In Taron, three of the most famous monasteries of medieval Armenia are located. In close proximity to the capital of Taron – the city of Mush, 5-6 km southeast of it, on the left bank of the Tsakmakajur River (a left tributary of the Mehraget), on the northern slope of Mount Tsirnkatar, which is adjacent to the famous Simsar, lie the ruins of the Msho Arakelots Vank – the Mush Monastery of the Holy Apostles.
The area where the monastery complex was situated literally breathes with centuries of Armenian history. On Mount Tsirnkatar, through which one of the impassable mountain roads from Taron to Sasun lies, there was a pre-Christian shrine of the goddess Anahit with her gilded statue – hence the name of the mountain Tsirnkatar, meaning Golden (Apricot) Roof.
Gregory the Illuminator destroyed the temple, and its place and wealth were given as a gift to the newly built monastery, and the mountain received its second name – Tirinkatar, meaning the Roof of the Lord.
The river, flowing at the foot of the monastery and carrying its waters to Mehraget past the once glorious and wealthy Armenian villages of Khavatorik, Arakh, Berdak, and Norshen, is named after Mount Tsakmakakit, from which it originates and which is mentioned in the epic Sasna Tsrer (Sasun Daredevils) as one of the favorite resting places of Sanasar, as testified also by the 7th-century historian Ovannes Mamikonian.
He calls the mountain Sanasari Tsmak, or the Slope of Sanasar (Tsmak in ancient Armenian toponymy meant the northern slope). This area was distinguished by an abundance of partridges. Finally, in close proximity to the Msho Arakelots Monastery, on the way to Mush, lie the ruins of the majestic Cyclopean fortress of Asthonk, or Asthaberd, named after the goddess Astghik and once defending Mush.
The complex of the Msho Arakelots Monastery consisted of a magnificent domed Cathedral of the Holy Apostles, a narthex, and several auxiliary rooms, all of which were surrounded by a strong defensive wall with two gates.
Founded by Gregory the Illuminator, the monastery was finally completed by the 5th century and until 1915 was one of the main monasteries of all of Armenia, a major center of Armenian literacy (manuscripts of the 13th-15th centuries copied here have survived, as well as the name of one of the copyists and illustrators, Arakel of Taron), and the arena of important political events in the history of our country. For example, during the uprising of 849-854 against the yoke of the Arab Caliphate, the Arab military leader Yusuf, who was discovered and killed here, hid in the monastery’s bell tower.
In the winter of 1901, a group of Armenian fedayi, led by the legendary Andranik, found refuge in the Msho Arakelots Monastery. They fought their way through the encircling Turkish siege with victorious battles and retreated into the mountains. In that same year of 1901, in the vicinity of the monastery and the nearby village of Berdak, Gevorg Chaush was engaged in battles with Turkish forces.
The Msho Arakelots Monastery operated a boarding school, which was opened in 1872 through the efforts of Garegin Srvandztyan. Gevorg Chaush studied here in 1886-88. Msho Arakelots, like any Armenian monastery, is rich in historical relics and artistically crafted khachkars (cross-stones). It preserved the nails with which the hands of Jesus Christ were affixed to the cross.
Here, under finely carved khachkars, rest the sons of Armenia, of whom all humanity can be proud: the “father of history” (and also of geography and ethnography) Movses Khorenatsi, the historian Ghazar Parpetsi, the famous medieval philosopher David the Invincible, the national hero Gevorg Chaush, and many others…
According to tradition, when founding the monastery, Gregory the Illuminator buried the relics of the twelve apostles in one of its niches – thus the monastery received its name. The exquisite carved door of the Msho Arakelots Monastery was saved in 1915 and is kept in the National Museum of Armenian History.
Msho Surb Karapet – the Mush Monastery of Saint Hovhannes Karapet (John the Baptist). This is perhaps the most famous of Armenian monasteries. It was located 36 km northwest of Mush, at the western end of the Mush Plain, on the southern slope of Mount Avatamk, near the border between the gavars of Taron ashkhar of Turuberan and Palunik ashkhar of Greater Armenia.
Adjacent to the Msho Surb Karapet Monastery is the village of Baz or Bazum (now Chingil). Slightly above the monastery, in the mountains of Avatamk and Karkeo, there are numerous pure mountain springs, which have long been called Innakank – Nine Springs, after which the monastery was often called Innaknean Vank – the Monastery of Nine Springs.
From these springs originates the Surb Karapet River – one of the right tributaries of the Aratsani, which the Kurds call Ziarat – Holy. Another name for the monastery was derived from the name of the sacred grove located at the foot of the Karkar Mountains and called Atseat Drakht. This is not a “bread paradise,” as inferred from the subscript.
The root “atseats” here is related to “atseni” – ash tree, and the name of the grove translates as Ashen Paradise. Here’s the point. Do you remember our conversation about gazpen – the heavenly manna, which Taron is famous for?
Well, in the forests of Taron, Mush, and several other central regions of Armenia, an ancient phenomenon has been observed: on the leaves of oak, ash, and beech, a sweet honey-like coating formed from flower pollen, a jelly-like mass that Armenians collected in summer, boiled, and used as a sweetener.
This mass is called “gazpen” or manna (manana) – here is the homeland of heavenly manna, and the etymology of a number of toponyms both in Armenia and in countries under its civilizational influence, such as Gaspe, Kesab, Gazapa, and others.
In the sacred ash grove, Atseats Draht, before the establishment of the monastery in the 4th century, were the shrines of Vaagna, Asthik, and Anait, as well as the priests Gisane and Demetre. Here we are dealing with the oldest evidence of Armenian-Indian relations.
Indian priests Gisane and Demetre, as the historian Ovannes Mamikonian tells us, were prince brothers who fled from persecution by their ruler to Armenia. King Vagarshak I granted them a part of Taron as a residence, where they established temples.
Their sons, after the death of their fathers, founded three cities in Taron and neighboring Palunik, naming them after themselves – Kvars, Mehti, and Oryan.
These settlements still exist today. Mehti, or Ziaret (in general, Kurds and Turks call “saints”, “mighty” almost all the holy places, monuments, mountains for Armenians, the original names of which are preserved in our memory and literature, – in Western Armenia there are about a hundred toponyms of Ziaret) is located on the road from Mush to Surb Karapet, Kvars – on the Palunyats pass, leading to the Gavar of Palunik, and Oryan – the richest and most significant village of Palunik – in the lower reaches of the Jerm river, a right tributary of Aratsani.
The toponym Oryan or Khorean even served as the basis for the Turkic Oran, Eren – an ancient fortress site.
The monastic complex of Msho Surb Karapet consisted of the main church – Surb Stepanos, which had a magnificent narthex-bell tower, the churches of Surb Grigor and Surb Karapet, several chapels and other buildings, surrounded by a wall.
Among the relics of the monastery are the grave of Ovannes Karapet or John the Baptist, whose relics were brought here by Grigor Lusavorich from Caesarea, the healing springs of Lusavorich, Djorehangist – the resting place of the mules (“djori”) of Lusavorich, the khachkar (cross-stone) of Nerses from 1212, and others.
From the 6th century, Msho Surb Karapet was one of the main cultural and spiritual centers of Armenia, as well as a center of Armenian literacy, with a rich Matenadaran (manuscript library). Named after its first abbot, the historian Zenob Glak, the monastery was also called Glakavank.
In the 7th century, the historian Ovannes Mamikonian served as the abbot of Msho Surb Karapet. Here, the famed early medieval military leaders Mushegh, Smbat, and Gail Vaan Mamikonian are buried. Between 1863-65, Garegin Srvandztyan published the newspaper “Artsvik Tarono” here. Traditional celebrations were held with grandeur.
In 1915-18, in the monastery and nearby forests, several thousand Armenians, who were fighting against the criminal Turkish regime, took refuge…
The third most famous monastery of Taron, Yeghrdut Surb Ovannes, was located in a forest 9 km southwest of Mush. Traditionally, it is believed that the relics of Ovannes Mkrtich (John the Baptist) are buried here.
Another tradition tells that the monastery kept a bottle of aromatic oils used by Christ and His 12 Apostles, hence the name Yeghrdut (“oily,” although such a name could also have originated from corresponding types of trees). The monastery was established by the Apostle Thaddeus in the 1st century.
In the Middle Ages, Yeghrdut was no less significant than Msho Surb Karapet or Arakelots. Here, too, was a center of literacy; there was even a higher school, which was renewed in 1870 by Srvandztyan.
The Kondak of Grigor Makvetsi from 1445 has exceptional importance for Armenian geography and toponymy. It lists the estates, lands, and monastic villages of Yeghrdut – a source that provides indispensable assistance in reconstructing the map of Taron.
Among the numerous villages belonging to the Yeghrdut Monastery are the heroes of our next story, the famed Taron villages, which have given Armenia and the world such giants as Movses Khorenatsi, Mesrop Mashtots, and David Anhaght. Our next route leads to them – to Khoronk, Atsekats, and Tergevank.
by Grigor Beglaryan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan