An Evening on the Story of the Holy Cross of Aghtamar

Armenian history is an interest for a lot of Armenians, quite possibly because it is fundamental in defining our rich national identity.

On Tuesday 3rd January, courtesy of Hamazkayin UK, we were honoured by the presence of Bedros Tomassian as he delivered his lecture titled “The Holy Cross Church of Aghtamar Throughout History”.

An Evening on the Story of the Holy Cross of Aghtamar

Bedros Tomassian was born in 1954 in Basra, Iraq. He graduated from the University of Baghdad with a BSc in Civil Engineering. A self-taught historian specialising in the peoples of Mesopotamia and the Armenian Highlands, Mr Tomassian has lectured in cities spanning half the globe: from Iraq to Glendale, where he now resides. In addition he has written a series of articles which have featured in newsletters such as “Lradoo” – the Armenian Youth Association of California (AYAC) newsletter. In 2006 he published his first book entitled “The Armenian Highlands and Mesopotamia” and is currently working on a follow-up.

After an opening speech by Zvart Stepanian, Mr Tomassian took the podium at the Navasartian Centre and began his lecture – one which he has delivered no less than four times already in various parts of Los Angeles. We journeyed through the ages of the history of the Van region, now in eastern Turkey, as the story of the Aghtamar Church unfolded. The lecture was scattered with useful graphs and images demonstrating the amazing civilisation our nation once had in the form of the Artzruni Van Kingdom. His descriptive explanations and the level of detail that he divulged captivated the audience, who engaged with him at length during the Q&A session.

Aghtamar is an island in the Van Lake which, during the Artzruni period, became the centre of the region with a palace and the famous church. Perhaps all of us have heard of the ancient folk story of how Aghtamar’s name came to be, however Mr Tomassian has amassed evidence that strongly links the name “Aghtamar” with an ancient Urartu King. The church of Sourp Khach (Holy Cross) was built in 921 by King Gagik Artstruni, and recently surfaced in the news because the Turkish Government, as a show of “tolerance” of its 700,000 or so Armenians, reconstructed the church in the shape of a secular museum, topped with a Turkish flag on the site. All at the cost of approximately $1.5 million – a number that bears only too much significance for Armenians.

Aghtamar was a political stronghold; and a base of culture, renaissance and religion. The Holy Cross Church of Aghtamar is a shining beacon of Armenian identity which endured the centuries and, against substantial odds, unrelenting invasions from the Mongols, Arabs, Ottomans and various other empires. One could suggest that there is a resemblance between Aghtamar and Armenia today, as we too have survived through persistent hardships, arriving at the present where we can raise our flag and proudly call ourselves Armenian. Sadly though, again not unlike Aghtamar, we have declined since our peak of thousands of years ago. However, with unity and determination we can leave behind mere survival and enter another period of prosperity, despite the turbulent waters which have and may forever surround us.

This was Bedros Tomassian’s second lecture in London within the last 3 years and it’s left us hungry for more. Fortunately he possesses a wealth of knowledge which he has yet to impart to our community, and we await his next visit.

— Vahe Boghosian

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