The Churches of the City of Van

Author: Robert Tatoyan, 12/09/18 (Last modified 12/09/18) - Translator: Simon Beugekian

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were 12 functioning churches in the City of Van, of which seven were located in the central district of the city, and five in the suburb of Aykesdan.

Churches of the Central District of Van

Saint Paul-Saint Peter and Holy Apostle Twin (Adjacent) Churches

The Saint Paul-Saint Peter and the Holy Apostle churches were adjacent to each other, separated only by a dividing wall. For that reason, they were known to the locals as the “jame jamin vra”[“the church on top of the church”] or “choukhdag jame jer kari vra” [“the twin churches on the rock”]. The churches were located in the northern section of the main boulevard of central Van.

The church buildings and narthexes were built beautifully and sturdily, entirely of polished stone. The Saint Paul Church had exterior dimensions of 8 by 12 meters, and a rectangular, domed interior. It was described as “large and domed.” Saint Peter was built in the style of a basilica.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only Saint Paul still functioned as a church, and Saint Peter was in a semi-dilapidated state. In the mid-1850, the Saint Paul Church had two serving clergymen [1].

The interior of the Saint Paul-Saint Peter Church of central Van (Source: Raymond H. Kévorkian, Paul B. Paboudjian, Les Arméniens dans l’Empire Ottoman à la veille du Génocide, Paris, 1992)

Saint Nshan or Echmiadzin Church

This was the central church of the fortressed section of the city, adjacent to the building that housed the Armenian Prelacy. It was a small, domed church. The church’s consecration anniversary was celebrated every Friday, alongside the Divine Liturgy. On the holidays of Varaka and the Feast of the Cross, all clergy from the churches of central Van would gather at Sant Nshan, alongside massive crowds. In the mid-1850s, the church had two serving clergymen [2].

Saint Sahag Church

The church was located to the northeast of the central district’s market. It was frequented almost exclusively by the families of artisans during Lent and on other important holidays. The church was described as a venerable place of worship, spacious and beautiful, with an impressive location and appearance.

Prominent clerics Yeremia Devgants and Karekin Srvantsdyants often preached at the Saint Sahag Church [3].

The city of Van, a general view. The Varak Mountain can be seen in the background (Source: Michel Paboudjian collection, Paris)

Saint Stephen Church

The church was located in the vicinity of the Saint Sahag Church. It was built of wood, and had a simple and unimposing appearance. It only had a narthex, which was often used as a meeting place for artisans, as well as a place to set up the altar table. Whenever an issue of national or communal importance arose in Van, representatives of the city’s artisan community and affiliated organizations would gather at Saint Stephen to discuss it. In the mid-1850s, the Saint Sahag and Saint Stephen churches, between them, had only two serving clergymen [4].

The Old city of Van, viewed from the fortress (Source: History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan; photograph: A. Vruyr, 1916)

Holy Virgin of the Apricots Church

This church was located at a distance of about five minutes from the Saint Sahag Church, in a “thick and verdant” copse of apricot trees. It wasn’t a particularly large structure. Rather, its proportions were intimate and cozy.

A small stream ran on the grounds of the church, and it was known to have miraculous healing properties. A contemporary writes – “The power of the Holy Virgin of the Apricots is immense and awesome. Her miracle manifests in all devout believers, Armenians or Turks, who come with incense and candle, bathe in the blessed waters that spring from her temple, and are healed of their various ailments.”

The Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the church on Wednesdays and on holidays.

In the mid-1850s, the church had one serving clergyman [5].

Bible. Miniature illustrations by Zakaria Avantsi, from the Van area. The Bible is currently housed at the Mesrob Mashdots Repository of Manuscripts (Madenataran), number 2804, Yerevan (Source: Armenian Miniatures from the Matenadaran Collection, Nairi Publishing House, Yerevan, 2009)

Holy Madonna Church

The church was located atop one of the oldest holy sites of the City of Van, first mentioned in as early as the 14th century. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the compound at the site consisted of the Holy Madonna Church, the adjacent Holy Archangels Church, and the Hisousyan Central School, one of the first Armenian educational institutions in the city.

The church was wealthy and possessed much movable and immovable wealth, including ornaments and vestments made of gold, silver, and precious stones. The “Mmar Khas” or “Malkhas” Bible, thought to have miraculous properties, was also kept at this church.

In the mid-1850s, the church had two serving clergymen [6].

Miniature model of the Echmiadzin Cathedral, with radiating cross. Made in Van, in 1743. Its dimensions are 142 x 33 x 36 centimeters. Housed at the Holy Echmiadzin Museum (Source: Osep Tokat, Armenian Master Silversmiths, Tigran Mets Printing House, Yerevan, 2005)

Saint Vartan Church

The Saint Vartan Church was located to the east of the Holy Madonna Church. According to local tradition, it was founded in the second half of the fifth century by Vartan Mamigonian’s daughter, Shoushan. Saint Vartan was a compound, consisting of an early medieval temple and a late medieval narthex. It was rectangular and domed, and from the outside measured 8.5 by 10 meters.

The interior of the church was brick-walled. Notably, the church’s external walls had a width of two meters, which allowed the builders to carve sculptures into the inner walls up to a depth of a meter.

The church’s festival day was held on the first Thursday after Paregentan – it was marked with “Great spiritual preparation and… Large crowds of men and women in attendance, as well as representatives of the schools.” Kevork Sherents considered this festival to be “the principal and most important celebration in Vasbouragan,” celebrated only after “prior planning and careful organization.”

In 1881, Van’s first girls’ school, the Shoushanian School, was founded adjacent to the church.

In the mid-1850s, the church had two serving clergymen [7].

Churches of Aykesdan

Holy Virgin Church of Haygavan

The Holy Virgin Church of Haygavan (a monastery in antiquity) was also known as the Yotn Khoran Church (Church of the Seven Altars), the Hankoutselo Monastery (Monastery of the Departed), and Otevank. It was located on two large roads leading from the center of the city to Aykesdan. There was a graveyard adjacent to the church, which was built sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The church was built in the style of a three-naved basilica, with a spacious narthex. The ceiling of the central nave consisted of three layers of hazarashen patterns (consecutive layers of squares gradually decreasing in size). The church had an earthen roof, with the customary roof apertures of churches in Van.

The Arark Holy Virgin Church and its square (meydan) (Source: Bedros Yeghiayian collection, London)

 

The church was called the church of “seven altars” because aside from the three altars above the main altar, there were another additional three in the underground section, each with its own khackhar (stela) – the “blue,” “green,” and “red” crosses. The locals believed that these khachkars were endowed with miraculous properties. Those who suffered from fevers visited the khachkars, kneeled before them, and washed with the water of the altar basins, in the hopes of being healed.

A school operated right inside the church. The school area was separated from the rest of the church by a wooden barrier.

In the mid-1850, the church had two serving clergymen [8].

Holy Virgin Church of Arark

The Ararouts Holy Virgin Church (Holy Virgin of Arark) or Ayrharouts was located in the southern portion of Aykesdan, on the eponymous square. The church was built in the mid-12th century. In the early 20th century, the church compound consisted of three belfries, a spacious narthex, the main church building, as well as structures where an olive oil press and a wine press were housed.

The church was renovated in 1883-1884. The interior was widened, new windows were carved into the walls, and a dome added to the roof. The funds necessary for the renovations were raised not only from almost all Armenians in Van, but also from many prominent local Turks.

Van. The Aykesdan (Vineyard) neighborhood (Source: Michel Paboudjian collection, Paris)

The church stood out with its extremely imposing sturdiness and its large size. It consisted of one vast structure, formidable and awe-inspiring in both size and position, whose narthex and prayer hall could accommodate 3,000-5,000 people, with a separate upper floor for women and small altars set into the walls on two sides. It was built in the style of a domed basilica. The church, narthex, and bell tower spread over an area measuring 47 meters in length and 17 meters in width.

Beside the church was the building of the Holy Translators coeducational school, designed by royal architect Boghos Takvorian.

Stores, merchants’ and craftsmen’s booths, inns, and other establishments once occupied the area around the church that served as a square.

In the mid-1850s, the church had six serving clergymen, more than any other church in Van [9].

The interior of the Holy Virgin Church of Haygavan (Source: H.F.B. Lynch, Armenia. Travels and Studies, Vol. II, London, 1901)

Holy Virgin Church of Norashen or the Diragarouyts Holy Virgin

The church was located in the true center of Van’s Aykesdan suburb, surrounded by small and large purely Armenian-populated neighborhoods. It was built in 1830, atop an already-existing chapel. In 1865-1870, an adjacent chapel reserved for women was added, as well as a school.

During the massacres of June 1896, the church and school buildings served as refuges for countless orphans and widows, injured victims, and refugees from nearby villages.

The Arark Holy Virgin Church with worshippers gathered in the square (Source: Raymond H. Kévorkian, Paul B. Paboudjian, Les Arméniens dans l’Empire Ottoman à la veille du Génocide, Paris, 1992)

With its twin wooden domes, the Holy Virgin of Norashen was the most beautiful of Aykesdan’s churches. In 1902, K. Sherents noted that – “Both the school and the church are in a better state than those in other neighborhoods, evidenced by the fact that the people of Norashen are always becoming wealthier, and maintaining a church and a school that arouse the envy of others.”

In the mid-1850s, the church had three serving clergymen [10].

The Holy Virgin of Hangouysner Church (Little Temple)

The Holy Virgin of Hangouysner was located in the eponymous neighborhood in the northeast of Aykesdan, on the left bank of the Hangouysner River. It was built in the 10th century or perhaps earlier, during the lifetime of Vart Badrig Rshdouni (7th-8th centuries). It was built at the site of one of the volcanic pillars scattered in the area around Varakavank.

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the church operated as a monastery, and was abandoned after the earthquake of 1648. In the early 19th century, it was refashioned into a parish church. It was renovated in 1860 and 1890, and alongside these renovations, a primary school for boys was built next to it, serving more than 200 pupils.

The Holy Virgin of Hangouysner (Little Temple) (Source: Yervan Der Mgrdichian, Kantser Vasbouragani [Treasures of Vasbouragan], Volume I, Boston, 1966).

“The love that the people of Hangouysner have for their church, their traditional discipline, and their passion for their native land and faith should be made known and held as an example to all the people of Van. Thanks to the people’s kind acts, the movable and immovable assets of the church continue to grow daily,” writes K. Sherents.

In 1896, the church and its adjacent structures were destroyed, then rebuilt.

The Holy Virgin of Hangouysner was domed, with a low platform on the altar, and a roof built of wood. Seen from the outside, the dome had eight distinct sides, with eight main windows. The church’s narthex was rectangular from the outside, with a belfry in the shape of a lamp built at its center.

In the mid-1850s, the church had three serving clergymen [11].

The Saint Hagop the Abbot Church and the Toukh Manoug Shrine

The Saint Hagop the Abbot Church was also known as the “Saint Hagop without a shrine.” It was located in the northern section of Aykesdan, in the Lower Norashen neighborhood. Built in 1639, it was considered the second oldest church in Aykesdan, after the Hangouysner Church. The Toukh Manoug Shrine (built in the 13th century) was located at a short distance from the church. By the 19th century, it had fallen into ruin, and served as a location where worshippers lit candles.
 
In the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the neighborhood in the immediate vicinity of the church became gradually more Turkish-populated. Armenians moved to the more central districts of Aykesdan, having sold their old homes, at cheap prices, to Turks.

The church was regularly renovated and had a primary school adjacent to it.
 
The Bible known as Charpakhan was kept in the church. It was purported to have miraculous properties. Every Saturday, numerous women, both from nearby and from faraway, would visit the church on pilgrimages “with incense and candles, with calves and chickens brought as offerings.”

In the mid-1850s, the church had three serving clergymen [12].

A chrism vessel, measuring 57 x 13 centimeters. Work of Garabed Hayrabedian, 1883, Van. Housed at the Holy Echmiadzin Museum (Source: Osep Tokat, Armenian Master Silversmiths, Tigran Mets Printing House, Yerevan, 2005)

[1] Arevelyan Mamoul [Eastern Press], Smyrna, 1878, September, page 179; K. Sherents, Srpavayrer. Deghakroutyun Vasbouragani-Vana Nahanki Klkhavor Yegeghetsyats, Vanoreyits yev Ousoumnaranats [Holy Sites. Geography of the Most Significant Churches, Monasteries, and Educational Institutions of Van-Vasbouragan], Tbilisi, 1902, page 19; and T. Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki Badmadjardarabedagan Jarankoutyune” [“The Historical Architectural Legacy of the City of Van”], Echmiadzin, Bashdonagan Amsakir Amenayn Hayots Gatoghigosoutyan Mayr Atoro Srpo Echmiadzni [Official Monthly Newsletter of the Catholicosate of All Armenians at the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin], 2012, 68 (8), page 25.
[2] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 20-21; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 27.
[3] Sherents, Srpavayrer…, page 21; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 27.
[4] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 21-22; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 27.
[5] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 22-23; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 27.
[6] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 23-26. Also see Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 24.
[7] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 26-27; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 25.
[8] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 29-31; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 29.
[9] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 31-36; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 30.
[10] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 36-37; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 31.
[11] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 37-41; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, pages 30-31.
[12] Arevelyan Mamoul, 1878, September, page 179; Sherents, Srpavayrer…, pages 41-42; and Kertmenchian, “Van Kaghaki…”, page 31.