Along the shores of Lake Van – the inland sea of Armenia – lie dozens of large and small monasteries that have played various roles in our history and culture. Each is invaluable both from the standpoint of their collective heritage in the Armenian universe and from the perspective of Ay Data, which calls for their restoration and revival from oblivion.
These monasteries are situated partly in coastal villages and towns, and partly outside populated areas, including on several islands of the lake.
Among them, the famous Akhtamar Surb Khach is the most well-known and recognizable, while others have either remained in the shadow of history or, like Narekavank and Varagavank, have been almost completely destroyed, converted into mosques, and their stones scattered by local Kurds for their own homes. Turks are eager to erase any memory of them from maps and history.
Even among experts in Armenian studies, errors often occur in the naming and localization of some of these temples. In our upcoming journeys, as we talk about the monasteries of Van, we will try to bring clarity to this confusion.
The starting point of our “Van circular” journey will be the Skanchelagorts Surb Nshan Monastery, located in the northern coastal area of Van, 3 kilometers northwest of the city of Artske (Adilcevaz), between it and a small marshy lake called Dzuten, in the southwestern foothills of the Sipan massif.
The main name of the monastery translates as “Miraculous” – according to Armenian legend, part of Christ’s childhood cradle was stored here. The monastery was also called Artske, Erashkhavor (literally “guaranteeing,” referring to the granting of prayer requests and healing from diseases), Khachi (Holy Cross), and Paterazmi (War).
Territorially, Skanchelagorts Surb Nshan is located in the gavar (district) of Bznunik of the ashkhar (region) of Turuberan in Greater Armenia. The monastery was founded in the 7th-8th centuries, and in 885 A.D., the solemn anointing of Ashot I Bagratuni as king took place here.
Now almost destroyed, Skanchelagorts Surb Nshan was one of the finest masterpieces of Armenian architecture in the Middle Ages. Moreover, it was a center of Armenian writing; some of the manuscripts transcribed here have survived.
Until 1895 – the year of its destruction, and 1915, Skanchelagorts Surb Nshan was the main spiritual center for the Armenians of the entire district, which later formed the Gavar of Artske in the province of Van.
In this region, there were also other monasteries, no less famous and significant. For example, in the village of Tkis or Tkes (the village is located in the southwestern outskirts of Artske, hence its name), there was the Tkuts Surb Anania Monastery; right on the shore of Lake Van, 20 km east of Artske, between the shore and Lake Aren, was the Surb Akop or Aver Vank Monastery (now in ruins).
Also, near the village of Kocherer or Kocheren, there were a fortress and the Kocheryats (Kohuts) Monastery – in the last three toponyms, we find the root “koch,” which is also at the basis of the name of the famous Armenian dance Kochari (“koch” literally means the ankle bone, in the second sense – a spool, the general meaning of the root – base, bearing part).
Even further to the east, on the border of the Bznunik and Ahiavit regions of Turuberan (in modern times, these are the Artske and Arches regions of the Van province), at the beginning of a large, northward-curved peninsula Vichkatsruk, near the large and well-organized village of Archra (or Argira), on Mount Vank (Ziaret), are the ruins of the Archro Surb Astvatsatsin Monastery.
The Vichkatsruk peninsula separates the smaller part of Lake Van, its northeastern extension, from the main body of the lake, washing the Ahiavit and Arberani regions of Turuberan and Vaspurakan, respectively. Here, on the far northeastern shore of Lake Van, is located one of the large and well-known cities of Van – Arches, now distorted to Erdzhish.
In the early period of Armenian history, about 5-6 thousand years ago, the city of Arzashku was founded here, which eventually went underwater (Lake Van has no outlet to the World Ocean, and its level has been regularly rising for centuries).
Later, a little to the north of Arzashku, the cities of Akants (its settlement has almost already merged with Arches) and Argishtikhinili were founded – the latter gave rise to the suburban village of Arches, named Mathavank (now Chalabibak or Chelebibah).
Near the latter, on a mountain of a small peninsula of the same name (it is now called Eski-Iskele – “old harbor”), is located the Mathavank Monastery, the name of which is often confused with two other monasteries.
Mathavank is located 10 km southwest of Arches, at the foot of Mount Mathavank, on the western shore of Mathavants Bay. On the opposite shore of the bay, the remains of the Arches Fortress rise from the waters of Lake Van, which the Turks call Eski-Kale (“old fortress”). Mathavank was founded by the Aghtamar Catholicos Zakaria I Sefedinyan at the very beginning of the 14th century and was one of the centers of Armenian literacy.
The second monastery, Matnavank, is located amidst the ruins of a village with the same name, situated at the north-western corner of Lake Van, near the town of Khlat.
This monastery is also known as Matnavanits Surb Astvatsatsin, or Ahlatu Vank, and was another notable center of Armenian scholarship. Near Matnavank, there’s a rock called Divakul from which cold drinking springs flow.
One of the monastery’s bulls states that demons (devas) used to live in a crevice of this rock.
One night, the Apostle Thaddeus (who spread Christianity in Armenia) had a dream in which an angel pointed to the place where a monastery should be built (hence its name – Monastery of the Finger).
After the construction and consecration of the monastery, the crevice in the rock closed, swallowing the demons, and the rock itself came to be known as “Divakul” (“Devourer of Demons”).
The third monastery, Matravank, is not related to the region of Van at all; it is located to the north of the Mush plain, near the famous Or’iank (Khoriyanq, Avran) rock, on the right bank of the Aratsani River, and is also known by the name Ovannu Margareanots (Abode of Prophet John).
By the early 19th century, it was almost entirely ruined. Matravank is mentioned by the 7th-century historian Ovannes Mamikonian, and Grigor Magistros writes in a letter to Ishkhan Tornik (also of the Mamikonian dynasty) that the monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century, who buried a portion of the relics of John the Baptist there.
The name Matravank itself derives from the Armenian word “matur” (chapel). This monastery is also mentioned in the ancient Armenian epic “Sasna Tsrer.”
We hope that after this brief historical overview, our readers will easily distinguish among these three monasteries—Matkhavank (Monastery of Sacrifices), Matnavank (Monastery of the Finger), and Matravank (Chapel Monastery).
The district of Khlat, situated on the north-western shore of Lake Van and belonging, like Artske, to the Bznunik Turuberan district of Greater Armenia, is named after its main town, Khlat or Ahlat.
We’ll delve into the rich history of this town another time, but for now, let’s note that the name “Khlat” originates from the ancient Armenian root “gaht” or “galat.” Its original meaning implies plurality, for example, in buildings or residents. For instance, in the occupied part of the Shusha district in the Republic of Artsakh, there’s a village called Gahtut, meaning built-up, abundant, or rich.
The term for the country to the west of Lesser Armenia—Gahatia or Galatia, and the later Arabic term “kalat” (fortress), also derive from the root “gaht.” Under Arabic influence, the ancient town of Gaht or Gahat on the shores of Lake Van was transcribed as Khlat (Ahlat).
Hettam was known as Kallania, and in the ancient Armenian period, the city was called Bznuneats Kahak (City of Bznunik) – by the way, the term “kahak” comes from the same root, meaning “fortified settlement” in ancient Armenian.
Besides Matnavank, there are also other monasteries in the Hlatsk region. South of Hlat, on the way to Datvan, right on the shore of Lake Van, there’s a submerged monastery called Akhetu Vank, located at the foot of Mount Akheh (Luk). It was once a major center of Armenian culture and writing.
To the west of Hlat, 15 km from the city, in the upper reaches of the river Khsen, is the monastery Anapat (Desert), surrounded by mountains with resonant names – Spradzor (Cascade of Gorges), Tsirani (Apricot), and Mogdet (Observatory of Priests-Magicians).
Further south of Anapat, halfway from Hlat to the lake and volcano Nemrut, is the large Armenian village of Tehut, sometimes called the Second Hlat (now Tashkharman). In 1915, it was the most populous village of the region, with about two thousand Armenian residents. The bard Bangi was born in Tehut.
Beneath Tehut, on the northern slope of Nemrut, lies the monastery of Tehuti Surb Ovannes. In its heyday, it was a large monastic complex with a central domed church made of large cut stones and auxiliary buildings.
The monastery was surrounded by a wall and had gardens and other lands. From the monastery, one has a beautiful view of Lake Van. Fully completed by 1592, the Tehuti Monastery of Surb Ovannes was operational until 1915. In the 10th-12th centuries, another monastery – Dastaku Surb Stepanos, located on the submerged island of Tsipan opposite the city of Artske – was also submerged.
Our next journeys will take us to the northeast, east, and south shores of Lake Van, to the large and small monastic jewels of Central Armenia.
by Grigor Beglaryan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan