The Many Lives of Albayrak

guest contribution by BENJAMIN ANDERSON, Cornell University

[1] Monastery of St. Bartholomew (1911). Bachmann, Kirchen und Moscheen, Tafel 24.

[2] The view north from Albayrak (2013). 
Photo by author.
The Great Zab River rises in the highlands east of Lake Van and runs some 400 kilometers down to Iraq, joining the Tigris south of Mosul. In the southeast of Turkey, the river carves out a fertile valley parallel to the Iranian border, occasionally punctuated by broad plains, where it is joined by one of its tributaries. In the center of one such plain, roughly 75 kilometers to the northeast of Hakkâri, a low hill provides fine views up the converging valleys [2].

[3] The Jandarma station at Albayrak (2013). 
Photo by author.
Today, this place is known as Albayrak, the standard term for the flag of the Turkish Republic, and a fitting name for a town housing a Jandarma station [3]. The Jandarma were not the first to recognize the site’s strategic advantages. William Francis Ainsworth, who passed this way in 1840, noted the presence of a “castle, with a guard of about forty Kurds.” (296). In Ainsworth’s day, the surrounding village was known as Deir, the Kurdish word for “monastery.” This relates to a second major feature of the hilltop: the Armenian monastery of St. Bartholomew [4], whose sandy yellow ruins, cast down in the earthquake of 1966, provide an unexpected accompaniment to the pale green Jandarma barracks.

[4] Plan of the Monastery of St. Bartholomew (1911). Bachmann, Kirchen und Moscheen, Tafel 20.

The monastery was in use until the massacre of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915. When Walter Bachmann visited in 1911, the complex included houses for the priests and a hostel for the many pilgrims [1]. Since the 14th century, at the latest, these pilgrims were drawn by the relics of the Apostle Bartholomew, whose martyrdom was commemorated here.

[5] Western facade of the Monastery of St. Bartholomew,
detail (2013). The inscription at lower right reads,
“In the year 1651, this holy church was restored during
the reign of the Hagarene Ezdinšer and of Xosrov paşa.”
Translation after Thierry 1989, 476.
During most of the monastery’s heyday, the Kurdish Emirs of Hakkâri ruled the Zab valley. Although the Ottomans had been the nominal rulers since Selim I (1512-1520), an Armenian inscription to the right of the main entry commemorating the monastery’s restoration in 1651 names the Emir Izzed-Dīn Şir and his brother Xosrov Paşa as the reigning sovereigns  [5]. The former is also named in an Armenian inscription celebrating the construction of a bridge across the Sortkin creek in the town of Çatak, south of Lake Van (Thierry 1989, 444). The patron of the bridge is named as a “pilgrim.” Taken together, the two inscriptions suggest development of Armenian pilgrimage sites and routes in the seventeenth century with the consent, if not the support, of the local Kurdish rulers.

Before the Emirs, this valley had been the homeland of the Armenian Artsruni dynasty, who gradually rose to become the rulers of Vaspurakan, the early medieval kingdom that stretched eastwards from Van across the northern Zagros and into present-day Iran. Architectural historians place the remains that stand today in Albayrak well after the collapse of the Arstruni kingdom, dating the rectangular enclosure that surrounds the zhamatun (meeting hall) and church to the 13th century. But some have wondered if the platform on which the structure rests might not be much older. This hypothesis was shared with a local tradition recorded by Hamazasp Oskian, according to which the church was built on the ruins of a pagan temple on top of an artificial hill (Thierry 1969, 163).

[6] Western facade of the monastery of St. Bartholomew, detail (1911).
Bachmann, Kirchen und Moscheen, Tafel 21.
The temple that came before the church is a common topos, and there would be no reason to take it seriously, were it not for the building’s very strange western facade [6].The central portal is crowned by two arches, of which the uppermost clearly postdates the lower. The complicated relief set within it need detain us no longer than it detained Ainsworth, who complained that this “handsome specimen of Saracenic architecture” had been “defaced by a colossal bas-relief of the Almighty ” (296).

[7] Lower tympanum, western facade of the Monastery of
St. Bartholomew (2013). Photo by author.
The iconography of the relief in the lower arch is more of a mystery [7]. Ainsworth had nothing to say about it, while Bachmann simply described it as a "rider on a horse, who is trampling another figure" (26). In the early twentieth century, the locals  understood this to represent St. Bartholomew killing a dragon, a story that was not recorded in any of the saint’s biographies. Jean Michel Thierry was the first to suggest that the relief borrows directly from Sassanian royal iconography (compare, for example, the relief of the triumphant shah at Naqsh-i Rustam).
[8] Senmurv relief on the exterior of the Cathedral
of the Holy Cross at Aghtamar, Lake Van (2013).
Photo by author.
The Sassanians, too, had been nominal rulers of these lands in late antiquity, but we do not need to conjure a Sassanian palace in such a remote location to explain the relief. It is just as likely that the Artsrunis, who claimed descent from Sennacherib of Assyria, knew and used the royal iconography of the pre-Islamic Near East during their own heyday in the ninth and tenth centuries. This relief would then provide an explicitly royal pendant  to the senmurv on the far more famous Artsruni palatine church at Aghtamar [8].

[9] North intrado, Monastery of
 St. Bartholomew (2013). Photo by author.
Nothing about the rectangular enclosure indicates that it originally contained a sacred site. The remaining walls of the church inside are not bonded with the perimeter walls; they are thus later additions, and the original layout of the structure may have been completely different.  And the odd standing figures in low relief set in the door-frame beneath the lower relief, although covered by a swarm of pilgrims’ crosses, do not represent saints, bishops, or the like [9]. Thierry thought that they represented architects carrying plumb lines.

In later centuries, after the collapse of the early medieval Artsruni state, the legend of St. Bartholomew found a home on this hilltop, and the rectangular enclosure was occupied by a monastic community. But it is possible that, before the church, a different kind of structure stood here, although probably not a temple. Perhaps it was a reception hall, or some other outpost of a confident Artsruni kingdom, which would thus take its place alongside the Emirate of Hakkâri and the Turkish Republic in a line of aspirational states that have made use of this hilltop to assert their control over the surrounding valley.

[10] The Jandarma station at Albayrak (2013).
Photo by author.
As for the Jandarma station, [10] it has stood empty since late 2012, when its inhabitants relocated to a new position outside of town. In July of 2013,Today’s Zaman optimistically announced that “the Armenian St. Bartholomew Monastery is once again accessible to visitors,” although it seems unlikely that pilgrims will return in anything approaching pre-1915 numbers. 

Albayrak is certainly worth visiting, though, as a remarkable palimpsest on which successive states have left their mark. Such sites are not rare in western Asia – one thinks of the accumulations of rock reliefs at Nahr al-Kalb– but the specific conjunction of elements joined on the hilltop at Albayrak is unique. There is no other site that encapsulates quite so effectively this region’s periodic alternations between standing at the center of small states and sitting uncomfortably on the periphery of large ones – or, for that matter, the landscape’s persisting indifference to the claims of both [11]

[11] Sheep and goats graze on the southern slope of the hill beneath the
Monastery of St. Bartholomew (2013). Photo by author.

My thanks to the faculty and students of Spätantike und Byzantinische Kunstgeschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich, with whom I visited Albayrak in the summer of 2013, and especially to Franz Alto Bauer and Ayça Beygo.

Chaldea, and Armenia. London: John W. Parker, 1842. (On St. Bartholomew: II.295-296.)

BACHMANN, Walter. Kirchen und Moscheen in Armenien und Kurdistan. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1913. (On St. Bartholomew: 23-28.)

SINCLAIR, Thomas A. Eastern Turkey: An architectural and archaeological survey. (Volume I) London: The Pindar Press, 1987. (On St. Bartholomew: 215-217.)

THIERRY, Jean Michel. “Monastères Arméniens du Vaspurakan III.” Revue des Études Arméniennes N.S. 6 (1969): pp. 162-180.
--, “Monastères Arméniens du Vaspurakan VI.” Revue des Études Arméniennes N.S. 9 (1972): 178.
--, Monuments Arméniens du Vaspurakan. Paris: Librarie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1989. (On St. Bartholomew: 471-477.)

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