Cultural Corridors of South East Europe

Heritage by Type / Christian religious centre

Armenian Church of the Holy Cross

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Armenian Church of the Holy Cross

About the site

Corridor: Diagonal Road
Country: Turkey, Akdamar, Van
Type: Christian religious centre
Epoch: Middle Ages
World Heritage:
Middle AgesChristian religious centre

Akdamar Kilesi or the Church of the Holy Cross is a ruined Armenian Church in Eastern Anatolia. On a small island in the beautiful mountain setting of Lake Van, the Akdamar church dates from the 10th century and is famed for its wonderfully carved exterior.
The Church of the Holy Cross was once an important Armenian cathedral. The seat of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, the cathedral was founded by King Gagik between 915 and 921 alongside a royal palace and monastery. The complex originally included streets, gardens and terraced parks surrounding the palace and church. The church is all that remains today.
The Church of the Holy Cross was designed by the Armenian architect Trdat Mendet (also known as Manuel), who built the cathedral in nearby Ani and helped repair Hagia Sophia's dome when it collapsed after an earthquake.
According to local tradition, the island of Akdamar gets its name from a tragic love story. A man fell in love with a woman named Tamar, who lived on the island. He visited her every night until, one tragic night, he was overcome by the waves in a storm. As he sunk into the water he cried out, "Ach, Tamar!" Local folklore also has it that Lake Van is enchanted and angels regularly pass in and out of it.
On a cruciform plan and topped with a conical roof, the Akdamar church is just 49 x 39 feet (15 x 12 m) in size. It is made of red tufa stone brought to the island from distant quarries. Inside the church are faded but still-impressive frescoes.
The justly famous exterior features bas-relief carvings and friezes of biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, St. George slaying a dragon, a Christ Pantocrator, and a Madonna and Child. On the back is an image of King Gagik presenting his church to Christ (a theme that can also be seen in the Hagia Sophia and most other great religious buildings). A richly carved "populated vine" (vine with animals) runs around the entire church.

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