East Turkey – Iran – Armenians

Armenia is a neighbour country to Turkey and Iran. The history of this region is complicated with different dynasties and people have dominated various areas. Borders have moved back and forth. What we can call the country Armenia has varied in size and importance, at one period it streched from the Mediterranian to the Black Sea and for most of the time the northern part of Iran and nort-eastern part of Turkey was under Armenian rule. Armenia was one of the first countries that became Christian and they maintained their Christianity through the Muslim expansion. They built churches and some of them still stand. It is a cathedral in Isfahan in the middle of an Armenian quarter, named Vank, with an interesting museum. We visited one church in Turkey and one in northern Iran in addition to the Armenian Quarter in Isfahan.

In the beginning of the 1900s the conflict between Turkey and the Armenians became very violent. About 2 million Armenians lived within the Turkey , around 1920 only 300 000 remained. Part of the conflict is carachterized as genocide by most countries. Ugly massacres took place and concentration camps took many lives. In addition many Armenians tried to escape eastwards under difficult conditions. There are much documentation that this is what happened. Turkey has untill now denied genocide and has maintained that the people died in a civil war, from famine and illness. It also claimed that the Armenians killed Turks. There are indications that Turkey is changing its attitude and the president has has said he is sorry for the suffering. But he has not taken any responsibility for the actions from the Turks.

There is still a small Armenian minority in both Turkey and Iran.

I am positively surprised that the churches and the Armenian quarter is protected, maintained and restored an being actively used as places of worship. At the same time the ugly history is a tragic and sombering backcurtain that is always present.

The church we visited in Turkey is on an Akdamar island in the Van sea. It is a beautiful place in a beautiful landscape.

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The church seen from the boat.                               The view from the church

The church had reliefs with Biblical motives around the outside and on several levels, The church itself was quite small but had several frescos inside.

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Somehow I had mixed emotions on Akdamar island. The atmosphere and serenity on the island stand in contrast to the Armenian history in this area.

The church in Iran is situatied in a very rural area and is called Ghara Kalisa, which means something with black,  but the church is not characterized with being black. The oldest part of the church is built in blackish stone while the newer part is built with light-coloured stone. The Armenians say it is the wold’s oldest church originally built around 65 BCE by St. Thaddeus and it is occasionally services there.

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I believe “rural” is correct                                                                        Picture from a service in Ghala Kelisa

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It was a strange experience to see this church. The surroundings were rural to say it carefully. The closest neighbour was a village with clay buildings and corrugated steel sheet roofs and then this ancient buildings. To me the contrast is remarkable. In addition the difference in culture and history, so all in all it was a surprise and absolutely worth while.

The Armenian quarter in Isfahan is called Vank. It was built by Armenians deportees who came to Isfahan around 1605 after what is called the Ottoman war (1603-1605). It is really a quarter with several buildings. I visited the cathedral and the museum. Both were really interesting but very different. In contrast to the two first churches I visited the cathedral was totally filled with fresco painting. It was so much decorated it was almost claustrophobic. The pictures overwhelmed each other, in my opinion. I looked for details as I think they say more.

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The museum had a lot of ancient books that I spent most time with. Books from 1300-1400 in colour and fully readable. Really interesting and I should have liked to learn more about the papermaking, my old professional field. The pictures and the text were of course done by hand, labour intensive!

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A part of the museum showed papers and letters with translation concerning the genocide. It was frightening to see. It was several orders from central authorities in clear language to kill Armenians. As with other similar happenings it leaves me depressed with the question: Is there no limit what inhuman and cruel things unchecked power can make humans do?

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