Amaras Monastery

Amaras Monastery

Amaras is near the Matchkalashen village of the Martuni region of the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh, in the valley between the Khazaz and Lousavorich mountains. It was originally in the Myus Haband gavar (region) of the Artsakh province of Greater Armenia. Amaras was founded by Grigor Lousavorich in the 4th century AD, and completed by his grandson Grigoris, the first Bishop of Artsakh. 

Christianity was first brought to Armenia by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew in the 1st century AD. Thaddeus was martyred at the border of Artsakh and his mission was carried on by his disciple Elisha who suffered the same fate. Christian teachings received a revival when Grigor Lousavorich (Gregory the Illuminator) started the full-scale conversion of Armenia to Christianity. It was Lousavorich himself who, in his campaign of founding churches in all parts of Armenia, also founded the Amaras Church in the beginning of the 4th century, thus originating the Artsakh Diocese, known then as Diocese of Armenian Aghvank. Such was Grigor’s reputation, that the local lords asked Trdat (Tiridates) the Great of Armenia to send Grigor’s 15-year old grandson Grigoris to be the Bishop of the diocese. Grigoris completed the construction of the monastery, gained a reputation and set to spreading Christianity in other lands. He was martyred preaching Christianity in the land of the Mazkuts in 338 and is buried on the eastern side of the church. It was in Amaras where Mesrop Mashtots opened the first school in Artsakh in the beginning of the 5th century.  

Amaras suffered with every invader of the land. It was destroyed by the Persians in the 5th c, and rebuilt by Vachagan the Pious, plundered by the Arabs in 7th c (640), restored by the Prince of Dizak in the 9th c, destroyed in the beginning of the 13th c (1223) by Mongol hordes, restored at the end of the century, raised to ground by Tamerlane at the end of the 14th c (1387) and restored soon after, ruined again in the 17th c by Persians and then by the Ottoman Turks, restored by Prince Shahnazar of Varanda in the 18th c and surrounded with a wall, the present day cathedral built in 19th c by Shushi Armenians, closed down by Soviet Azerbaijan from 1930s to 1992, reopened by independent Karabakh, attacked and occupied for a short time by independent Azerbaijan, re-liberated and restored by independent Karabakh authorities. Works aiming at full restoration have taken place even after the 2020 war and the close proximity of the enemy. 

Reinforced walls and structural elements of defence of the Amaras monastery.
Reinforced walls and structural elements of defence of the Amaras monastery.

The monastery has undergone many renovations and almost complete reconstruction in the 19th c. The walls were built by Melik Shanazar of Varanda. 

In 489 King Vachagan the Pious built a chapel on Grigoris’s grave and completed the work on the church. Since the 5th century Amaras has been e a major religious centre and also the seat of the Episcopal See.

The chapel beneath the church and the tomb of Grigoris, the first head of the Artsakh Diocese. 
Grigoris' tombstone. During the Artsakh Liberation War in 1991-1994, the Azerbaijani special police forces temporarily took control of the Amaras monastery. They shot at the tombstone from machine guns and broke it. 

St. Grigoris is a saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the grandson of Grigor Lousavorich (Gregory the Illuminator). According to the medieval sources, he was sent by the Armenian King Trdat III (Tiridates III) to preach Christianity in Atrpatakan, Paitakaran, Artsakh and in the land of Mazkuts. He was ordained as bishop of Georgia and Aghvank at the age of 15 and preached Christianity, built churches and ordained priests. He was received well by the Mazkuts initially, who were enthusiastic about Christianity. However, when King Trdat III died, the Mazkuts changed their mind and brutally killed the young bishop. He was brought to the Myus Haband gavar of Artsakh and buried at the Amaras monastery where in 489 a tomb was built on his grave. The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates Grigoris’ memory at two religious feasts every year. 

Ornaments from St. Grigoris’s tomb.
Ornaments from St. Grigoris’s tomb, typical of very early Christian edifices.
Interior of the St. Grigoris Church.

Arab invaders plundered the monastery more than once. In 1293 Tatar Batu Khan is said to have taken with him St. Grigoris’s staff and a golden cross embedded with 36 jewels, according to tradition, each depicting one letter of the Armenian alphabet. 

Even under the direst circumstances, Amaras continued to be a religious and cultural centre. Many manuscripts were produced at Amaras particularly in the 15th-16th centuries. After Turks and Persians damaged the monastery, strong fortifications were built around it in the 17th century. When Eastern Armenia was annexed to Russia a century later, Amaras served also as a fortress. For a while it was turned into an Imperial Customs house on the Russian Iranian border. Baghdasar, the metropolit of Gandzasar succeeded in taking the monastery back from the tsarist authorities in 1848 and, with the help of the funds donated by the Shushi Armenians, in 1858 a new church was built on the place of the old one which had greatly suffered the turmoil of the times. At the end of the 19th century the monastery had a significant amount of lands, orchards and a mill. In the 20th century it shared the fate of other churches in Soviet Azerbaijan and was re-opened in 1992 as a church of the Artsakh Diocese. 

Part of the old stables.
A stone bath for Christening. 

Now the walled monastery complex has living quarters and auxiliary buildings, including old stables. The St. Grigoris Church standing in the centre of the complex is a three-nave basilica with two twin pillars. The small chapel incorporating St. Grigoris’ tomb is under the alter. It is an one-nave hall which is designed the same way as St. Gayaneh’s tomb in Etchmiadzin and St. Mesrop Mashtots’ tomb in the village of Oshakan, both from the 5th century.