The Island of Imagination

We jump from the launch to the landing. Motion arrested, I stand on the concrete slab and try to imagine how Aghtamar, the island stronghold of King Gagik, would have appeared to a tenth century visitor.

The location of Armenia and its neighbors in the year 1000. Lake Van is in the center of the image. This map may be found here.

My imagination is assisted by the sequence of authors who frame the narrative of early Armenian history. It is a work by committee. T’ovma Arcruni, a kind of eastern Eusebius, begins the story in the “time of Noah” and hops from this creaky launch to a landing of his own in AD 905. To manage the distance, he draws upon (and thus preserves) the account of Moses of Koren (see our “Lost Love, Lost Kingdom”). With the death of T’ovma, the job of story-telling is passed to others who add bits and pieces and carry it down as far as the 14th century. In this way, the literary construction remembered as Patmut’iwn Tann Arcruneac’ (History of the House of the Arcrunik’) accumulates. Here we meet King Gagik and his marvelous island.

Drawing of the island showing the church complex in the SE corner. Image from Step'an Mnatsakanian, The Church of the Holy Cross (1965).

I watch a seabird glide over the water and imagine the harbor, palace, and church in their splendor. These monumental expressions of power and faith celebrated the fertility of the region, connectivity with a biblical past, and the honor of the family of King Gagik.

As for the harbor, workers hewed rock and threw it into the deep to raise an embankment. This encircling embankment stood five cubits above the surface of the water and formed the base for a stone wall. This wall enclosed and protected the boats arriving from the mainland.

Nothing from this work is visible to my eye. Some say that the harbor sank beneath the rising waters of Lake Van. Others suggest collapse accounts for the harbor’s demise. Earthquakes are common in this volcanic land. I gaze upon the azure surface and ponder a trade: my lunch in exchange for a swim mask (and a full tank of air!). Something must be down there! Unfortunately, there are no takers on this breezy afternoon. Probably best. I need to brush up on the quirkiness of high-altitude diving anyway.

Above the landing, somewhere on the level southeastern corner of the island, Gagik’s palace must have stood. Again, we are forced to rely upon the imagination, as informed by medieval sources.

Lake Van laps at the westernmost corner of Aghtamar island. Image by H. F. B. Lynch, a late 19th century explorer of the region (1901: Fig. 140).

We read how the king ordered his men to build “a rectangular palace that was forty cubits in width, in length and likewise in height. The walls had a thickness of three large paces. They were built with unmixed lime and stones that were joined together with lead and copper. The structure of the palace from its foundations up to its soaring summit is not supported by any pillars and it is indeed amazing and beyond comprehension. The palace also has apses, arcades, niches and well adorned outer walls, which the mind cannot account for and the eye cannot examine. It has heaven-like domes that are embellished with gold and shine brilliantly. Should one wish to look at them, he must first remove his hat from his head, as if showing respect to a king, and twist his neck in order to notice with difficulty the forms painted in different colors” (from Mnatsakanian, 1986: 7).

View from Aghtamar Island back to the mainland. Yes, they are almond trees.

None of this survives, nor, to my knowledge, has it been thoroughly investigated. Those who study the meager remains of surviving Armenian architecture elsewhere suggest that the palace was likely built on a square plan, centered on a throne room chamber. This chamber was covered by a dome which was, in turn, supported by intersecting arches springing from each of the four corners of the building (thus eliminating the need for pillars). Light fell through a window, or oculus, and alternatively illuminated the paintings described above. Flanking rooms and living spaces surrounded this central chamber and completed the palace. Altogether it towered on the island, as the historians describe it, “like a hill.”

My thoughts turn from the harbor and palace to the church. Here, imagination can give way to reality.

View to the island, the dock, and what is left of the church complex.