THE MONASTERY OF SURP GRIGOR
(SALNABADI SURP GRIGOR VANK)

History

The ruins of the monastery known as Surp Grigor are located on the lower slopes of the northern face of Varag (now called Erek) mountain, about 14 kilometres east of Van city and about three hours walk from the centre of old Van. The Armenian name for the district in which the monastery is located was Salnabad or Zarnabad. This may be the origin of the modern name of the now Kurdish village of Sarmaç that overlooks the site. The Armenian name for Sarmaç was Kohbans.

Surp Grigor Vank is now almost entirely destroyed - the extent of the destruction, and the fact that large fragments of its two churches lie fallen and scattered, suggests the use of explosives. The photographs on this page depict the site in 2004. Fortunately, there exist survey drawings of the monastery's two churches. These were produced by Walter Bachmann and published in 1913 ¹.

Bachmann wrote that the monastery was named after Saint Gregory the Illuminator, who was honoured here because he was supposed to have caused a mass conversion of heathen Armenians at this location. He also wrote that the complex was reputed to be the oldest in the whole vicinity of Van. However, Armenian sources say that the Surp Karabet church was built in 1251. In the late fourteenth century, Sargis Salnabadi worked there and had many students. He had been educated at the school of Tatev monastery and was a student of the celebrated scholar Grigor Tatevezi. The school at Surp Grigor continued operating up to sixteenth century, until the time of the Ottoman-Persian wars. During those wars the churches were damaged, but in 1559 an Armenian whose name was Ghulidjan repaired them. The monastery continued to operate until 1915.

Description

The monastery contained two small churches that stood side by side and were connected by a flat-roofed, house-like vestibule from a more recent period. The churches were dedicated to Surp Karapet/Garabed (Saint John the Baptist) and Surp Astvadzadzin (the Holy Mother of God).


An enclosure wall, whose entrance was on the southern side, surrounded the monastery. Inside the enclosure there was also a large building with two floors, used as a residence for priests. Armenian sources say that another small church, by the name of Saint Hripsime, was located to the west of the monastery. This is probably the small, single-nave chapel whose ruins overlook the monastery and are located half way up a side ridge of Varag mountain.

The Church of Surp Karapet

This was the northern and smaller of the two churches. It had a rectangular outer plan with the dimensions of 8.9 by 6.3 metres.

The church was entered through a small door in the middle of the west fašade. The length of the western half of the nave was roofed with a barrel vault. Above the eastern half rose a drum. The transition from the square to the circle of the drum was accomplished using pendentives. The drum was circular internally, eight-sided externally, and covered by a pointed-arched dome. On the outside, a steep, eight-sided, tent-shaped roof covered the dome. Bachmann's photograph reveals that the windows in the drum had hooded mouldings, and that there was a large sundial located below the south window.

The church interior was illuminated through the four small windows in the drum, another small window in rear wall of the apse, and a larger window over the door in the west wall. The floor covering consisted of flat, irregular flagstones.

The semicircular eastern apse was elevated by one metre above the rest of the floor level. The altar table was located approximately one metre from the back wall of the apse. At the time of Bachmann's visit the flat top of the table lay fallen (he notes that the whole church was in a derelict condition) but the stone stump of its base was still in-situ. This consisted of a basalt block, with the dimensions of 38 by 78 by 80 centimetres, which carried Urartian cuneiform inscriptions on all four sides. These inscriptions had previously been noted and recorded by the German scholar F. E. Schulz ². There were small niches located in the right and left walls of the altar apse. A baptismal niche containing a small basin was situated in the north wall of the body of the church.

The Church of Surp Astvadzadzin

This was the southern and larger of the two churches. It also had a rectangular outer plan, this time with the dimensions of 10.4 by 8.3 metres, and in many aspects it resembled its neighbour. In Bachmann's time this church was still used for services and was in a well-preserved condition.

This church was also entered through a small door in the middle of the west wall. The floor covering was the same as in the smaller chapel. A difference was that there were small chambers, probably chapels, located to the north and south of the altar apse. The lintels of each of the doors to these chambers were large reused blocks of stone covered with Urartian cuneiform characters.

The altar apse was elevated by 80 centimetres above the main floor area, and was reached by two steps. It had the same structure and furnishings as that of the smaller chapel: a semicircular-shaped apse with a semi-dome, niches in the side walls, and a stone altar table. This time the altar table rested on a cylindrical base.

Over the centre of the church was a hemispheric dome. It was connected to the body of the church through the use of pendentives, and was separated from them with a simply defined ledge, There was no drum and the illumination of the interior was through windows in the side-walls. On the outside, a cylindrical drum with a low conical roof covered the inner dome. This drum sat rather ungainly on top of the saddle roofs.

Bachmann wrote that the building material used for the exterior walls of both churches was limestone, roughly faced in appearance, and that the interior was of quarry stone set in plaster mortar and faced with plaster. The roof covering was composed of flagstones. Today's ruins reveal that brick was also used extensively in the construction.

Their Dates of Construction

Both of the churches had a "domed hall" plan. The earliest surviving example of this type of plan in the Lake Van region is the church at the monastery of Saint George of Goms, thought to date from the start of the tenth century. However, features on the churches at Surp Grigor indicate that they are from a much later date than that, probably not earlier than the thirteenth century.

On the Surp Grigor churches the external transition from the saddle roof to the base of the drum was accomplished using triangular planes, in the same manner as that found on the many Islamic kumbet-type tombs in the Lake Van region. This feature can also be found on many late medieval Armenian churches in the Van region. These include the Saint Thomas monastery on the Deveboynu peninsula, which dates from 1671, the Saint Stephanos monastery near Muradiye (Berkri), from the end of the seventeenth century, and the Monastery of the Miracles near Adilcevas (Ardzgue), probably constructed between the middle and the end of the seventeenth century. If the domes of the Surp Grigor churches were from the thirteenth century then they may have been the earliest Armenian churches to use this feature.

Bachmann's approach to the dating of the churches is interesting. He saw the differences between their two domes as a demonstration of the evolution from one form of dome to a more advanced form. While this is, in theory, acceptable (Toros T'oramanian proposed almost exactly the same thing with the dome of the Tekor basilica), the domes on the Surp Grigor churches are from a period when every imaginable type of dome had already been tried out. Also, the dome on the Surp Astvadzadzin church, far from being earlier than the Surp Karapet church, was probably considerably later and the result of a reconstruction after the loss of the original dome. The original dome would have resembled its neighbour, complete with octagonal drum, since Surp Astvadzadzin also used triangular planes for the transition from the saddle roof to the base of the drum - an illogical feature to use with a circular drum. Its more primitive form was not because it was earlier, but because it dated from a period when building skills within the Van region had decayed.

Bachmann wrote that there were no inscriptions on the churches to aid in their dating. This does not appear to have been correct. Lalayan ³ wrote that on the dome of the Surp Astvadzadzin church there was the following inscription: "In 1559, a cruel era, I, Melik Ghulidjan, and my wife Hanarais Hat'un and my dear children Ainiat and Hawcha Awetis, we struggled greatly and [re]constructed this church of the Mother of God for the memory of our souls, and of those of our parents, my father Melik Bahtiar and my mother Honcha Hat'un, we surrounded lower Varag (monastery) with battlements and made it a gift of the mill of Zrvandan. We [re]constructed upper Varag, the bridge of Marmet and the paving of the city (of Van). We gave one half of Gumren to (the church of) the Mother of God and the other to upper Varag. We [re]constructed nine churches and 21 zhamatuns. You that pass, remember them in the Lord's name". The reconstructed dome of the Surp Astvadzadzin church may be a result of Ghulidjan's restoration.

Notes:
1. Walter Bachmann, Kirchen und Moscheen in Armenien und Kurdistan, Leipzig, 1913, pages 28-30.
2. In 1827 the French government sent an exploratory mission to Turkish Armenia, and engaged the services of a young German professor named Friedrich Eduard Schulz to collect copies of the cuneiform inscriptions at Van. The existence of these inscriptions was known about through the writings of the fifth century Armenian historian Moses of Khoren. Writing over 1000 years after the fall of Urartu, Moses of Khoren attributed the Urartian works at Van to the legendary Queen Semiramis of Assyria. He wrote: "...on the side of the rock that faces the sun - on which today no one can scratch a line with an iron point, such is the hardness of the surface - various temples and chambers and treasure houses and wide caverns were carved out; no one knows how she (Semiramis) formed such wonderful constructions. And over the entire surface of the rock, smoothing it like wax with a stylus, she inscribed many texts, the mere sight of which makes anyone marvel...". In 1829 Schulz and four of his servants were treacherously murdered near Bashkale by Kurds acting on the orders of Nur Ullah Bey, the Kurdish chief of Hakkari. Schulz had just spent ten days as the guest of the Bey. His papers were later recovered and eventually brought to Paris, where they were published in 1840. Schulz's copies of the Vannic inscriptions were surprisingly accurate considering that they were written in a then unknown language (they were not actually translated until the 1880s, thanks to the work of the Oxford professor, H. E. Sayce).
3. E. Lalayan, Famous Monasteries of Vaspurakan, Tbilisi, 1911 (in Armenian). The English translation given here is derived from the French translation of the original Armenian in J. M. Thierry, Monuments Armeniens du Vaspurakan, Paris, 1989, page 151.


1.   The monastery in a photograph from before 1915


2.   The monastery when photographed in 2004


3.   Bachmann's photograph of the two churches
within the monastery - click here for a larger photo


4.   This is all that remains of the two churches


5.   On the left is part of the apse of Surp Karapet
and on the right are parts of Surp Astvadzadzin


6.   The remains of the apse of Surp Karapet


7.   The outside wall of the apse


8.   The drum and dome of Surp Karapet


9.   The drum and dome of Surp Astvadzadzin


10.   The south-west corner of Surp Astvadzadzin


11.   Fragments of the Surp Astvadzadzin church


12.   A large fragment of brickwork