THE MONASTERY OF VARAGAVANK

History

The Armenian monastery of Varagavank, also known as Yedi Kilise ("Seven Churches"), was formerly the richest and best known monastery of Vaspurakan, and the residence of the archbishop of Van. The monastery lay close to the southern slopes of Mt. Varag (now called Erek Dağı), about 10km south-east of Van city.

King Senekerim-Hovhannes of Vaspurakan is said to have founded the monastery towards the beginning of his reign (1003-1022), but religious buildings existed on the site before that date.

The Holy Cross of Varag

During their journey across Armenia at the end of the 3rd century, the saints Gayane and Hrip'sime are said to have brought a fragment of the True Cross to Van. When they left Vaspurakan the relic was lost until the 7th century, when it was miraculously found on Varag mountain by a monk and taken to a hermitage that stood on the site of what was to become Varagavank monastery.

King Senekerim enlarged the existing complex into a monastery, to create a more suitable setting for what was the most important religious relic in his kingdom. After he had ceded his kingdom to the Byzantine empire, Senekerim took the relic with him to Sivas, where it was housed in the Armenian monastery of Surp Nishan, just outside the city.

Sometime later, after Senekerim's death, it was returned to Varagavank. In 1231, this now deeply venerated relic was taken for safe keeping to Norvaragvank ("New Varag monastery") in north eastern Armenia. At a later period it was returned to Van and was housed in the church known as Surp Nishan, inside the old walled city. It was lost, apparently forever, during the siege and massacres of 1915.

Later History

The monastery flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries, after the wars between the Ottoman and Persian empires had been settled, but declined rapidly during the 19th century. As well as suffering from periodic raids by the Kurdish tribes that afflicted most of eastern Turkey, the monastery was attacked by politically inspired persecutions directed against Armenian organisations by the Turkish authorities. Lake Van was the only region of "Turkish Armenia" where the Armenian population still had numerical superiority over the combined Turkish and Kurdish population; consequently it became the region of greatest repression. In 1896 the monastery was sacked and its school destroyed. The school was later re-established, and had over a hundred resident pupils in 1913.

Many European travellers to Van visited Varagavank and left descriptions of the place: click here to read H. F. B. Lynch's account of his visit in 1893. In the early part of the 20th century the German archaeologist Walter Bachman produced a detailed plan of the monastery's layout.

Varagavank was destroyed by the Turkish army on April 30th 1915, during the siege of Van. A Kurdish village, called Bakraçlı, later grew up around the ruins of the surviving churches.


1.   A view of Varagavank monastery before 1915


2.   Inside the courtyard of the monastery


3.   A view of the main buildings of the monastery, photographed before 1915 - click for a larger photo


4.   The present condition of Varagavank monastery, photographed in 1989 - click for a larger photo


5.   Another view showing the surviving buildings


6.   The arched entrance porch to the zhamatun
- click for a larger photo


7.   The entrance to the zhamatun

8.   Inside the zhamatun, looking east

9.   The church entrance, before 1915

The Monastery's Churches

  1.   Church of St. Sofia
  2.   Church of St. John
  3.   Church of the Holy Mother of God
  4.   Zhamatun of St. George
  5.   Chapel of the Holy Seal
  6.   Church of the Holy Cross
  7.   Church of St. Sion
  8.   Porch with belltower

The main church, the church of the Holy Mother of God, (3), was perhaps built by Senekerim, although if that is the case then it was substantially rebuild during later periods (especially after an earthquake in 1648).

It has a plan that is sometimes called a "St. Hrip'sime type", named after the 7th century church of St. Hrip'sime at Etchmiadzin, the first dated example of this sort of plan. It is also known as a "four-apse, four-niche" plan. Its characteristic feature are the four, nearly circular, "niches" that are set into the masonry between the apses and the corner rooms.

The walls are surprisingly crudely built: rubble masonry behind a thick layer of plaster. The vaults, with pointed arches, and upper part of the walls are of brick. There was a dome over the central space. This was also built of brick and was supported by a brick drum, cylindrical inside and dodecagonal outside.

Adjoining the north wall of the main church was a smaller building known as the church of the Holy Seal, (5). Nothing of it now survives.

West of the church of the Holy Mother of God is a large hall, (4), called a zhamatun in Armenian. An inscription over its door records that it was built in 1648 by the architect Tiratur. It probably replaced an older structure destroyed in the earthquake of that year. It is a square structure, 14 by 14 metres, built of well cut stone, and divided into 9 bays. The roof over the centre bay had a dome over a tall, octagonal drum. The roofs over the other 8 bays have domed vaults resting on pendentives. The doorway from the zhamatun into the church is particularly ornately decorated, using a mixture of Armenian, Turkish, and Persian motifs.

The free-standing and engaged pillars inside the zhamatun have frescoes depicting, amongst others, St. Hripísime, St. Gayane, the archangels Michael and Gabriel, various other saints, clerical figures, and the patron of the zhamatun, Kirakos. These frescoes, today in very bad condition, were once garishly coloured. A. H. Layard, after a visit in 1850, wrote "Its walls are covered with pictures as primitive in design as execution. There is a victorious St. George blowing out the brains of a formidable dragon with a bright brass blunderbuss, and saints, attired in the traditionary garments of Europe, performing extravagant miracles". The frescoes are thought, on stylistic grounds, to have been painted by an Armenian from Persia.

Against the north wall of the zhamatun is another chapel, (6), the church of the Holy Cross. It was built (or rebuilt) in 1817, and served for a while as the monastery library. Built against the south wall of the zhamatun is a barrel vaulted room, (7), built in 1849. Although it is not particularly church-like, it was known as the church of St. Sion.

An arched porch stands in front of the west wall of the zhamatun. Above its central bay was a two story belltower. This entrance porch once looked out onto a courtyard that was surrounded by ancillary buildings belonging to the monastery.

To the south of the main monastery complex were two churches. At least one was older than the date of Senekerim's foundation of the monastery. The southernmost church, (1), St. Sophia, was commissioned by Khoshush, the daughter of King Gagik of Ani and the wife of Senekerim, future king of Vaspurakan, and built in the year 981. Its plan was a domed-hall type. It collapsed in an earthquake in 1648 and was not rebuilt. Only the apse now survives, used as a shelter for hay. The church of St. John, (2), was built against the north wall of St. Sophia. Both churches were very similar in their style of construction and so were probably from the same period. St. John was a three apsed church, with a dome supported by a cylindrical drum that rested on squinches. It was intact before 1915 but is now entirely destroyed.


10.   Ornamental motifs, originally painted, carved on
the frame of the entrance to the main church


11.   Niche in the north wall of the zhamatun


12.   Frescoes on a pillar inside the zhamatun


13.   The interior of the church of the
Mother of God, photographed in 1893


14.   The present condition of the above church
- click for a larger photo


15.   Brick arches & squinches on the superstructure


16.   The church of Saint Sofia and (on the left) the church of Saint John, photographed before 1915


17.   Only the apse now survives