Aghtamar Island is the second largest of the four islands in Lake Van, in Western Armenia. About 0.7 km² in size, it is situated about 3 km from the shoreline. At the western end of the island a hard, grey, limestone cliff rises 80 m above the lake's level (1,912 m above sea level). The island declines to the east to a level site where a spring provides ample water. It is home to the 10th century Armenian Holy Cross Cathedral, which was the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Catholicosate of Aghtamar from 1116 to 1895.
The origin and meaning of the island's name is unknown, but a folk etymology explanation exists, based on an old Armenian legend. According to the tale, an Armenian princess named Tamara lived on the island and was in love with a commoner. This boy would swim from the shore to the island each night, guided by a light she lit for him. Her father learned of the boy's visits. One night, as she waited for her lover to arrive, he smashed her light, leaving the boy in the middle of the lake without a guide to indicate which direction to swim. He drowned and his body washed ashore and, as the legend concludes, it appeared as if the words "Akh, Tamara" (Oh, Tamara) were frozen on his lips. The legend was the inspiration for a well-known 1891 poem by Hovhannes Tumanyan.
During his reign, King Gagik I Artsruni (r. 908-943/944) of the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan chose the island as one of his residences. He founded a settlement and erected a large square palace richly decorated with frescoes, built a dock noted for its complex hydrotechnical engineering, laid out streets, gardens, and orchards, and planted trees and designed areas of recreation for himself and his court. The only surviving structure from that period is the Palatine Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Armenian: Սուրբ Խաչ եկեղեցի Surb Khach yekeġetsi). It was built of pink volcanic tuff by the architect-monk Manuel during the years 915-921, with an interior measuring 14.80m × 11.5m and the dome reaching 20.40m above ground. In later centuries, and until 1915, it formed part of a monastic complex, the ruins of which can still be seen to the south of the church.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Akhtamar
The Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar (Aghtamar) Island, in Lake Van in Western Armenia, is a medieval Armenian Apostolic cathedral, built as a palatine church for the kings of Vaspurakan and later serving as the seat of the Catholicosate of Aghtamar.
History of Surb Khach
During his reign, King Gagik I Artsruni (r. 908-943/944) of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan chose the island of Aght'amar as one of his residences, founding a settlement there. The only structure standing from that period is the Cathedral. It was built of pink volcanic tufa by the architect-monk Manuel during the years 915-921, with an interior measuring 14.80m by 11.5m and the dome reaching 20.40m above ground. In later centuries, and until 1915, it formed part of a monastic complex, the ruins of which can still be seen to the south of the church.
The architecture of the church is based on a form that had been developed in Armenia several centuries earlier; the best-known example being that of the seventh century Saint Hripsime church in Echmiadzin. The unique importance of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross comes from the extensive array of bas-relief carving of mostly biblical scenes that adorn its external walls. The meanings of these reliefs have been the subject of much and varied interpretation. Some of this is speculation - for example, a few sources interpret Islamic and Turkic influences behind the artistic rendering of the reliefs, syncretised with Armenian influences. Some scholars assert that the friezes parallel contemporary motifs found in Umayyad art - such as a turbaned prince, Arab styles of dress, wine imagery; allusions to royal Sassanian imagery are also present (Griffins, for example).
Vandalism and decay
After the 1920s, following the Armenian genocide, the church was exposed to extensive vandalism. The ornate stone balustrade of the royal gallery disappeared, and comparisons with pre-1914 photographs show cases of damage to the relief carvings. The khatchkar of Catholicos Stephanos, dated 1340, was, by 1956, badly mutilated with large sections of its carvings hacked off. In 1956 only the bottom third of another ornate khachkar, dated 1444, was left - it was intact when photographed by Bachmann in 1911. The 19th-century tombstone of Khatchatur Mokatsi, still intact in 1956, was later smashed into fragments. In the 1950s the island was used as a military training ground."
Photo By: Artur Martirosyan & Gor Militonyan
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