Description of Varagavank Monastery

An extract from his book "Armenia, Travels and Studies" (volume 2, pages 113-115) describing his visit to Varagavank (Yedi Kilise) monastery in 1893

The monastery of Yedi Kilisa, situated on the slopes of that mountain, is the most frequented of the numerous cloisters in the neighbourhood; and thither we made our way on a fine November day. The first snowstorm of the coming winter had raged during the night; and the snow was lying in spite of a brilliant sun. A ride of some seven miles along the windings of the track brought us to the door of the enclosure. We had passed over rising ground, in places furrowed by the plough, but, except for the oasis of the village and monastery of Shushantz, entirely devoid of trees. A mere fleck upon the white canopy of the hills on our right hand had been named to us as the cloister of Surb Khach. Our Armenian friends in Van were fond of speaking of these foundations as centres of light and learning in the older and happier times. They have been scattered with a liberal hand over this magnificent landscape; yet how they have fallen from their estate! Two poor monks, who lived on gritty bread and salted cheese inlaid with herbs, received us at the gate. One was the abbot, or rather the deputy of the abbot; for that office is still held by the present Katholikos, the Hayrik or Little Father of the Armenians. Daniel Vardapet - for so he was addressed - is a type of the better-educated priest. A delicate man some fifty years of age, his features were those of a Casaubon. I am afraid his attainments would not compare with those of that scholar; yet he had the suavity and the speech of a cultivated man. His assistant was a monk of the peasant class. Some fifteen youths were housed in the cloister - the remnant of the school founded there years ago by Khrimean.

A cloud of unusual gloom enveloped the destinies of the ancient place; and one might doubt whether the gentle Daniel had ever experienced so many calamities during the thirty-five years which he had passed within these walls. The most severely felt of all the blows which the Turkish Government had been raining upon them was the loss of their printing press. Some short while back the officials appeared and walked off with the precious instrument, of which the voice had been mute for many years. They erected it in Van, and, having kidnapped an Armenian compositor, used it to publish an official gazette. In company with the Mudir I had happened to pass the building where it was lodged; and my companion remarked to me that he was looking forward to obtaining some money for his schools with the proceeds of the sale of the paper.1

The site of the monastery is a dip or pass upon the outline of gentle hills which stretch from the more southerly slopes of the mountain to confine the plain upon the south (Fig. 136). From its windows only a vista of the lake is obtained. The church consists of a larger pronaos with the usual conical dome, communicating on the east by a richly moulded and spacious doorway with a chapel or sanctuary.2 The interior of this chapel recalls features in St. Ripsime at Edgmiatsin. It has four apses or recesses, one on each wall, separated from one another by deep niches. The whole is surmounted by a conical dome (Fig 137). In the floor of the pronaos arc seen three stone slabs with inscrip-tions. They cover the remains of King Senekerim, of the Armenian medieval dynasty, his queen Khoshkhosh and the Katholikos Petros. The frame of an altar erected upon the site of these slabs has been stripped of all its ornaments. This act appears to have been committed by the Hayrik, and out of anger against Senekerim.3 The mild features of Daniel Vardapet contracted as we spoke of that monarch; and he assured me with some vehemence that he would dig out his bones and cast them on the rocks were it not for his title of king of Armenia. The chapel of Yedi Kilisa is most interesting to the student of architecture, and is no doubt a work of considerable antiquity. A ruined chapel on the south of the building contains a much-effaced inscription to the effect that it was constructed by the lady Khoshkhosh, daughter of Gagik and queen of Senekerim.4

  1. Since I have mentioned the name of Daniel Vardapet it is only just that I should add that he stated to me that the press had been hired.
  2. The inside dimensions of this chapel are: extreme length from recess to recess, 38 feet 7 inches, and extreme breadth, 30 feet.
  3. See Vol. I. Ch. XVI. p. 237.
  4. The statement of Layard (Nineveh and Babylon, p. 409) that the church is a modern edifice is scarcely correct, and is quite erroneous if it be taken to include the inner sanctuary or chapel.