Tamerlane’s Fear in Armenia

The forces of Timur (Tamerlane) carried out devastating raids on Armenia in 1386, 1394, 1398, and 1403. Tamerlane exhibited extreme cruelty everywhere: he plundered, annihilated the population, showing no mercy for women, children, or the elderly; he took captives back to Samarkand; he destroyed monasteries and churches, torturing priests.

Many regions of Armenia were depopulated. There are many legends, parables, and anecdotes associated with Tamerlane’s name, but, oddly enough, they barely mention his bloodthirstiness and cruelty – he’s just portrayed as evil.

Perhaps, in this way, the people erased the memory of the cruelty and associated fear? One of the legends connects Tamerlane’s name with the Tatev Monastery. But before I tell it, let’s travel to the monastery.

Tatev Monastery is located near the village of Tatev, 250 km from Yerevan, on a cliff overlooking the Vorotan River Gorge, currently not in operation but open for tourists. I first saw Tatev in 1973. Tatev is located in the south of the country between the cities of Sisian and Goris.

My family and I took my father’s “Pobeda” car to visit relatives in Sisian, and the next morning we headed to Tatev. After driving about 20 km, we came out onto a plain and were very surprised when dad told us to prepare to count the turns – as many as there would be down, there would be just as many up to Tatev.

The road unexpectedly steeply went downhill. However, in the mountains it’s always like that: the road can drop down or climb up, with sharp turns. We counted 17 turns and ended up in the Vorotan River Gorge.

Here we took a break to see the “Satan’s Bridge” – a place where the river goes underground and then comes out to the surface. There’s a hot spring in the gorge and something similar to a pool, in which there are always people swimming: village boys and tourists.

Once, someone made the natural pool feel just like a home one – you can pull the plug and drain the water, then plug the hole again and fill it with clean water. The mineral water is amazing: it’s as soft as silk.

We rinsed our feet and got back in the car, as we were facing a climb to the cliff where the Tatev Monastery is located. There are several legends about the origin of the monastery and its name, I will tell you one of them.

A princess, together with her retinue, was heading towards her groom. She was sitting in the saddle of her horse when suddenly robbers blocked their path. The beautiful princess was a desirable prey for them. The princess pulled the reins, and the horse carried her forward and upward the hill.

Presumably, it was the same path that we drove by car, counting the turns. The horse carried her to a flat plateau. At first, the princess rejoiced, but then she despaired – there were cliffs everywhere, and the hoofbeats of the pursuing horses were already audible.

“Ta-tev (give wings)”, the princess prayed, addressing the heavens, and directed her horse into the abyss. The robbers saw this and turned back – they were sure that the princess had crashed into the rocks.

The princess’s entourage watched the events from below and saw the princess’s fall. They decided to look for her body, wondering how they would have to justify themselves to her parents and groom. To their surprise and joy, the princess rode out to meet them, alive and unharmed.

She told her entourage that, while she was falling into the abyss, she made a vow to stay here and build a hermitage. In the gorge, there is still a hermitage called Tatevi Anapat – the Tatev desert. Presumably, Tatev Monastery was founded in the IX century on the site of an ancient sanctuary.

The Syunik prince, Philip, in 848 AD, gifted the monastery the village of Tatev and built the church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. At the end of the 14th century, Tamerlane’s army looted and almost destroyed Tatev.

However, the monastery was restored, and it became the largest center of philosophical and scientific thought in medieval Armenia. One of the country’s universities – the Tatev University, a seminary, and a library were all operational within the monastery.

The first thing we saw when we arrived at Tatev was a small 11th-century church of Astvatsatsin (Mother of God) above large stone gates. It was being restored then, while everything else: the church of St. Poghos-Petros (Peter-Paul) 895-906, residential and auxiliary buildings lay in ruins – Tatev was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931.

The second time I was in Tatev was in 2003 when almost everything had been restored. We walked on the roofs of the auxiliary buildings, from where there is a very beautiful view of the surrounding nature and the monastery grounds. Adjoining the main church is the tomb of St. Gregory Tatevatsi, the head of the university, philosopher, and educator.

Also of interest is the 17th-century Oil Press House, Dzit An, where a massive millstone has been preserved. With it, oil was pressed from sesame, hemp, mustard, burdock, poppy, camelina, and flax.

The main attraction of the monastery is the swinging column Gavazan (Staff) from 904 AD – an ancient pendulum that foretold earthquakes and the approach of enemy armies.

The Gavazan is an octagonal column, composed of small stones, 8 meters high, with a khachkar (cross-stone) on top, which swayed at the slightest touch or earth tremor, thanks to a hinge joint. The Gavazan is a symbol of episcopal authority, indicating that monks were ordained and princes were crowned in the monastery.

According to legend, Tamerlane’s army ascended to the monastery and began to loot. At that moment, the column was swaying. Tamerlane was very surprised by this wonder and ordered to displace the column.

The warriors failed to do this, so they tied oxen and tried to move the column. Suddenly, the wind rose and it darkened – a solar eclipse began. Tamerlane was superstitious, considered this a bad sign, and hastily left the monastery and Armenia.

What Tamerlane failed to do – displace the column – was done by an earthquake – the column fell apart. The Gavazan was collected and the fragments were fastened with rings and bolts. Unfortunately, we no longer have the opportunity to witness the miracle that Tamerlane saw – the secret is lost.

In 2010, the “Wings of Tatev” cable car was opened, which simplified the trip to Tatev, now there is no need to overcome steep descents and ascents to the monastery. This cable car, with a length of 5.7 km, reaches a maximum height of 360 meters above the gorge. The cabin seems to fly over forests and among rocks for about 12 minutes.

Author: Karin Andreas

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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