The Legend of the Pigeons and the Mystery of Hovhannavank – Armenia

The Legend of the PigeonsTamerlane’s troops repeatedly raided Armenia, as testified by many legends. One of them tells about what the Armenian people living at the foothills of Mount Aragats had to go through.

We will talk about the monastery of Hovhannavank. This particular legend says that the abbot of the monastery, having learned about the approaching hordes of Tamerlane, headed to the river to drown himself, knowing that he would not stand the tortures.

Why Tamerlane tortured priests? What caused such harsh treatment? That’s because the priests wouldn’t voluntarily give away the ancient Armenian manuscripts kept in large numbers in the monasteries, those centers of enlightenment.

The ancient handwritten books with miniatures were highly valuable for the Armenian Church and for every Armenian. Monks and priests treasured the books very much and hid them in secure places.

And Tamerlane was hunting for those ancient books. Knowing the Armenians’ love and reverence for books, he “took the manuscripts captive” in order to blackmail the Armenians.

In exchange for the release of a noble Armenian, Tamerlane demanded twice as much gold as he would for a commoner. And for a book, we would demand twice as much gold as for a noble.

To retrieve the books, Armenian volunteers collected donations from the people who would give their last money for the cause.

Thanks to the efforts of the volunteers, we have Matenadaran – the institute of ancient manuscripts – one of the largest repositories of manuscripts in the world.

It contains more than 17 thousand manuscripts and 100 thousand documents not only in Armenian but also in Russian, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, Greek, Persian, Japanese, and other languages.

I first saw the ruins of Hovhanavank Monastery in 1980. The day was overcast, so the surrounding landscape was gloomy and the ruins of the temple left a depressing impression.

The main temple – namely, its higher dome and the southern wall – had been seriously damaged during the earthquake of 1919.

Later, I’d think that the temple was lucky to have been ruined by an earthquake since many Armenian temples would be destroyed by the Soviet regime anyway. In Yerevan, for example, two large temples disappeared.

I visited Hovhanavank for the second time in 2000. My friend and I arrived in the village of Hovhanavan to see it.

Hovhanavank is an ancient monastery located on the edge of a rocky cliff in the picturesque gorge of the Kasakh river. The canyon is beautiful: its shape makes one think that someone had cut down giant steps in its walls.

On the opposite side of the canyon is Arayi Ler (Mount Ara), in front of which the battle between the legendary Armenian King Ara the Beautiful and Assyrian Queen Semiramis took place.

Perhaps, the canyon was formed during the eruption of the Arayi Ler volcano back in the days when it was active. Then, in 2000, the monastery was closed down.

Let’s return to the aforementioned legend.

Some say that the abbot of the monastery spotted the army of Tamerlane and headed to Kasakh river to drown himself. But the water did not accept him, even though he tried several times.

Tamerlane witnessed this and was impressed by the miracle. He promised the abbot to fulfill any of his requests. The abbot asked for the permission to take as many of the Armenian people with him as the church would fit.

Tamerlane agreed. A huge number of people entered the church: not a single person was left outside.

Confused, Tamerlane also entered the church only to see pigeons flying around beneath the dome. He was amazed!

Did people actually turn into pigeons? Probably not. However, there is a simple explanation for this.

Beneath the altar of the church was a secret passage leading to the gorge. People most likely simply descended into the secret passage and hid in the caves of the gorge.

In Armenia, temples built on hills or cliffs commonly had secret passageways to allow people to save their valuables, including books, and escape.

Standing in the center of the temple, I looked at the restored dome and thought that it was the tallest of all that surviving. Pigeons were everywhere: they easily entered the temple through the open rotunda in the porch and flew out through the narrow windows. It seems that pigeons have always lived here.

Karin Andreas

Hovhannavank Monastery

Hovhannavank (Arménie) – Հովհաննավանք (Հայաստան)

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