By Selcan Hacaoglu, Associated Press Writer(AP) - Rainwater seeps through the conical dome of Akhtamar's thousand-year-old church, washing away biblical frescoes from one of the finest surviving monuments of ancient Armenian culture. Bullet holes pock the sandstone walls. After a century of neglect and decades of political wrangling, Turkey has begun restoring the church, a renovation that comes as Turkish leaders face intense pressure from the European Union to improve their treatment of minorities.
The 2 million Turkish Lira ($1.5 million) restoration, ordered and paid for by the Turkish government, began in May and is raising hopes that a small, cautious thaw in relations between Turkey and neighboring Armenia could expand.
The church is the lone building on a tiny island in a lake. It is covered in scaffolding as masons replace fallen roof stones to stop the rainwater and rebuild the basalt floor, which was dug out by treasure hunters. Experts also will try to restore the frescoes in the interior.
"This is our positive approach, our message," says Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has staked his rule on winning membership in the EU.
The European Union urged Turkey last year to consider registering Akhtamar in UNESCO's World Heritage List and is pressing the country to reopen its closed border with Armenia and re-establish diplomatic ties with its neighbor. Turkey has taken cautious steps toward improving connections Armenia and a member of Erdogan's political party visited its capital earlier this year, but relations remain extremely cool because of animosities over ethnic bloodletting a century ago.
Eastern Turkey was once a heartland of Armenian culture and more than a million Armenians lived in the area at the turn of the 19th century. But they were driven out by what Armenia contends was a policy of genocide by Turks, a charge the Turkish government vehemently denies.
Akhtamar, called the Church of Surp Khach, or Holy Cross, was one of the most important churches of those ancient Armenian lands. It was built by Armenian King Gagik I of Vaspurakan and inaugurated in A.D. 921. Gagik's historian, Thomas Ardzruni, described the church as being near a harbor and a palace with gilded cupolas, peacefully surrounded by the lake. Only the church survived.
By 1113, the church had become the center of the Armenian Patriarchate of Akhtamar and an inspiration to mystics in the area. The island was the center of a renowned school of scribal art and illumination. The region was a thriving center of Armenian culture, but was engulfed in ethnic conflict as the Turks' Ottoman Empire splintered at the end of World War I.
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered by Turks. Turkey strongly denies there was any genocide, arguing that the death toll has been inflated and saying that the Armenians who were killed died as a result of civil unrest.
Today, there are virtually no Armenians in eastern Turkey, and Akhtamar has been empty for decades. Some of its reliefs are stained with paint and eggs thrown by vandals. Bullet holes, apparently from shepherds who used the site for target practice, mar the walls.
The church is considered one of the most important examples of Armenian architecture. Elaborate reliefs project up to 10 centimeters (4 inches) from brownish-red sandstone walls, almost like sculptures. Some depict biblical stories such as Jonah being swallowed by the whale and Daniel in the lion's den. Others show cows, lions, birds and other animals to remind worshippers that the church is an image of paradise.
Erdogan's government asked the Armenian Christian patriarch in Istanbul, where nearly all of Turkey's remaining 65,000 Armenians live, to name an architect to help with the restoration. Zakarya Mildanoglu, the architect picked, says he hopes the restoration helps improve relations between Armenia and Turkey, but adds: "We need to be patient. Things that happened a century ago cannot be healed overnight."
Mesrob II, the Armenian patriarch, wants the government to open the church for religious services and special festivities once a year. The church is officially closed to services since there are no Armenian Christians in the region. "I think that Akhtamar is a symbol for perfection in Armenian architecture and also mysticism," Mesrob II says.