As described in detail in the previous section, the church of Aghtamar was built by architect Manuel in 915-921 A.D. and it is one of the most beautiful works of medieval Armenian art with its a unique position in the Armenian architecture, especially with respect to its figurative reliefs.58The chapel in the southeast of the church was added in 1296–1336, the community house in the west was added in 1793 and the bell tower in the south was added in the late 18th century. The date of the chapel to the north is unknown. The building was originally built as a palace church, but it was later transformed into a monastery church.
The demolition of Aghtamar Church along with many Armenian monuments in the east was decided by the government in 1951, and the demolition that started on 25 June1951 was stopped by the intervention of Yaşar Kemal, who was a young journalist at that time and who coincidentally heard about of the incident. The church, which was neglected and dilapidated for years after that was decided to be restored under the leadership of the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture andTourism in the period of 2005-2007, as a step towards the promotion of the relations between the Armenians of Turkey and Armenia.
The church was renovated with the contributions of an architect of Armenian origin, Zakaryan Mildanoğlu, upon the request of the owner of the contractor company, Cahit Zeydanlı, and architect Yakup Hazan along with the expert restorers. Again, upon the request of Cahit Zeydanlı, a Conservation and Consolidation Expert ofItalian origin from UNESCO, Paulo Pagnin also provided his contributions. In his statement during the restoration, the Conservation and Consolidation Expert of Italian origin from UNESCO, Paulo Pagnin, expressed his pride in contributing to the work here and emphasized that they have important responsibility in the restoration of this world-known structure and therefore all the necessary attention had to be paid. After some examinations in the church, Pagnin prepared a report on the cleansing of the stones and the specification of the chemicals to be used, and the work was carried out in accordance with this report.
With the restoration, the figures inside and outside the church were uncloaked, the roofs were cleaned, the frescoes inside the church were unearthed, the floor was paved, the windows were installed, and the community house section was refurbished. The stones used for the repair of the church were supplied from Tatvan. Some room structures outside the church were unearthed during the works. The rooms which were identified to belong to the clergy of the church could not restored by the company since they were not included in the project. It is known that there were5 expert staff and a number of workers that changes according to the requirements of the work to be performed. The restoration of the church, together with the landscaping, cost 2 million 600 thousand YTL. Within the scope of landscaping, the piers on the island where the structure is located were renovated and walking paths were paved. In addition, since the entrance to the island is by fee, ticket offices, guardhouses, toilets, gift shops and a cafeteria behind the church were built.64The restoration of Aghtamar Church was completed on 30 March 2006, but the opening of the building as a monumental museum with the participation of Turkish and Armenian delegations was on 29 March, 2007.
Atilla Koç, the Minister of Culture and Tourism at the time, as well as Turkish ArmenianPatriarch Mesrob Mutafyan, Armenian Deputy Minister of Culture Gagik GÜRCAN, the Ambassadors of around 30 countries and Armenian community representatives participated in the opening ceremony.
On the other hand, the Armenian delegation who travelled to Turkey by land via Georgia, because the Armenian border was closed, stayed in Kars during their visit and visited various places, including the Church of Twelve Apostles. The Armenian officials said that they liked Kars very much, that they didn’t come to Turkey only for the opening ceremony of Aghtamar Church and emphasised that they planned to run joint projects in the future. There were also archaeologists and architects in the Armenian delegation who came to Turkey for the opening of Aghtamar Church. At the opening ceremony of the church, 5 people who wanted to protest the opening of Aghtamar monumental museum, including the heads of Türk Kamu-Sen, Türk Eğitim-Sen and Türk Sağlık-Sen Unions were detained. The opening ceremony of Aghtamar Church monumental museum started with a concert of the famous pianist Tuluyhan Uğurlu and continued with ceremonial speeches. In his speech,Armenian Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan stated that it was pleasing that the church, which had not been used as a place of worship for more than 90 years, was restored in accordance its original and that he wished a ceremony to be conducted there once a year, which could attract visitors to the island.
In his opening speech, Atilla Koç, Minister of Culture and Tourism of the time, emphasized that the monumental museum of Aghtamar church would make a positive contribution to the promotion of Van; and after the speeches, the opening ribbon of the museum was cut together by Atilla Koç, Armenian deputy minister Gagik Gürciyan and Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan. Aghtamar Church, which was opened on 29 March2007 as a monumental museum, is still open to visitors today. The museum is visited by people from many of nations including French, Armenian and Turkish.The church is closed to worship today. The opening of the monumental museum of Aghtamar Church has received many positive responses in Turkey, Armenia and around the world.
The survey, restitution and restoration projects of the Church of the Holy Cross part of Aghtamar Monastery were initiated by Central Directorate of Revolving Funds of TheMinistry of Culture, in 2003. The survey, restitution and restoration of the church were prepared by Yakup Hazan Mimarlık Limited Şirketi and was approved by Diyarbakır Regional Directorate of Cultural and Natural Heritage in 2004.
Since the outbuilding section in the south of the church was completely ruined and under the ground, there was no information about the architectural features of that building. Excavations were carried out by Van Governorship Provincial Museum Directorate under the scientific responsibility of Architect-Art Historian Şahabettin Öztürk, PhD, between 24.03.2006 and 25.08.2006.
The Landscape Plan was prepared by the technical staff of the ministry, in order to provide water transportation to Aghtamar Island, north and east access to the historical church for pedestrian visitors to see the various parts of the structure and to build the recreational sections. The prepared plans were approved by the Van RegionalDirectorate of Conservation of Cultural Heritage in 2007.
In accordance with the protection method preferred by the decision of the church science board and the relevant units, the architectural walls that were unearthed during the excavation were supported with sandbags. However, to be able to provide a permanent solution to the structural problems that arose a year later, a requirement to re-prepare the reconstruction, restitution and restoration projects of the area emerged. Within this context, the survey, restitution and restoration projects of the outbuilding section of Aghtamar Church were prepared by the Secretary General of Special ProvincialAdministration of Van Governorship. The projects, for which the construction documents were prepared by Işık Proje İnşaat Sanayi ve Ticaret Limited Şirketi under the scientific consultancy of Architect-Art Historian Şahabettin Öztürk, PhD, were approved by Van Regional Directorate of Conservation of Cultural Heritage in 2012.
In the outbuilding restoration project, among the three alternatives of 1-Completion,2-Partial Completion and 3-Preservation of the Present Situation, the regional board decided to implement the Preservation of the Present Situation Project.
Aghtamar Church Restoration Work, which was tendered by the Ministry of Culture andTourism in 2005, was undertook by Kartalkaya Proje İnşaat Ticaret Limited Şirketi and Er-Bu İnşaat Kolektif Şirket Ortaklığı and the application work started on 25 May 2005.
Before starting the restoration work, the current structural conditions of Aghtamar Church and other structures were inspected, and all necessary precautions were taken to ensure the safety of life and property. To ensure the compatibility of the new stones to be used in repairs with the original stones, the quarries inVan, Tatvan and Ahlat were inspected. The mortar units prepared in chemicall aboratories in accordance with the original mortar and plaster samples were used in the restorations together with the "hydraulic lime" imported from France.
Approximately 85 tons of rock, 1250 tons of sand, 2000 tons of water, 75 tons of hydrauliclime and seven tons of stone dust were used in Aghtamar Church, Outbuilding Section and Landscaping Project restoration and application works. The transportation of the materials between the mainland and the island was provided by four boats. Material delivered to the island was transported to the restoration area via 100 m long rail freight cars.
In order to provide easy access to the top roof and to the exterior facade of the church, approximately30 m high wooden scaffoldings were built without contacting the main walls. For the applications on the roof of the main structure, stability tests of the stones were performed with a special cage system made up of parachute ropes.The plants on the facades and the roofs of the church were cleaned and their roots were dried out through the use of physical and later chemical methods that would not harm the structure. Drainage and insulation works were carried out in order to prevent the seasonal snow and rain water from affecting the coating system of the other structures of the church. A 450 kg cross base and a2-meter-high, 110 kg metal cross was placed at the centre of the church dome cover. Completion and conservation works were carried out in the vault and other building parts of the Stephanos Chapel in the southeast of the church, which were destroyed during the earthquake in the early 19th century (Belli and Başpaydar Belli, 2017: 491-505).
There are various subjects depicted on stone with great skill in the reliefs adorning the exterior walls and the four relief strips circulating all the way around the structure of Aghtamar Church. Some of these depictions with religious theme are; Yunus Prophet thrown into the sea, Adam and Eve's expulsion from heaven, the struggle of David and Goliat, Mother Mary and the Jesus in her arms, figures ofDaniel in the Lion's lair, three Hebrew young men in fire, etc. The influence of the 9th and 10th century Central Asia Turkish art and Abbasid art can also be observed in some parts. 13 mammalian animals and 12 birds were used in the embossment son the stone facade decorations. These are; Lion, Tiger, Panther, Moose, Red Deer,Gazelle, Wild Sheep, Lynx, Pig, Brown Bear, Fox, Rabbit and Wild Goat, Bustard,Whooper Swan, Shelduck, Red-legged Partridge, Quail, Rock Eagle, Falcon, Hawk, LesserKestrel, Red-beak Mountain Crow, Peacock and Guinea Fowl figures, at various parts of the facades. These decorations on the exterior of Aghtamar Church take on different colours, especially at different times of the day. During the cleaning and renovation of the façade, both for the use of new stones and the restoration of surface cracks and fractures, separate mortar mixtures were prepared and applied, in consideration of these colour differences (Adızel, Kızıroğlu, Belli and Belli, 2015: 169-177).
The authentic flooring and basalt stone peculiar to Van were laid with five centimeters of joint gap in each section except for the church and bell tower floor covering.Buffer areas were formed for the wooden scaffolding installed for the purpose of carrying out the applications in the interior of the church, not to damage the coloured frescoes on the wall surface and the basalt coating on the flooring, and sand bags were placed to support the wooden posts.
Colourful frescoes on the interior wall surface were damaged by the moisture in the island and the negative impact of bats. The frescoes were physically and chemically repaired and treated for protection. Six saint figures in the apse section on the eastern wall of the church, which were deliberately concealed with blue paint were uncloaked. The parts on the original texture of the frescoes that have been damaged were retouched with special paints brought from Italy. During the repair phase, a special chemical brought from England was applied especially on the sections of the walls that are closer to the floor, in order to protect the building against negative effects of moisture and damp. In the interior, stainless steel and laminated glass railings were installed around the King's Lodge on the south wall and the well in the community house.
Walnut wood was used in the woodworks, glazing bars and sashes of the doors and windows of the church and the western community house sections. To prevent birds from entering inside and against their harmful effects, holes with a two-centimeter diameter were drilled on the rectangular window glasses in the upper elevation of the church and on the dome trimmer to enable internal and external air circulation.An underground drainage system was built to remove the water from the structure, in order to prevent rain and snow water from harming the building.
Scientific excavations were completed on 24.03.2006 and 25.08.2006 by a team of eleven experts from various professional disciplines, under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Van Governorship Provincial Museum Directorate.
The excavation was carried out with the leadership of Van Museum Director Ahmet Mete Tozkoparan by a team of four expert Archaeologists under the scientific responsibility of Şahabettin Öztürk, PhD, three Architects, three expert Art Historians, one expert Photography artist, five qualified workmen and 15 workers.
The excavations were carried out on a total area of 3,435 m2. As are sult of the excavations, rooms aligned around a rectangular central courtyard that was built in the later periods were unearthed in the south of the main structure of the church. Excavations were completed for the 13 two- storey cell rooms in the south-north direction, to the west of the courtyard in the south of the church, belonging to the monastery, 11 rooms belonging to the service section, the cistern in the east of the courtyard and 6-room Clergy School; cleaning and landscaping was carried out (Öztürk, 2015, 160-170). Excavations revealed anArmenian inscription on three pieces of limestone that is dated as September1884, and three cuneiform stones of various sizes and characteristics from the Urartian period, in front of the western entrance of the Clergy School.
The results of the excavations yielded five pieces for inventory, 20 pieces for research and amorphous pieces that consist of fluted, glazed, engraved, decorated flat etc.ceramic fragments, metal fragments, wooden fragments, etc. The soil from the excavation was removed to the appropriate areas in the south and west of the monastery.
The general geographical structure of Aghtamar Island consists of a rugged topographic area on natural rock. Access to the island is by water from two ports in the southand north. The existing ports were repaired and renovated within theLandscaping Project prepared by the technical staff of the Ministry.
Pedestrian access, south-north ticket offices and turnstiles, guard security room, male and female restrooms, indoor seating areas, cafeteria and gift shops were included in the Landscaping Project. Dressing cabins for the purpose of swimming in Lake Van, wooden sitting areas, trash cans, eastern observation terrace, flagpole and disabled lift were also included in the Landscaping Project.
Part of the roads providing access to the historical church and its surrounding structures were arranged in the form of stairs and the original rubble-paved road was renewed and repaired. The new path constructed for pedestrian access was paved with stone, partially supported by wooden and tether railing. The implementation of the Landscaping Project was carried out between 2009 and 2011, together with the project for the protection of the church outbuilding in its current state.In order to meet the electricity needs of Aghtamar Church, with the material contributions of the Eastern Anatolia Development Agency, the Ministry ofDevelopment placed solar panels in the southwestern part of the island in 2010 which provides for the electricity requirements.
Drilling works in various parts of the island revealed that the underground water is bitter and not qualified for use. In 2018, Metropolitan Municipality of Van VASKİ laid a water pipe of 4,100 m under the lake between the mainland and the island to provide for the fresh water requirements of the island.
It is a fact that the renovation, excavation and landscaping works in Aghtamar Church, which is one of the most important monumental works in the Lake Van Basin, provided significant contribution to the province, region, country and the world’s cultural heritage. Mr. Atilla Koç, the Minister Culture and Tourism of the time, Turkish Armenian Patriarch Mr. Mesrob Mutafyan, Armenian Deputy Minister of Culture Mr. Gagik GÜRCAN participated in the opening ceremony of Aghtamar Church on 31 July 2006, along with the Ambassadors of around 30 countries, representatives of the Armenian community and numerous special guests.
The ceremony was completed by giving messages of unity, solidarity and tolerance ,and it was decided that the building would be used as a museum and organised to enable a religious ceremony to be held once a year. This step is extremely important as it induces for the improvement of the relations between two ancient cultures, which shared the same geography for centuries and have common universal values, around a cultural heritage. While local and foreign visitors who want to visit the church at various times of the year contribute to the development of cultural tourism in the region, the visitors who come to the city for the religious ceremony and enliven the tourism by using the establishments around, enable the revival of religion tourism. The objective of conservation and restoration can only be fulfilled when they are performed not only on certain structures, but on the material and spiritual cultural heritage of various civilizations, periods and beliefs.
By virtue of its architectural features, after the restoration, Aghtamar Church is visited by approximately 200 thousand local and foreign tourists every year. Aghtamar Church, which is accepted as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, was accomplished by a team of 50 experts in the field of restoration and conservation, adhering to the rules and principles of the Venice Charter.
Through a tablet in Armenian found in the church, it was revealed that Aghtamar Church was restored during the Ottoman period in the reign of Abdul Hamid Khan. The original of this tablet is in Van Museum and its replica is still in A Church of the Holy Cross. A one-to-one translation of the text on the tablet is as follows:
Under the rule of the Great Ottoman Khan Hamid II, Gatogoshane and the school was built from the foundation, I dedicate them to my very needy nation. Even though I had a great desire for a long time, the multiplicity of my preoccupations did not allow it. For me, these are all sacred. May light shine through this spiritual building and may the wisdom-loving children of the Armenian try to relieve the pain of my people in mourning.
Der Haçadur Gatogigos of Rishdunik. Servant of Christ. Don’t withhold your prayers from me.