Discovering Magaravank

Continuing my quest for the truth about the origins of the world, I visited Magaravank (Sourp Magar) Armenian Monastery in Cyprus in April 2018.

I took a taxi to the idyllic Pentadaktylos mountain range over Kyrenia and began my descent to Magaravank Monastery.

I noticed that the taxi had to stop far above the site of the building since the road leading to the Monastery was barred. I asked the driver to stop and provide directions to the Monastery, and then I started the journey on my own.

My first view of the site was beautifully panoramic, yet soon revealed abandonment and decay. It seemed as though the monastery was purposefully left hidden, blocked from car access, so that it would slowly fall apart and its existence would be forgotten.

The site was nevertheless historical and imposing, calling upon my imagination to use my knowledge to reconstruct an older era that reveals the monastery’s cultural significance.

Magaravank was founded in the early eleventh century as a place of worship for Coptic Christians, dedicated to St. Macarius of Alexandria, who died in 395 AD.

In the fifteenth century, the monastery was handed over to the Armenian population of Cyprus. It maintained close ties with the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon.

As I jumped into the ruins to start my exploration and historical autopsy, I tried to discern the different layers of history – the various parts of the Monastery built at different times to serve distinct purposes.

The building has served various social functions, including a rest house for pilgrims, a school, an orphanage, a summer retreat for Armenian refugee children, and a Turkish army encampment.

I wandered the cells of the monks, the chapels, and finally the eastern wing and main entrance, which according to my readings were the oldest parts of the Monastery, dating back to the tenth century when the building was used by the Coptic church. I noted Gothic elements on the main wall, reminiscent of the Gothic Armenian architecture of Upper Mesopotamia and Coptic Cairo.  

The building has been reused and rebuilt over the centuries, and various parts of the edifice date to different eras and owners. These Gothic elements may originate from Gothic Cairo, as well as original Armenian architecture.

I thought of the site’s proximity to Egypt, Jerusalem, and Cilicia of Asia Minor, with Cyprus serving as a place of refuge and safety for at-risk populations, ideally located in the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

It was once a place where different cultures met and experienced syncretism, with different nations coexisting and intermingling in commercial, cultural, and personal ways, sometimes shifting from one religious dogma to the other, either willingly or by force.

The presence of Armenians in Cyprus has been recorded since the sixth century. Magaravank is an Armenian landmark of Cyprus and testifies to the important Armenian history of the island. 

Close ties between the Kingdom of Cyprus by Frankish Guy de Lusignan (founded in 1192 after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin of Egypt) and the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (1080 to 1375 with close ties to the Crusaders) markedly influenced the Armenian presence in the history of Cyprus. The relationships between the two kingdoms were politically sealed by royal/nobility marriages as well as their commercial ties.

The Armenian population migrated en masse to Cyprus, mainly from Cilicia, in various forms and for diverse reasons, including massive deportations of prisoners, mercenary military forces, migration for safety, and other political and commercial causes. Most notably, Armenians migrated to Cyprus to escape Muslim domination by Turkic tribes (prevalent in Asia Minor after the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the defeat of the Greek-Byzantine forces), Egyptian Mamluks (thirteenth and fourteenth century) and Timur/Tamerlane of the Mongols (fifteenth century).  

The Hamidian Massacres of the Armenians from 1894-1896 and in Adana in 1909 led to further massive immigration to Cyprus for safety.

I climbed to the top of the Monastery and tried to reconstruct the site, imagining it at full capacity in its glory, maybe during one of the major celebrations, like Christmas or Easter.

I had read about manuscripts once being kept in the Monastery to preserve the wisdom of past times. I imagined the monks preparing for the festivities, studying the manuscripts in the library, or praying and chanting the gorgeous melodic ancient Armenian hymns.

The sight of demolished monk cells for the use of the building material suddenly jerked me back to reality, where a place of worship, study, and preservation of culture had become a place of looting and destruction.

The invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974 and the illegal occupation of the Northern part of the island led to mass arrests and atrocities against Christian Greeks and Armenians; an exchange of populations arbitrarily based on religion; and the destruction, looting, and selling of the cultural treasures of the island.

Following the invasion, the historical treasures of the island (including those of the Magaravank) were looted, fragmented, and sold in pieces to various parts of the world, mainly the West.

The Church of Cyprus was able to locate some of them and repatriate them to the Byzantine Museum of Cyprus in the free part of Nicosia, after lengthy and costly legal battles.

Magaravank is a symbol of the Armenian presence and history of the island, a witness to continuous cultural genocide, and a testimony to the fate of the areas illegally invaded and occupied by the Turkish military. 

Its very existence is threatened, as it has been purposefully abandoned to the fate of further looting and natural calamities. Without intervention, this remarkable piece of history will likely be lost to time, like so many of Armenia’s historical landmarks. 

Other notable Armenian monuments of Cyprus are Ganchvor Sourp Asdvadzadzin Monastery within the walled city of Ammochostos (Famagusta), founded by Armenian refugees from Cilicia in 1346; St. Lazarus Church of Larnaca, founded in the tenth century; and the Benedectine Abbey/Nunnery of Notre Dame de Tyre in Nicosia, which was founded in the thirteenth century as a convent and handed over to the Armenian community in the sixteenth century – now also within the Turkish occupied part of Nicosia.

Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis

Magaravank (Sourp Magar) Armenian Monastery, Cyprus (Photo: Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis)

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