Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 5 14:21:41 UTC 2007



Turkey's designation of a newly restored Armenian church as a museum has
prompted debate in Armenia, with many observers characterizing the 10th
century churchs reopening as an empty PR gesture. The Surb Khach (Holy
Cross) Church on Akhtamar Island in eastern Turkey's Lake Van is the first
Armenian church on Turkish territory that the Turkish government has
restored. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many Armenians
welcomed the two-year $1.9 million project, which preserved one of the
most outstanding examples of medieval Armenian architecture. Others,
however, have qualified Turkey's decision not to place a cross atop the
church, and to maintain the church as a museum, as an insult to Armenia's
Christian heritage.

Its a slap in the face for us to have our church hung with Turkish flags,
and, even more, with [first Turkish President Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk's
portrait, Hayk Demoyan, director of the National Academy of Sciences
Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, said about the March 29 reopening
ceremony. The restoration of the church is purely a political calculation
by Turkey. It is obvious Turkey clearly aims at changing international
public opinion in its favor. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. A governmental delegation from Armenia took part in the
reopening ceremony, but ecclesiastical leaders of the Armenian Apostolic
Church declined an invitation, protesting the decision to turn the church
into a museum. The reconstruction is a positive fact, but turning the
church into a museum is an act targeted against the pious Christian
feelings of the Armenian nation by Turkey's authorities, and cant be
perceived as a positive step toward the rapprochement of the Armenian and
Turkish people, said Father Vahram, spokesperson for the Mother See of
Holy Etchmiadzin.

Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Atilla Ko has stated that the
absence of a cross from the church may be only temporary. If it is proven
that there was a cross atop of its dome, then the reconstructed [church]
will also have a cross, the Turkish Daily News website reported Ko as
saying. Reconstruction project coordinator Cahid Zeydanlini has said that
a cross was not put on top of the church for fear of attracting a
lightning strike, according to the website. Ko earlier said that the
Turkish government intends to restore eight mosques and eight Armenian
churches in the vicinity of Kars, which was once the center of an ancient
Armenian kingdom.

But the statements so far have done little to reassure Armenians.
Officials in Yerevan have backed away from publicly presenting the churchs
reconstruction as a positive step in Armenian-Turkish relations. Foreign
Affairs Minister Vartan Oskanian said that a positive move would be the
reopening of the border between the two states, closed since 1993 in
response to Armenia's support for the separatist region of
Nagorno-Karabakh, territory claimed by Turkish ally Azerbaijan. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The opening of the monument
remains a separate fact and cant facilitate the improvement of the
situation in the larger sense, contrary to their [Turkey's] attempts to
represent it in that light, the foreign minister said at a recent press
conference in Yerevan.

The fact that Armenia's government delegation had to travel 16 hours via
Georgia to reach Van illustrates the absurdity of Turkish policy, he
added. With an open border, the delegation could have made the trip in
four hours from Yerevan. Meanwhile, on the day of the churchs reopening, a
large-scale photo exhibition on Armenian churches that have been destroyed
or turned into mosques in Turkey and Azerbaijan opened in Yerevans State
University. Despite officials harsh assessments, Samvel Karapetian, head
of the non-governmental organization Research on Armenian Architecture
said he was happy to see the church saved from decay. According to
Karapetian, the churchs reconstruction was done with a high degree of
professionalism and in accordance with European standards. The churchs
popularity with tourists, a key income source for Turkey, was probably a
motivating factor in the Turkish governments decision to undertake the
restoration project, he added.

Manuel, a bishop and one of the most talented Armenian architects of his
time, built the church in 915-921 A.D. at the order of Armenian King Gagik
Artsruni. The exterior church is decorated with bas-reliefs made up of six
friezes that depict stories from the Old and New Testaments, and also
include pictures from secular life and rich floral and animal
ornamentation. Other Armenian churches on Turkish territory are in need of
similar restoration, Karapetian said. Unfortunately, preservation is not a
usual practice in Turkey, said Karapetian. Nothing has been left of [the
monastery] Narekavank that was some five kilometers from Surb Khach, while
some of the churches on the neighboring islands have been blown up.

A 1913 report by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople stated that
there were nearly 2,500 churches on the territory of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, 2,000 are believed to have survived, many often half-ruined, or
turned into mosques, storehouses and cattle sheds.

Editors Note: Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the English-language
weekly Armenia Now in Yerevan.


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