The restoration of the Holy Cross church on Aghtamar (Akdamar) island: photographs and observations

In May 2005 the world-famous 10th-century Armenian church on Aghtamar (Akdamar) island in Lake Van was closed for visitors to allow a restoration of the monument to begin.

The restoration of the Aghtamar church is, according to the words of one of those in charge of it, "the best-quality restoration-project that has ever been undertaken in Turkey". The reality is that the Aghtamar restoration actually fails to follow acceptable modern standards and practices in almost every aspect.

Restoration is the process of making alterations and repairs to a building with the intention of restoring it to its original form. Restoration is a more drastic intervention than conservation. Outrage at the damage done during ruthless "restorations" in 19th-century Europe first created codes of conduct in relation to such activities. These have progressed to the extent that today the traditional concept of restoration is now regarded as a discredited and obsolete practice that has been replaced by that of conservation.

Conservation is the preservation of an existing building, taking great care not to alter or destroy any aspect of it. Any repairs must be restricted to essential repairs only, and must always respect the existing character of the building. Article 9 of the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites states that "the aim of restoration is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and the historical value of the monument and is based on respect for the original building and on authentic documents".

The fundamental principles of modern conservation are 'minimal intervention' and 'conserve as found'. Conservation methods must retain the authenticity of the monument, use materials sympathetic to the original structure, preserve important original fabric, and apply the least visual change to a structure. The goal should be, wherever possible, to preserve the monument frozen in time.

Unfortunately, a conservation-led policy of minimal intervention is not found amongst the techniques and philosophy of Turkey's 'restoration industry', which seems to be based entirely on the exploitation and trivialisation of historical buildings.

The church and its associated structures now lie fenced-off from the public. The whole church will be closed to tourists for two years while the restoration continues (the closure started in May 2005 and the official re-opening is planned to take place in April 2007).

The signpost announces that the cost of the restoration will be 2,050,000 New Turkish Lira. This at the time was the equivalent of over 1.5 million US dollars! It is a breathtaking large amount, far bigger than what any properly conducted conservation project for the monument could have required. (For example, the 21-month long conservation project for the exterior of the far larger Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence that ended in October 2015, and that also included a restoration of the famous bronze doors by Ghiberti, had a budget of 2 million euros, about 2.2 million dollars.) The grossly inflated budget set aside for the restoration could have been far better spent consolidating the hundreds of ruinous or derelict Armenian churches in Eastern Turkey that are all (unlike the Aghtamar church) in danger of complete collapse.

A grid of metal scaffolding, created mostly for public effect, encases the church. A simpler, less obtrusive, and less costly arrangement of ropes and ladders could easily have sufficed.

Some aspects of the restoration are undeniably justifiable and urgently necessary - such as the replacement of missing or unstable sections of the church's roof.

A workman is photographed mixing up some cement. It is ordinary, factory-produced cement - very different from the natural concrete (lime mortar) that was used to build the church. In the harsh winter climate of this region the modern cement will crumble within a short space of time.

This is a machine-cut block of stone intended for incorporation into the monument. Not only is its surface-finish alien to the existing structure, the composition of the stone is very different to the existing masonry.

This is a 2003 photograph showing the roof of the narthex or outer hall of the church, known as a zhamatun in Armenian. The appearance of this roof has not altered since the construction of the zhamatun in the year 1763: it was always a flat roof with a covering of earth. The construction of these flat roofs was a skilled and complicated process, involving multiple layers of carefully selected earth and gravel. The exterior surface ideally had to be compressed regularly, and old photographs often reveal stone rollers on such rooftops.

In July 2005 all of the grass-covered roof and its underlying layers were removed and replaced with a covering of concrete. By September a pitched-roof with a covering of machine-cut stone slabs had been constructed on top of the concrete (see the two photographs below). This is a fundamental alteration to the original appearance of the zhamatun. The zhamatun is an architectural form that evolved from flat-roofed domestic Armenian architecture: the new roof is not only historically inaccurate, it denies the essential nature of the zhamatun. Why was this work done? The original roof was completely watertight and structurally sound - all that was needed were minor repairs to its edges.

The new stone roof will be substantially heavier than the original earthen roof, possibly placing the structural integrity of the zhamatun at risk. A traditionally-constructed earthen flat-roof can breath and is adept at storing heat, moderating any extreme changes in temperature and moisture inside the building. The new roof will not do this; the long-term implications of that may be serious.

Large sections of the original edging of coping stones survived on the zhamatun roof until the "restoration". They have all now been destroyed and replaced by modern machine-cut stones. The above two photographs show the before (July 2005) and the after (September 2005).

The above photograph, taken in July 2006, reveals that in addition to the zhamatun, new roofs have been placed over the chapel of Catholicos Step'anos and its porch. The finish of all this new work is clearly unsympathetic to the original structure. The photograph reproduced below also shows that it is historically inaccurate.

This photograph (plate 2 in Stephan Mnatsakanian's 1983 book Aghtamar) was taken before 1915. It shows the roof of the Step'anos chapel and reveals that the roof constructed in 2006 does not match the appearance of the original roof. Most of the original roofing slabs had been lost by the time of the restoration, but their form could easily have been recreated using old photographs as a guide. That they were not typifies the careless attitude that the restorers have taken towards the accuracy of their restoration.

The deliberate destruction of original sections of the medieval structure has not been limited to the zhamatun. The photograph on the left shows the apex of the west facade in 2004. Parts of the original edge of the roof are still in-situ. The photograph on the right, taken on 2006, reveals that those surviving parts were destroyed during the restoration.

Next to the church lie piles of machine-cut stone slabs, unsympathetic to the original masonry of the monument. These stones were later used to cover the floor of the zhamatun, the chapels, and the church. This "restored" paving is entirely unlike the original floor covering. The zhamatun was originally paved with a layer of flat, irregularly-shaped stones - sections of which still survived until the restoration (they are now destroyed). The original 10th-century paving of the church has not survived. At some time during its history it was re-paved using a mixture of flat, irregularly-shaped stones and reused late-medieval gravestones.

A surviving section of the original floor surface of the zhamatun, photographed in 2004.

A photograph showing the interior of the zhamatun during the restoration. All the surviving sections of the original flooring have been destroyed and a thick layer of concrete has been poured over the entire floor to act as a foundation for the new paving of cut stone slabs. Once again, the restoration has made a fundamental alteration to the original appearance of the monument.

The new floor covering, together with the new stone-clad roof, will create an airtight environment within the zhamatun that may have implications for the internal atmosphere of the church. It is likely that it will lead to a build-up of moisture, risking damage to the stonework, the mortar, and to the plaster and frescoes within the main church.

A worker uses a wire-brush to scrub the walls clean of any history and character.

There appears to be little or no archaeological element to the restoration. Layers of stratified earth are simply dug away by labourers and discarded. Any masonry fragments that are uncovered, including cut stones bearing carvings, are simply added to several big piles of debris and their original locations are unrecorded.

Why did all this happen at Aghtamar?

It is important to realise that the current restoration of the Aghtamar church is a political act, done for political reasons. It is the result of political imperatives rather than archaeological necessities. It may be being paid for by Turkey, but it was largely instigated by pro-Turkish elements within the EU who wanted Turkey to make a highly visible and expensive gesture that would show to its critics that all is well within Turkey regarding its treatment of minority cultures.

Elements within Europe and America in favour of Turkey's admission to the EU have made lists of suggestions that Turkey should follow in order to improve its public image and thus make its application for EU membership easier. One of the suggestions (in order to neutralise the opposition of descendants of ethnic groups such as Greeks and Armenians that Turkey had committed genocide against) was that Turkey should to be able to show that it takes care of the historical monuments of its minority cultures, especially those of its vanished non-Muslim minorities.

In an EU document sent to Turkey, the Aghtamar church was specifically mentioned as a building that, if it were restored, could be used as a highly visible example of how Turkey is actively preserving its non-Turkish monuments (according to information given to me by an Associated Press reporter).

It is ironic that the EU's awareness of the Aghtamar church, and the propaganda value that could be gained by restoring it, arose as a direct result of the activities of certain Armenian organisations and lobbyist-groups around the world. Consistently, over the last decade, they have produced propaganda mentioning the Aghtamar church. Here are excerpts from some recent examples.

    ITAR-TASS News Agency, 6th July, 2004: The World Armenian Congress has expressed concern over the condition of the Akhtamar Saint Cross Church ... It is so much dilapidated now that 'soon only ruins will be left of it'. The World Armenian Congress urged the Turkish and Armenian governments to take steps without delay for restoring the Akhtamar Saint Cross Church and to hold talks with the participation of international experts from UNESCO for outlining measures to be taken for restoring this and other Armenian architectural monuments on Turkish territory.

    Assembly of Armenians of Europe, November 2004 press release (REF: PR/04/11/013): Marvellous carvings of the 10th century church of Akhtamar (Lake Van, Eastern Turkey) are regularly being used as targets for shooting practice by visitors... The church, which is visited by many foreign tourists, is badly neglected and close to ruins... The church has been neglected and harmed by treasure hunters and is at risk of collapsing. Both its foundation and ceiling have cracks and holes.

    California Courier Online, 18th November 2004: Visitors Use 10th Century Akhtamar Armenia Church for Target Practice. This article also cited a photograph purporting to show the recent damage. The photograph actually showed damage that had been there since the 1950s.

All of the above reports had no basis in fact. The structural integrity of the Holy Cross church was never in any danger. The exact opposite was true: the church was in remarkably good condition. It would have needed only minimal conservation work, and some minor repairs done to sections of the roof, to ensure the building's survival into the future. Yet these reports, and others like it, were used by Armenian propagandists as factual descriptions of the condition of the church and were incorporated into documents sent out to numerous international bodies. They paved the way for the Aghtamar church to become the victim of a "show-restoration" by Turkey - a restoration that is actually an elaborate public-relations stunt, filled with unnecessary work in order to justify the headline-grabbing budget that it was given.

Article 1 of the previously mentioned International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, in defining what an historic monument is, states that an historic monument is also physical "evidence of a particular civilisation, a significant development, or an historic event". Article 3 explains that the intention behind conserving a monument should be the preserving of historical evidence as much as any other reason. These are core values that need to be held by those behind any successful restoration. How could they have been present amongst those who planned the Aghtamar restoration, when most of the historical and cultural aspects relating to that monument are still vehemently denied by Turkey?