The Story of the Jaw-Dropping Akdamar Island in Van, Turkey


On a tiny island filled with almond trees and surrounded by cliffs where silver-winged gulls nest, there once lived a beautiful girl called Tamara. Her father, who was one of the priests at the monastery on the island, guarded his daughter so jealously that he did not allow even the birds to come near her and refused to let her leave the island or strangers to set foot there.

A young man living in one of the villages on the shore of the lake, encircled by high mountains, was filled with curiosity about the forbidden island and one day swam over and met Tamara. They quickly became friends, and before long had fallen in love.

The young man used to swim over for their secret nightly assignations after seeing the candle, which Tamara would light to show him the way. But one of the monks realized what was going on and reported it to Tamara’s father.

The following night was stormy, and Tamara remained at home, but her father took a lighted candle down to the shore without her knowledge. When the young man saw the signal, he braved the rough waves, but the priest kept moving about to confuse him, and finally, exhausted from battling with the stormy sea, the young man sank beneath the waves crying out ‘O Tamara!’ Hearing his voice, Tamara rushed down to the shore, and when she discovered that her beloved was dead, threw herself into the stormy sea and drowned too.

It is said that the young man’s last words, ‘O Tamara!’ gave the island its name, corrupted in time to Ahtamar and finally Akdamar. The island of Akdamar lies close to Turkey’s largest lake, Lake Van, which has 3713 square kilometres.

The ancient peoples of the region referred to it as the Upper Sea or the Wavy Sea. Even today, local people never refer to it as a lake but always call it ‘the sea’. A century earlier, during the Fourth Crusade of 1202-4, the Genoese had captured and colonized several trading posts along the Black Sea coast, including Akcakoca.

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The Genoese Castle here is the most important reminder of that period. The people of Akcakoca are acutely aware of their town’s long history and seem almost to relive it, as we saw when we visited the castle.

Alaeddin Bey, who is in charge of the castle, objects strongly to his official title of ‘director’: ‘How can you have a director of a castle? I am the castle commander.’

Van has been home to many peoples, including the Medes, Persians, Sassanians, Armenians, and Turks, to name but a few. In the first Millenium BC, the Urartians made Tuspa (Old Van) their capital for three centuries between 900 and 600 BC. The land of Urartu encompassing northeast Anatolia and beyond took its name from Uruatri, meaning Land of Mountains.

Visitors to Van should not miss the ancient Tuspa, Van Citadel, Hosap, Muradiye Falls, and Akdamar Island, and it is the latter where we are journeying in this article. A frequent minibus service from Van takes you along the coast road to the small town of Gevas in 15 minutes, a journey during which you cannot tear your eyes away from the enchanting view of Lake Van, its waters a fascinating blend of blues and greens.

At Gevas, you take a motorboat (which the locals call ‘gemi,’ meaning ship) across to the island. Although Lake Van has a periphery of 435 kilometres, it has just four small islands: Akdamar, Carpanak, Gadir (Yaka), and Kus. Akdamar is 1500 meters long and lies approximately four kilometres from Gevas. When we reached the island, the first sight that met our eyes was the imposing Akdamar Church, built between 915 and 921 by monk and architect Manuel for King Gagik Ardzrouni.

The church has a cruciform plan and a conical roof domed on the inside. The bell tower is a 19th-century addition. The church walls’ reliefs are superb works of art by Armenian master carvers, depicting biblical scenes like Adam and Eve, Jonah, Abraham sacrificing his son Ishmael, David and Goliath, and Jesus and the Apostles. There are also hunting scenes. A remarkable design of vines interspersed with local animals carved in high relief encircles the church’s exterior.

Rumour has it that these relief carvings were set with precious stones until not so long ago. Inside the church are badly worn frescos depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Having spent some time excitedly examining the church at close quarters and discovering a different beautiful view from each angle, we climbed the hill behind, said to be the best vantage point of all.

This was the summit of the island, around a hundred meters above the surface of the lake. The panorama was indeed spectacular, with great mountains in every direction and the headland at our feet seeming close enough to touch the lakeshore. The yellow stone building on the headland looked out across the water at Mount Suphan, the Kavussahap Mountains, and Artos. The lofty Suphan, home to the Urartian king Sarduri, seems to keep you under surveillance wherever you go.

We got into a conversation with picnickers next to the church, and they insisted on offering us tea from their simmering samovars. The women told us that the lake was enchanted, and angels went in and out of the water.

That was the reason why they did their laundry in the lake, whose water made everything it touched clean and white. Actually, the reason is more prosaic. The lake water contains a higher salt level than seawater, primarily sodium chloride (common salt), followed by sodium carbonate (washing soda) and sodium sulfate. It was time to return to the mainland, and the visitors streamed onto the ferry…

As we cleaved our way through the water, a cool wind steeped with the scent of the mountains blew in my face. The sun was beginning to sink, and a pink light was diffused over the sky, mountains, and sea. I turned once to look back at the island. Akdamar seemed to have sunk back into the reverie of past centuries.

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