The Monastery of St. Thomas of Gandzak, Altinsac, near Gevas, Van, Turkey.

To find the Monastery of St. Thomas of Gandzak, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Gevas, Turkey”. From the centre of Gevas find the main west to east road just north of the town centre (the road goes from Tatvan in the west to Cavustepe and Guzelsu in the east). Once on the main west to east road, go about 12 kms west until a road branches north to the village of Gorundu. Follow the Gorundu road through the village and continue about 12 kms north until you arrive in the village of Altinsac. Stay on the same road for another 2 kms, by which time you will see the ruin of the monastery on your left (to the west). Public transport from Gevas to Tatvan is frequent. Ask to be dropped off where the road leads to Gorundu. Once on the road to Gorundu and Altinsac you will have to walk or hitch lifts in private motor vehicles.

The ruined Monastery of St. Thomas of Gandzak stands almost half way up a mountain about 2 kms from the road north of the village of Altinsac. It looks from a distance as if it will be a relatively easy ascent to the monastery, but the track and the path, although taking slightly different routes, are quite steep toward the end. Although fields exist below the ruin, and people in small numbers drive to the nearby cove to have a picnic or a swim in Lake Van, there is no sign of permanent human habitation, from the road or the ruin. Moreover, the higher you ascend, the more stunning the views. The monastery is situated in exceptionally pretty surroundings.

I walked to the monastery along the path in about forty-five minutes, but followed the infrequently used dirt road to descend. The descent took only thirty minutes. The path leads across the fields and through wild herbs, the dirt road through a small patch of trees sustained by a narrow stream. Walking beside the stream I disturbed clouds of butterflies. As for the ruin itself, it is excellent. Parts of the wall enclosing the compound are intact, there is the usual deceptively tall nave inside the church, and the church’s dome and drum are in very good condition, no doubt due to the ruin’s relative isolation. Some attractively carved stone exists inside the church and around its entrance, and more carved stone, possibly deriving from broken gravestones, litters the land around the ruin. There are two nearby sources of water, which help to explain why the monastery is located where it is.

T. A. Sinclair (a renowned scholar specialising in eastern Turkey) writes that the ruin is named after St. Thomas of Gandzak, Gandzak being the old name for Altinsac. The ruin stands:

“on a platform looking down to the lake, which is about 2 kms away. The monastic buildings other than the church are in ruins. The church: a domed compartment with transepts, extended by a bay to the west: rooms either side of apse reached from transepts. All within a rectangle. The exterior is in rough stone, apart from the very finely cut drum and dome: inside, the drum has courses of brick below the windows, and to some extent between them. 10th or 11th century, but the brickwork in the drum is probably from a restoration of 1581. The zhamatun (the hall in front of the church): four thick piers. The domes of the three compartments in the central east – west line are on the interior higher than those of the others. Either 17th or 18th century. The exterior a restoration of 1801.”

The walk back to Altinsac was a delight because of the lake, the mountains, a reed bed in the pretty cove, the views of the ruined monastery and the large number of flowers (because it was the hottest time of the year I was surprised to see so many flowers). The small village of Altinsac has a mixture of old stone and modern concrete and breeze block houses strung along the shore a short distance above and away from the water. Most houses have their own gardens and the gardens are very productive. The surrounding hills are devoid of trees (trees are confined to the village in general and the gardens in particular), but they still look very pretty. Tied along the quay in a small harbour are four old, flat-bottomed ferries each about 15 metres in length. The ferries used to carry people to and from Akdamar Island.

Altinsac has a ruined church of its own, but it is in bad condition and used to store hay. In fact, Sinclair thinks there may be two churches side by side known collectively as the Monastery of the Mother of God. He calls the northerly church a “domed rectangle” where the brick of the interior of the dome is left exposed on the outside. The southerly, broader church has a pointed vault with ribs. The apse “is off-centre” and a small chapel adjoins. Sinclair dates both churches to the 15th or the 16th century. In truth, less survives than when he visited in 1968.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

The monastery featured in the photos below belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite/diaphysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite/diaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

One last point: Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the religion of the state (Georgia was the second country to do so). 301 is usually identified as the year in which Christianity became the state religion in Armenia. Note that 301 pre-dates adoption of Christianity as the state religion in Georgia by over thirty years (337 is now widely accepted as the date when at least part of modern-day Georgia adopted Christianity as the state religion), and the Roman Empire’s edict of toleration of Christianity in 311 by ten years. But the edict of toleration did not make Christianity the religion of the state in the Roman Empire, nor did legalisation of Christianity in 313 or Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 321. These events merely made it a lot safer to be a Christian within the empire’s borders. Note that at least one later Pagan emperor, Julian in the 360s, engaged in the persecution of Christians, as had occurred prior to 311.

It is very sad that Armenia’s importance in the history of early Christianity is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

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