A lost Armenian architectural treasure has resurfaced out of the depths of Lake Van.
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“On a low, rocky promontory at the edge of Lake Van, a powerful four-sided fortress stands. Each stone in the edifice is the size of an elephant—big enough to support a team of horses. The castle door alone is immense.”
Those words, written by a 17th-century traveler, describe the ancient fortress city of Arjesh in Van, the historic Armenian heartland. Arjesh was an Armenian stronghold on the northern part of Lake Van (in fact, the lake was at various times called Arjeshi dzove: the Sea of Arjesh).
Within two centuries of that eyewitness account, however, the entire city had disappeared from view. The waters of Lake Van had risen gradually beginning in the middle ages, and by the 1840s the entire city was submerged. In the subsequent 17 decades, the spires of the fortress could only be glimpsed on rare occasions, when the lake waters were agitated by severe storms.
But lately, a regional drought has caused those waters to recede to historically low levels, and the once-sunken city has re-emerged into the light of day. Among the structures newly revealed is the monumental Armenian Church of Arjesh, pictured above. Even in its ruined condition, the lines of a Christian edifice in the classical Armenian style are clearly discernable; the stones used in its construction, while not quite elephantine, are impressive in their scale.
Of course, local conditions being what they are, a precious opportunity for archaeological study is being marred by fears of vandalism and looting. The Istanbul Armenian newspaper Agosquoted a Kurdish historian and an Armenian parliamentarian to that effect when it reported on the church’s emergence from beneath the waters last month. Both are calling for official measures to be taken, to protect this treasure from the past.
Lake Van is home to many such treasures. Above the surface of the lake is the Island of Aghtamar, site of the magnificent Cathedral of the Holy Cross, one of the wonders of classical Armenian architecture. Reaching even further into the depths of Armenian antiquity, explorers have discovered an Atlantis-like fortress at the bottom of Lake Van, which has been identified as a relic of the Kingdom of Urartu from some 3,000 years ago.