Akdamar Island lies in the middle of Lake Van. On the island I found one of the few remaining Armenian churches left in Turkey, and a dark reminder of the events that violently shaped the landscape of a modern nation, in a strangely spectacular setting.
It might be bizarre to think that one of the most elegant and historic Armenian churches finds itself today far within the boundaries of modern Turkey. It is not so strange when you look back at the events that shaped the history of Eastern Anatolia and Van however.
I had travelled to the far eastern region of Turkey, to the city of Van, a city on the banks of Turkey’s largest lake, and a city that today is predominantly inhabited by people of Kurdish descent. It was not always so however. Before the Kurds and the Turks, this was part of older Armenian Kingdoms, and until the harrowing events of 1915, and the forced exodus of the Armenian people, it remained a hugely important centre of Armenian culture within the Ottoman Empire.
As always with this turbulent part of the world, empires rise and fall, and the boundaries and borders of nations change with history.
There are few remaining legacies of the Armenians who lived here and called Lake Van their home. One of the legacies that has survived, is The Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which dates all the way back to 915 AD when it was built by an Armenian King to serve as his personal place of worship on the island of Akdamar.
It was worshipped in for centuries, but after the Armenian expulsion from Van in the 20th Century, it fell into ruin and decay. The Turkish government eventually acknowledged that this was a place of historical importance to the region, but only in 2005 did they begin to restore the church as a museum.
I made my way from Van to the small town of Gevas, to find a ferry across to Akdamar Island. Akdamar is one of four islands in the lake, and requires a boat ride of around 1 hour to reach. At the ferry port, I drank chai and waited for other travellers to arrive to fill the boat. It would only go when full, unless I was willing to hire the entire ferry for myself. Which I wasn’t.
Lake Van isn’t too touristy, and my primary concern was that the numbers wouldn’t show up, especially as it was off season. Soon enough though a minibus full of Iranian tourists blaring out loud pop music rocked up, ready to embark. We were away!
Lake Van is more ocean than lake. It is vast, and salty. The water was calm, and we neared the island while along the shoreline the snow capped mountains rose to the sky.
A huge Turkish flag flies on the island’s peninsular, it’s clear that the Turkish government are stamping down their authority over Akdamar, especially as the Armenian church can now only be visited as a tourist site.
Regardless of the troubled history of the island, it’s an exceptionally alluring destination. The church itself was visible on the way in- after the Turkish flag of course- and stood out supremely against the skyline and the mountains far behind.
The church is one of the lasting relics of early Armenian and Orthodox architecture. Turkey is not exactly the most religiously tolerant nation in the world, and it was an intriguing change to see Christian and biblical artwork on display, as opposed to Ottoman and Islamic styles.
Akdamar Island is small, and I navigated the short footpaths around the coast and through the Armenian cemetery, and within an hour the ferry was preparing to take myself and the Iranian tourists back to the mainland.
On top of the boat, as we travelled away from Akdamar Island, I took in the sublime views that Lake Van shows off brazenly to those who make the effort to travel to this far eastern province of Turkey. This is a beautiful part of Turkey, but in the shadows the dark history is always lurking.
Akdamar Island, Lake Van Travel Advice!
The easiest way to reach Akdamar Island is from the city of Van. You can also reach it from Tatvan, but this is a longer journey.
In Van, head to the minibus station on the edge of the city centre. It’s not labelled on maps, but it is right next to the Chai shop on the google map below, and if you go in for street view you can see all the minibuses parked up. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the main shopping street in the centre, straight down the road from LC Waikiki and over the roundabout. Ask for Akdamar or Gevas. The minibus may take a while to fill up before it leaves, and will cost you 5TL for the half hour journey.
If you make it clear you need a Feribot to Akdamar, then the minibus driver can drop you at the port. He may go all the way through the small town of Gevas first though. There are in fact two ports. I jumped off at the first one, located on the map below.
The ferry ride costs 15TL per person for a return ticket. There is then an additional 5TL entrance fee when on the island. The ferry will only leave when there’s enough people to make it worthwhile, so you may have to wait, depending on the demand. Van isn’t really that established on the tourist trail yet, but it’s still a popular trip for locals and there are always lots of Iranian tourists in the city too. To maximise your chance of getting the boat, I’d suggest turning up in the morning, and if you can, go on a weekend.
If you’re going back to van, head along the main road by the lakeside to the crossroads into Gevas and you can hail down a minibus.
Great read. We also loved Van and wrote about our experience staying with a local Kurdish couple. Check it out if you want: https://www.ditchthemap.com/travel-blog/2019/6/29/visiting-kurdish-town-van-eastern-turkey