The official opening of the "Van Akdamar Church
Memorial Museum" on the 29th March 2007

Work on the Aghtamar church restoration ended around September/October 2006 (it officially finished on August 30th). However, the church remained officially closed until its planned ceremonial reopening. This event was initially planned for the start of November 2006 but was postponed due to the oncoming winter weather.

In December 2006 it was reported that Atilla Koç, Minister of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey, had announced the proposed date for the opening ceremony would be Tuesday 24th April 2007. April 24th is also the date Armenians commemorate as the start of the Armenian Genocide. It is not known whether the 24th April date was chosen as a deliberate provocation or just out of ignorance. However, the date was quickly dropped when Mesrob Mutafian, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, pointed out that it would be impossible for him or any Armenian to consider attending on that day.

By February it was reported that the reopening ceremony was provisionally set for Sunday April 15th. At the start of March it was changed to Wednesday April 11th. Finally, at relatively short notice, the opening date was changed to Thursday 29th March.

ribbonAttendance at the ceremony was by invitation only. Turkish news reports have stated that "277 organisations and persons" from foreign countries were sent invitations, and that some 200 invitations were sent out to prominent Armenians from around the World. Few, if any, of those Armenians took up the invitation. The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin declined the invitation on the grounds that the opening ceremony would not contain a religious ritual and the church had been turned into a secular museum rather than a functioning church. The Catholicosate of Cilicia also refused to attend, on the grounds of the continued denial of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey. Turkish press reports said that Los Angeles-based Archbishop Amoushegh Mardirossan and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian of the Eastern Diocese would be attending. Neither, as far as I am aware, actually attended.

Other invitees included Turkish journalists and film crews, foreign correspondents based in Turkey, and foreign diplomats. Diplomats who attended included US Ambassador to Turkey Nancy Makeldovny, Ambassador of Israel Pinhas Avivi, and the Vatican's Papal Nuncio to Turkey George Marovitch. Turkish press reports said "356 journalists received accreditation", though not that many attended. They were mostly political journalists, not writers on cultural subjects. No invites were sent to the various foreign archaeological and cultural institutes based in Ankara and Istanbul. Some staff members of these organisations subsequently applied for permission to attend but were refused. Anyone who had not been sent an invite and wanted to attend had to apply to the Turkish Ministry of Culture in Ankara.

Some of the attendees, including Patriarch Mesrob Mutafian, arrived in Van on the 28th March using the morning THY (Turkish Airlines) commercial flight from Istanbul. Most of the attendees arrived in Van on a special flight departing from Ankara the following morning, with their costs paid by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Atilla Koç, Minister of Culture and Tourism, also arrived on this flight.

The delegation from the Republic of Armenia, comprising about 25-30 people including journalists, arrived late in the evening of the 28th March, having taken 16 hours in total to reach Van. They had to travel to Turkey by land, through Georgia, because Turkey's border with Armenia is closed.

Mr Gagik Giurjyan, the deputy Minister of Culture and Youth of the Republic of Armenia, headed the Armenian delegation. Other members of the delegation included: Ruben Safrastian (director of the Oriental Studies Institute of the Academy of Sciences), Mkrtich Minasian (president of Union of Architects), Pavel Avetisian (director of the Archaeology and Ethnography Museum of Armenia), Musrad Hasratian (professor of the Armenian National Science Academy's Arts Institute) and Artyom Grigorian (head of the Historical and Cultural Monuments Protection Committee of the Ministry of Culture). Most of the Armenian delegation stayed in the Şahmaran hotel in Edremit, along with Patriarch Mutafian and his party.

CNN TV ProgramPrior to the official opening on the 29th, on the evening of the 28th a discussion program was filmed inside the church and shown on television that same evening (a live broadcast?) on CNN Turk. Guests on this program included patriarch Mesrob Mutafian, Özdemir Çakacak (governor of Van), Cahit Zeydanlı (chairman of Kaatalkaya, the firm which undertook the restoration), and Şahabettin Öztürk (Head of the Van branch of the Architects' Council). Atilla Koç also took part from a television studio in Ankara.

Events on the Friday morning started later than planned due to the late arrival of the flight from Ankara. Security was heavy. Speedboats patrolled the waters around Aghtamar Island and police were spread out over the island. According to Turkish sources, some 1000 police and other security forces were involved in the event. Shortly before the arrival of the attendees a demonstration by Turkish nationalists was broken up at the ferryboat jetty to Aghtamar and police detained five people. The protesters, it is reported, carried Turkish flags, pictures of Ataturk, and banners that said "The Turkish people are noble. They would never commit genocide".

I have not seen a definitive figure for the number of people who attended the opening ceremony, but it was probably about 350 people.

The opening ceremony began with a (specially composed?) piano recital played live by Tuluyhan Uğurlu and accompanied by images of the church projected onto a large screen.

The head of Cultural Properties and Museums in Turkey, Orhan Duzgun, gave the opening speech. It was delivered in Turkish, with a simultaneous translation broadcast in English that could be heard using headphones.

Patriarch Mesrob Mutafian then gave a speech delivered in Turkish, again with a simultaneous translation into English. The English translation was not accurate in parts. For example, his words "this church has not been used as a place of worship for over ninety years now" was translated as "over nine hundred years now". A printed handout containing his speech in English was later distributed. Click here to read it.

Then the governor of Van District, Özdemir Çakacak, gave a speech in Turkish with a simultaneous translation into English.

Mr Attila Koç, Minister of Culture and Tourism, then gave a speech in Turkish, again with a simultaneous translation into English. A printed handout containing his speech in English was later distributed. Click here to read it. After his speech, Mr Koç presented an award to Cahit Zeydanlı the director of KaatalKaya.

Next (or perhaps at the start of Minister Koç's speech) the Turkish National Anthem was played. A ribbon was then stretched across the platform, and those who had given a speech, plus Gagik Giurjyan and several others, stood in a line, each with scissors ready to cut the ribbon. The ribbon was cut into several pieces, then those on the platform entered the church, closely followed by a crush of photographers and TV crews.

Outside again, the most important of those present gave interviews. Mesrob Mutafian somehow managed to evade the journalists, and with a couple of attendants climbed most of the way up the hill that overlooks the northern end of the island.

Posters with the slogan "Tarihe saygi, kültüre saygi" (Respect the history, respect the culture) were on display in many locations throughout Van city. They were also on some street advertising in Ankara.

Patriarch Mesrob, his staff, and most of the delegation from the Republic of Armenia stayed at the Şahmaran hotel.

A huge Turkish flag, draped over one end of the island, was the first thing that greeted the visitors.

About a half-dozen boats were used to ferry the attendees across the lake to the island.

The opening ceremony began with a piano recital played by Tuluyhan Uğurlu and accompanied by images of the church projected onto a large screen.

The Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, Mesrob II Mutafian, addressing the audience.

Above left, the governor of Van District, Özdemir Çakacak, addressing the audience. Above right, Mr Attila Koç, Minister of Culture and Tourism, presenting an award to Cahit Zeydanlı, the director of KaatalKaya.

The opening ribbon is about to be cut.

The ribbon is cut...

...and everyone crowds into the church.

The interior of the church.

Above left, Attila Koç, Minister of Culture and Tourism, being interviewed by many journalists. Above right, Gagik Giurjyan, deputy Minister of Culture and Youth of the Republic of Armenia, giving an interview to the Armenian TV station Shant.

Patriarch Mesrob Mutafian pictured outside the zhamatun of the church and then descending from the hill at the northern end of the island.

Attila Koç and Patriarch Mesrob Mutafian surrounded by cameramen and journalists on the boat returning from Aghtamar.

After the opening ceremony had ended, all the attendees were transported back across the lake by boat and taken by bus to the Şahmaran hotel for lunch. In the late afternoon, at about 4pm, those who had not left the Şahmaran hotel early to file their stories were taken by bus to Van castle. A tour was provided of the castle and the adjoining park that has several modern buildings constructed as traditional houses.

After this, Attila Koç, Özdemir Çakacak, and Gagik Gyurgian visited the site of the old town of Van and an Ottoman-period mosque that was undergoing restoration there. However, because of the increasing cold, only local officials and a few Turkish journalists accompanied them. Most of the foreign correspondents were then bussed out to the airport and returned by plane to Ankara or Istanbul that same evening. Most of the Turkish TV-crews and journalists left on Friday, with a few stragglers waiting until Saturday.