Monasteries of Lake Van – Armenia

In the Archesh region of Vaspurakan, which was once part of the Ahiyovit province, and later part of the Kadjberunik Turuberan region of Greater Armenia, aside from the already mentioned and submerged city of Archesh or Akants, there are many other ancient cities and monasteries. This is what we want to talk about in this next journey of ours.

The preeminent position among the monasteries of the Archesh region was held by the famous Metsopavank, located near a village of the same name (now Chagdash), 18 km to the north-northwest of Archesh, in the Berdasar mountains on the right bank of the major river Ororan, which originates from the Tsahkants ridge, flows south and flows into Lake Van near the ruins of ancient Archesh.

The name Metsopavank is usually associated with the small lake Metsop, which is 6 km to the north of the monastery and the village, and has now turned into a marshy meadow (the Kurds call it Meydan). In turn, the toponym Metsop is seen as a combination of “mets vop,” meaning “big pit.”

Alongside this name are also toponyms such as Otsop in Nakhichevan (snake pit), Vob on the left bank of the Araks, opposite the village of Bagaran, Vopiz, Vobovank, etc. Besides this etymology, in the case of Metsop, attention may be drawn to its obvious connection with the combination of Mets tsob or Mets tsov (I spoke about the root “tsob-tsov,” the meaning of which starts with sacredness and holiness and also signifies water, lake, and sea).

Be that as it may, Metsopavank Monastery, named after the swampy lake, was dedicated (like many other monasteries throughout Armenia) to the Holy Virgin Mary (Virgin Mary Astvatsatsin), and its full name was Metsopa Vank Surb Mariam Astvatsatsin.

It was a domed cross-shaped church, built from hewn stones. Inside the monastery and in its courtyard were numerous khachkars (cross-stones) and inscribed slabs, from which we learn the construction date of Metsopavank – the year 1120. In addition to the main church, the monastery complex included two chapels, a refectory, and other buildings. In the years 1402-1409, Metsopavank was renovated; the names of 13 architects and other craftsmen have survived, who were engaged in the reconstruction led by the Greek master Faradj.

In the 14th-16th centuries, Metsopavank was at the peak of its glory; many famous church figures lived and worked here, and in the first half of the 15th century, Grigor Tatevatsi founded the famous Metsopa High School here, which was long headed by Tovma Metsopetsi – an Armenian historian and educator born in the Ahi center of the Ahiyovit region.

Tovma Metsopetsi passed away in 1446 in the village of Akori on the slopes of Masis. His ashes were transferred to his native region and buried in the courtyard of Metsopavank. Under his leadership, the Metsopa school invited prominent figures, textbooks were compiled, manuscripts were created, copied, and adorned, and many educators and theologians emerged from there.

His most famous work is the book “History of Lenk-Temur and his Successors,” covering the period from 1386 to 1440. The value of this work is that it was written by an eyewitness to the events. Additionally, Metsopetsi authored a unique linguistics textbook.

The Metsopavank school and monastery were also connected with the Armenian medieval encyclopedist Mkhitar Sasnetsi. Being the cathedral of the Archesh region, Metsopavank also had a large library-matenadaran and was a significant center of Armenian science and literature.

In the accompanying texts of many books created and copied here, Metsopavank is mentioned as the Archesh Monastery. Nearly completely destroyed now, Metsopavank and its famous school played a prominent role in Armenian cultural life and the education of young men in the Archesh region, rivaling the significance of Varagavank itself.

In the southwestern part of the Ahiavit region, near the border with Bznunik, opposite the Vichkatsruk peninsula, there were two other famous Archesh monasteries. One was located in the village of Tiran in the southern foothills of the Dzernak Mountains, known anciently as the Artidu Mountains, in the upper reaches of the Gineber River, which flows into the Vichkatsruk Bay or Norshen Lake Van.

The village of Tiran was named in honor of the Armenian king of the 4th century, Tiran, meaning it is nearly two thousand years old. If we recall that the name Tiran (in translation from Armenian—ruler) in turn originates from the god Tir of the ancient Armenian pantheon, the patron of science and arts, rhetoric and education, it is likely that the village was founded even earlier, in the pre-Christian era, and the future monastery was likely built on the site of a sanctuary to Tir.

The village was later also called Dilan (Dilen, Dilon)—from the root “til” (fortified, built-up hill), and in modern times—Dzmenik (Chumenik), from “dzmen” (ancient, holy), in Turkic-Kurdish transcription—Chimenlik. Near the village was the Gineber Surb Nshan Monastery.

Gineber (or Kensaber, Kenarar) means “life-giving”—so the Armenians call many rivers, streams, and springs near which they founded their villages and towns in ancient times. The Christian era brought additional meaning to this ancient root.

After all, wine (or “gini” in Armenian) is the blood of Christ, which gave faith and life to His followers. The Gineber Surb Nshan Monastery, founded in the early Middle Ages, also played a prominent role in the life of the Archesh region.

In the years 1895-96, it was destroyed and leveled to the ground in 1909. Near the monastery, below on the left bank of the Gineber River, also lie the ruins of the ancient village of Gandzak, which is why the monastery itself was often called Gandzaka Kensaber (Gineber) Surb Nshan (Surb Astvatsatsin).

The root “gandz,” which is translated from Armenian as “treasure,” is one of the most productive in Armenian toponymy, and in most cases, it refers to spiritual treasures.

For reference: The main distortions of toponyms with the root “gandz” are Genj (or Gench), Gyandzha (Gandzak), etc. So, around Lake Van, there are several villages named Gandzak, near each of which there is a monastery.

As a result, there has been confusion regarding the localization of these temples and villages, which we will be clarifying in our travel stories. So, Gandzaka Kensaber Astvatsatsin is the Gineber Surb Nshan Monastery in the Archesh region.

6 km southwest of the village of Tiran and the Gineber Monastery is the Ardjevenits Monastery. The village around it is called Ardjonits Vank, and it lies almost halfway between Archesh and Artske (Adildjevaz), near the large village of Norshen, on the border of the Ahiavit and Bznunik regions of Turuberan in Greater Armenia.

To the south of Ardjonits Vank, between it and the Vichkatsruk Bay of Lake Van, lies the narrow and hilly valley of Tavuk Dasht, and nearby are the villages of Ditzdar (Judgakh) and Tsaktsak (Tsayrik).

The second name of the Ardjevenits Monastery is Avatavor Surb Gevorg. Further, in the northern foothills of the Dzernak-Artidu Mountains, near the village of Armizonk, lie the ruins of the Arevaber Monastery. Near the monastery, on the road leading from the lakeside area of the Archesh region to the extensive meadow marsh (anciently, a lake) of Akhavis and the valley of Khushi in the Apahunik region, are the Dzernak Pass and the Gandzadzmen Gorge.

Below Metsopavank, between it and Archesh, along the banks of small rivers and streams, the right tributaries of Ororan, there are several dozen villages. In the past, these were wealthy and lively, large and significant in Armenian history. Among them are Paykhner, Gmbet, Voskedzor, Arutyun, Machars, Papshken, as well as the famous village of Aspisnak with the Surb Stepanos Church built in 1427. It is mentioned in the work of Tovma Metsopetsi.

In the 13th-14th centuries, Aspisnak was a major center of Armenian literature. Between the villages of Aspisnak and Arutyun (now known as Chobandyuz and Undjular), there is the Aspisnka Surb Arutyun Monastery, also a well-known medieval center of culture and literacy.

Another confusion is associated with the naming and localization of villages and their monasteries. To the northeast and east of Lake Van, there are villages with similar names: Aspisnak in the Archesh region with the Aspisnka Surb Arutyun Monastery, Aspisinek or Aspstan east of Lake Archishak (Archishakovit region) with the Archuchan fortress, as well as Verin and Nerkin Asphat in the Timar (Tiramayr) region, Aspnter on the shore of Lake Van at the mouth of the Berkri River, and some others.

Among other monasteries of the Archesh region, it is worth mentioning the Gehdzhkavank Monastery located in the upper reaches of Ororan near the village of Gehdzhuk of the same name, as well as the monasteries of the Kermanits river valley, which, together with the Zilanjur river, flows into the Ororan on the left: these are the Kermanits Monastery in the village of the same name (from the ancient Armenian “kurm” – priest), the Papzvank (Papkhovank) Monastery near the village of Vardenis, which has no permanent population today and is used by Kurds as a summer residence, and the Kusanats Yotn Horan Monastery located among the ruins of the village Yotnkoranits (Kurds and Turks call it Karakilise – “Black Church”, after the color of the stone).

The last three monasteries are located in the inaccessible southern foothills of the Tsahkants mountains. Our next tour is to the surroundings of the city of Van. Why do I focus so much on monasteries? The fact is that in Armenia, in the Middle Ages, a monastery was not just a church institution, a temple, but also a center of sciences and arts, education and culture, a large settlement with permanent residents, extensive lands, often with inns and caravanserais, in essence – a separate populated area.

by Grigor Beglaryan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

Read Also:

Van – The Inland Sea of Armenia

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