography intended to enhance the political legitimacy of the realm.
Criterion (i): Akdamar Church represents a unique accomplishment in Christian architecture, displaying for the first time sculpted imagery on the exterior of a church in such an elaborate profusion. The architect and sculptor Manuel deviated from the architectural style of his time by exhibiting a rare creativity has been demonstrated on the reliefs covering all façades of the church and on figurative scenes, in the form of sculpture, on the middle and the bottom of walls.
Criterion (ii): Akdamar Church reflects the cultural diversity of the Vaspurakan Kingdom by successfully combining different cultural and religious elements such as scenes from the Bible and the Old Testament, palace and daily life and also geometric and floral motifs as a result of Islamic influence. Gagik I brought architects and craftsmen from the surrounding civilizations to build the church, thus Akdamar Church carries elements of Byzantine, Sassanid, Abbasid and Turkish architecture. The plan of the church, known as "Hripsime Type" or "Cvari Type", was commonly used by Armenian and Georgian Architects and became important for the history of the development of the regional architecture.
Criterion (iii): Akdamar Church is the most significant example reflecting the artistic conception and culture of the Vaspurakan Kingdom which ruled over the region of Van between 908-1021 AD. It was constructed in a relatively short period of circa 5 years as a unique work of Vaspurakan Ecole in the first quarter of the 10th century. Being the centre of the Armenian Catholicosate between 927-947 and Catholicosate of Akdamar between 1116 and 1895, it is a remarkable symbol of religious history.
Criterion (iv): The church symbolises a high point in Armenian Art and architecture; it is one of only a few extant Armenian monuments where architectural creativity and artistic talent were expertly interwoven. The scale of the decorative program on the exterior walls of Akdamar Church has a unique place in the history of Medieval Armenian architecture and sculpture. Architect Manuel turned the austere and flat surfaces of the church building into a canvas for the narration of the life of the Armenian people under the rule of one of its great dynastic families.
Criterion (vi): Akdamar Church was an important religious centre which made contributions to the history of the region from the 10th century until the late 19th century as Armenian Catholicosate of Akdamar. Today, Akdamar Church hosts annual international religious services organized by the Armenian Patriarchate of İstanbul once a year which would be one day during September. In this context, Akdamar Church maintains a vibrant presence in terms of living traditions and beliefs.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
From the date of construction various structures have been added to the Church of Akdamar and it was repaired several times. The dome and the rooms on the eastern corner of the building were repaired and the Chapel of St. Stephanos was built as an independent structure at the end of 13th century. The St. Sergios Chapel, the large narthex (zhamatun) adjacent to the church's western cross arm and bell tower in front of the southern entrance of the church was built in the following centuries.
It is remarkable that reliefs of the church have survived to our day without any restoration work. In the framework of a rehabilitation project carried out in 2005-2006, the church was restored without any intervention to its original structure and opened as a monument museum on March 29, 2007.
The property has been conserved appropriately to the Law on the Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property since it was registered as an archaeological site with the decision of the Superior Council of Immovable Antiquities and Monuments in 1979. Akdamar Church has been regularly controlled and monitored by the State in order to sustain its cultural values.
Comparison with other similar properties
The plan of the Akdamar Church, known as the Hripsime Type, was used in both Armenian and Georgian architecture with some differences in details. The Surp Hripsime Church, Garnahovit Surp Gevorg Church (7th century), Surp Hovhannes Church of Sisian Monastery (675), Arcuaber Surp Asdvadzadzin Church (7th century), Targmançats Church (7th century) Avan Cathedral (590), Surp Hovhannes Cathedral (611), Aramus (730) and Surp Asdvadzadzin Church of Varagavank Monastery (10th century) have the same plan type and their interior plans are not perceived from outside. On the contrary, the exterior appearance of Soradir Surp Echmiadzin, Mokhrenes Okhte Drnevank and Sarakop Surp Asdvadzadzin churches from the 6th-7th centuries and the Akdamar Church reveal their interior plans.Although the general appearances of these churches look like Akdamar, the rich relief decoration of Akdamar Church is distinctly original, in fact, unique. In this respect, there is no other work comparable to Akdamar either before or after. In addition, the usage of subjects from Old Testament alongside those from the Bible, which is not common for Middle Age churches, is another special feature of the Church of Akdamar.