Lost Armenian History: Unknown Island in Lake Van

By Dr. Amy L. Beam:2013 amy beam headshot t

The popular tourist attraction of Akdamar Island with its famous 10th century Armenian church is not the only island in Lake Van, Turkey.  There is a tiny island with a dark, lost history along the northeast coast.  Road signs show it is 40 km north of Van and 60 km southeast of Ercis.  It is about one-half mile off-shore and approximately 1/4 mile long.  It rises in a slight hill and is uninhabited.   Across the lake one can see the summit of Suphan Mountain at 4058 meters.

Arnes Island, Lake Van, Suphan Mountain on horizon

Arnes Island, Lake Van, Suphan Mountain on horizon

Arnes Island does not appear on maps

Arnes Island does not appear on maps

Many times I have driven up and down the coastal road without paying attention to this tiny uninhabited island until Mehmet (not his real name) told me his story.  Mehmet owns a large piece of land on the mountain range opposite Ishak Pasa Palace in Dogubayazit.   He is a tall, handsome, fiftyish businessman with graying hair.  A half-dozen friends were sitting around one summer evening drinking tea under the stars and swapping stories.

Of course, people’s first question to me is always “Where are you from?” which I refuse to answer because no one knows where my little island is located in the Caribbean.   I always say, “I am from here,” because I spend half my year in Turkey.  To my answer, Mehmet retorted, “Where are your grandparents from?”

“Ahh, clever man.  Italy,” I reply and turn his question on him.  “Where are your grandparents from?”

Immediately a hush falls over the table.  Apparently everyone but me knows Mehmet’s story.  He pauses, nods introspectively to himself, and makes a one-sided grimace, considering whether to trust me.

“My grandmother was from Van.  She was Armenian.  In 1915, Turkish and Kurdish soldiers put 768 Armenian people, mostly women and children, on a tiny island in the north end of Lake Van.  It is called Arnes Island.  You can’t find it on any map.  They stripped them naked and left them to starve to death on the island.  Only one person survived.”

“Eight people managed to escape from the island and hide in a cave in the Tendurek Mountains.  Local Kurds betrayed their hiding place to the soldiers.  When the soldiers found them in the cave, they opened fire killing all but one who was wounded in the shoulder.  When she fell, her long hair fell out from under her cap.  One soldier saw she was a woman and instantly ordered everyone to stop shooting.”

He pauses again.  “That soldier was my grandfather.  He married her.  He was Kurdish and she was Armenian.”

“You must write your grandmother’s story,” I command him.

“Yes, I know.  I’ve been putting it off,” he nods.  Only in the last two or three years have descendents of Armenian survivors been brave enough to acknowledge their Armenian roots or reveal  that the Kurds were complicit in killing Armenians.

I searched the internet for Arnes Island, but there is no mention of it.

There is repeated mention, however, of Lim Island (Turkish name Adır Island) on which “upwards of 12,000 Armenian women and children, crossed to the isle over a period of three days [April 21-23, 1915] while a few dozen men covered their retreat from Hamidiye regiments. All starved to death before help could arrive.”

There is no boat tour to the unknown Arnes Island, but in the south end of Lake Van, visitors  may take the ferry to Akdamar Island, hike to the top in one hour and finish with a swim in the summer on the small beach.  The 10th century Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross attracts visitors, especially of Christian Armenian descent, from all around the world.

The bas-relief stone carvings that ring the top of the exterior are truly extraordinary.  Images depict well-known Biblical stories. In April 1915, the monks on Akdamar were massacred and the surrounding buildings destroyed.

Amy Beam in front of 10th century Armenian church on Lake Van, Turkey

Amy Beam in front of 10th century Armenian church on Akdamar Island, Lake Van

Tourists, however, like to feel good, not disturbed, on their holiday.   So the university-educated, government-licensed tour guides tell a romantic myth, like much of Turkey’s official history.

According to the legend, an Armenian princess named Tamar lived on the island and was in love with a commoner. This boy would swim from the mainland to the island each night, guided by a lantern she lit for him. Her father learned of the boy’s visits. One night, as she waited for her lover to arrive, the father smashed her light, leaving the boy in the middle of the lake without a guide to indicate which direction to swim. His body washed ashore and, as the legend concludes, it appeared as if the words “Ahk, Tamar” (Oh, Tamar) were frozen on his lips.

In 1951, the Turkish government made a decision to destroy the church in its long campaign of destroying all traces of anything Armenian, but the writer Yasar Kemal , who died February 28, 2015, managed to stop the destruction. He explained “I was in a ship from Tatvan to Van (crossing Lake Van). I met with a military officer Dr. Cavit Bey onboard. I told him, in this city there is a church descended from Armenians. It is a masterpiece. These days, they are demolishing this church. I will take you there tomorrow. This church is a monument of Anatolia. Can you help me to stop the destruction?

“The next day we went there with the military officer. They had already demolished the small chapel next to the church. The military officer became angry and told the workers, ‘I am ordering you to stop working. I will meet with the governor. There will be no movement until I return to the island again’. The workers immediately stopped the demolition. We arrived at Van city center. I contacted the newspaper Cumhuriyet. They informed the Ministry of Education about the demolition. Two days later, Minister Avni Başman telegraphed the Van governor and ordered to stop the demolition permanently. June 25, 1951, the day when the order came, is the liberation day of the church.”

Eventually, the government was convinced to renovate the church in 2005-2006 to promote tourism.  Zakarya Mildanoğlu, an architect who was involved in the restoration process of the church, explained the situation during an interview with Hrant Dink as “The facade of the church is full of bullet holes. Some of them are so big that they cannot be covered during the renovation process.”  The official history is that the abandoned church was used as target practice.  Nothing is mentioned of the monks who lost their lives there in the 1915 massacre.

The church on Akdamar Island was reopened in 2007 to visitors.  The boat leaves the dock every half-hour until sunset.

Dr. Amy L. Beam promotes tourism in eastern Turkey at Mount Ararat Trek and writes political and historical commentary on Kurds in Turkey at Kurdistan Tribune.  Twitter @amybeam; amybeam@yahoo.com.

3 Responses to Lost Armenian History: Unknown Island in Lake Van
  1. Shawan
    April 23, 2015 | 17:16

    Christian civilization in the Middle East was badly damaged during the totalitarian Othman Empire. If historians delve into the facts, they will see that numerous other crimes were committed, as well, but never outlined.

  2. Amy L Beam
    April 23, 2015 | 18:51

    Any visitor to eastern Anatolia need only ask anyone over age 30 or 40 to hear a piece of history involving terrible massacres against different groups of people: Armenians, Greeks, Yazidis, Alivis, Kurds, and others. The history of Turkey is, sadly, built upon mass graves. This shared history is part of the psychie of today’s population and the Kurdish struggle for ethnic rights and equality among all groups of people.

  3. Kuvan Bamarny
    April 24, 2015 | 10:18

    Turkey has been conquered and inhabited by many empires with different religions,culture and backgrounds such as Persians,Greeks, Meds,Assyrian =Armenian, Seljuk and Mongol= Ottomans Turks ,Arabs=Phoenicians,and Eastern Europe= Balkan people .Every empire ,has left behind a piece of history during their rulership in Turkey.So Turkey is a mixture of people with different races , ethnicities ,culture ,religions, back grounds and history.

    Considering the fact that all these people with different culture ,religion background have lived and made history on that land in different ways,It raises the question that who does Turkey belong to ? Does it belong to only Turks because they are the majority and rule the land now ? Obviously not,

    Turkey belongs to all people who live in Turkey including Armenian and Kurds, However original Turks have suppressed the rest of minorities for years ,denied them the freedom of exercising the right to their culture ,religion and back ground .Their constitution clearly says that Turkey belongs to Turks, meaning it only belongs to Mongols and Seljuks whom speak in Turkish language and they originally have emigrated from eastern Asian towards the land where it is called Turkey now.

    Until 11 century ,that piece of land and its inhabitant where not Turks nor did Turkish people lived there.It was rather inhabits by Greek ,Persians ,including Kurds,Phoenician and Assyrian people.Seljuk and Mongols have Turkufied that piece of Land in 11 century.

    Democracy, rule of law and respect to the rights of none Turks citizens ,is the best single solution to peaceful coexistence of all people from different ,culture ,religion and back ground who live in Turkey.

    Regards

    Kuvan Bamarny/Duhok

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