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Varagavank view Bachmann 1913.png
The monastery circa 1913[1]
Varagavank is located in Turkey
Shown within Turkey
Basic information
Location Yukarı Bakraçlı,[2][3] Van Province, Turkey
Geographic coordinates 38°26′59″N 43°27′39″E / 38.449636°N 43.460825°E / 38.449636; 43.460825Coordinates: 38°26′59″N 43°27′39″E / 38.449636°N 43.460825°E / 38.449636; 43.460825
Affiliation Armenian Apostolic Church
Status Destroyed
Architectural style Armenian
Founder Senekerim-Hovhannes
Groundbreaking early 11th century
Armenian monks and boys with throne of King Senekerim-Hovhannes at Varagavank (between 1880 and 1892)

Varagavank (Armenian: Վարագավանք, "Monastery of Varag";[A] Turkish: Yedi Kilise, "Seven Churches")[5][6] was an Armenian monastery located on the slopes of Mount Varag (Erek Dağı), 9 km[7] east of the city of Van, in eastern Turkey.[5]

It was founded in the early 11th-century on a preexisting religious site by Senekerim-Hovhannes, the Armenian King of Vaspurakan. It served as the necropolis of the Artsruni kings. In later centuries, it was the seat of the archbishop of the Armenian Church in Van.[8] The monastery was "one of the great monastic centres of the Armenian church"[9] and "the richest and most celebrated monastery of the Lake Van area".[5]

During the Armenian Genocide, in April-May of 1915 the Turkish army attacked, burned,[10] and destroyed much of the monastery. "A significant part was destroyed in the 1960s, while good sections have just barely survived until our days."[9]



According to tradition, in the late third century St. Rhipsime hid the remnant of the True Cross she wore on her neck on the site of the monastery. In 653, when its location became known, Catholicos Nerses III the Builder built the Church of Surb Nshan (Holy Seal),[11] described by Robert H. Hewsen as "a simple hermitage".[5] Catholicos Nerses also established the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varag (Վարագա սուրբ խաչի տոն), celebrated by the Armenian Apostolic Church on the Sunday nearest to September 28, always two weeks after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross,[12]

In 981 Queen Khushush, the daughter of Gagik I Bagratuni betrothed to Senekerim-Hovhannes, built a church at the site dedicated to the Holy Wisdom (Surb Sopi).[5] In the late medieval period it was converted into a castle and was known as Berdavor ("berd" means "fortress" in Armenian). To the north was the tenth century Church of Surb Hovhannes (Saint John).[11]

View of the monastery
View of the monastery in 1893[13]
View of the monastery from afar

Foundation and medieval period[edit]

The monastery itself was founded by Senekerim-Hovhannes, the Artsruni King of Vaspurakan, early in his reign (1003–24) to house a relic of the True Cross that had been kept on the site since Rhipsime.[5][7] In 1021, when Vaspurakan fell to Byzantine rule, Senekerim-Hovhannes took the relic to Sebastia where, in 1022, his son Atom founded the Surb Nshan Monastery. In 1025, following his death, Senekerim-Hovhannes was buried at Varagavank and the True Cross was returned to the monastery.[11]

In 1237 Varagavank Father Ghukas, fearing an attack by Muslims, took the True Cross to the Tavush region of northeastern Armenia. There he settled in the Anapat monastery, which was renamed Nor Varagavank ("New Varagavank"). In 1318 the Mongols invaded the region and robbed the monastery. All the churches were destroyed, except the St. Hovhannes Church which had an iron door and where the monks hid. In the 1320-50s, the monastery was completely restored.[11]

Modern period[edit]

Shah Tahmasp I of Persia ransacked the monastery in 1534. In 1648 Varagavank, along with other buildings in Vaspurakan, was destroyed by an earthquake. Its restoration began immediately thereafter by monastery father Kirakos who found financial support among the wealthy merchants in Van. According to the 17th century historian Arakel of Tabriz four churches in total were restored and renovated.[11]

In 1648 the architect Tiratur built a square-planned gavit (narthex) west of Church of Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). It functioned as a church in the 19th century and was called Surb Gevorg. To the west of the narthex was a 17th-century three-arched open-air porch; to the north was Church of Surb Khach (Holy Cross); while on the south was the 17th-century Church of Surb Sion. Urartian cuneiform inscriptions were used as lintels on their western entrances.[11]

In 1651 Suleyman, the prince of Hoşap Castle, invaded the monastery, robbed the palace, manuscripts, treasures and the Holy Cross, which was later repurchased and made it part of the Tiramayr Church of Van in 1655. The monastery declined in the late 17th century. In 1679 many of its treasures were sold due to economic difficulties. In 1724 archbishop Bardughimeos Shushanetsi renovated the monastery.[11]

In 1779 father Baghdasar vardapet decorated the narthex walls with frescoes of King Abgar, Empire Theodosius, Saint Gayane, Saint Rhipsime, Khosrovadukht (arm), and Gabriel. According to Murad Hasratyan, the unknown painter had combined styles of Armenian, Persian, and Western European art.[11]

19th century[edit]

In 1803 a wall was built around the monastery. In 1817 archbishop Galust completely renovated the Church of Surb Khach (Holy Cross) and converted it into a depository of manuscripts. In 1832 Tamur pasha of Van robbed the monastery's treasures and strangled the father Mktrich vardapet Gaghatatsi to death. In 1849 Gabriel vardapet Shiroyan restored the Church of Sion, which had been destroyed by an earthquake, and converted it into a wheat warehouse.[11]

In 1857 Mkrtich Khrimian, the future head of the Armenian Church, became father of Varagavank and made the monastery effectively independent and only a subordinate of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople.[11] He founded a printing house and began publishing Artsiv Vaspurakani ("The Eagle of Vaspurakan"), the first newspaper in historical Armenia,[5] which was published between 1858 and 1864.[11] He also established a modern school where subjects like theology, music, grammar, geography, Armenian studies and history were taught. The prominent novelist Raffi briefly taught at the school. First graduates graduated in 1862.[11] The English writer and traveler Henry F. Tozer described the monastery in 1881 as "important" and as having a "good school".[14]

In 1896, during the Hamidian massacres, the monastery was sacked[15] and robbed, while some teachers and students were killed.[11] According to a contemporary report by an American at Van, "Varak, the most famous and historic monastery in all this [Van] region, which has weathered the storms of centuries is almost certain to go [on fire]."[16]


In the spring of 1915—during the early stages of the Armenian Genocide—the Turkish government forces laid siege to Van, while the local Armenians organized self-defense[17] in what became the most notable resistance to the Turkish campaign of deportations and massacres.[18] During most of April, the monastery was held by Armenians, but was captured and burnt by the Turks sometime in late April and early May. Different reports give different dates for the burning of the monastery. An April 27, 1915 message sent to "To Americans, or any Foreign Consul" by missionaries Clarence Ussher and Ernest Yarrow said that "From our window we could plainly see Shushantz afire on its mountain-side and Varak Monastery, with its priceless store of ancient manuscripts, going up in smoke."[19] Missionary Elizabeth Barrows Ussher, who was the wife of Clarence, wrote in her diary that the monastery was attacked by some 200 cavalry and foot soldiers on April 30, but they were repulsed. She gave May 4 as the day when the monastery was burned.[20] American missionary teacher Grace H. Knapp stated, however, that "On the 8th May we saw the place in flames, and Varak Monastery near by, with its priceless ancient manuscripts, also went up in smoke."[21][22]

According to modern historian Raymond Kévorkian it was on May 8 that Van Governor Djevdet Bey ordered the Erzerum Battalion (300 cavalrymen and 1,000 militiamen, equipped with cannons) to attack Varag. The 250 Armenian men were unable to defend the monastery and "its collections of medieval manuscripts were given over to the flames."[10]

Current state[edit]

The monastery shortly before the 2011 earthquake

"Much of the monastery was destroyed in 1915, a significant part was destroyed in the 1960s."[9] As of 2006 its remains were used a barn.[23] According to historian Ara Sarafian, as of 2012, "good sections have just barely survived until our days."[9] Dr. Jenny B. White, an scholar on Turkey, wrote in 2013 that on her visit the remains of the monastery "consisted of nothing more than a few brick vaults used to house goats amid a clutch of tumbledown Kurdish homes."[24] The best-preserved section of the monastery is the church of Surb Gevorg (St. George),[25] which is now looked after by a caretaker.[6] The dome is partially collapsed and some traces of frescoes survive.[6] The dome of the church of Surb Nshan is entirely gone.[26]

In February 2010, following the renovation of the Holy Cross Cathedral at Akdamar Island in Lake Van, Halil Berk, the Deputy Governor of Van Province, announced that the Governor's Office "is preparing to restore" Varagavank and the Ktuts monastery at Çarpanak Island.[2] In June of that year, Van Governor also stated that the monastery at Çarpanak Island and Varagavank "will both be renovated in the near future."[27] In October 2010 Radikal reported that a nearby mosque, built in 1997, would be demolished to make room for the restoration of Varagavank.[3]

The monastery was damaged as a result of the 2011 Van earthquake.[28][29] According to Ara Sarafian, "parts of the main church collapsed, while other parts were significantly weakened. Old cracks got bigger, new ones appeared." Turkish engineers reportedly inspected and claimed they can save the monastery and hoped to start restoration work in the spring of 2012. Sarafian wrote that "such promises have been made in the past and one needs to be a little sceptical. The current state of the church makes such work much harder than at any time in the past." He noted in a 2012 article that the local and provincial governments supported the preservation and restoration of the monastery.[9]

In October 2012, the artist Raffi Bedrosyan, who contributed to the restoration of the St. Giragos Church in Diyarbakır, stated that he had hopes to restore Varagavank and added that "Both Ankara and Van agreed to launch the restoration project, but social and natural obstacles delayed the process."[30]


Taraf reported in September 2012 that the monastery is owned by the Turkish journalist and media executive Fatih Altaylı. In an interview Altaylı told the newspaper that the monastery belonged to his grandfather and he inherited it from his father.[31] The monastery was confiscated during the Armenian Genocide.[32] A group of Armenians in Turkey, led by the activist Nadya Uygun started a petition asking him to "Apply to the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey and transfer the title deed of the church to the concerned [Armenian community] foundation."[33] Altayli told Agos that he is ready to give it to the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople,[34] but no government authority has approached him to respond to his offer to give back the church to its owners, and that they displayed no interest in cooperating.[33] Revolutionary Socialist Workers' Party (DSİP) activists demonstrated in early October of 2012 before the Habertürk headquarters in Beyoğlu, Istanbul demanding the return of the monastery land to the Armenians.[35][36] As of September 2014 there was no progress.[33]


In the 10th century Queen Mlke, the wife of Gagik I, presented the monastery the "Gospel of Queen Mlke" (arm), one of the best known Armenian illuminated manuscripts. In the 14th-16th centuries the monastery became a major center of manuscript production. A number of Varagavank manuscripts are now kept at the Matenadaran in Yerevan.[11]


The monastery was composed of six churches, gavit, narthex (nakhasrah) and other structures.[37] The main church of Varagavank was called Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). It dated to the 11th century and was similar, in plan, to the prominent Saint Hripsime Church in Vagharshapat.[11]

Earliest structure was on the southern part of the ensemble and was known as Surb Sopia (10th century). Queen Khushush left an inscription (dated 981) on its western wall.[37]

Cultural references[edit]

Raffi mentions the monastery in volume two of the novel Sparkles («Կայծեր», 1883-87).[38]

The prominent poet Hovhannes Tumanyan wrote an article about the monastery in 1910 on the fiftieth anniversary of Mkrtich Khrimian becoming father of Varag and the monastery's subsequent revival as a great center of education and culture.[39]



  1. ^ Sometimes spelled separately as two words: Varaga vank, Վարագայ վանք in classical spelling[4] and Վարագա վանք in reformed spelling. Pronounced Varakavank' in Western Armenian.
  1. ^ Bachmann 1913, p. 133.
  2. ^ a b "More Armenian churches to be renovated in eastern Turkey". Hürriyet Daily News (via Anatolia News Agency). 23 February 2010. Archived from the original on 5 October 2014. 
  3. ^ a b "Ermeni kilisesi için geri sayım". Radikal (in Turkish). 27 October 2010. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "Թուրքերը Կ՛առաջարկեն Քանդել Վարագայ Վանքի Կողքի Մզկիթը". Asbarez (in Armenian). 30 November 2009. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Hewsen, Robert H. (2000). "Van in This World; Paradise in the Next: The Historical Geography of Van/Vaspurakan". In Hovannisian, Richard G.. Armenian Van/Vaspurakan. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers. p. 28. ISBN 1-56859-130-6. 
  6. ^ a b c "The Armenian Churches of Lake Van". Today's Zaman. 14 July 2009. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Sinclair, T. A. (1989). "Yedi Kilise (Armn. "Varagavank")". Eastern Turkey: An Architectural & Archaeological Survey, Volume I. London: Pindar Press. pp. 190-192. ISBN 978-1-904597-70-4. 
  8. ^ Minasian, T. H. "Գրիգոր Սկևռացու գրական ժառանգության հարցի շուրջ [To the Question of Grigor Skevratsi’s Literary Heritage]". Lraber Hasarakakan Gitutyunneri (in Armenian) (Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences) (2): 98. Վարագա վանքը Վասպուրականի նշանավոր հոգևոր կենտրոններից էր: Այն եղել է եպիսկոպոսանիստ, վանքի վանահայրերը եղել են Վան քաղաքի և շրջակա միջավայրի առաջնորդներ: 
  9. ^ a b c d e Sarafian, Ara (22 January 2012). "A Time to Act: What will become of Varak Monastery after the recent earthquake in Van?". The Armenian Reporter. Archived from the original on 5 October 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Kévorkian, Raymond H. (2011). The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History. London: I.B. Tauris. p. 326. ISBN 978-1-84885-561-8. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Hasratyan, Murad (2002). "Վարագավանք [Varagavank]". Yerevan State University Institute for Armenian Studies (in Armenian). "Christian Armenia" Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. 
  12. ^ Divan of the Diocese (23 September 2011). "Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak". Burbank, California: Western Diocese of the Armenian Church. Archived from the original on 15 October 2014. 
  13. ^ Lynch, H. F. B. (1901). "Van". Armenia, travels and studies. 2: The Turkish Provinces. Longmans, Green, and Co. pp. 113–115. 
  14. ^ Tozer, Henry Fanshawe (1881). Turkish Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor. London: Longmans, Green & Co. pp. 349-350. ...the broken Varak Dagh formed a noble object on the further side of the plain. In one of the upper valleys of the last-named mountain lies an important monastery, which is the residence of the archbishop, and has a good school. 
  15. ^ Guréghian, Jean V. (2008). Les monuments de la région Mouch-Sassoun-Van en Arménie historique [The monuments of the regions of Mush-Sasun-Van in historical Armenia] (in French). Alfortville: Sigest. p. 16. ISBN 978-2-917329-06-1. 
  16. ^ Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper (New York) 61 (1,537): 166. July 30, 1896.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ Walker, Christopher J. (1990). Armenia: The Survival of a Nation (revised second ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-312-04230-1. Their five-week battle with the Turks was not a rebellion, but legitimate self-defence, a reaction to the terrorism of the government's representative, Djevdet, which he had directed against the entire Armenian community. 
  18. ^ Mayersen, Deborah (2014). On the Path to Genocide: Armenia and Rwanda Reexamined. New York: Berghahn Books. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-78238-285-0. The events at Van described earlier constitute the most notable case of Armenian resistance. 
  19. ^ Ussher, Clarence (1917). An American Physician in Turkey: A Narrative of Adventures in Peace and War. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 275. 
  20. ^ Barrows, John Otis (1916). In the Land of Ararat. Fleming H. Revell Company.  p. 133 "April 30th. A party of 200 cavalry and foot soldiers attacked Varak and Shushantz villages, but were repulsed."; p. 136 "[May 5th.] The older, a girl about five or six, had carried her two-year-old brother on her back from the Varak monastery, which had been a refuge for 2000 villagers before the Turks burnt it up yesterday morning. [i.e. May 4th]"
  21. ^ Knapp, Grace Higley (1916). The Mission at Van: In Turkey in War Time. Privately Printed. p. 22. 
  22. ^ Toynbee, Arnold, ed. (1916). "The American Mission at Van: Narrative printed privately in the United States by Grace Higley Knapp (1915).". The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915–1916: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon by Viscount Bryce, with a Preface by Viscount Bryce. London: Hodder & Stoughton. p. 38. 
  23. ^ Bevan, Robert (2006). "Cultural Cleansing: Who Remembers the Armenians?". The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaktion Books. p. 57. ISBN 1-86189-205-5. Elsewhere some remains cling on, including the tenth-century chapel frescos at Varak Vank, now a barn. 
  24. ^ White, Jenny (2014). Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-4008-5125-6. 
  25. ^ "Yedi Kilise". The Rough Guide to Turkey. Rough Guides. 2003. p. 941. 
  26. ^ Ekmanian, Harout (30 September 2010). "Detailed Report: The Mass in Akhtamar, and What’s Next". Armenian Weekly. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  27. ^ Ziflioğlu, Vercihan. "Akdamar Surp Haç Church in Turkey to host service, but remain museum". Hürriyet Daily News. Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. 
  28. ^ "Turkey Earthquake Delivers Further Blow to Varakavank Armenian Monastery in Van". 31 October 2011. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. 
  29. ^ "Տխուր պատմություն Վարագավանքից". (in Armenian). Noyan Tapan. 2 June 2012. Այս անգամ այցելությունը Վարագա վանք շատ տխուր էր, որովհետեւ Վանի երկրաշարժից փլվել էր վանքի մի մասը եւ փակել մուտքը: 
  30. ^ Ziflioğlu, Vercihan (18 October 2012). "Bell to toll once more at Diyarbakır church". Hürriyet Daily News. Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. 
  31. ^ Tansel, Sümeyra (22 September 2012). "Ne olacak Fatih’in kilisesinin bu hali". Taraf (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. 
  32. ^ "Որտեղի՞ց հայկական եկեղեցի Haberturk-ի գլխավոր խմբագրին". CivilNet (in Armenian). 26 September 2012. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  33. ^ a b c Gunaysu, Ayse; Uygun, Nadya (24 September 2014). "Fatih Altayli: Male Chauvinist, Owner of Usurped Armenian Property". Armenian Weekly. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  34. ^ Koptaş, Rober. "‘Manastırı seve seve veririm’". Agos (in Turkish). Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  35. ^ Tansel, Sümeyra (3 October 2012). "Altaylı kiliseyi geri verecek". Taraf (in Turkish). Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  36. ^ "DSİP, Fatih Altaylı'dan Ermeni kilisesini geri istedi". Agos (in Turkish). 2 October 2012. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  37. ^ a b Hasratyan, Murad (1985). "Վարագավանք [Varagavank]". Soviet Armenian Encyclopedia 11. Yerevan: Armenian Encyclopedia. pp. 304-305. 
  38. ^ Raffi (1887). Կարծեր [Sparkles]. p. 46. ...երևում էին և Վարագա կանաչազարդ լեռները, որոնց կուրծքի վրա, խորին ջերմեռանդությամբ գրկված, բազմել էր Վարագա գեղեցիկ վանքը: 
  39. ^ Tumanyan, Hovhannes (June 11, 1910). "Վարագա հոբելյանը (Anniversary of Varag)". Horizon (in Armenian) (126) (Tiflis: Armenian Revolutionary Federation).  Reproduced in Հովհաննես Թումանյան Երկերի Լիակատար Ժողովածու. Հատոր Վեցերորդ. Քննադատություն և Հրապարակախոսություն 1887-1912 [Anthology of Hovhannes Tumanyan Volume 6: Criticism and Oration 1887-1912] (in Armenian). Yerevan: Armenian National Academy of Sciences. 1994. pp. 219-220. 
  40. ^ Bachmann 1913, p. 131.


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