Sharden – Nakhchivan and the Armenian Catholics

On the 10th, continuing our journey, we covered eight miles. A large settlement called Sedarek was left to our left halfway; in its significance, it corresponds to the main [297] city of the part of Armenia called Sharur. The chief of this part of Armenia lives in this settlement. We spent the night in a ruined caravanserai near the Nuratshin settlement.

On the 11th, we covered four miles along the same road and through similarly beautiful terrain, but less flat and more rocky and hilly. We crossed the Kharpassuy river, which irrigates the nearby lands; it separates the part of Armenia with its capital Yerevan from the part where the capital is Nakhchivan.

On the 12th, after traveling five miles through smooth and fertile valleys, we arrived in Nakhchivan.

Nakhchivan is a large, ruined city; it can more aptly be described as a heap of ruins gradually being restored and inhabited. The city center is currently rejuvenated and inhabited; it has large bazaars, shaped, as already mentioned, like long galleries or covered streets, on both sides of which are shops selling all kinds of goods and provisions. There are approximately two thousand houses in Nakhchivan, five caravanserais; there are baths, markets, and large establishments where people gather to smoke or sip coffee.

Persian history states that in ancient times there were up to forty thousand houses here and that, before the Arab conquest of this country, there were five cities built by the Persian king Behron-Chubin. Outside the city, one can see the ruins of a large fortress and many forts destroyed by Great Abbas at the end of the last century.

Having taken Nakhchivan from the Turks and realizing that he would not be able to hold the surrounding forts, Great Abbas ordered them to be demolished and the population evacuated.

He did this everywhere to prevent the Turks from fortifying themselves in the fortresses and using vital supplies from there. In its current state, this city looks very miserable.

Persian history, as already mentioned, claims that this city was one of the largest and most beautiful cities of Armenia. The chronicles stored in the famous monastery of three churches state that the city of Nakhchivan is the ancient Ardashad, called Artaxat and Artaxazat by Greek history.

Other Armenian writers consider Nakhchivan even more ancient and say that Noah began its construction, settling there after the flood. In support of their words, they refer to the origin of the city’s name: according to them, Nakhchivan in the old Armenian language means the first settlement or the first hospitable house. [298]

Ptolemy mentions a city in this area, calling it Naxsuan; perhaps this is Nakhchivan. In my opinion, either Nakhchivan is the famous Artaxat, or Artaxat was located very close to it, as Tacitus says that the Araxes flowed near this city, and in fact, this river flows from Nakhchivan no more than seven miles away.

The city of Nakhchivan is under 38° 40′ latitude and 81° 31′ longitude. Being the capital of part of Armenia, it is governed by a khan. Five miles north of it is the large settlement of Abrener, which translates to fertile field. The residents of this and other nearby settlements are of the Roman Catholic faith.

Their bishops and parish priests are Dominicans. They serve in the Armenian language. An Italian named Don Bartolomeo from Bologna (of the Dominican order) converted them to the Catholic faith 350 years ago, thus extending the Pope’s influence here.

More than twenty other surrounding villages also submitted to the Pope’s authority, but then they were again made to recognize the Armenian patriarch as their head and return to their original religion.

The number of followers of the Roman church, due to the persecution of them by the patriarch and Nakhchivan rulers, decreases every day. These poor people have drawn the wrath and violence of the rulers for their desire to escape their authority. In this regard, in 1664, an Italian Dominican came to Persia as the Pope’s envoy.

He brought letters to the king from many European monarchs and, after presenting generous gifts to His Majesty, achieved that the settlements of Roman Catholics had to send all their due taxes and payments directly to the royal treasury every year. Moreover, concerning the settlements listed in the books of the ruler and the chief collector of Media, an order was given to him, as well as to the ruler of Nakhchivan and all other officials, to recognize these settlements as entirely outside their jurisdiction and not to collect any levies from them.

Such a decree brought little benefit to the mentioned settlements at the time but later brought much hardship to their inhabitants, and the day will come when it will be the cause of their ruin: Nakhchivan rulers, irritated by their actions and complaints brought to Abbas, began to oppress them terribly after the death of this benevolent king, collecting three or four times the taxes that, according to the [299] aforementioned decree, the residents were to pay directly into the royal treasury.

These poor people, either due to the weakness of the government or perhaps due to their own powerlessness in facing the might of the opposing side, could not find redress anywhere. The Governor of Media behaved even worse: he sent a false extract from his record books to the court, which showed that the settlements of Roman Catholics were to pay annually eighteen thousand livres (i.e., exactly twice what they should actually pay). As a result, every time they deposit their tax amount into the treasury, they are issued a receipt, but with a note indicating they have paid less than they owe. Using such subterfuge and oppression, the rulers always have the opportunity, if they wish, to completely ruin the residents.

When I arrived in Nakhchivan, I did not find the khan himself; his son, who held office, soon learned of my arrival and invited me to lunch, asking to see some of my watches and treasures.

I was very displeased with his treatment of me: after the expressed courtesies and a meal, he left me with his officers, who somehow compelled me to part with some items for fifty pistols, items that I wouldn’t have given away in Yerevan for sixty.

Certainly, I would have been treated even worse if I hadn’t had the king’s decree and passports. Such places indeed serve as a trap for wealthy foreigners. One always ends up paying for passage.

On the 13th, we left Nakhchivan and covered only seven miles. Within the first mile, we had to cross a river over a very large bridge, which all the locals also call Nakhchivan. The terrain we passed through was barren and infertile, featuring nothing but rocky slopes.

We spent the night on the banks of the Araks River, which eastern people call Aras and Ares. It is crossed at the site of the ruined city of Eski-Julfa or Old-Julfa, which some writers refer to as ancient Ariamnen. It is called “old” in contrast to the town of Julfa, built opposite Isfahan. This city fully merits the title “old” since it’s entirely in ruins; now, one can only judge its [300] magnitude.

It was situated on the slope of a mountain, along the riverbanks. The city’s access, challenging due to its geographic location, was further protected by a large number of forts. According to Armenians, this city had four thousand homes, but judging by the ruins, there could have been half as many, with most of them resembling pits and caves carved into the mountain, more suitable for livestock than human habitation.

I don’t believe there’s a place anywhere in the world less fertile and more dreadful than old Julfa; there aren’t any trees or grass. True, there are more fertile places nearby, but still, it’s hard to find a city situated in a drier and rockier area. However, the city’s setting is picturesque, resembling a long amphitheater. Currently, no more than thirty Armenian families live there.

Julfa, with all its forts and fortifications, was destroyed by Abbas the Great. He did so for the same reason he destroyed Nakhchivan and other Armenian cities on the same line, namely to deprive the Turkish army of supplies.

This astute politician and great general, realizing his forces weren’t a match for the enemy and wanting to prevent them from invading Persia annually, decided to turn the lands between Erzurum and Tabriz into a wasteland. This region, where Yerevan and Nakhchivan are located, served as the usual route for the Turks, where they fortified themselves, finding enough provisions there to sustain their troops. According to Persian history, he evacuated all the inhabitants and livestock from these places, destroyed all buildings, burned down all villages and trees, poisoned many springs, and thus secured his territories.

However, let’s return to our night’s stay. Araks is a famous river, separating Armenia from Media. It originates from the mountain where, it’s believed, Noah’s Ark came to rest, and perhaps it took its name from this famous Mount Ararat.

It flows into the Caspian Sea. This river is large and very swift, fed by many unnamed streams and rivulets. Bridges have been built over it in the city of Julfa and other places many times, but judging by the surviving arches, these bridges, despite their remarkably solid construction, couldn’t withstand the strong current of the Araks.

During the thaw, melting snows [301] from neighboring mountains swell the river, making it so ferocious that no dam or structure could withstand its force. Indeed, the noise of its waters and the speed of its current are astonishing.

We crossed it on a large vessel, which could simultaneously accommodate twenty horses and thirty people. I allowed only my men and luggage to be transported. Four men operated the vessel.

They moved about three hundred steps upstream along the bank and, gradually entering the current, let the boat drift, steering it to the opposite shore with only a large rudder. The current carried the vessel with incredible speed, at a pace of five hundred steps per second.

This is how ferrymen cross the Araks: it takes them more than two hours to cross back and forth, due to the tremendous efforts required. In winter, when the water recedes, this river is crossed on camels; the ford is half a mile from Julfa, where the riverbed is very wide, which makes the current there much calmer.

Here’s an intriguing description of Nakhchivan by the European traveler of the 17th century, Jean Chardin.

This is the same Chardin who encountered and depicted the Garni temple intact, before the devastating earthquake of 1679 destroyed both Garni and all of Yerevan, along with its surrounding villages.

However, the most interesting information concerns the villages of Armenian Catholics who lived around Nakhchivan. Even William of Rubruck, the Papal envoy of the 13th century who visited Nakhchivan (and reported about the once-existing 80 Armenian churches there,) provides fascinating information about the spread of messianic ideas among Armenians.

Armenian monks from the mountains closest to Nakhchivan told Rubruck of a prophecy that Armenia’s salvation would come from a Western Christian king. The same prophecy, according to Rubruck, he heard in Constantinople and throughout Armenia.

And a hundred years after Rubruck, monks from Western Christian countries indeed came to Armenia, primarily to Nakhchivan and Artaz.

Of course, for the people, this was perceived as imminent and long-awaited salvation from foreign oppression and the onset of paradise on earth in the form of a vast Christian kingdom. It’s not surprising, then, that the Armenian peasantry of these regions began to convert to Catholicism en masse and spontaneously.

In Artaz, at the Tsorstor Monastery, Franciscans settled, creating the famous Tsorstor Diocese; in Nakhchivan, Dominicans established themselves, founding a diocese in the village of Krna.

The spread of Catholicism reached such scales that the renowned Grigor Tatevatsi from the Tatev Monastery was dispatched here to strengthen the foundations of the Armenian church.

Close to the Dominicans’ center in Krna, the Surb Karapet Monastery was founded in the village of Aprakunis, and the Astapats Monastic School for the training of “well-prepared personnel” among the Armenian monks was considerably fortified. Some villages returned to the fold of the Armenian church, but many remained Catholic.

As mentioned, the center for the Catholics was the village of Krna, where a uniquely structured Church of Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) was built. This is particularly symbolic considering the cult of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church.

Despite several negative aspects, specifically the schism in the Armenian church, the penetration of Catholicism played a positive role in the development of medieval philosophical thought.

It was precisely in the process of fierce competition with the better-educated scholastics of the Catholic Church that the original and profound teachings of Grigor Tatevatsi were born. Works by several medieval European thinkers were translated into Armenian by Catholic Armenians, complementing existing translations of Aristotle from the 5th century and so on.

Special mention should be made of the monks Akop and Ovanes Krnaetsi. This topic is quite intriguing, and it has not been fully explored yet.

As we can see, Armenian Catholics continued to live in their homeland of Nakhchivan until the end of the 17th century. The villages they inhabited are now challenging to pinpoint. The Armenian Catholics were forced to leave their native places in the early 18th century due to the persecution by the Khan – as we can see, the prophecy of Chardin came true.

Among the Catholic villages, in addition to Krna, we should also mention Dzhauk (Dzhagri) and Apararenr mentioned by Chardin, which was also called Aparank, now known as Bananyar. In any case, in my opinion, there is a direct correlation between the settlements of the Kengerly tribes and the former Armenian villages.

The Kengerly tribe, one of the Turkic tribes, the exact time of their establishment in Nakhchivan is unknown. It most likely dates back to the end of the 17th to the first half of the 18th centuries since Nakhchivan khans from the mid-18th century came specifically from this tribe.

These tribes did not have a permanent residence, so the modern propagandists’ idea that Nakhchivan is the homeland of the Kengerly cannot stand up to criticism.

Another part of this tribe settled with the Jevanshir in Artsakh, in the territory of the former Agdam district, confirmed by toponyms like Bala Kengerly, Kyzyl Kengerly, etc. The original population still migrates in northern Iran, retaining its primary ethnonym.

Perhaps there’s no direct connection between the expulsion of the Armenian Catholics and the settlement of the Kengerly, as they could have settled in the villages already vacated by the Armenians. Nevertheless, the villages of Armenian Catholics were located around the city of Nakhchivan, in the Dzhuk (Dzhagry) river valley, the village of Krna, possibly the Lakatah gorge of Aprakunis, and the villages of Gomer (Gemyur), Otsop (Badamly), and others like Shahaponka (Shahbuz).

The most pressing question of interest at the moment is where the Armenian Catholics of Nakhchivan disappeared to. Nakhchivan had traditional trade connections along the Nakhchivan-Yerevan-Erzurum-Izmir/Istanbul-Belgrade-Vienna route. There were also likely ties with Tbilisi.

So, a significant portion of Armenian Catholics probably settled in the cities of this trade chain. Their concentration would have been particularly notable in Erzurum, Izmir, Istanbul, and to some extent, Belgrade and Vienna, where Armenian Catholic communities already existed.

Izmir and Istanbul were major centers of Nakhchivan Armenians, regardless of whether they followed the Catholic or traditional Armenian faith. An entire district in Bab Ali was founded by emigrants from Agulis in Istanbul in the 18th century.

This gives an indication of where a significant portion of Nakhchivan’s Armenians disappeared to before the much-discussed “Griboedov” operation.

By the way, it’s noteworthy that despite the traditionally widespread claims about Armenians “stealing” music, etc., even at times when Armenians were a minority in the Nakhchivan region, more than 70-80% of musicians were Armenians, as mentioned by Chopin. The village of Shorot was particularly famous, being the birthplace of the renowned Nahash Ovnatan.

Author: Samvel (the author’s page with the article has disappeared from openarmenia).

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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