Akdamar

In memoriam Serena Harrison who suggested the visit

As you go to the island, listen to the waves of your heart, breathe in the waters of the lake and drown to what is you. Be open to what is there.

Those were my thoughts beforehand, before we made the short boat journey from the lakeside. My fellow passengers, all Turkish, are mostly families going to picnic and to explore the island. We head first for the Armenian church, the main building there, the one we could see long before. I am immediately struck by the statues on the outside, carved prophets and saints, three dimensional biblical stories for the faithful who no longer come, who fled and were massacred decades ago. I walk around before I enter, taking my time, taking as much in as I can, trying to be aware of what I am doing, where I am. By the time I go in, the others have moved on to the hillsides and trees or are walking down to the sea. Inside it is cool and quiet, the central space lit from the windows, other spaces dark and hidden. Above the graffiti on the walls, frescoes, some renovated and clear, some difficult to make out; one, in the high space above where the altar would have been, of a young Jesus, the like of which I had not seen before, the face human yet piercing. His followers may now be absent but I feel their presence.

Outside again, I now have no wish to see the rest of the island. I just want to sit, have a tea and smoke, write and then return to the church. I sit at a wooden table in the shade. Around me voices, children playing, families spread under the trees, all seemingly here for the island and the pleasure of being here rather than for the church. Most have also come for hours whereas my visit will be brief, their laughter at what is present, my tears for the past and the holiness of the place.

I write what I see – green trees alight in the sun, high rocky hills, mostly bare, the colour of sand, and a turquoise sea. Black birds nearby, white gulls nearer the sea. The deep cut bark of the trees and the light broken shadows of branches moving in the breeze. I write what I hear – the murmuring of male voices, high pitched shouts of children, the faster communion of their mothers. The gulls swarming, excited.

Later, photographs are taken, the family arms around each other. A horn sounds and I wait for the ferry to appear from behind the rock falling into the sea. A last memory – going back to the shore, a young couple sit at the rear, a touching tenderness between them, she scarved, pressing arm to arm, body to body, watching the wake of the water together, smiling to each other, gently touching, a few moments together they will remember.

 

Anthony Smith