Lake Van – Southeastern coast

The southeastern coast of Lake Van is nestled between its surface and the ridge of the Main Armenian Taurus, which extends almost to the lake from west to east. In this part of the ridge, its mountain ranges are called the Rshutneats and Vostan mountains, and here, 7 km south of the coast, rises one of the most majestic mountain peaks of Armenia – Artos, whose altitude above sea level is 3,554 meters.

This mountain, green at the base, grayish-brown on the slopes, and white with snow in its uppermost part, forms a gigantic horseshoe facing its curvature to the northwest, in the direction of the city of Vostan (now Gevash). Artos, under the name of Ardusha, is mentioned in the oldest cuneiforms, and several Armenian legends and traditions are associated with the mountain.

The entire area between the lake and the Taurus mountains belonged to the Armenian nakharar family Rshutuni and formed the gavar Rshunik of the Vasburagan ashkhar of Greater Armenia. This gavar is literally packed with the most ancient monuments of the Armenian land, which in the Middle Ages and new times mostly became monasteries and hermitages. Among them, of course, the main one is the Akhtamar Holy Cross.

Akhtamar Island is the largest of the Van islands, located 3 km from the southern coast of the lake, in the center of a large bay, forming its southeastern end and called Vostan or Akhtamar Bay. There are several versions and legends about the origin of the name Akhtamar, the most beautiful of which tells about the love of Tamar – a girl from the island, and a young man from the coast, for whom she lit a guiding torch every night, and he swam to the island of his beloved.

One day a strong storm raised high waves on the lake, and the torch was extinguished. Drowning in the waves, the young man called out: “Ah, Tamar…” In fact, the name Akhtamar consists of two ancient Armenian roots – “akhta” and “mar”, meaning, respectively, “flat”, “gentle” and “water”, “lake”.

Indeed, almost the entire Akhtamar island is a table-like plateau, only in its northwestern part rising two hundred meters above the lake’s surface. This elevation is called Bardzr Kar (High Stone).

Akhtamar Island has been inhabited since time immemorial, but the structures and ruins that have survived on it today and can be observed by diving into the sea near its shores represent the remains of the later city of Akhtamar, sometimes called Armenik, founded in the early 4th century AD on the site of a settlement from the 1st century BC by the Rshutuni princely house. In 915-921, at the initiative of King Gagik I Artsruni, a port and the famous Surb Khach (Holy Cross) Church were built here as part of the city’s reconstruction and expansion. The author of the church was the well-known medieval Armenian architect Manuel.

Tovma Artsruni gives us a detailed account of this construction in his “History of the House of Artsruni.” The historian writes in particular that the stones for this construction were taken by King Gagik Artsruni from the fortress of Kotom near the southwestern coast of Van, which he had destroyed – it belonged to one of the bandit tribes, many of which wandered throughout Armenia during all its history.

These stones were transported to the island by ships. As a result, a church was created that had no analogs in the whole country. The walls of the Akhtamar Holy Cross Church are covered with exquisite bas-reliefs on biblical themes all around the perimeter, creating a unique relief composition for the whole world. Especially impressive are the bas-reliefs depicting Adam and Eve, as well as the story of Jonah being thrown into the mouth of a whale – this is the only stone relief depiction of a ship found so far in Armenia.

The Surb Khach Church was the largest university in medieval Armenia and a center of literacy, where, among other things, the Van school of Armenian miniatures was formed and operated. More than a hundred manuscripts created or illustrated here have survived to our time, including scientific and historiographic works, works of art, religious, and other texts.

In addition to its primary function as the capital cathedral church of the princely house of Artsruni, Surb Khach remained the residence of the Armenian Catholicos for almost two centuries (from the beginning of the 10th century to 948), and then, from 1113 to 1895, the Akhtamar Armenian Catholicosate was located here.

Today, the Akhtamar Church of Surb Khach has been restored, and it is permitted to conduct service once a year. The historical-architectural quality of the restoration, to put it mildly, leaves much to be desired, since it was carried out by the Turks (the story of the restoration of the cross on the dome of the church, for example, is noteworthy). The very fact of “permission” to serve in one’s own church on one’s own land is paradoxical in itself, but today Surb Khach is the only “operating” Armenian church in Western Armenia (if we do not count the Church of Surb Kirakos in Diyarbakir, periodically destroyed during Kurdish-Turkish clashes). This is in a country where a hundred years ago there were two and a half thousand active churches and temples…

No less significant in the history of Armenia and all humanity is the Narekavank temple in the village of Narek, 4 km from the southern coast of Van and 9 km southwest of Akhtamar Island. It was in this village that one of the greatest geniuses of Armenia and the world, poet, thinker, philosopher, and educator Grigor Narekatsi was born in 951.

He received his education at the Narekavank school, lived and created here, and his grave is in the monastery (Narekatsi died in 1003). The main work created by Grigor Narekatsi is the “Matean Voghbergutyan” (“Book of Lamentations”), which people simply call “Narek.”

This work, essentially lyrical-philosophical, marks the beginning of the Armenian Renaissance. The poem consists of 95 chapters and an author’s “memorial record” (the Armenian word “hishatakaran” has no direct translation), created in 1001-1003.

Armenians revere this book as a “remedy for the soul” (deh kenats), with its help they sought to cleanse their soul, free themselves from sins and achieve spiritual, moral perfection. The Armenian Church elevated Grigor Narekatsi to the rank of saints, and in 2015, to mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, Narekatsi was consecrated by the Pope, attributing Grigor to the Teachers of the Universal Church.

It is also worth noting that Narekatsi “helped” the “Ayas” club, restoring the history of Armenian shipbuilding and “nav-kats” (navigation): Chapter 25 of “Matean Voghbergutyan”, in which the sufferings of a tormented human soul are compared to a shipwreck in a stormy sea, contains an exceptionally detailed description of a Van ship, according to which this type of Armenian vessels was restored.

Narekavank was built in the 10th century at the initiative of Catholicos Anania I Mokatsi, right in the center of the village of Narek (now called Narik), on top of a hill. The beautiful architectural complex of the temple includes two churches – Surb Sandukht and Surb Astvatsatsin, the chapel of Surb Grigor Narekatsi with the grave of the great philosopher, a narthex, and a three-story bell tower, built from a stone called “til” and surrounded by a common wall.

The temple had a school and a guest house. A marble khachkar with a 17-line inscription was installed on the grave of Grigor Narekatsi in 1867. The relics of the Saints Tovma, Akoba, and Atanagines are also buried in Narekavank. The temple was destroyed in 1896, and its remains are now turned into a mosque…

Among other monasteries of Rshtunik, first of all, the Charkhapan Surb Nshan (Crossing Evil Temple of the Holy Cross) on the northeastern slope of Artos, near the city of Vostan, where the chronicler and participant in the War of Vardanants, historian Eghishe is buried; Ilu Karasun Khoran Surb Astvatsatsin temple in the village of Ilunk in the upper reaches of the Vostan river (Ilun Soroka Altars Holy Virgin Monastery, the village of Ilunk or Ulunk is mentioned in Hittite cuneiform texts); temples Surb Vardan or Apazvank, Spitak Vank in the village of Tahik (now Akhilise), Surb Ovannes in the village of Bahvants (the homeland of the poet Sarmen), Arberd temple in the upper reaches of the Pshavants river, where it is called Adamnaakn (Adam’s spring), the residence complex of Akhtamar Catholicosate in the village of Ahavank opposite Akhtamar Island (which is sometimes confused with Ahavank near Van) and several dozen temples and churches of various degrees of significance. All of them were founded or built on the site of even more ancient sanctuaries, temples, and other structures, which are so rich in the land of Rshtunik – this paradise corner of Armenia.

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

Narekavank at the beginning of the 20th century

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