Armenian Churches, Yanal Koyu and Albayrak, near Baskale, Van, Turkey.

To find Albayrak and Yanal Koyu, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Baskale, Turkey”. From the centre of Baskale follow the main road north (the road eventually goes through Guzelsu on its way to Gevas and Van) for about 10 kms to a junction on the right. Take the road to the right. The road first goes south and then north-east (as if heading toward the border with Iran). After about 10 kms the road arrives in the large village of Albayrak. Yanal Koyu lies about 15 kms further along the same road in a north-north-easterly direction (half way along you pass through the village of Yavuzlar with its stunning other-worldly scenery). There is an asphalt road all the way to Yanal Koyu, but it is quite rough beyond Yavuzlar. Public transport to and from Yanal Koyu is extremely infrequent (it is a little more regular between Baskale and Albayrak), but almost everyone with a motor vehicle will provide you with a lift all or part of the way.

The ruined Armenian church in Yanal Koyu goes by various names, Surp Echmiadzin being the one that most Armenians will instantly recognise. It has a ground plan of a cross within a square, but the most eye-catching part of the building is the almost square drum surmounted by a dome (the drum is in reality an irregular octagon, with the faces at the corners being much narrower than the faces along the four sides). The drum and the dome remain in unusually good condition with most of the dressed stone still in place. Some of the dressed stone also remains on the external walls below the drum. As is so often the case with Armenian churches, the ceiling above the nave appears higher than you would expect from outside, and the arches and the ribs in the dome confront you with an interior that is bold and most satisfying to the eye. Internally, many crosses have been carved into the walls, some no doubt by Armenians who have visited the church since it was abandoned, and, externally, traces of carved stone remain around the main entrance and the windows. Some carved stone also remains internally, especially at the level where the columns transition into the arches and the walls transition into the dome. To be honest, the ruin is a stunning one, but, perhaps because of its remoteness from major centres of population, I cannot locate a detailed description by anyone, even on the internet. What a contrast with the church at Albayrak about 15 kms away, which is widely discussed in print.

When you approach Albayrak’s ruined church from the north, it appears to be some distance from the village because no houses are in sight. However, the ruin lies just beyond the last houses on an elevated site above the road and is therefore a church which, in common with the church in Yanal Koyu, once met the spiritual needs of a local community. After taking stock of the church’s location, you observe the sand bags and the barbed and the razor wire that surround it. Next, just around the corner on the edge of the village itself, you see the main entrance to an abandoned army camp with a barrier across the road, fortified sentry boxes and more barbed wire. When the army camp was in use the church lay within its grounds, which no doubt made it extremely difficult for people to visit the ruin.

I walked up the road leading into the army camp, which, when functioning, was a substantial one. Barracks, kitchens, dining rooms, office blocks and large storage depots for vehicles, weapons and munitions stretched away to the west, but I could not examine the eerie and somewhat unsettling camp in much detail because of the presence of some large stray dogs. Instead, I turned to the right, ascended a gentle slope and admired the west facade of the zhamatun (the hall in front of the church). The zhamatun and the church form part of what used to be the Armenian Monastery of Surp Bartholemew.

T. A. Sinclair (a renowned scholar specialising in eastern Turkey) writes that:

“The long rectangular unit composed of the church and the large hall to its west stands on a headland overlooking the wide and flat valley of the upper Great Zab. Over the west entrance to the hall, in an imposing facade, are two figure sculptures. The lower is a horseman jabbing at a fallen enemy, the upper was an enthroned God holding Christ on his right arm and with the Holy Spirit as a dove on his left. The upper blocks of the composition fell in 1966, when the church’s dome also fell. Only God’s legs, a lion and a bull beneath his feet and two angels either side are left. On the sides of the portal are very flat figures, probably of the builders (plumblines, etc.). Two small rooms joined the hall to the church, which inside is dilapidated.

“Figure sculptures. That in the lower tympanum is probably not Armenian in origin, but Sassanian, and therefore re-used here. That in the upper tympanum is most probably of the mid-15th century… The figures in the soffits of the w. porch’s arches and the reveals below are contemporary with the rest of the exterior facing. The bodies, drawn in awkward postures, are in low relief. The shoulders, however, rise off the base surface and the heads are in high relief. The lower figure on either side seems to carry a plumbline…

“Exterior facades. These are designed as a series of tall, slim and plain rectangular panels, a little lower in height than the porch’s frame. Each panel is framed by a simple torus moulding. The windows in the two panels immediately s. of the porch and that to its immediate n. are given splayed frames of muqarnas like that on the porch’s frame; and additional plain moulding runs along the top and side edges of the panel. There appear to have been two more windows n. of the porch. Note a repair to the n. facade in which the engaged pillars have been continued upwards, this time as colonnettes. S. side, several khatchkars (Armenian for ‘stone crosses’).

“Porch. In the high arched recess, below the relief of the cavalier in the tympanum, the doorway seems to have been a tall pointed arch with, however, a stepped intrados. Beneath the figures on the porch’s arch and reveals, niches in the manner of portals of the Selcuk period. The porch’s rectangular frame consists of a plain moulding within two lines of muqarnas leaves…

“Zhamatun. The columns, some free-standing and some engaged, supported pairs of ribs which crossed to form a square. On the square stood a similar ribbed structure supporting a lantern.”

Externally, the most impressive features are the entrance to the zhamatun and the rectangular panels of the walls, and, internally, your attention is drawn immediately to the columns and the ribs that the columns support. Sadly, the church is in very poor condition internally, although the walls and the roof that once enclosed the main altar survive, albeit devoid of ornamentation. This said, the church and the zhamatun are very different from all the other Armenian ruins I visited in August 2013 and should not be missed if in the Baskale region. Even the abandoned army camp contributes to the ruin’s interest.

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

Both the churches featured in the photos below (the first six photos are of the church in Yanal Koyu) 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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