SURP ARAK'ELOTS VANK - The Holy Apostles Monastery

Historical Background

Taron (sometimes spelt Tarawn, which is closer to the original Armenian pronunciation) was the name of the district of Armenia that occupied the vast and fertile plain of Mush. This district was one of the most important religious centres of Pagan Armenia and one where armed conflict occurred when King Trdat tried to impose Christianity here in the early 4th century. After the eventual triumph of the Christians the many temple estates were confiscated and given to the Armenian Church, headed by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. He then founded several monasteries on the sites of the pagan temples of Taron.

For the next four centuries Taron was ruled by the Mamikonean clan. Through marriage, they had inherited many of the church lands. In the late 8th century the Mamikoneans lost control of Taron to a branch of the Bagratuni dynasty who, later, around the year 825, founded a separate princedom there.

The Mush valley was annexed to the Byzantine Empire in the year 967. After the empire's defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1075, local Armenian rule re-established itself over most of Taron. Those rulers were descendants of the original Mamikonean dynasty: during the Bagratid and Byzantine periods they had continued to control the valleys of Sasun, a mountainous district to the south of the Mush plain. The Mamikoneans managed to resist Muslim incursions into Taron and retain their independence until about the year 1190. Even after the loss of Taron to the Muslims, the Mamikoneans continued to control Sasun until the end of the 13th century, and a de-facto independence survived there until even later.

Between the 13th century and the 16th century, various Mongol or Turcoman dynasties ruled Taron. The Ottoman Empire annexed the Mush plain in 1535, after which it was administered from Erzurum until the 19th century, when Mush became a district (kaza) of the province (vilayet) of Bitlis.

In 1915 the Mush valley was still densely populated. Over half of the population was Armenian (most of the rest were Kurds) with about 70,000 Armenians living in around 120 villages and towns. During the genocide the fate of most of those Armenians was massacre, rather than deportation and death marches. Those that survived generally did so by fleeing to the east, into Russian territory, or hideing in the mountains until the Russian army's brief occupation of the eastern shores of lake Van in July 1915.

The History of the Monastery

According to local tradition, and also recorded in a document dated 1079, Arak'elots monastery was founded in the 4th century by Saint Gregory the Illuminator to house various relics he received in Rome. Those relics (which included the left arms of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and right arm of the apostle Andrew) account for the monastery's name.

However, it is likely that Arak'elots, as a monastery, was a mid-tenth century foundation: none of the surviving structures are older than that date. During the renewed rule of the Mamikoneans in the post-Byzantine period the monastery became a major cultural centre of Taron.

The history of the monastery after the end of Mamikonean rule is mostly one of Muslim raids, massacres, brief periods of abandonment followed by a re-establishment of the monastic community, and short-lived revivals. Under Ottoman rule some stability returned and the fortunes of the monastery rose, but then declined again during the Ottoman-Persian wars of the 17th century. In the 1660s an earthquake damaged most of the buildings. Massacres took place in the mid-1890s, after which the congregation was reduced to only a prior and two or three monks. However, the continued presence of the relics at the monastery ensured that it was an important place of pilgrimage until the First World War. In 1915 the monastery was attacked and looted and the last prior, Yovhannes Vardapet Muratian, was murdered.


About 8km east of the town of Mush (Muş), a wide valley runs from the plain southward into the mountains. The village of Arak - now officially called Derecik - is at the base of that valley. From there, an easy trail leads up the western side of the valley to the site of the monastery, high above the village. When intact, the domes of the monastery were visible from the Mush plain. The flat ground around the monastery is now used for a tented summer settlement. As well as the track up from Arak there is also a direct trail from Mush, guarded half-way along its route by a small castle known as Hasbeth. This trail is now very eroded, but when in good shape it would have been possible to reach the monastery from Mush in about three hours.

Most of the monastery was contained within a circuit of high walls. Behind those walls was a large church with a dome, a zhamatun that stood in front of the church, a three-tiered bell tower, two chapels to the north and south of the large church, and various monastic accommodations and ancillary buildings. A little to the south, and outside the walls, was a second domed church. There is a spring of clear, ice-cold water to the north-west of the walled enclosure.

The main church was named Surp Arak'elots. It has a cross-in-square plan and, unusually for an Armenian church, it was built entirely of brick. On the interior the brickwork was covered in a coat of plaster which once bore traces of frescoes. There are side rooms on two stories at each of its four corners. The dome and its tall, octagonal drum were still intact in 1960, but were reportedly destroyed using explosives by officials from Mush in the early 1960s. The church probably dates from between the 10th and 13th centuries; the brickwork suggests a possible Byzantine influence and a 10th or 11th century date, but the tall drum and its conical roof must be later than that (maybe even a rebuilding after the 1660s earthquake).

In front of the church's west entrance was a zhamatun hall, dated 1555 according to a building inscription. It was also known as the church of Saint Grigor. Almost nothing of it survives. It was rather crudely built and had a standard design: rectangular and with the roof supported on arches that rested on four centrally located pillars. It was entered from the west by a porch that formed the lowest part of a three-storied bell tower constructed in 1791.

To the south of the main church, and built against its south wall, are the remains of the small chapel of Saint Stephanos. It has a simple design - single naved and barrel vaulted - and dates from a rebuilding in 1663. Tradition said that it stood on the site of a much earlier church that had been destroyed by Timur, and which had housed the tomb of a Mamikonean king from the period after the Byzantine loss of Taron. There was another small chapel, named Saint George, built against the north wall of the main church. It is now entirely destroyed.

There were once a series of nine, unusually large, khatchk'ars located just below the monastery's eastern wall. Those with dated inscriptions bore the dates 1123, 1125, 1141, 1144, 1182, and 1562. Photograph 10 shows some of these katchk'ars. Photograph 11 (taken in the 1960s?) shows the same khatchk'ar that is next to the priest in photograph 10. It is now damaged. All the khatchkars had been smashed into small fragments by the 1970s, and those fragments have now all been removed from the site (a few pieces were still there in 1998).

At some distance to the east of the enclosure wall is the domed church of Saint Thaddeus. Its plan is a cross within a solid rectangle. There are no corner chambers and the sole entrance is through the west arm. The base of the drum is supported on squinches. The inner faces of the church are of brick, originally covered with plaster, but arches and squinches are made from cut stone. The outer faces are also of stone: all of the drum and the elevation looking onto the monastery is faced with cut stone, the other elevations are of rubble masonry. The church probably dates from between the 14th century and the 16th century.

The Mush Homiliary and
the Arak'elots Doors

Arak'elots monastery is still well known in Armenia because of the survival of two of its treasures. In 1205 the monastery bought a huge, illuminated homiliary (a book containing sermons) created around the year 1200. It was still preserved in the monastery in 1915 and was its most precious possession. The book was saved from destruction by two women who carried it with them during their journey towards the safety of Russian controlled Armenia. Since it was so big and heavy (it is the largest surviving Armenian manuscript known) they had to split it into two parts, burying one half at an Armenian church in Erzurum (where it was later recovered) and dividing the remaining half between them.

One of the wooden doors within the monastery was a large and ornately carved double door, dated 1134. In 1916, a year after the monastery had been looted and abandoned, an Armenian discovered the door in Bitlis and had it taken to Tiflis for safekeeping. In 1925 it was transferred to Yerevan and it is now on display in the State History Museum of Armenia.

1.   View towards Arak village and the Mush plain

2.   Kurdish nomads encamped on the monastery site

3.   The remains of the monastery in the year 2000

4.   The same view of the monastery, before 1915

5.   An old photograph of the church and bell tower

6.   The remains of the church and bell tower now
- click for a larger photo

7.   On the right is the chapel of Saint Stephanos
- click for a larger photo

8.   Almost nothing is left of the zhamatun hall

9.   The entrance at the base of the bell tower

10.   Pre-1915 photograph showing the khatchk'ars

11.   One of the khatchk'ars; a 1960s photo

12.   The church of Saint Thaddeus
- click for a larger photo

13.   Looking up at the squinches, drum, and dome

14.   Close-up of the squinch construction