Armenian Churches of The Lake Van Region

(Van Gölü Bölgesindeki Ermeni Kiliseler ve Manastırları)

/ By Josh

Cost: Varies

Great for: Armenian History, Churches, Armenian Churches, Monasteries

The region around Lake Van, shared between the modern provinces of Van and Bitlis, was a central territory of the Armenian culture for centuries. As the first nation to officially become Christian, the religion has long been a central part of Armenian identity with a rich religious tradition of liturgy, art, and architecture still to be seen wherever they once lived.

The Armenian Christians built numerous churches and monasteries throughout the region, on islands in the lake, hidden in high mountain valleys, and in the towns and cities. Many of these are in a state of disrepair, some damaged in the violence of 1915, others sunk beneath the waters of lake Van, and others intentionally destroyed. Apart from a handful of better known and advertised sites, many of these beautiful and culturally significant places are virtually unknown.

Even the rare mention of these sites in guidebooks can be full of errors, adding misinformation to the general lack of information.

One list I came across showed 90 churches, chapels, and monasteries, though in reality there were much more. In the short time that I was able to spend in Van I already found others that weren’t on that list.

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This article is an ongoing list where we will try to share as much as we possibly can regarding the churches, chapels, and monasteries of the Lake Van region. As we visit more and come across new information we will update the page and hopefully help shed light on the incredibly beautiful and under-appreciated Armenian religious history in this region.

If you have any tips or information, feel free to contact us.

 

Churches of Old Van (Eski Van Kiliseleri)

The City of Van was the largest and most important center in the region surrounding lake Van. Growing out of the ancient Urartian fortress city of Tushpa, what is now called the Old City of Van became the heart of the city sometime around 1200 AD, where a number of Armenian churches were built. While the churches here have been heavily damaged and even destroyed, there are some remains still worth visiting.

For more information see our full City of Van Guide

Surp Vardan

The church of Surp Vardan is believed to date from around the 15th century. It was built at the foot of the sheer cliff of Van Castle in the eastern end of the city. Today only the eastern end of the church remains, with traces of geometric painting on plaster covering some of the wall surfaces near the apse. The cliff face just to the north of the church is covered in crosses carved into the limestone.

Armenian Churches of Van
The remains of the Vardan Church apse.
Van Tushpa Guide
Crosses on the foot of the cliff of Van Castle.

Surp Stephanos

The Church of Surp Stephanos, was built a short distance west of Surp Vardan, also at the foot of the Van Castle cliff. Its construction quality and size is lower than that of Surp Vardan and only a portion of the small brick dome remains. The cliffs here also bear numerous engraved crosses.

Armenian Churches of Van
the ruined dome of Surp Stephanos Church

 

Dsirvanarov Chapel

On the southern end of Old Van, near the restored Kaya Çelebi mosque is the Dsirvanarov Chapel, a small, block-shaped building, recently restored. The restoration seems to have been heavy handed and it is difficult to make out how much of the original structure is there. Sadly, restoration hasn’t been combined with maintenance and the interior is flooded and full of garbage.

Van Tushpa Guide
The sad state of the Dsirvanarov Chapel.

 

Church of Surp Paulos and Petros (Çifte Kilisesi or “Twin Church”)

This single church dedicated to the saints Paul and Peter is often confused with Surp Stephanos and Surp Vardan Churches as they are “twins” in that they are near each other and relatively similar in appearance today. The Church of Surp Paulos and Petros however, is just south-west of the Kızıl Mosque (the further east of the two ruined mosques with half minarets), and little remains of this historic building.

Beyond these there were a number of other churches and chapels, but they have all been lost.

 

Lake Van Island Sites

Church of The Holy Cross Akdamar (Akdamar Surp Haç) – 35TL for boat plus 25TL museum entrance fee

By far the most famous and beautiful Armenian church in Turkey, The Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island is the only site on this list that can be considered well known. Set on an Island in the south of Lake Van, Akdamar Island (Aghtamar in the original Armenian) was home to a monastic complex and palace, founded by King Gagik Artzruni in the early 10th century. His chosen setting was stunning and the church he had built there is equally beautiful.

Van Blog

Van Blog
Depiction of St John the Gospel Writer and St Gregory the Illuminator with a third, unknown saint in a medallion.

While the complex and palace have been lost, the Church of the Holy Cross (Surp Khach) has survived. The exterior of the 20 meter tall church is covered in bas-relief depicting events and characters from Biblical and Armenian history. The interior frescoes have been restored and the bold colours depict saints and biblical characters on nearly every surface of the church interior.

For more information and directions see our full guide to Akdamar Island and The Church of the Holy Cross.

 

Arterivank Monastery (Kuş Adası Manastırı) – (Fee of hiring a private boat to the island)

About four kilometers to the west of Akdamar Island is a small bare rock, once known as Arter, though now known as Kuş adası (Bird Island). This islet was once home to a small monastery devoted to the Mother Mary or Surp Asdvadzadzin. There were once two structures here though now only the one simple chapel consisting of a barrel vault and apse remains. Access to Arterivank can be arranged at the ferry docks for Akdamar.

Akdamar Surp Khach Church Guide
Arterivank as seen from the peak of Akdamar (Aghtamar) Island.

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Tzipna Surp Stefanos

This monastery was built on a low Island and has now been lost due to the rising level of the lake.

 

Surp Hovhanna Ktuts (Çarpanak) – Cost of hiring a boat

NOTE: We have not visited this site, though  information regarding it is clear.

On Ktuts Island is an Armenian monastic complex dating back at least as far as the 15th century. The church is named for St John the Baptist (Surp Hovhanna) and the complex often referred to as Ktuts of Gtuts Monastery. Today the island and monastery are more commonly known by the Turkish name Çarpanak, which is off of a peninsula north of the city of Van, near the villages of Alaköy and Çitören.

 

Lim Monastery – Cost of Hiring a Boat

NOTE: We have not visited this site, though  information regarding it is clear.

Lim island (more commonly Adır in Turkish), in the north of Lake Van opposite the village of Halkalı, was home to a sizable monastic community. While much of the complex and the high conical cupolas are ruined, a sizable portion of a building remains.

 

Other Monasteries of Van Province

Varagavank Monastery (Yedi Kilisesi) – Varies (price seems to fluctuate based on the mood of the warden)

One of the better known churches on this list, The Monastery of the Holy Cross of Varag is one of the larger remaining Armenian Churches in the region. While there were once seven churches here, there are still significant remains of four plus a large section of the apse of a fifth. The monastery was founded to house a particularly important relic in the Armenian tradition, and, likely due to the prestige of this relic, grew into a beautiful complex.

Varagavank Yedi Kilise Guide
A fresco and the opening of a ruined dome.

Van Blog Varagavank

While the history of many churches and monasteries in the Lake Van region is usually quite murky, the legends surrounding the founding of the monastery and much of its history is relatively well known. This combined with the relatively well-preserved state of the complex makes it one of the more fascinating destinations on this list.

For more information and directions see our full guide to Varagavank Monastery

 

Edremit Church (Kız Kilisesi) – Free

Little is known about this small church. Even its name is unknown. Referred to as Kız Kilisesi (Maidens Church) by the Turkish speaking locals, this name actually comes from the nearby viewpoint that is believed to have once been the site of a small castle.

Armenian Churches of Van

The church at Edremit (derived from the Armenian Artamid) is a simple rectangular structure with a barrel vault ending in a semi domed apse. The western face had completely collapsed and has been rebuilt in a way that is unlikely to be historically accurate. The Khachkar stones (cross-carved memorial stones) in the side of the church have been set sideways; exactly why they have been set this way is unclear, though it predates the most recent restoration by many years. Some of the stones with sideways crosses have other crosses, presumably added later, that are upright, which would suggest that other crosses were added after the stove was set sideways.

This church can be found near the center of the Town of Edremit, just a short distance to the west of Kız Kalesi, or The Maidens Castle, sometimes also referred to as Edremit Castle. While there is signage to the church, they aren’t overly clear.

 

Karmravank Monastery (Karmravank Göründü Manastırı) – Free

Karmravank Monastery, near the village of Göründü, is a 10th century monastery complex attributed to King Gagik I. Its location is hidden in the curve of a valley above the lake, and not accessible by car unless you have something with decent clearance, making it a rather less visited site.

Van Blog Church Castle

The complex consists of two churches, built side-by-side in relatively fair condition. The cupola of the primary church is still standing in fair condition atop the ancient church. Walls enclose the complex, though the other buildings are completely destroyed.

For more information and directions see our full guide to Karmravank Monastery.

 

Göründü Village Church (Göründü Köyü Kilisesi) – Free

On the southern edge of the village of Göründü is a small village church. There appears to be no information on the history or name of the church. The church, like Dsirvanarov Chapel, and Edremit Church, is a simple barrel vault and apse with a handful of, crudely etched khatchkar stones in the exterior walls. The right hand corner of the western (entrance) façade has been broken through, but the building is otherwise structurally intact.

Armenian Churches of Van

Van Blog Church Castle
The Armenian Chapel interior at Göründü Village.

 

St Thomas Monastery (Altınsaç Surp Tovmas Manastırı) – Free

Centered on the impressive church of Surp Tovmas (st Thomas) this monastic complex was built sometime in the 10th or 11th century to house a relic of St Thomas. The church and its narthex are still in fair condition and stand on the brink of a high outcropping overlooking a wide bay and the strange undulating peninsulas of the coastline. The walls and outbuildings of the complex have been almost entirely destroyed, though it’s still easy to make out the general plan of the complex. Just uphill from the monastery itself is a graveyard full of finely carved Khachkar gravestones. While the graves have been dug up and looted, many of the stones have been preserved.

Van Blog Church Castle

St Thomas Altınsaç Church
The interior of the Church of St Thomas.

The Monastery of St Thomas is just beyond the village of Altınsaç on the coastal road, overlooking the next bay. After coming down into the bay follow the dirt track up to the left.

For more information and directions see our full guide to St Thomas Monastery

 

Altınsaç Village Church (Altınsaç Köyü Kilisesi) – Free

The village of Altınsaç, originally Kantzag in Armenian, was once home to a few small churches. One was reportedly torn down in recent memory, though another double-church structure remains, if rather altered and damaged.

Van Blog Church Castle
The Eastern wall of the Altınsaç church.
Armenian Churches of Van
The interior of the church at the village of Altınsaç.

The remaining church sits at the junction in the center of the village across from the fountain used to water animals. The eastern apse wall has been torn open, either to make a door into the street or in search for treasure. The church is now used as a hayloft. While damaged, it is being held up in part by concrete posts that were added to add more barn space to the church.

How To Get There

General

With a couple notable exceptions, the vast majority of these sites are going to be difficult to reach without your own car. Even with a car a number of these will require some hiking or the hiring of a private boat to reach.

For more on driving and renting a car in Turkey read our full Driving Guide.

Where To Stay

The larger cities and towns of Van, Edremit, Tatvan, Bitlis, Ahlat, and Erciş, have a selection of basic hotels. There are a handful of higher end hotels east of Edremit and within the Van city center, though not many beyond that.

Other Tips

Weather in this area can get quite cold and snowy from December to March. March and April can be a bit unpredictable so bring clothing and footwear for all weather if you plan on visiting during these times.

In the early spring (often around mid April) the mountain peaks are still white with snow, the lower slopes green, and the almond trees in the villages are full of pale pink flowers. Akdamar Island is particularly stunning in this season.

Planning on visiting any Armenian churches around Lake Van? Make sure to check out the rest of our guides to many sights of The Province of Van!

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Have any tips or info to add? Spot any mistakes? We’d love to hear about it.

1s & 0s by knowler