At the end of the 14th century, on the island of Mallorca in the western Mediterranean, not far from the coast of Spain, there existed a Catalan Jewish manufacturing firm run by the Cresques family, specializing in the creation of precise geographical maps and atlases. In 1375, Abraham Cresques, the court master of “cartography and compasses,” created the famous Catalan World Map.
According to one version, this monumental work, unparalleled in its time, was intended for King Peter of Aragon and was gifted to French monarch Charles V in 1381.
According to another version, the map was specifically commissioned for the 13-year-old Charles by Aragonese infant Don Juan. Either way, the Catalan World Map has remained in Paris forever—it is currently stored in the National Library.
Originally, the map consisted of six parchment sheets affixed to wooden panels—each sheet measuring 65×50 cm, making the overall map dimensions 65×300 cm. They were later cut in half and assembled into an atlas of 12 pages.
Four pages are devoted to cosmographical and navigational data, explaining the full concept of the universe. Included here are details about calendars, the sun, the moon, planets, zodiac signs, tides, and ebb and flow. The remaining eight pages feature the map of the Earth.
The atlas contained the most up-to-date information of that time about Asia and China and was later dubbed “the most complete picture of geographical knowledge” prior to the Age of Great Geographical Discoveries.
According to the Catalan Atlas, Christians lived on Issyk-Kul. On the lake’s shore (presumably the northern shore, as the map’s orientation is still debated), a building with two towers topped with a cross is depicted, accompanied by an explanatory caption in a Catalan dialect of the Spanish language:
“Lo loch quis assella Yssicol. En aquest loch es I monesstir de frares ermonians, ot Segons ques diu, es lo cors de sent Mathi apostul e evangelista” — “The place that is called Issyk-Kul. In this place is the monastery of Armenian brothers, which, it is said, contains the body of Saint Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist.” A straight line connects the building with the cross to Jerusalem.
To appreciate the significance of these lines, it is essential to know that cartography in the Middle Ages began its revival from an utterly primitive state. The works of ancient Greek and Roman astronomers, geographers, and cartographers had been forgotten. Christianity wholly rejected the sphericity of the Earth, the shape and dimensions of which had been determined by Eratosthenes in the third century BCE.
Over time, there arose a need for maps of church properties, and the earliest such depictions can be found in theological works. Termed “monastic maps,” these represented schemes of the universe rather than realistic depictions of the Earth.
The city of Jerusalem was typically positioned at the center of these schemes, and all content was constructed according to the texts of the Holy Scriptures. Such maps existed up until the 13th century, such as the famous Ebstorf map from a German monastery: Christ with outstretched arms, encompassing the entire world.
European travels to the East and their accounts of distant lands and peoples gave a boost to the advancement of geographic science. The best achievements of antiquity were taken as the starting point, specifically—the famous map of Claudius Ptolemy, created in the 2nd century AD.
This world map remained the most popular up until the 15th century. Subsequent maps were based on it, supplemented by new information obtained from travelers and missionaries. Additional data added to the maps “on others’ accounts” could be inaccurate, sometimes overly exaggerated—here, the content of the Catalan World Map is no exception.
Nevertheless, modern experts give high praise to this work. For instance, Mary Lunette Larsgaard of the University of California describes the 1375 Catalan Map as a “remarkable medieval map… the first map showing relatively accurate outlines of Ceylon and the Indian subcontinent, the western coast of Africa south of Cape Bojador, as well as an approximate coastal outline of the Arabian Peninsula.”
For maps of Eastern and Southeastern Asia, descriptions by Marco Polo and subsequent missionaries were used. Compared to their predecessors, the authors took an important step forward, leaving blank those areas on the map about which they knew nothing.”
When creating new works, modern cartography utilizes various materials: previously published maps, instrumental surveying, and aerial photography. In the 14th century, the Cresques adopted a systematic approach to the cartographic materials they used for the first time.
The primary sources of the Catalan Map can be roughly divided into three groups: 1) typical medieval maps of hemispheres, including Ptolemy’s world map; 2) portolan charts (navigation maps indicating azimuth lines) of the Black and Mediterranean Seas and the coasts of Western Europe; 3) written accounts of travels across Asia.
That’s why the contours of the Black Sea are depicted so accurately in the atlas, while the Caspian Sea is shown very schematically, lacking portolan charts. Located deep within the Asian continent and bordered by warring nomadic tribes, the Caspian Sea on the map has an oval shape, different from reality.
Similarly, the outlines of the Aral Sea, Lake Balkhash, and Issyk-Kul are hard to recognize. Nonetheless, many cities and natural landmarks are easily identifiable. Christian cities are marked with crosses, non-Christian ones with towers featuring spherical domes. The names of convenient sea ports are written in red according to the tradition of portolan charts, while other populated areas along the coast are marked in black.
What written sources, apart from Marco Polo’s book, could the map creators have drawn information about distant Asia from? Being Jews, the Cresques could have used the notes of Jewish rabbi-travelers from the late 12th century like Benjamin of Tudela and Petachiah of Regensburg.
However, for the map’s patron, Christian shrines were undoubtedly important. Therefore, the Cresques likely had the opportunity to directly or indirectly obtain information from Catholic Church documents—such as reports from monks sent on diplomatic missions to the East, primarily from the Papal See.
In the 13th century, these were Dominicans like Simon of St. Quentin and André de Longjumeau, and Franciscans like John of Plano Carpini, Benedict the Pole, and William of Rubruck. In the first half of the 14th century, the mission to China was headed by John of Marignolli, while monks like John of Montecorvino and Odoric of Pordenone traveled to the East as missionaries.
However, in the listed sources, we find no mention of an Armenian monastery on the distant Issyk-Kul. How could this information have reached Europe? The author has two hypotheses.
At the beginning of the 14th century, Pope John XXII established a Catholic mission in the territory of Eastern Armenia and Iran. The papal bull of 1318, which divided the spheres of missionary activities between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, envisaged the creation of an archbishopric centered in the city of Sultaniyeh, with dioceses also covering the lands of Eastern Armenia.
Dominican scholar-monks Bartholomew of Bologna, Peter of Aragon, and John Anglus de Swinford (John the English) were sent to the new Catholic monastery in Maragheh. With the active participation of Ovannes Krnetsi, an Armenian Catholic congregation of brothers of the Union (Uniates) was established in the Aprakunis monastery in 1320, under the jurisdiction of the Dominicans.
Nearby, also in the Nakhichevan region, a theological university was founded in Krna, where the aforementioned Dominican monks moved from Northern Iran. Here they composed their own theological works and, along with the Uniates, translated into Armenian the works of prominent Catholic theologians, primarily Thomas Aquinas.
It can be assumed that information about the existence of an Armenian monastery on Issyk-Kul was obtained by the Uniate brothers through their compatriots—Armenian merchants who were trading along the Great Silk Road—and subsequently transmitted to the West via the Dominicans.
Information about the monastery and the relics of the apostle might have reached the West earlier. In 1254, Hetum, the King of Cilician Armenia, was warmly received at the camp of the great Mongol khan.
The king and his entourage passed through Central Asia, among other regions. A contemporary historian, Kirakos Gandzaketsi, describes the king’s stopover in Eastern Armenia on his return journey, as well as his accounts of what he had seen and heard during the trip. Upon returning to Cilicia, the king and members of the delegation naturally continued to share their impressions.
Among other things, possibly about the Armenian monastery containing the relics of St. Matthew. By then, Cilicia already had strong ties with the West, and these were further strengthened in the early 14th century after a temporary union with Catholicism.
The information could have reached Europe through papal legates, members of knightly orders to whom Armenian kings granted fiefs in Cilicia, or through Italian merchants trading in Cilician ports.
Scholarly opinions on the Issyk-Kul monastery vary widely. For instance, N. Aristov suggested that “the mapmakers placed the enigmatic monastery based on similarly fabulous legends and tales that guided them in depicting on the map (not too far from the monastery) the land of Gog and Magog, whose king ‘will come in the time of the Antichrist’.”
Indeed, on the Catalan map, as on other maps of the Middle Ages, Old Testament stories and legendary characters are depicted: the Tower of Babel, the Three Wise Men, warrior Amazons, and the Queen of Sheba. Such drawings served the purpose of entertainment, as entertainment and scholarly pursuits had not yet fully diverged at that time.
However, the entertaining subjects had to be well-known and traditional. On the Catalan map, they are depicted with colorful figures and even entire scenes, clearly distinct from populated areas or other verifiable objects, which are marked with more generic and uniform signs.
There were also other viewpoints. In an 1890 article, D. Khvolson identifies the monastery on the map as the Armenian Monastery of St. Matthew, locating it on the southern shore of the lake. However, the inscription in the Catalan dialect does not mention the name of the monastery; it refers to the relics of the Apostle.
In S. Slutsky’s interpretation, there could only be a church here—”due to the difficulty of establishing monasteries in lands of different religions.” Yet, pasture is precisely what is needed for a church; a monastery doesn’t require it.
In modern times, the inscription on the map is often misrepresented not only by journalists but even by researchers. The owners of the monastery are referred to as “Armenian-Nestorians,” “Nestorian Christians,” simply “Nestorians,” and even “Orthodox Armenians.” These errors likely originate from the book by P. Semyonov Tyan-Shansky.
Recounting his journey to the Tien Shan mountains in 1856-57, he was the first in modern times to mention the Catalan map, a copy of which he had seen in Venice. He called the monastery on the shores of Issyk-Kul a “monastery of Nestorian Christians.” The scholar did not find traces of it, but speculated that the monastery could well have been built in the Kurmenty Bay and later submerged due to rising water levels in the lake.
In his book, P. Semyonov Tyan-Shansky speculated that Nestorian Christians, fleeing persecution deeper into Asia, founded their monastery on the shores of Issyk-Kul in the 12th century.
Nevertheless, Orientalists V. Bartold and N. Marr, as well as other archaeologists and historians who professionally studied the inscriptions of Central Asian Christian burials, correctly identified the monastery as Armenian in their works.
What is the reason for the error? Temples are usually identified not by nationality but by religious denomination (for example, Orthodox, not Russian). It is likely that P. Semyonov Tyan-Shansky, who had limited knowledge of the specific beliefs of the Armenians, chose to name the monastery by its confessional affiliation rather than its nationality. Since Nestorianism was widely prevalent in Central Asia, the renowned traveler classified the monastery as Nestorian.
The shoreline of Issyk-Kul has constantly changed. Various sources and evidence indicate the most significant fluctuations in water levels: at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, the level rose; by the end of the 19th century, the lake was shallower; from the early 20th century until the 1950s, there was another increase in water levels. In an old photograph from 1888, capturing the burial of N. Przhevalsky, it can be seen that the water almost reaches the hill where the memorial stands.
Now, the lake has receded two kilometers from that spot. Maps of Central Asia created after the Catalan map, such as the 1635 map of Tartary in Blaeu’s atlas, unfortunately no longer provide information about the monastery, which scholars believe had by that time sunk into the watery depths.
Christianity has long been widespread in Central Asia, China, Mongolia, and India. Tradition attributes its initial preaching to three apostles: Matthew, Bartholomew, and Thomas.
In Europe, all the extensive territories of the East were long referred to as India: it was believed that St. Bartholomew preached in “Upper India,” St. Thomas in “Lower India,” and St. Matthew in “Central India.”
The Apostle and Evangelist St. Matthew is one of the most enigmatic figures in Christianity. Church tradition states that after his martyrdom, his followers hid his body to protect it from desecration.
Representatives of the Catholic Church tend to believe that the relics of the Apostle were found during the excavation of one of the Lombard castles and are currently kept in Salerno, in the Cathedral of San Matteo.
However, there is a tradition of the Apostle’s martyrdom in Syria, from where his relics were moved even further to the East. It is possible that Matthew’s remains are in different places— it was not uncommon in ancient times for the relics of saints to be divided, and for parts of them to end up very far from each other.
Starting from the 5th century, the missionary role in the East was taken up by the Nestorians, who originated from Mesopotamia and Eastern Syria. Followers of the Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople considered Christ to be a man who became the Messiah through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, Nestorianism was condemned as heresy, and from that point on, it faced persecution in the Byzantine Empire.
Fleeing persecution, many followers of this doctrine ended up in territories under the control of Persian Shahs, but even there, their position was precarious.
Nestorian adherents sought to distance themselves from competing empires, both of which were intolerant of differing beliefs. It was the Nestorians who began to massively convert local inhabitants to Christianity in lands to the east of Persia.
Speaking specifically of Central Asia, its peoples generally constituted two interacting worlds, sometimes in conflict with each other: the Iranian, settled-agricultural, and the Turkic, nomadic.
The confrontation between Iran and Turan is reflected in the famous poem by Ferdowsi, “Shahnameh.” From ancient times, this region has been a “meeting place” for various religions: Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Christianity, and Judaism.
Various cults also operated here—of Siyavush, Dionysus, Mithra, ancestor worship, dynastic rulers, shamanism, etc. From the 8th century, Islam also penetrated this region and was ultimately destined to dominate. The consolidation of religious diversity was made possible in part due to the Great Silk Road from China to the Near East and further into Europe.
Christianity never dominated in this region, but already in the 4th century, local Christian communities were quite numerous. The city of Merv (modern-day Mary in Turkmenistan) gained metropolitan status. Not far from this city was the largest Christian monastery, Mar-Sargis. Gradually, Samarkand emerged as the most important Christian center.
Recognizing the special role of Nestorianism, it is important to emphasize that it was not the only Christian confession in Central Asia. In his work “The Golden Road to Samarkand,” contemporary researcher Wilfred Blunt writes about this ancient city:
“The Christian community here, as in most Central Asian countries, consisted of Syrian Jacobites, Syrian Melkites, and Armenians from the Armenian Apostolic Church. From the 5th century, there was an important center of Nestorianism, and from the 8th to the 15th century, the city had its own metropolitan.”
Information about the Nestorians and Jacobites can be found in the works of Rubruck and Marco Polo. In the “Book” by the famous Venetian, there is a description of the country of Mosul (in modern-day northern Iraq): “To the southeast, Greater Armenia borders Mosul…”
Mosul is a large kingdom inhabited by many peoples, including the following: there are Arab Muslims and another population that follows the Christian faith, but not as the Roman Church dictates, rather they diverge significantly. These people are referred to as Nestorians and Jacobites. They have a patriarch…
This patriarch appoints archbishops, bishops, abbots, and other prelates. He also sends them to all the countries of India, Cathay (China), and Baghdad, much like the Roman apostle does.
Armenians first appeared in Central Asia as part of Parthian and later Persian armies. At the end of the 6th century, the Shah appointed Smbat Bagratuni to command an army directed to the land of the Kushans.
Then, the Armenian military leader became the governor of the conquered area. Armenian merchants have long transported goods along the Great Silk Road. At the site of old Termez, archaeologists have discovered a temple complex built according to the canons of Armenian church architecture from the 7th-8th centuries, although it is still difficult to make definitive conclusions about its affiliation.
Frequent references by contemporaries to Armenians in this vast region began with the start of Mongol conquests in the 13th century when, in a short period, a significant part of Asia came under a single rule.
As is known, the Mongols were pagans and treated all religions with equal respect, freeing Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist clergy from taxes and duties. Christians were particularly favored by the Mongol Khans, for which there is ample evidence.
We learn about a large Christian community in the East from a letter by Smbat Sparapet, the commander of the Cilician army, to the King of Cyprus, Henry of Lusignan. In 1247, Smbat was passing through Samarkand on his way to Karakorum to lead a diplomatic mission from the Cilician Armenian state for negotiations with Güyük Khan. In his letter, he writes: “…
I myself entered their churches and saw there the image of Jesus Christ and the three kings who brought Him gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Through these kings, the people were converted to the new faith, and thanks to them, the Khan and his close ones recently became Christians to the extent that they have churches and bells in front of their court, which they ring by striking with wooden sticks. And, before greeting their emperor, they are obliged to first enter the church and pay homage to Jesus Christ.
We also encountered many Christians scattered throughout the East, as well as numerous ancient churches, tall and beautifully built, which the Tatars had destroyed. Therefore, Christians from there came to the Khan, who showed them great honor; he returned their freedom and protected them from severe suffering, not allowing anyone to harm them in deed or word.”
Reports of the baptism of the great Khans are repeated by various medieval authors—this is attested by both Marco Polo and Catholic monk-diplomats. A member of the Cilician royal dynasty, Hetum (Hethum), in his book “The Flower of Histories of the East,” written in Old French in the city of Poitiers, reports the baptism of Khan Möngke by an Armenian bishop during the stay of his namesake and uncle, King Hetum I, in the Khan’s camp.
- Toru-Aygyr (Sikul)
- Timur’s Castle
- Koi Sary
Even if we doubt the accuracy of these reports, we cannot deny the numerous instances of baptisms and rituals among the Mongol nobility, including within the Khan’s family. We must not forget the Mongols’ religious tolerance, as they could simultaneously perform rituals of different religions—at the Khan’s court, in addition to pagan places of worship, there were Buddhist temples, two mosques, and a church.
In describing the court of Batu’s son Sartak near the Itil (Volga), Franciscan William of Rubruck mentions Armenian priests who knew Turkish and Arabic, as well as Nestorian priests “who strike a board (used by Eastern Christians in ancient times instead of a bell) and sing their service.” At the court of Mangu-Khan, “the interpreters were Armenians from Greater Armenia,” and there was also a “chief secretary, a Christian from among the Nestorians, whose advice is heeded in almost all matters.”
Rubruck encountered Christian churches both along the road and at the court of the great Khan: “I saw a house with a small cross above it. Then, greatly rejoicing and assuming there was something Christian inside, I confidently entered and found an altar, truly beautifully adorned.
Gold fabric was embroidered or laid out with images of the Savior, the Holy Virgin, John the Baptist, and two angels, the outlines of the bodies and clothes embroidered with pearls.
Here also was a large silver cross adorned with precious stones at the corners and in the middle, as well as many other church ornaments; and before the altar, a lamp was burning with oil, having eight wicks.
Sitting there was an Armenian monk, somewhat dark-skinned, thin, dressed in a very stiff hair shirt that fell to the middle of his legs; over it, he had a black silk cloak lined with fur, and under the hair shirt, he wore an iron belt…
According to this monk, he told Mangu-Khan that if he wished to become a Christian, the whole world would come under his command, and that the Franks and the great Pope would obey him.”
Rubruck writes about the visits to the church by the Great Khan, his senior wife, and children, and about the healing of the Khan’s wife by priests. He speaks in detail about the precious cross brought “by one Armenian” from Jerusalem— “The cross was silver, weighed about four marks, and had four pearls at the corners and one in the center; there were no images of the Savior on it, as Armenians and Nestorians are ashamed to display Christ nailed to the cross. This cross was presented to Mangu-Khan…”
Rubruck also reports that Nestorians and Armenians at the Khan’s camp acted jointly, attended the same church, although they observed fasts differently. Likely, this closeness of Armenians and Nestorians, with the latter being numerically dominant, already then led to errors and confusion in the reports of people arriving in Central Asia for diplomatic or missionary purposes.
Under Genghis Khan and his successors, Ogedei and Mongke, the Mongol Empire reached unprecedented sizes, stretching from China to Western Europe. In the 13th century, Central Asia and the Far East were opened to European travelers for the first time in history.
Europeans appreciated the benefits of trading with the Mongols and also sought to leverage the might of the Mongol army against their Muslim adversaries in the Middle East. Starting from 1245, numerous envoys, missionaries, and merchants traveled through the previously unknown heart of the Asian continent.
J.K. Wright, in his book “Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades,” comments on the temporary enlightenment in the exploration of Central Asia: “In little more than a century, the veil of the Far East had been lifted, only to be drawn again when, with the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Turks, all land routes were closed once more.
The task of reopening the Far East fell to Portuguese and Spanish navigators during the era of great geographical discoveries.” Adding that Central Asia was explored again only in the 18th and 19th centuries, due to the conquests of the Russian Empire in this region.
With the decline and disintegration of the Mongol Empire, Islam began to spread among the ruling circles, and Christians were subjected to additional taxes. But most of all, they suffered from anarchy and constant wars related to the weakening of central authority. Christianity in Central Asia began to wane. The final blow to it was delivered by the rule of Timur-Leng, infamous for his cruelty and religious fanaticism.
Tangible evidence for the existence of Christian communities near Issyk-Kul comes from numerous archaeological excavations. On the shores of the lake, near the Christian church and cemetery at the Ak-Beshim settlement, as well as at the Burana and Krasnorechensk sites, grave stones called “kayraky” were found with epitaphs, bronze and jade pectoral crosses, terracotta plaques, and ceramic vessels with Christian symbolism—for example, a vase covered in blue glaze with the depiction of the twelve apostles.
The earliest architectural monument of Christianity in Kyrgyzstan is considered to be a small church from the 7th-8th centuries, excavated by L. Kyzlasov in the medieval Suyab— the capital of Turkic khagans in the Chuy Valley. Unique is the Tash Rabat monastery, built at the turn of the 10th-11th centuries. Its functions changed over time, and later the building was used as a caravanserai on one of the branches of the Great Silk Road.
In the 1880s, N. Pantusov, a special-duty officer under the governor of the Semirechye region at the Pishpek cemetery (now Bishkek), discovered more than six hundred grave stones with Christian symbolism.
Professor D. Khvolson and Academician V. Radlov identified the inscriptions on the stones as epitaphs of Nestorian Christian origin. The existence of an Armenian community near Issyk-Kul was indirectly confirmed by a bilingual Armenian-Syriac gravestone inscription found by Pantusov in the same cemetery in 1892, and sent to St. Petersburg the following year by order of the Imperial Archaeological Commission.
The famous scholar N.Ya. Marr devoted a special article to this inscription. He reads the Armenian inscription in the following sequence (see drawing): a) in the four corners of the cross; b) at the base of the cross; c) around the cross. Translated from Armenian, it reads: “Christ Jesus, Lord God. Lord Yovhan (John), Armenian bishop, in the year 772 of the Armenian calendar, this memorial was written.” The vertical Syriac inscription on the same stone translates as: “This is the grave of John, the Armenian bishop.”
Marr concludes: “The fact that, as it turns out, Armenian bishop John was buried at the Pishpek cemetery and the memory of him was perpetuated by an Armenian inscription dated to the year 772 of the Armenian era (= 1323 AD), gives reason to assume that the monument indicates the presence of a more or less significant Armenian colony, rather than an individual person who was thrown so far away from his homeland by fate…”
In inscriptions from the 12th and 13th centuries, we encounter a name (in Syriac language—note by the author) that can be recognized as the Armenian form of the name Paul—Pogos, as already pointed out by S. Slutsky. Similar Armenian forms can be found in tombstone inscriptions published by Professor D. Khvolson.
Recent research suggests that the term “Nestorian” has been too broadly applied to all Christians in Central Asia, which may not be entirely justified. Crosses on grave stones, referred to as “Nestorian,” differ little from simple crosses in Armenia and Armenian diaspora communities, in particular, carved crosses from the Armenian cathedral of 1363 in Lviv.
Summing up his meticulous and unbiased analysis in “Notes on Christianity in the Chuy Valley in the Middle Ages,” V.A. Kolchenko writes: “The analysis of available archaeological sources and written tradition leads to the conclusion that we need to approach the issue of medieval Christianity in Central Asia, and the Chuy Valley in particular, more carefully and cautiously, without resorting to clichés.
Certainly, Christianity existed in this territory from early medieval times up to the 14th century, mainly, or perhaps overwhelmingly, of Nestorian persuasion. But there were also Jacobites and Armenians here, that is, Monophysites, as well as Melkites and Marcionites.”
So where should one look for the Armenian monastery—a likely location for an important universal Christian relic? Some have tried to find an answer in an ancient local legend about treasures: “…In 1218, Genghis Khan sent a force of 25,000 riders into the Chuy Valley led by commander Jebe-Noyon, who was accompanied by the Khan’s second son Chagatai.
Monks of the Christian monastery in Suyab, near Balasagun, and wealthy settled Christian residents decided to flee from the Mongols, taking their accumulated valuables with them. A caravan of two hundred pack camels loaded with gold and silver items hurriedly moved along the northern shore of Issyk-Kul towards Kashgar, when scouts reported that a Mongol detachment was approaching the fugitives from the direction of the Santash Pass.”
Hemmed in by cavalry on both sides, with mountains to the left and a lake to the right, the Christians began to search for a place to hide their treasures. Fortunately, on the way, right by the lake’s edge, stood a monastery of Armenian Christian brothers. Overnight, through the combined efforts of the monks and the refugees, they were only able to hide a portion of the treasures on the shore or in the shallows of the lake.
To this day, most scholars lean towards the belief that the monastery sank into the waters of Lake Issyk-Kul. Archaeologists are aware of more than a dozen submerged ancient and medieval settlements, including Koi-Sary, Darhan, Dolinka, Koi-Su, Sikul, and Chigu.
In the coastal zone of the lake, at depths of no more than ten meters, archaeologists have discovered structures dating from the turn of the Common Era to the 15th century, along with numerous antiquities.
Interest in the underwater monuments of Issyk-Kul emerged almost two centuries ago. Merchant Isaev mentioned ruins clearly visible underwater in his notes from 1857, as did traveler and researcher M.V. Pevtsov in his diary “Journey to Kashgaria and Kun-Lun.” P.P. Semenov Tyan-Shansky undertook a search for the sunken monastery while studying the lake basin.
The first attempt at underwater archaeological research was initiated by Semirechye military governor G.A. Kolpakovsky—in 1871, he sent underwater trophies (copper bowls, silver coins, etc.) to the Turkestan Governor-General K.P. Kaufman and asked for permission to bring a diver from Kronstadt and diving suits from England or France. Due to lack of funds, the project remained an unfulfilled dream.
During the Soviet era, Lake Issyk-Kul became off-limits to foreigners, and domestic funds for costly underwater searches were unavailable. In the mid-1960s, with great difficulty, the Republican Academy of Sciences acquired scuba gear, and archaeologist D. Vinnik conducted research on the lake’s northern shore.
Ruins of large buildings made of fired bricks were discovered. Then, in the 1980s, the baton was passed to V.M. Ploskikh and V.P. Mokrynin. The former, now an academician and Vice President of the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan, has dedicated many years to the monastery on the Catalan map:
“I have practically no doubt that here, at the mouths of the Tyup and Koi-Su rivers, the remains of the ancient monastery might be found. We will focus our search efforts on this area in the near future.”
During methodical underwater research, archaeologists with scuba gear discovered, in addition to the named ones, the remains of seven more ancient and medieval settlements. Numerous ceramic artifacts, stone tools, bronze weapons, and artworks in the Scythian “animal style,” as well as building foundations were found in the coastal waters. However, nothing resembling the ruins of a monastery has been discovered so far.
Certainly, it may be worth looking near Sikul, a name that echoes the distorted Issyk-Kul (recall the inscription on the map). Especially since the legend speaks of mountains near the lake, while all other ancient settlements are located on flat terrain.
In 2002, an expedition organized by “IPV News USA” employed the latest instrumental methods for studying the lake. The Americans supposedly located a place on the bottom where a silver reliquary for holding relics is deeply buried underground. However, many aspects of the visitors’ actions raised doubts about their scientific integrity. The chase for another sensation was too evident.
Much more trust is inspired by the latest news — it appeared a few days before this article was submitted. A brief message was received from the expedition leader of the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, academician Vladimir Ploskikh, and the head of the expeditionary reconnaissance squad, associate professor Alexander Kamyshov, about the discovery of an Armenian monastery in Tyup district near the village of Kürmöntü and the eponymous ancient city. According to them, the monastery turned out to be underground.
It is located inside a large clay mound on a former island that has turned into the Svetly Peninsula due to the lowering of the water level in Issyk-Kul. From here, from the hill, a stunningly beautiful view opens up onto the entire eastern coast of the lake. A narrow entrance leading into the underground gradually expands, forming a spacious chamber from which about 30 monastic cells branch off on two levels.
Some passages are blocked by stones. The layout is reminiscent of medieval cave monasteries and monastic hermitages in Armenia; there are also similarities with a church, the remains of which are preserved at the Ak-Beshim settlement near Tokmak. The ancient age of the cave will likely be clarified by fully rusted metal rods deeply embedded in the rock at the site of one of the arched passages.
Russian and German archaeologists are present at the site along with their Kyrgyz counterparts.
We await further news from the scientists, which could either confirm or refute the initial sensational report.
The author extends his gratitude to K. Agekyan for significant assistance in writing the article, to E. Dolbakyan for providing rare material, and to the “George Glazer Gallery” for the provided photograph of a map fragment.
Author: Ruben Atoyan — cartographer, artist, Ph.D. in Technical Sciences. Born in 1954 in Kirovakan, Armenian SSR (now Vanadzor).
In 1976, he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Engineers of Geodesy, Aerial Photography, and Cartography. He is the author of over 20 scientific articles and 60 original artistic and cartographic works.
Areas of interest include cartography, geography; the history and architecture of Armenia.
Translation: Vigen Avetisyan.