Gandzasar Monastery

Gandzasar Monastery

An aerial view of the monstery.

Gandzasar has been the spiritual centre of Artsakh for centuries. It was founded before the 10th century in the Khachen gavar, near the upper part of the Khachen river, about two kilometres south-west of the Vank village, which is today in the Martakert region of the NKR. Gandzasar means “a mountain of treasures” which is based on the fact that the mountain range on which the monastery is built used to be rich in minerals, particularly in silver which was mined in the past. Vank, meaning “monastery” is the name that was given to the village nearby. 

A general view of the monastery.

When the  Catholicos of Armenia Anania I Mokats convened a Council to fight the Chalcedonic Creed in 949 in Khachen the Gandzasar Monastery was represented by the monk Sargis. It is also recorded in medieval annals (Mkhitar Gosh, 12th-13th centuries) that when Prince Grigor of Khachen was killed in a battle against the Seljuks in 1140, he was buried in his family graveyard at the Gandzasar Monastery. According to the inscriptions on the monastery buildings, Hasan Jalal Dola, the Prince of Princes of Khachen-Artsakh and his mother Khorishah built the main temple, the St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (John the Baptist) Church of the Monastery in the period from 1216 to 1238. Because of a Mongol attack the consecration of the church was delayed and took place in 1240, on July 22, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. According to the historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi, seven hundred priests took part in the festivity. The legend has it that the Cathedral is built where Hasan Jalal buried the head of John the Baptist which came into his brother’s possession, having been sought and found in Jerusalem by monks-pilgrims much earlier. The Monastery is said to also be a depository of relics of other saints such as  St. Grigor Lousavorich, St. Grigoris and others. Gandzasar served as an Episcopal See from the time it started functioning. 

History indicates that the temple was built on the site of an earlier monument which was not preserved, though some khachkars on the site date to 1174, 1181 and 1202. 

Hasan Jalal was one of the most renowned 12th century Armenian Princes. The ruins of his palace are not far from the monastery and are called Darabasner, which means “manor.” 

Gandzasar offers not only spiritual relief but also breathtaking scenery.

The richly ornamented portal and the doors of the narthex.

A gravestone khachkar on the monastery grounds.

The St. Hovhannes Church is one of the most brilliant pieces of Armenian architecture of its era. Its dome is unique both in terms of architecture and the rich in inscriptions and ornaments. 

The narthex, another masterpiece of its time was founded by Hasan Jalal’s wife Mamqan and their sons and was completed in 1261 by Atabek-Ivaneh. Its design repeats that of the narthexes of Haghpat and Mshkavank monasteries. Princes and high-level clergy are interred in it. The roofs of the Church and the narthex were partially renovated in 1781, 1851 and in 1907. Living quarters for the monks are under the eastern wall and monks’ graves under the northern wall of the monastery. The old and large graveyard outside the complex became the village graveyard over the course of the time. 

With its over two hundred inscriptions on the monastery walls, Gandzasar is a rich source for research, while its architectural features had earned it the title of “encyclopaedia of Armenian church architecture.”

The Monastery had a scriptorium and rich repository of manuscripts. The “Gandzasar Red Gospel” created in the 12th-13th centuries is now held in the library of the University of Chicago.

In 1400 Gandzasar became the seat of the Catholicos of Aghvank. Gandzasar bishops took part in the elections of the Catholicos of Armenia. The monastery received numerous donations in the forms of lands, money and villages. In the 15th century the Kara-Koyunlu (the Black Sheep) and later, the Agh-Koyunlu (the White Sheep) tribes that ruled the larger region recognized the rights of the Gandzasar Catholicos and freed him and the clergy who served under him from the duty of paying taxes. 

In the 17th century a rival Catholicosate (Catholicate) was created in the Yerits Mankants monastery but Gandzasar continued to operate and thrive. When Yesaee Hasan Jalalian became Catholicos of Gandzasar, it became also a political and military centre. Throughout its history the monastery has undergone small renovations and new buildings have been added. Manuscripts of educational, legal and theological nature were created at Gandzasar.

Karabakh came under Russian rule in 1813 and in 1815 the Catholicosate of Gandzasar (Aghvank) was replaced by a metropolis. Although archbishop Baghdasar moved the See to Shushi in 1836, a two-storey school building was added to the monastic complex in 1898. When Karabakh was forcefully annexed to Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923 the Gandzasar monastery stopped functioning. The St. Hovhannes Mkrtich Church reopened in 1988. 

During the Azeri aggression some of the buildings were damaged because of direct artillery fire but they were restored in 1993-1998. The guest house was burnt down completely. A missile stuck in the wall of the monastery and another hit the bell tower, fortunately not damaging them seriously. Most missiles were aimed at the dome of the cathedral but it miraculously survived.

The outer wall of the monastery still has a piece of missile in it. The Azeris spared no ammunition but fortunately no major damaged was caused.

The church is cruciform inside, domed and richly decorated with different types of stone shapes carved in stone. The four Evangelists are also represented in the form of stone statues. The dome of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich stands out among many Armenian churches with its richly and beautifully carved reliefs depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments, the Apostles, as well as the princes who founded and sponsored the Church. 

Father Hovahannes was born in the village of Vank below and specialized in agricultural technology. However, he went to Etchmiadzin to receive a clerical rank in 1992 and became Vicar and priest of the Gandzasar Monastery. In 1992-94 he took part in the defence and liberation battles of several settlements and stood out for his devotion to Gandzasar, staying there under bombardment and fire, blessed the Freedom-Fighters and inspired them. Due to his dedication the Monastery functioned uninterruptedly. Such was the belief that the Monastery would not be taken, that no relics were taken out for protection during the war. 

Candle-lighting at Gandzasar.