October 22, 2012
Dear Friends and Fellow Pilgrims,
“Arduous” is the way to describe the pilgrimage to the Tatev Monastery.
The monastery sits on a bluff high above the Vorotan River gorge – the other side of the gorge! I drove down one side of the gorge on a paved road. But the circuitous switchback ascent was on a rocky unpaved road from bottom to top. I was so nervous I had no chance to enjoy the scenery. Fortunately, in the village of Tatev I found a lovely guest house with a comfortable room.
Apparently, the Tatev Monastery provides a timeline of Armenian history for past two thousand years:
“Tatev’s name can be traced to St. Eustathius, one of the disciples who accompanied the apostle Thaddeus to Armenia in the 1st Century. A small church was built of the saint’s relics in the 4th Century.
In 839 David, Bishop of Syunik bought the monastery with the adjacent villages from Prince Phillip of Syunik. In 844 Prince Philip gave Tatev village to the monastery and commissioned St. Grigor church. Following his example, other princes made donations and commissioned churches – then and in succeeding centuries – resulting in a thriving monastery.
Tatev housed the “Cross of the Babken” – a human-sized silver cross embedded with a fragment of the True Cross, relics of St. John the Baptist, St. Stephen, eleven Apostles, St. Hripsime, St. Gregory the Illuminator, the hair of the Holy Virgin and other relics.
fffPoghos-Petros cathedral (St. Peter and St. Paul) was built in 895-906 during the reign of Bishop Hovannes whose peasant upbringing did little to predict his later ascent as Bishop of Syunik (actually not a unique experience for the Armenian Church) and the development of the monastery. By the end of the 10th Century, the monastery had a population of 1,000 clergy and students.
In 1087 St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Virgin) church was dedicated and the monastery entered a “golden age” with a large matenadaran (library) of 10,000 manuscripts for the expanding academic center. It owned 264 villages in 10 provinces, each paying taxes to the monastery.
This came to an end with the Seljuk invasion in 1170. One year before, in 1169, already fearing the Seljuk threat, the monastery sent its entire library to Baghaberd, then the strongest fort in Armenia. The plan failed. The entire library was lost when the Seljuks burned the fort to the ground. They also sacked the Tatev monastery and robbed the Bishopric of its treasures.
Tatev recovered in the late 12th-early 13th Centuries under the Zakarians and the Orbelians with new wealth, an extended university and the spiritual leadership of the region, fostered by the ascendency of the Metropolitan Stepanos Orbelian, who commissioned a major reconstruction of the monastery. He also ordered the casting of two large bells that still inhabit the site.
In the 14th Century, Hovan Vorotnetsi added a bell tower on the temple gavit. By this time Tatev owned 678 villages, had numerous monasteries under its leadership and was a pan-Armenian center for study, culture and religious patronage.
In the late 14th Century, the Timurids pillaged and burned the monastery and it was not until the 18th Century that the Grigor Tatevatsi Mausoleum was added (1787) along with a 16 room school along the eastern wall extension. By 1830, the monastery had two bishops, 10 vardapets (professors), 62 priests and two deacons supervising a diocese of 70 villages. By the end of the century it controlled less than half as many villages and was finding it increasingly difficult to tax.
In 1920-1921 the Armenian brigade Commander Garegin Nizdeh stayed at Tatev as he planned the defense of Syunik from Turkish and Bolshevik forces. Restored as a bishopric in 1922, the monastery was immediately shuttered by the Soviets and badly damaged in the 1931 earthquake which toppled the belfry and collapsed the dome for Poghos-Petros. It was restored to the church in the 1990’s and its renovation continues. *
With its unsurpassed location in the Bargushat Range, Tatev is now an active religious site conducting local weddings and welcoming pilgrims from the region.
After my Sunday morning visit, I drove down into the canyon once again, a little less nervous and a little more confident.
PS If I had read the guidebook carefully, I would have learned that I could have parked my car on one side of the gorge and taken the cable car that spans the gorge to Tatev. Oh well, next time.
*Original text edited and approved by Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin