Tuesday, 20 August

Churches and Monasteries of Van-Dosb

Author: Robert Tatoyan

The Monasteries of Van-Dosb

Varakavank (Inner Varak, Lower Varak, Holy Cross of Nor Menasdan)

Varakavank or the Lower (Inner) Varak monastic compound was one of the most renowned monasteries of Van-Vasbouragan – “A holy site revered and venerated by all of Vasbouragan – a stately site that captivated the spirit and the mind” [1]. It was located to the southeast of the City of Van, on the western-facing flank of the Inner Varak Mountain, atop a small plateau.

Varakavank consisted of seven adjacent churches, which earned it the nickname “Yedi Kilise” [Seven Churches) among the local Muslim population. The monastery was surrounded by a wall. The wall’s lower section was built of stone, and this was topped by mudbricks [2]. The compound’s churches were the Holy Virgin Church (built in the 11th century), Saint Kevork (narthex), the Saint Nshan Church (11th century), the Holy Cross Church, the Saint Sion Church, the Saint Hovhannes or the Holy Abbot Church (built in the 10th century), and the Saint Sophia or Partavor Church (built in 981) [3].

The most beautiful of the compound’s churches was the Holy Virgin. It had features of the Hripsemyadib architecture – it was built in the shape of a cross, without columns, had four altars, and had a dome consisting of 12 distinct decorated corners. The church was built of large unpolished stones, and the roof and dome were built of bricks. The interior walls were plastered white [4].

The Saint Kevork Narthex was built of polished stones, and the walls were decorated with murals. It had four rectangular columns and eight engaged columns, supporting horseshoe-shaped arches, which in their turn supported the eight-sided dome, with its pyramidal spire. The eastern wall of the narthex was completely covered in icons, and morning and evening services were usually held before that wall. There were three tombstones in the northeastern section of the narthex, marking the resting places of the remains of King Senekerim Artsrouni; his wife Queen Khoushoush, daughter of King Kakig Pakradouni; and Catholicos Bedros Kedatarts [5].

Abutting the Holy Virgin Church on the northern side was the Saint Nshan Church. It was relatively small in size, and had the appearance of a domed hall [6].

The Holy Cross Church was built of polished stone. The arch above the main altar was semicircular, with two additional altars on each side. The church was vaulted, and in the center of the roof, a small, wooden dome rose atop a small, eight-sided platform. Faint shafts of life penetrated the interior through three narrow windows. The church had two doors, one opening onto the Saint Kevork Narthex, and the other onto the monastery’s courtyard behind its western walls [7].

The Saint Sion Church was located south of the Saint Kevork Narthex. The church’s dome and some of its walls were in a dilapidated state, and for that reason it was used as granary where the monastery stored its wheat [8].

The Saint Hovhannes or the Holy Abbot Church was built of polished stone and had three altars and a dome [9].

Adjacent to the Saint Hovhannes Church, on its southern side, was the Saint Sophia or Pertavor Church. It was a hall with a dome supported on twin buttresses, its altar illuminated by two windows [10].

The eastern and southern sectors of the monastic complex were covered by a large and beautiful orchard, which was given the name trakhdig (little paradise) by Khrimian Hayrig [11].

The monastery was surrounded by a two-story structure, consisting of 47 rooms available for monks and visiting pilgrims, as well as a bakery, a bath, a school building consisting of eight rooms, and two large rooms that served as the monastery’s prelacy [12].

According to legend, Saint Hripsime, while on her way to Vagharshabad, had come across Varakavank, and there she had hidden the cross that she wore around her neck, made of the wood of the True Cross.  In 653, when the location of this relic was discovered, Catholicos Nerses III Dayetsi built the Saint Nshan Church on the Varak Mountain and established the Varak Holy Cross holiday [13].

Varakavank flourished in the early 10th century, under the patronage of Kakig Artsruni, then king of Vasbouragan. His wife, Mlke, gifted the church one of the most celebrated Armenian-language handwritten manuscripts, the Bible of Queen Mlke. For long years, Varakavank served as the seat of an archbishopric, and its abbots were considered to be the prelates of Van and the environs [14].

In 1857, Mgrdich Khrimian (Khrimian Hayrig) was appointed abbot of Varakavank. He served in that capacity, almost without interruption, until 1885, sometimes holding the position alongside other positions of authority within the church.  The 30 years of Khrimian’s abbotship were marked by Varakavank’s growth and development. Thanks to his efforts, the monastery became the preeminent national, religious, educational, and cultural establishment in Van-Vasbouragan. One of the Khrimian’s first acts was to remove the monastery from the jurisdiction of Van’s prelates, and to place it under the direct authority of the Constantinople Armenian Patriarchate. In 1858, a printing press was established in the monastery, which printed the “Ardziv Vasbouragani” weekly publication (until 1864). The printing press also produced textbooks; as well as various religious, historical, and artistic publications, which were disseminated throughout the educational institutions of Van [15].

One of Mgrdich Khrimian’s most notable achievements as abbot of Varakavank was the establishment of the Jarankavorats School/boarding school in the spring of 1857. The school was soon serving about 25 children from the City of Van and surrounding villages [16]. In future years, the number of pupils reached approximately 40 [17]. The Jarankavorats was a modern establishment, which dispensed with corporal punishment and utilized the most innovative and progressive pedagogical methods [18].

One contemporary chronicler described Mgrdich Khrimian’s tenure as abbot of Varakavank thus – “During this 30-year period, the monastery became wealthy. Not one fragment of arable land remained fallow. Wherever appropriate, the property was covered in thousands of beneficial trees, and the Jar[ankavorats] School produced many more-or-less renowned priests, clergymen, educators, and men of letters, who served both the residents of the cities and villages of Van, as well as the entire Armenian society” [19].

When Mgrdich Khrimian was recalled to Constantinople in 1885, authority over the monastery was delegated once again to the Van Prelacy. Of all the prelates of Van, Archbishop Krikoris Aleatdjian (who served in that capacity until 1888) contributed most to the monastery. On his orders, the printing facilities were completely renovated, in addition to the dormitories of the Jarankavorats School and many other structures in the compound [20].

The monastery remained relatively prosperous during the terms of K. Alyatdjian and his successors until June of 1896, when alongside the other churches and monasteries of the area, it was attacked by bands of Kurdish bandits. Many of the monastery’s monks, Jarankavorats School’s students, and the field hands employed by the monastery were put to the sword, and the monastery’s wealth, including its animals and cattle, was plundered. Many of the administrative buildings of the compound were burned and razed to the ground. Consequently, the monastery was temporarily abandoned [21].

As soon as the wave of violence unleashed by the Hamidian massacres subsided, the people of Van began the work of reconstructing the monastery. The decision was made to entrust the work of reconstruction to laypeople – specifically, a board of trustees consisting of the city’s most prominent merchants, operating under the supervision of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Within a few years, the board of trustees was able to rebuild the destroyed buildings and to build new dormitories for the monastery’s monks, the students and faculty of the Jarankavorats School, and for visiting pilgrims. The monastery’s economy soon recovered successfully, reaching “hitherto unknown heights” [22].

Eastern Armenian intellectual A-To (Hovhannes Der-Mardirosian), who visited the Van Province in 1909, noted that the Jarankavorats School had three primary and four regular classes, and was serving more than 60 students. The monastery had a delightful garden, a large grove of trees, and a watermill fed by the water flowing from the springs of Mount Varak. It had plenty of assets, and consequently, a large income. Its wealth included more than 1,000 heads of sheep, more than 30 cattle and dams, and more than 20 oxen. The monastery also owned large tracts of pasture, and arable land exceeding 150 teseyadins [23]. Aside from this, the monastery received significant monetary support from dedicated trusts and funds. Much of this income was spent on the school, and the rest was used to meet the needs of the monastic order and the 40 field hands whom the monastery employed [24].

The growth and development of the Jarakavorats School owed much to the work of Ardag Tarpinian, who was appointed principal of the school in 1905. He introduced a series of reforms. Specifically, he developed a new educational curriculum, which aligned with the curricula of the Armenian secondary schools in the Caucasus, namely the Kevorkian Lyceum and the Nersisian School [25].

One of the notable events in the history of Van Armenians and Varakavank was the 50th anniversary jubilee celebrations, in 1910, of the founding of the Jarankavorats School and the start of Khrimian Hayrig’s tenure as abbot. On this occasion, a fundraising campaign was launched, and contributions were collected from pilgrims visiting the monastery, as well as from Armenians in Van, Russia, and the United States. The money that was raised was used to meet the needs of the school [26]. The committee that organized the jubilee celebrations also published two illustrated booklets – Varaka Hopelyan – Hishadagaran yev Goch Varaka Grtagan Hasdadoutyan Hisnamya Hopelyani (1857-1907) [Jubilee of Varak – Chronicle and Announcement of the 50-Year Jubilee of the Varak Educational Institution (1857-1907)] and Hopelyan Varaka Jarankavorats Varjaranin (1857-1907), 1 Mayis 1910 Van-Varak [Jubilee of the Varak Jarankavorats School (1857-1907), May 1, 1910, Van-Varak] [27].

Roupen Pegkouliants, who visited Varakavank on the eve of the First World War, in June 1914, stated that the compound was in relatively good shape, although it still bore the traces of the destruction wrought by the Hamidian massacres. The Jarakavorats continued to function as a boarding school beside the monastery, serving about 70 pupils. A new school building was in the process of being built [28].

The monastery paid special attention to the development of beekeeping and birdkeeping. The compound included an apiary with 12 modern beehives. Distinguished specimens of birds had been collected and brought to the aviary. The monastery compound also included an oil press. The administration of the monastery’s affairs was relegated to a monastery administrative council, consisting the most prominent of Van Armenians [29].

In 1913, the monastery received a visit from the newly appointed governor of Van Province, Tahsin Bey. In view of the monastery’s state of progress, he presented it with a poultry incubator, and also posed for a photograph with the orphanage’s pupils [30].

In 1914, the monastery’s order consisted of only three priests [31] (by contrast, Yeremia Devgants, who visited the monastery in 1873, noted that at the time, the monastery’s order consisted of 14 members, including eight priests [32]). The monastery’s prior (the abbot was nominally the Prelate of Van) was 86-year-old Senior Priest Father Devgants (killed by Turkish police officers on April 7, 1915) [33].

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