A visit to the Artsakh shrines is an excellent chance to get familiarized with the spiritual heritage of a nation who, through centuries of history, having passed through severe trials, was able to preserve unity and faith.
Over the centuries, Artsakh was considered a stronghold of Christianity not only for Armenia but also for the entire South Caucasus. Since the adoption of Christianity by Armenia as the state religion in 301, dioceses of the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) have been created in Artsakh. Since then, and over the centuries, temples and monasteries were built in Artsakh, which became places of pilgrimage. Despite the historical events that led to severe destruction, many ancient shrines that are historically associated with the acts of Christian saints and martyrs, including St. John the Baptist, St. Panteleimon, St. Dadi - student of the Apostle Thaddeus, St. Yeghishe (Elisha), St. Gregory the Illuminator. In this article, we want to introduce you to the central pilgrimage centers in Artsakh.
As a result of historical events, in 1930, there was not a single active church in Artsakh. Since 1988, the restoration of the diocese started in Artsakh. The first of the newly opened churches was the Gandzasar Monastery, which for centuries has been and remains the main pilgrimage center in Artsakh. The prominent historical and architectural monument was founded in the XII century and was considered as the Armenian spiritual center. At the monastery, there was a school where religious personalities were trained; manuscripts were created and stored here. According to legend, the head of John the Baptist, severed by Herod, brought from Cilician Armenia during one of the Crusades, is buried in the tomb of the church, which is why the church was named Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich (St. John the Baptist). Gandzasar is an active monastery of the AAC, and a vast number of travelers and pilgrims come here annually. The monastery is situated on the left bank of the Khachen River, near the village of Vank.
An equally significant religious sight is the Dadivank Monastery, whose name is associated with the name of St. Dadi, a disciple of the Apostle Thaddeus, who preached Christianity in western Armenia. According to legend, in the 1st century St. Dadi was buried here, and a chapel was built over his grave, and eventually a monastery. The grand monastery complex is an outstanding illustration of Armenian architecture of the 9th-13th centuries. Dadivank is situated in the Karvachar district at an altitude of 1100 m. The complex is well-known for the fact that inside the Memorial Cathedral, there is the most extensive collection of Artsakh frescoes, which are distinguished by unique compositional details and color schemes.
Another pilgrimage center is the oldest monastery Amaras, founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the beginning of the 4th century. It is here that the creator of the Armenian alphabet St. Mesrop Mashtots, founded the first Armenian monastery school. At different periods in history, Amaras was repeatedly invaded and destroyed in the 14th century. Despite this, he always remained one of the religious and cultural centers with a regularly functioning school, and in the XVII century was rebuilt. The monastery is remarkable for the fact that in 334, the body of the martyr Grigoris, grandson of Gregory the Illuminator, was buried here. His grave was found in 489 by King Vachagan III, the Pious of the Arsacid dynasty. In the tomb of Grigoris, glass vessels with the relics of St. Zechariah and St. Panteleimon.
Yeghishe Arakyal Monastery is an ancient Armenian monastery located in the Martakert region on the slope of Mount Mrav. In ancient times, a pagan shrine was located on the site of the monastery. After the adoption of Christianity, the church became Christian and, according to the historian Movses Kaghankatvatsi, in the fifth century, the King of Vachagan Barepasht at the burial place of the relics of St. Yeghishe erected a memorial pillar-chapel, where he was buried after death. The main church of the monastery was built in the XII-XIII centuries. In the Middle Ages, Yeghishe Arakyal monastery was the cultural and educational center of Artsakh. Numerous manuscripts, church and secular documents, church utensils were stored here.
Yerek Monkunk Monastery or Yerits Mankants Monastery (Monastery of the Three young lad), built-in 1691, is an excellent illustration of Artsakh architecture from the late Middle Ages, which was in the 17th century experienced prosperity after a period of decline in the XIV-XVI centuries. The road to most of the Artsakh monasteries is quite tricky, which should be the path of a real pilgrim, and Yerits Mankants is no exception. Nonetheless, it is worth it. The monastery is located in Martakert district, 7 km from the fortress Jraberd, which in the XVII-XVIII centuries was the residence of the Armenian Melik-Israelians.
Tsitsernakavank is one of the most ancient Christian sights of Artsakh. The foundation of the main temple of the monastery, located in the Kashatagh region, dates back to the 5th century. Tsitsernakavank is an Armenian example of an oriental architectural type. According to legend, it was built on the site of a pagan temple, as the name says: “tsitsernak” in translation from Armenian “swallow,” and the cult of swallow in pre-Christian Armenia was one of the most common. There is another story of the origin of the name of the monastery, according to which the little finger (“cicern” in Armenian) of St. George the Victorious was kept here. For many years, the monastery was one of the largest centers of pilgrimage and a prominent shrine of Armenian Christianity.
Gtichavank is a 13th-century monastery located in the Hadrut region. Gtichavank was one of the famous monastery complexes throughout Armenia. As a diocesan center, the monastery was under the auspices of Aranshahiks, then, from the 8th century - Dizak branch of the same kind. The nearby fortress of Ktish is the center of the Dizak kingdom founded here. Gtichavank played a crucial role in the cultural life of the region, it was the main spiritual and educational center of Dizak for a long time. Manuscripts were kept here, many of which have survived to this day.
And finally, the monastery of the XVII century Kataro, which is especially popular among pilgrims visiting Artsakh, as well as among residents. Kataro (“Katar” in translation from Armenian “top”) is located on the top of one of the highest mountains of Artsakh - Dizapayt mount (2478 m), therefore climbing Kataro is a real pilgrimage. Mount Dizapayt was considered a holy place, and pilgrimage in these parts has been known since ancient times. According to legend, the 330s converts to the Christian faith were burned at the top of the mountain, later the monastery of Kataro was built here.
During Christian holidays, local believers ascend to the top of the mountain and perform a ritual of worship to the relics of the martyrs. Residents also make “matagh” (a traditional charity donation in the Armenian Apostolic Church). However, in the winter season, it is almost impossible to get here due to the large amount of snow. The central gathering place for believers is the spring of Archi-Aghpyur (bear spring). According to legend, a bear who climbed a mountain lost his strength and was tormented by intense thirst. Then God took pity on հim from the earth, water poured with a key.
In addition to the legends and beliefs we have mentioned, many fascinating stories are connected with the Monastery of Kataro and Mount Dizapayt. You should visit this place and learn about everything firsthand from residents.