Varzahani Vanq Monastery, Armenia

The barbaric destruction of ancient monuments continues to this day. It is being carried out by the same Turks, masquerading as various terrorist organizations and groups in Syria, and by frenzied fanatics, cannibals, Islamists around the world.

Their goal is to destroy everything that reminds of the culture of peoples and civilization as a whole. The Turks destroyed almost everything that reminded of the origins of human civilization in Mesopotamia, in order to impose their history and hide their roots.

The Turks do not understand that it is impossible to hide heritage. In the modern world, with the presence of modern technologies, a few surface excavations are enough, and the colorful picture of the past is recreated in full.

Along with the Turks, the Kurds also participated in the destruction of Armenian heritage in historical Armenia, hoping that they would be able to settle in foreign territory – Armenia, after the physical destruction of Armenians and their heritage.

The Kurds have not achieved what they wanted, moreover, they are now fighting for the preservation of their ethnicity in this territory, as they are being destroyed according to the same scheme that Armenians were a hundred years ago.

But the most paradoxical thing is that the Kurds today are defenders of the Armenian heritage in historical Armenia, which the Azerbaijanis are trying to destroy, actively populating the territory of historical Armenia. But they do this not out of great love for the Armenians and Armenian heritage, but because – it is their almost only source of income.”

In order to see the ancient architectural structures of historical Armenia, a steady stream of tourists from all over the world travels to this part of the land. The Kurdish population, residing in the territory of historical Armenia, is entirely dependent on tourists and therefore fiercely protects everything that remains of Armenian heritage. Serious clashes between the Kurds and Azerbaijanis over this issue are known. Read more details here.

Below is the Varzahan Monastery, or rather what is left of it, but even in such a form, the monastery attracts thousands of tourists wanting to see – this wonder of church architecture. Author: Vigen Avetisyan

Varzahani Vanq Monastery is a medieval monastic complex consisting of three churches. After the Armenian genocide of 1915, it was abandoned and between the 1920s and mid-1950s, it was blown up by the Turks.

The destruction was complete – nothing remains at the location today, not even a stone. Fortunately, in 1911, German archaeologist Walter Bachman took a series of photographs of the churches. He observed the remains of three churches in total, but noted that according to local Armenian tradition, the site used could have had more than 200 churches.

Despite the obvious exaggeration, traces of destroyed buildings, scattered over a large area, could be noticed here, indicating a large settlement once existed at this location.

Two churches stood close to each other – a cruciform and an octagonal one. Their construction was done in the style of unique Armenian architecture. At a short distance from them stood the heavily ruined remains of a third church.

Close to the churches was an old cemetery, where gravestones in the form of rams and also horses, complete with saddles and bridles, could be found. This cemetery is also destroyed today.

In the Archaeological Museum of Erzurum, the aforementioned forms of tombstones from the Armenian cemetery are presented and described as having Turkish origins.

The octagonal church was built of limestone, which had a beautiful golden-yellow color. Each side of the octagonal church was about 4.7 meters wide, and the walls were about 0.95 meters thick, additionally, each side was divided into two wedge-shaped niches.

There were three entrances to the church – on the north, south, and west walls, they were 1.15 meters wide. Such churches were built in Armenia from the seventh century.

Objects, sometimes natural and sometimes artificial, often mark the borders of countries and, intentionally or accidentally, symbolically announce to travelers that they are entering a new area.

For example, England has its White Cliffs of Dover, America has its Statue of Liberty, and so on. On the northern border of historical Armenia was a group of ruined Armenian churches at a place called Varzahan, which, in the nineteenth century, began to assume such a role.

The road from Trabzon to Erzurum was the most common route and many travelers in their memoirs mention the churches in Varzahan as either a greeting or a farewell to Armenia.

The famous archaeologist and researcher Austin Henry Layard passed through Varzahan in September 1849 during a trip from Trabzon to Mosul. He left the following description of the churches and prepared a sketch of one of them:

‘Our journey to Erzurum was conducted without incidents. Heavy and continuous rain for two days tried the patience and character of those who were encountering the difficulties and incidents of Eastern travel for the first time.

The only place of any interest taken during our journey was a small Armenian village, the remains of a large one, with the ruins of three early Christian churches or baptisteries.

These remarkable buildings, of which there are many examples, belong to the order of architecture peculiar to most of the eastern districts of Asia Minor and to the ruins of the ancient Armenian cities, on the border of Turkey and Persia.

The one of which I have given a sketch is an octagon and, perhaps, a baptistery. The inner walls are still covered with the remains of elaborate frescoes, representing scenes from the Sacred events and national saints.

The colors are bright, and the forms, though rudely, are not tastelessly or falsely drawn, reminiscent of the frescoes of the Lower Empire still seen in the famous Byzantine church in Trabzon, and in the chapels of the monasteries of Athos.

The knotted capitals of the thin tapering columns, grouped together, the peculiar arrangement of stones over the entrance, supporting each other in a zigzag manner, and the decorations in general, call to mind the European Gothic of the Middle Ages.

These churches probably date back to the twelfth century: but there are no inscriptions or other key to fix their exact era, and the various styles and modifications of architecture have not been sufficiently studied so far for us to determine with precision the time to which any peculiar decorations or forms may belong.

Nevertheless, there are many interesting questions related to this Armenian architecture, which well deserves elucidation.

From it, probably a lot has passed into Gothic, while the Tartar conquerors of Asia Minor adopted it, as will be seen further, for their mausoleums and places of cult dispatch.

It is especially elegant, as in its decorations, its proportions, and the general arrangement of masses, and can successfully be studied by the modern architect. Indeed, Asia Minor contains a mine of such materials unexplored and almost unknown.

According to the information I received from an elderly villager, the churches of Varzahan were destroyed about fifty years ago. The oldest people of this place remembered the time when service was held within their walls.” (A.H. Layard, “Discoveries in the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon”. London, 1853, p. 7-8) Traveler and Armenian researcher Henry Lynch passed through Varzahan in February 1894, on his way to Trabzon.

Leaving the city [Bayburt], we made our way through these highlands in a direction west to west-north-west; and, in a little over an hour, losing sight of one of the flat depressions, which have already been so often described.

Across its snow-covered surface was placed an Armenian village with three beautiful buildings, now in ruins, a remnant of old times. How eloquent a memorial these graceful forms and what complete masonry have so far preserved in a cultured and beneficent race!

Varzahan was the name of the village, but we were again placed under observation, and it was impossible to immortalize the image of these rotting remains. But one of them has already been drawn by Layard (Nineveh and Babylon, p. 7) and I reproduce here a photograph taken during our second journey, which shows some interesting examples of old Armenian tombstones with ram’s heads at the Varzahan cemetery.” (H.F.B. Lynch, Armenia, travels and studies in London, 1901, vol. 2, pp. 233-234)

Today, in the vast areas of Erzurum, Erzincan, and Bayburt, almost nothing is known about the architecture of the ancient and medieval Armenian churches that once existed there.

Almost everything that survived centuries of wars and earthquakes was destroyed as part of Turkey’s post-genocide policy of eliminating evidence of Armenian presence in these regions. If in 1909 the village of Varzahan with an Armenian church had about 700 Armenian inhabitants, now it is populated by Kurds, and the apses of the village church are used as parts of a house.

View inside the octagonal church Plan of the octagonal church View of the church – Bahman, 1911 Historic Armenian cemetery of the village of Varzahan

View of the octagonal church,

looking towards the south entrance

Author: Alexander Bakulin

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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