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Akdamar Church, Lake Van, Turkey

As well as travel writing Peter also personally leads a number of our tours in Turkey each year.

The Church of the Holy Cross isn’t famous for its size. It’s just 15 metres long. Its setting however is enough to impress. Perched on Akdamar Island in Eastern Turkey it stands testament to man’s ambition to conquer the environment.

You arrive here as a pilgrim humbled by nature. It’s only a 20 minute boat trip to the island, but it’s an epic journey, cruising upon dazzlingly blue waters in the world’s largest salt lake. Away from shore the encircling mountains come clearly into focus, soaring 13,000 feet high, powdered with snow.

Today, the tiny island is a place of ruins; serene and tranquil. 1,100 years ago it was the centre of a remote Armenian kingdom ruled by King Gagiki I. In a few short years, 915-921AD he fortified the island and built a palace, monastery, and church encrusted with gold and precious stones.

Following a recent $2 million restoration, the church’s beautifully cut walls of pinkish sandstone, once again sparkle in the sunlight. The walls alone are reason enough for coming. For here you’ll see exquisite carvings of snakes, lions, and gazelles, alongside Christian tales from Adam and Eve, to David and Goliath: a work of art set in stone.


Go for a swim. Take a plunge from the small rocky bathing spot near the landing stage, and immerse yourself in a lake 1,670 meters above sea level. The salt water makes it incredibly buoyant. In fact it’s so alkaline you can wash your clothes in it without using soap.

Stretch your legs. Climb to the top of the small island for superb views over the lake and to the towering snow covered peaks that surround it.

Decipher the carvings on the church’s outer walls. Search the south and you’ll find Jonah about to be swallowed by a whale, and there on the west is the founder himself, King Gagik, presenting a miniature of his church to Christ.

Traveller info

When to go: late spring sees the island swathed in colour, as the trees bloom. But temperature wise at this high elevation, summer and early autumn are the best times to visit.

How long: You really only need one full day to explore the island, but do spend at least three days in the Van area to see the main highlights, or a week to truly lose yourself in the landscape.

Planning and Inside Information: Boats sail to the island once enough people are waiting, usually a minimum of 10. Take a boat from near Gevas, 27 miles southwest of the city of Van, which is the best base for exploring the region. For a more rustic setting, there’s a camping ground at Akdamar Camping and Restaurant immediately opposite the boat departure point, with super views of the lake.


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