Armenians gather round the ancient and broad plane tree in the Mousa Ler village of Kheder Beg (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

Mousa Ler – Pilgrimage and Other Ancient Sites

Author: Sonia Tashjian, 30/08/15 (Last modified 30/08/15)- Translator: Hrant Gadarigian

Antioch, the nearest city to Mousa Ler, is a name that survives from ancient times. It isn’t by accident that there are numerous ancient sites in the environs of Mousa Ler that include holy sites, ruined monasteries and churches.

On the slopes of Mt. Mousa there are several wells at the most travelled site leading up the mountain. Local residents called these djrhiurnen (wells). They were built in the middle of a wide and long slab stone so that rain water would be captured. [1]

The oldest written inscription preserved in the area is located on the left wall of the altar in the Sourp (Saint) Asdvadzadzin Church of Yoghoun Olouk. It reads: “The Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church of Yoghoun Olouk was built during the reign of Catholicos Simon I (1633-1646) in the year of the Armenian calendar 1084 and in the year of Christ 1634. It was renovated in the Armenian calendar year 1261 and in the year of Christ 1812.” It is said that decorative stones from the ruined Tovmas Arakyal Monastery were used for the renovation. [2]

Panoramic view of Antioch (Source: Michel Paboudjian collection, Paris)

The ruined Srp Tmmas Arakal (Sourp Tovmas Arakyal) Monastery is located in the eastern portion of Yoghoun Olouk village, in a small gorge, at the intersection of roads connecting several villages with Antioch. On the holiday of Khachverats (Exaltation of the Holy Cross), a pilgrimage to the monastery was organized. Young people, leading animals for sacrifice, were at the head of the procession. They were followed by young girls carrying baskets of fruits decorated with boughs of basil. Then, the senior citizens arrived holding the hands of their grandchildren. The crowd, accompanied by song and dance, dhol and zourna, would make their way to the monastery. When they reached the site, the young girls would fetch water from the spring. Women would wash and clean the wheat. Grandfathers would prepare the harisa cauldrons while children went off to the forest to collect firewood. The priest would sing hymns out in the open and then bless the salt to be fed the sacrificial animals. The young men would then see to the butchering. The harisa would cook slowly while tables were spread with appetizers and drinks brought from home. The dhol-zourna music would invite pilgrims to get up and form a circle dance. Guns would be fired into the air. Games and contests would be organized. The following day, after the Holy Liturgy, the madagh (sacrifice) would be blessed and the harisa distributed. [3]

Natural vista of Mousa Ler (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

The ruins of Aruklen (Arekli, Arekni or Areki) are located to the north of the village, on a hilltop. Only the arch-like altar is standing and it’s not known if it served as a pagan temple or a Christian church. Near the ruins are 18 dried out wells. The only well with water, providing a refreshing drink in the summer heat to passersby, is a bit distant. [4]

Kulkuloun (kulkulan - babbling) is the name of a spring located to the west of Yoghoun Olouk village. Its water flows from underneath a huge cliff. A bit distant is a 70 meter long and 20 meter wide slab stone called Apighen Seoul (apeghayin saluh= Stone of the Monk). There’s a cave, called Magharen Diunehiurk (karayrin danik=Roof of the Cave) on a mountain in the vicinity of the same village. The cliffs on the lower section of the mountain have an interesting formation, leading residents to call this area Ariven Pouash (Sun’s Mane). Another ancient site is the nearby hillock called Sandiren Surtuh (Hill of the Mortars), where there are shards and fragments of mortars from ancient times. [5]

Ritual of preparing harisa in Mousa Ler (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

Another holy site is a cave called Supurpout (Sourp Ourpat=Holy Friday). In the cave there are two large natural stones resembling a grave. On Fridays, Armenian and Greek Orthodox faithful would come here to pray and make sacrifices. According to folklore, Nanira (daughter of Great Bibor, Prince of Telelia) was romantically involved with their shepherd, Balloum. When the prince engages his daughter with the prince Great Pert, the girl and her lover flee to the mountains and take refuge in this cave. The two are then killed by the girl’s father. The intermingled blood of the lovers is miraculously transformed into a spring. Because the two were killed on a Friday, the cave was named Sourp Ourpat (Holy Friday). [6]

Other forgotten holy sites in the area were the ruins of a huge structure called Venkuh (Vank=Monastery), and Khidvoudz Gighitseh (Adorned Church), a cave/heritage built into a cave. Inside there are a sculpted cross and a small well. [7]

While the Vank no longer survives as a church, it retains its folklore. Years ago, the monastery served as a center of education with a convent of virgins. The daily needs of the monastery were taken care of by Marianos the mule driver, who was much loved and respected by all. One day, however, a disagreement broke out at the monastery. One of the virgins gives birth. The monks accuse the mule driver of the transgression and exile him and the child. Taking the child, Marianos withdraws to his hut alongside the monastery. By a miracle, the hut separates from the monastery. The pent up resentment at being insulted so eats away at Marianos over the years and he eventually falls ill and dies. Before being wrapped in a shroud, when they wash the corpse according to tradition, they notice that the mule driver was actually a woman. The monks declare her innocent, adopt the child, and beatify Marianos. [8]

1) Divine Liturgy in the Mousa Ler village of Bitias (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)
2) Bridge connecting Antioch and villages of Mousa Ler (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

There’s another interesting ancient site, called Diregli Maghara (Cave with Columns), near the Vank. In the cave are hand carved columns, also places to sit and sleep. It was used as a hiding place. [9]

Sourp Prgich Church, built on the ruins of an older church, is located in the village of Kheder Beg. In contrast to other churches in the other villages of Mousa Ler, this one has a belfry. [10]

Famous is the old huge plane tree (circumference of 94 meters and a height of some 65-70 meters) in the village. A room had been carved into the massive trunk and was periodically used as a café, store and barn. It is recounted that at one time candles and incense were burnt in the tree’s grooves. This was probably the traces of an ancient ritual. For this reason, it was also called Ee Der, from which was derived the village’s appellation Eeddeir. (In common parlance, villagers called it Kheder Beg Eeddeir. Near this tree is a spring which, after joining with other springs, forms a stream that powered a number of mills before emptying into the sea. There were cafes under the tree were men from the village would congregate. [11]

Hovan Vosgeperan monastery ruins near Bitias (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

Piurt (pert-fortress) was the name given to the end of a large gorge at the western side of the village of Kheder Beg. There was a natural rampart made of rocks. Close by were the half-erect ruins of a structure called Yapa (sculpted), and a site 50 meters deep and 1,000 square meters in area called Badasdan (shelter, refuge?). To the west was a settlement called Khndrvasken Khanga (Dale of Prayer) with its hand-hewn hollowed out cave, which locals called Djknaviren (djknavor-hermit) Small Cave. The entrance to the cave was arched and inside there were two facing hand-hewn bedsteads. There was also a hand dug well in the same dale called Khndrvasken Hira (Small Well of Prayer), whose waters flowed from the adjacent cliff crevices. [12]

The church in Bitias was called Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God). It was built on the foundations of an old monastery and according to certain historians it was the monastery of Saint Melidos the Patriarch.

On the village’s southern side, on the slope of the mountain, is the Sourp Yeghia hermitage; a cave pilgrimage site. People recount that Sourp Yeghia was a hermit of the Armenian Church in Cilicia who took refuge in Mousa Ler during the persecutions. According to legend, there was an extreme drought one year. A shepherd, who had taken his flock to a grove on that mountain and was annoyed by the heat, prayed to God for rain. Sourp Yeghia, hearing the shepherd’s heartfelt prayers, exited the cave and called out to the shepherd, instructing him to pick up a handful of dirt from the cave and take it to the beach to mix with the water. The shepherd carries out the saint’s instructions and it rains. Since that day, when the rains are late in coming, the priests of Mousa Ler, along with the deacons and faithful, make their way up to the cave of Sourp Yeghia carrying candles and burning incense. They offer a Divine Liturgy and ask for rain. Then, someone from the crowd takes a fistful of dirt from the cave and takes it to the beach as an offering. [14]

A partial view of Yoghounolouk village in Mousa Ler (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

The ruins of the Saint Hovhan Vosgeperan (St. John Chrysostom) hermitage/monastery are located in the western portion of the village. On the holiday of Asdvadzadzin (Assumption of the Holy Mother of God), people would visit the site to celebrate and to make sacrificial offerings. Certain historical sources speculate that Patriarch Hovhan Vosgeperan spent his years in exile here. [15]

A spring flows in the monastery’s courtyard. People believed that the waters had miraculous qualities. Women who couldn’t conceive would drink the water believing they would get pregnant. People would fill their pitchers with the water to take to the ill and infirmed. There is another spring close by called Sev Aghpiur (Black Spring), a favorite spot for young girls to stroll. [16]

The church in the village of Hadji Habibli is called Saint Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God). Villagers believed that a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified was in church’s silver pitcher. The following inscription appears on the entry door.

The village of Bitias with the ruins of Hovhan Vosgeperan monastery in the forefront. Photo - "Derounian Frères" (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

With Godly charity
With the intercession of the Holy Virgin,
This structure was again renovated
In the day of Nalbantdji Giragos
Consecrated with the right hand
Of Holy Catholicos Haroutiun,
The Primate of our province,
In the year of the Armenian Calendar of 1781.

Sourp Asdvadzadzin Apostolic Church, in Bitias. Photo - "Derounian Frères" (Source: Mousa Ler Compatriotic Union, Armenia)

The ruins of two monasteries are located just outside the village. The first is Saint Simeon Siunagetsi and the second is the monastery of Talilios the Physician. Several times a year there would be school field trips and games organized at the ruins of St. Talilios Monastery. On holidays, people would make a pilgrimage there and madagh offerings would be blessed. In the gorge is a holy site called the Djknaviuren Magharan (Cave of the Hermit). At the entry to the cave is the grave of an unknown saint. [18] In the northern part of the village, in a place called Taren Khangen (Dale of Ascent), is a rock called the Tamshag Shair (Vertigo Rock) where young people would gather for eating and drinking. It has a great vista and a cold creek flows on the side. [19] In 1897 a bridge was built over the Kara Chai (Black River) that ran alongside the village, opening the only road from Mousa Ler to Antioch  

The church in the village of Kabusia is Saint Sarkis and, according to the inscription, it was built in 1792. [20] In the vicinity of the village is a small well called Heeyag (hee ag, ee ag, ageen) which was always full of water no matter how much it was used. [21]

On the southern end of Kabusia are the ancient ruins of Seleucia Pieria. Only left standing is the famous tunnel built by Roman Emperor Vespasian. The aim of the tunnel, measuring 1.5 kilometers in length, 7 meters high and 6 meters wide, was to save the city from flooding. [22]

The most prominent holy site in Kabusia is the cave of Saint Sarkis. On the top of a vertical stony mass is a tub. Nearby, there are numerous depressions resembling horseshoes. On an opposite mountain is the cave of Saint Mardiros.

Exodus of Armenians from Mousa Ler’s Yoghoun Olouk village in 1939 (Source: Michel Paboudjian collection, Paris)

  • [1] Tovmas Habeshian, Ancient Echoes of Mousa-Dagh [in Armenian], Beirut, 1986, p.35.
  • [2] Mardiros Koushakdjian, Armenian Community of Mousa Ler [in Armenian], Beirut, 1988, p. 45.
  • [3] Mardiros Koushakdjian and Boghos Madourian, Memory Book of Mousa Ler [in Armenian], Beirut, 1970, p. 92.
  • [4] Ancient Echoes of Mousa-Dagh, p. 33.
  • [5] Ibid, p. 34.
  • [6] Hovhannes Boursalian, Heroic Battle of Mousa Ler [in Armenian], Aynjar, 2014, p. 21.
  • [7] Ancient Echoes of Mousa-Dagh, p. 31.
  • [8] Memory Book of Mousa Ler, p. 95.
  • [9] Ibid, p. 96.
  • [10] Armenian Community of Mousa Ler, p. 48.
  • [11] Heroic Battle of Mousa Ler, p. 22; Armenian Community of Mousa Ler, p. 49.
  • [12] Ancient Echoes of Mousa-Dagh, p. 31.
  • [13] Armenian Community of Mousa Ler, p. 51.
  • [14] Heroic Battle of Mousa Ler, p. 25.
  • [15] Armenian Community of Mousa Ler, p. 51. 
  • [16] Heroic Battle of Mousa Ler, p. 85.
  • [17] Ibid, p. 76.
  • [18] Ibid, p. 74.
  • [19] Ancient Echoes of Mousa-Dagh, p. 37.
  • [20] Armenian Community of Mousa Ler, p. 53.
  • [21] Ancient Echoes of Mousa-Dagh, p. 38.
  • [22] Heroic Battle of Mousa Ler, p. 27.