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.