HomeCultureThe Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church
August 25, 2018
The Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church
The Artsakh diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church incorporates the whole territory of the Republic of Artsakh, as well as its surrounding historical Armenian lands that have been artificially included into Azerbaijan in Soviet years.
The throne of the diocese’s archbishop is situated in one of the largest Armenian temples Surb Amenaprkich Cathedral (Holy Savior Cathedral) in Shusha. The cathedral is colloquially called Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in honor of the natives of the Nakhichevan village of Gazanchi who had migrated to Artsakh and built the cathedral. The construction of the cathedral planned by the architect of Shusha Simon Ter-Hakobyants was commenced in 1868 and was completed in 1878. The large bell of the church was molded in the Russian city of Tula.
After the Sovietization of Armenia and the inclusion of Artsakh into Azerbaijan, the cathedral was dilapidated. In 1981, pressurized by the Armenian intelligentsia, the government of Azerbaijan allowed its restoration, though the renovation would be mostly carried out after the liberation of Shusha in 1992. The cathedral was repaired thanks to the support of Andreas Rubian, a benefactor from New Jersey. On July 19, 1998, on the day of the transfiguration of Jesus, the Holy Savior Cathedral was re-consecrated by the Archbishop of the Artsakh diocese Pargev Martirosyan, the Archbishop of the Armenian Church in Artsakh since 1989.
Christianity spread to Artsakh in the 4th century immediately after the adoption of Christianity as a state religion in Armenia. Having proceeded to the construction of churches in Armenia, the first Catholicos of All Armenians Gregory the Illuminator eventually reached Artsakh and, according to a 5th-century historian Pavstos Byuzand, founded the first church in Artsakh in the village of Amaras in the Myus Aband district (now the village of Sos in Martuni District).
The formation of the Armenian Church in Artsakh was completed by the grandson of Gregory the Illuminator, the first Archbishop of Artsakh Grigoris. The missionary activity of Grigoris eventually led to him being captured by the opponents of Christianity. They tied Grigoris to the tail of a horse and dragged him until he perished. The deacons would secretly bury their mentor beneath the altar of the church in Artsakh.
There is a tradition telling about the discovery of Grigoris’ grave in 489. The king of Aghvank Vachagan III Pious from the Armenian Aranshaik dynasty departed to Amaras to find the grave of the saint. After fasting and reading a prayer, he proceeded to the searches. The priest Matte and deacon Ovel were told by the heavens that Grigoris is buried near the eastern wing of the church.
When they opened the tomb, they discovered the body of the saint, as well as glass vessels with the relics of Saint Pantaleon and Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. The relics had been passed to Grigoris by his grandfather Gregory the Illuminator. Vachagan would build a chapel on the tomb of the saint, which survived to our days.
Initially, the monastery of Amaras played the role of a spiritual-enlightening center, which is testified by the fact that Mesrop Mashtots opened his first school in Amaras in the 5th century. Schools were also opened in other monasteries of Artsakh, including Orek, Yerits Mankants, Metsaranits Surb Hakob, and others. Surrounded by a fortress wall, the monastery of Amaras also served as a shelter for the locals in case of an exterior threat.
The monastery of Amaras has been repeatedly ruined by conquerors, but it was the invasion of Tamerlane in 1387 that damaged the monastery the most. According to a legend, Tamerlane aligned his soldiers between the monastery and the Araxes River in a way to allow them to pass the stones of the monastery to one another and throw them into the river.
By the end of the 18th century, there have been 1736 churches and monasteries in Artsakh. However, by the early 19th century, only 1131 temples remained in the region.
In 1813, Artsakh was voluntarily included into the Russian Empire in accordance with the Treaty of Gulistan. Two years later, the diocese of Artsakh was given the status of an archdiocese by the order of Russian Emperor Alexander I. Consequently, the archdiocese was divided into two dioceses – the dioceses of Shemakhin and Karabakh – both ruled by the All-Armenian Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin. At the time, the monastery of Amaras has been used as a borderline fortress.
A parochial school operated in Shusha, the capital of the district, from 1838 to 1920. In the middle of the 19th century, there were 28 parochial schools in Artsakh supported by the monasteries of Gandzasar, Yerits Mankants, and others.
The diocese of Artsakh ceased to exist in 1930 due to the atheistic policy of the Soviet regime. The Holy Savior Cathedral was turned into an ammunition depot. In 1989, the diocese was reestablished by the Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I.
Large spiritual-enlightening centers used to be situated in Artsakh, including the monasteries of Amaras (4th century), Orekavank, Metsaranits Surb Hakob (5th century), Katarovank (10th century), Gandzasar, Yeghishe Arakyal, Dadivank, Khatravank, Gtich (each built in the 13th century), as well as the Ghazanchetsots and Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich Churches (both 19th-century).
The churches that operate today are Surb Stepanos (17th century), Surb Astvatsatsin (18th century) in Askeran, Spitak Khach, Surb Harutyun (both 17th-century) in Hadrut, Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich (13th century) in Martakert, Surb Astvatsatsin (19th century) in Shusha, as well as fairly new churches Surb Hambardzum in Kashatagh District, Surb Nerses Mets in Martuni District, and Surb Astvatsatsin in the capital of Artsakh Stepanakert.
In 1993, a parochial school was opened in the diocese of Artsakh. The charity union “Gtyutyun” (“Mercy”) and a nursing home have operated in 1990 – 95, both under the diocese. The spiritual-enlightening organization “Brotherhood of the churched” was established in 1990. In 1994, a theological center “Gandzasar” was established in Yerevan under the auspices of the Artsakh diocese.
The diocese of Artsakh played a significant role in the awakening of the national spirit and religious self-awareness of Armenians of both Artsakh and Armenia. The diocese also greatly contributed to the liberation and the consolidation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Artsakh.