The beautiful princess lifted the light and he swam for it. The island where Tamar stood was distant, but with the light as his guide, the peasant boy had direction. On this night, however, the forbidden relationship was discovered. The beacon was smashed to the ground. Disoriented by the sudden loss of signal, the lad swam on and on in the dark. At last he became exhausted. He began to slip beneath the waves. He cried out her name, “Agh Tamar!” These words, his last, were carried away by the wind.
This Armenian folktale accounts for the name of a small island. Aghtamar (or Akdamar, in Turkish) is a bittersweet place. It hangs in the deep blue of Lake Van in Eastern Turkey, west of rhapsody and east of tragedy.
It also happens to be the goal for our journey this afternoon. Our boat plows the soda water. The air shimmers in the summer sun. Ochre hills rise from the lake’s edge and disappear into the haze. I watch the churning of the wake. We leave a trail on the surface of the sea.
As we near the island, I am struck by its small size. It consists of a shelf on one end abutting a ridge on the other. A thousand yards across is a generous estimate. The grasses on the shelf and shoulders recline, wearied by the summer heat. In contrast, small trees offers a blotches of dull green. Olive and almond, I reckon.
Nestled into a pocket on the lee side of the island is a dock made of stone. Its edge is softened by a single automobile tire. The pilot makes for the tire like a princess light.
As we brush against the tire, I get a good view to the reason for our visit. The conical roof of an ancient Armenian church—a cathedral, actually—rises from between the trees. It is more pleasing to the eye than I imagined. Its height, measuring some twenty meters, is greater than its width. This elegance, when coupled with time and situation, makes this landmark all the more amazing.
In the early 10th century AD, Gagik I of Vaspurakan constructed a residency on the island. This self-declared “King of the Armenians” was a powerful man with many resources. His rule was recognized by the Byzantines, an empire still at high tide.
Gagik’s island home consisted of streets and gardens and buildings. Of these, only one building has survived the millennium between his time and ours. It is remembered as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. As we step from the boat to the dock, we see it clearly. It is a small but lovely structure, described by Lynch more than a hundred years ago as “the work of a jeweller rather than of an architect” (Armenia Travels and Studies II: 130).