The image of an ancient church on a small island in the middle of a bright blue lake looks like something out of a fairytale. But while Akdamar Island is indeed a real place, Lake Van is just about the furthest point in Turkey from Istanbul, and few actually visit. But making it out to this former getaway of an ancient Armenian king is an unforgettable experience that’s well worth the effort.
Akdamar Island can be reached as a day trip from the provincial capital of Van. While group tours exist, public transport is also an option, but it isn’t easy. You can learn more about transport and accommodation in this overlooked part of Turkey at the end of the article.
Approaching Akdamar Island
Akdamar Island, the second largest of the lake’s four islands, can be reached via ferry which departs from the town of Gevaş (learn more below). And the ride, which lasts around half an hour, is the perfect time to take in the serene beauty of Lake Van and its surrounding mountains.
Lake Van is Turkey’s biggest lake and also its most unusual. It’s a salt lake at 1,750 meters above sea level with highly alkaline water. And its striking blue water makes it one of the most beautiful natural sights in the whole country.
The lake was originally formed by the eruption of Mt. Nemrut (the one near Tatvan, not the more famous one with the colossal heads). And unusually, Lake Van has no outflow.
But despite rivers of melted snow flowing into it each year, Lake Van’s water level remains constant, possibly due to evaporation in the summer months.
On this hot summer day, I stood out on the deck to admire the views and also catch the refreshing breeze. But I couldn’t maintain my relaxed mood when I spotted a woman throw her cigarette butt right into the water! It’s probably best that I lacked the Turkish vocabulary for what I wanted to tell her.
Before long, Akdamar Island came into view. And as we got even closer, we could clearly spot the island’s prominent landmark, the Church of the Holy Cross.
Most visitors head straight for the church, but if it’s packed during your visit, you may want to explore elsewhere until the crowds dwindle. In any case, the first thing you’ll need to do upon getting off the boat is purchase an entry ticket which, at the time of writing, costs 25 TL.
The Church of the Holy Cross
The Armenians liked to build churches in the most scenic settings possible, and the Church of the Holy Cross is no exception. Built of pink tufa limestone, the church was constructed by a monk and architect named Manuel. The small church, which is only 15 by 12 meters, was built in a cruciform shape with a tall central dome.
Construction took place between 915-921 AD, and it’s the only surviving structure of a vast palace and monastery complex built by King Gagik I Artsruni.
Confusingly, Gagik I Artsruni is not the same Gagik I of the Bagratid dynasty who would rule out of Ani from 989-1020.
Akdamar’s Gagik, who reigned from 904-943, was a member of the Artsuni dynasty. And he ruled an Armenian kingdom distinct from that of the Bagratids known as the Kingdom of Vaspurakan.
Originally, Vaspurakan was part of Greater Armenia, a large empire that was eventually partitioned by the Byzantines and Persians in the 5th century. Vaspurakan’s territory stretched from Lake Van to Lake Urmia, now located between the East and West Azerbaijan provinces of Iran.
While Vaspurakan was once a vassal of Bagratid Armenia, it split away following the Arab invasions of the region. In 908, Gagik I Artsruni sided with the Abassid Caliphate who recognized him as the true king of Armenia.
Gagik, however, eventually rebelled against the Arabs and teamed up with the Bagratids to defeat them. Fed up with so much war and conflict, he set up a getaway here at Akdamar Island to take a break from it all.
But what would ultimately become of the Kingdom of Vaspurakan? In the 11th century, well after Gagik’s death, it would become a province of the Byzantine Empire. And it would later share a similar fate to the rest of eastern Anatolia, seeing invasions from the Seljuks, Mongols and Ottomans.
Before stepping inside the church, be sure to take some time to admire the carved reliefs on the exterior. On the western front, you can see King Gagik I Artsruni presenting a model of the church to Jesus.
This side also contains numerous secular scenes, including lion, griffin and dragon motifs. These mythical creatures were clearly favorites of medieval Armenian artisans.
The eastern side is the most impressive – both for its elegant bell tower, added during a later period, and for its eye-catching reliefs. Old Testament figures like Abraham, Isaac, and Jonah and the Whale all make appearances. Also featured are St. Gregory (the man who helped convert Armenia to Christianity), John the Baptist and various Apostles.
Some suspect that the figure at the top of the wall behind the bell tower may even be the Abassid caliph!
The front and northern side of the church, meanwhile, depicts various scenes from the Adam and Eve saga.
Elsewhere around the area, you can find remnants of the wider monastery complex of which only foundations remain. With that in mind, we should be thankful that the Church of the Holy Cross still stands – and in such good condition, too.
The church was recently restored in 2007 after 18 months of effort. There was even an Armenian church service conducted here in 2010 – a rare instance of cooperation between Turkey and Armenia.
Over half a century prior, in 1951, the church came close to being demolished forever. But a young Kurdish writer named Yaşar Kemal started a campaign to save it. Kemal would later go on to become one of Tukey’s most renowned novelists.
Next to the church, as well as further up the hill, you can find a multitude of Armenian gravestones. They vary in size and style, and some of the more intricately carved ones are highly impressive. Sadly, many have been deliberately vandalized and destroyed over the course of the 20th century.
Stepping inside, you’ll find yourself in a spacious narthex with splendid arched vaulting. Ancient kachkars, or Armenian cross stones, make up part of the walls here. Also on display is a heartfelt 19th-century message in Armenian from a local priest to the Ottoman sultan.
The 10th-century frescoes within the dome aren’t in the best condition. But that’s to be expected considering their age and years of vandalism. With a bit of imagination, you can picture how colorful the walls once would’ve been. Interestingly, the dome’s former bell is now at a museum in Moscow.
Exploring the rest of the structure, you’ll also come across a few additional dark, small chapels.
Around Akdamar Island
Akdamar may only have a single landmark, but exploring the island itself is one of the main reasons to come. You’ll even find some beaches with water as clear as what you’d expect on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. There didn’t seem to be anyone swimming during my visit, however.
Standing at the beach, one can easily picture the legend behind Akdamar Island’s name. It’s believed that Akdamar comes from the phrase ‘Ah, Tamara,’ the last words of a dying man.
According to the story, an Armenian princess named Tamara lived on the island but fell in love with a Turkish commoner on the other side. As they needed to keep their relationship secret, the man would swim to her after dark each night.
And to ensure his safe passage, Tamara would hold out a light to guide him.
But once the local monks caught on, they confiscated Tamara’s light. And later that night, they repeatedly changed the light’s position to wear the young man out.
He eventually did make it to shore but was so utterly exhausted that he could hardly move. The angry monks were there waiting for him, ensuring that this trip would be his last.
In his final words, according to the legend, he called out for the princess who he’d never see again. The story remains popular in Armenia today, and there’s even a statue of Princess Tamara standing near Lake Sevan.
Elsewhere around the island, you can find various walking trails. One of them leads to a scenic lookout point, noticeable from afar thanks to its tall flag pole. (Given the island’s history and tensions between Turkey and Armenia, the erection of a Turkish flag here was not without controversy.)
The island even has a small cafe and public restroom. But if you’re just looking to avoid the crowds, there are some forested areas where the masses don’t tend to wander.
If you’ve seen posters of Akdamar Island at a tourist office, you’ve likely noticed that many of the shots have been taken from a vantage point high up above the church. There is indeed a large hill on the other side of the island, but it was sadly fenced off and completely inaccessible during my visit.
It is, however, worth walking uphill to the fence, as the views are still spectacular when you turn around. Though I visited in summer, Akdamar Island is at its most picturesque in spring, when the trees are in full bloom and snow still remains on the distant mountaintops.
Akdamar Island is not an easy place to get to and your time on the island probably won’t exceed a couple of hours. But those who do make it consider the island, and the Lake Van region in general, a true gem of Turkey.
Van can be reached in a number of ways.
Van has an airport with direct flights from Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities.
If you don’t have time to explore the entire country by car or bus, Van would be a good place to fly into from western Turkey. From there, you can head west by bus to Diyarbakir (about 6 hours) and then continue onward to places like Mardin or Urfa.
Van is also where many people stop en route to Iran, and there is a train route linking it to Tabriz and Tehran. Accordingly, the city gets many Iranian tourists, or at least it did in the pre-corona days.
For those exploring more of the Lake Van area, the nearest big city on the lake is Tatvan, about 2 hours from Van by vehicle. You can also take a ferry across the lake to get there.
To reach Akdamar Island from Van by public transport, you will need to hop on a series of minibuses just to get to the port. While I managed to do it successfully, it was one of the most challenging day trips of my entire Turkey trip.
Though I’d read information on several different web sites, my own experience turned out to be quite different. It seems that most transport advice posted online prior to 2020 is already out of date.
Your first goal of the day will be to find a dolmuş (minibus) bound from the town of Gevaş. And from my experience, these only leave from the main Van Otogar which is a few kilometers from the city center.
In the city center, there is a small dolmuş station that you can reach by walking north all the way along the main avenue, Cumhuriyet Caddesi. While it used to be possible to catch a Gevaş-bound dolmuş from here, that was no longer the case in 2020.
You can, at least, hop on a bus to the otogar from here for a couple of lira. On the way there, expect for the driver to make repeated stops to attract more passengers. And you might get dropped off several minutes on foot from the otogar itself.
Once there, walk through the parking lot and seek out a van with Gevaş on the window. There are dozens of vehicles, but walk around long enough and you should eventually find it. Tell the driver you want to visit Akdamar and step on the bus.
These minibuses will only depart once full, so expect to wait up to 30 minutes or so before departure.
The next steps are confusing, because there are TWO ports for Akdamar. From what I read online, the driver was supposed to drop me off at the first port for Akdamar Island before heading onward to Gevaş. And during the ride, I reminded him as we got closer to the port. But he told me to just stay on the bus.
He then drove all the way to Gevaş and told me I should get on ANOTHER minibus! (I believe this one was bound for the city of Tatvan.) I got on and after several minutes of waiting, we made our departure. Thankfully, the locals seated beside me were very helpful and made sure the driver dropped me off at the right place.
I got dropped off at the second port, which is actually closer to the island anyway. I have no way to confirm this, but I suspect that the first port may no longer be in use.
Once at the port, I was surprised to see lots of people waiting. Based on what I’d read online, my main concern for the day was there not being enough people and getting stuck waiting for hours.
Luckily, this was the easiest part of the day. I only had to wait around 10 minutes for the boat to depart, and there also seemed to be a steady stream of them coming and going throughout the day.
No ticket purchase is necessary, but you can pay the staff once you’re already on the boat. It cost around 20 TL at the time of my visit, and this also included return. To get back, you can hop on a ferry whenever you’re ready.
Sadly, getting back to Van was no easier.
Upon my return to the mainland, I waited along the highway for a dolmuş bound for Gevaş. But I waited and waited and nothing appeared.
I was the only person waiting for awhile, as most visitors come by car. After 25 minutes or so, some Turkish guys came to wait for the same bus. But still nothing came. We eventually agreed to split a taxi to town, but we had trouble finding one of those too! Thankfully, we successfully managed to hitchhike.
Finally back in Gevaş, I found the dolmuş back to Van and had to wait another 30 minutes or so for departure. Having left my hotel around 9 am and having spent two hours on the island, it was already 17:30 by the time I arrived back in central Van!
While I don’t know if I could’ve done anything differently, it seems best to get off at the first port if at all possible. That way, you can just walk over to Gevaş upon your return. The second port, in contrast, is too far to walk. But as mentioned above, the driver refused to drop me off there and I’m not sure if the first port is in operation at all.
So was all the effort and frustration worth going to Akdamar Island by public transport?
Transport for the entire day plus entry fee to the church cost me no more than 60-70 TL total, or less than $10 USD at the time. I have no idea how much a group tour would cost, but it’d undoubtedly be a lot more.
As I was traveling on a budget and had no other plans for the day, I don’t regret going by public transport. (Amazingly, this wouldn’t even be the most difficult day trip of my travels). But those with less patience may want to hire a tour or private driver.
I stayed at a hotel called Buyuk Asur, situated right on the main road, Cumhuriyet Cd. It was recommended to me by the manager of Hotel Kent Ani in Kars. While I didn’t have a reservation, they luckily had some rooms available.
The location is as central as you can get in Van. Additionally, the manager spoke perfect English and he was incredibly helpful and kind. We had numerous evening chats over tea, and he gave me a lot of interesting information about the region.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.