Shirakavan, known in Armenian as Շիրակավան, was once the heart of the Bagratid kingdom in the 9th century. Established as the capital during a time of burgeoning Armenian independence, it remained a symbol of national sovereignty for 40 years.
The Bagratid family wrestled control of Armenia from the Arab Caliphate in the 9th century, with Ashot I Bagratuni ascending to the throne in 885. His rule was so impactful that both the Caliph and the Byzantine Emperor had to acknowledge the independence of the Armenian kingdom. Initially, Bagaran served as the capital of this emerging state, but it was soon relocated to Shirakavan.
Shirakavan was more than just a political center, it was also a cultural and religious heartland. It was here that the coronation of King Smbat Bagratuni took place in 892, and it was here that one of the first significant cathedrals of Armenia’s post-Arab Christian resurgence was built. The Church of Surb Amenaprkich (All-Saviour), constructed in 897, stands on the left bank of the Akhuryan River, nestled between the cities of Artik and Gyumri. The church was commissioned by King Smbat I and received the blessing of Catholicos Hovhannes Draskhanakertsi.
In the cathedral’s heyday, the interior boasted a golden tabernacle over the throne, as described by the Catholicos. This beautiful monument, however, suffered during the Seljuk invasion in 1064. It was restored thanks to the efforts of Prince Gnel and Bishop Barseg of Ani, who later became Catholicos Barseg I Anetsi.
Inscriptions from 1228 and 1231 found on the cathedral walls reveal that Prince Ivane Zakaryan and his nephew Shahinshah exempted the city from taxation. Over time, as the region endured more conflicts and changes, the cathedral underwent further transformations. During the late Middle Ages, the cathedral started to resemble a fortress, with windows and eastern niches being blocked and walls constructed over the corner sections. Its dome was destroyed during the Russian-Turkish War of 1806-1812.
Sadly, the 20th century brought more destruction to the cathedral. During the 1950s, the church was demolished, bringing an end to a monument that bore witness to Armenia’s rich history.
Shirakavan’s political significance declined after 928 when the capital moved to Kars. The city gradually depopulated, and by the end of the 19th century, it had transformed into a small Armenian village called Bashsuregel. Today, the site of the ancient city lies partially submerged beneath the waters of the Akhuryan reservoir, on the territory of modern-day Turkey.
In conclusion, the city of Shirakavan is not just a significant historical site; it is a testament to Armenia’s turbulent past, its quest for independence, and its enduring faith and cultural resilience.
Image by Alexander Bakulin