I might as well be hunting SheSquatch. Queen Shamiram of Assyria is nimble and elusive, yet enormously powerful. Like her sisters of blood-legend, Zenobia, Jezebel, or Cleopatra, it is hard to know where truth ends and fiction begins.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City is theomphalos (navel) of Christian imagination. Its roof encloses key moments of sacred memory, including places associated with Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Countless pilgrims have risked life and treasure to enter these wooden doors. A visit can change a person. Or start a war.
The bearded saints look down. Rows and rows of them. They are lean, dark-eyed, and, despite their great antiquity, ephemeral. From their vantage point high on the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, they are supreme. This is their domain. I look up. My eyes meet theirs. I feel small.
We approach the church that Gagik built. Except Gagik didn’t really build it. He commissioned an architect-monk named Manuel to do the hard work. Of the 10th century complex erected on the island of Aghtamar, the only structure that survives is the Church of the Holy Cross. We are fortunate. Manuel’s labor is a triumph of medieval Armenian architecture.
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 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.
About the time of the Apostle Paul, Pliny the Elder carried the eagles of Rome. He mistakenly believed that Lake Van was a part of the Tigris River system. Since he could not locate an exit for the water, he surmised that the lake was drained by a hidden underground cave. A special fish lived here.
The road unwinds outside our vehicle. We do the same on the inside, quietly resting after our experience of Ağrı Dağı. My head bumps against the glass, eyes half closed. This, despite the extraordinary landscape.
I stand on the terraced roof of our hotel and scan the horizon. Doğubeyazıt (Daroynk to Armenians) reminds me of the Great American West. Could this be Wyoming? Perhaps. It is a cowboy town, a trucker town, a mountain town, a border town. It is gritty in appearance and demanding of all who pass.