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Arapgir Kaza: Churches, Monasteries and Holy Sites

Author: Khazhak Drampyan

This article focuses on the monasteries, churches and holy sites that were once located in the Armenian towns and villages in the kaza (district) of Arapgir and the stories/fables surrounding them that are to be found in the written recollections of geographers, ethnographers and church functionaries.

We take a specific look at the town of Arapgir and fifteen villages (Ambrga, Shepig, Dzak, Grani, Hatsgni, Khoroch, Mashgerd, Saghmga, Vank, Koushna, Vaghashen, Anchrti, Vaghaver, Ehnetsik, Dzablvar) once populated by Armenians. We have also studied the biographies and activities of clergymen who served in the district.

The Kaza of Arapgir was located in the Vilayet of Mamuratul Aziz-Harput (Kharpert/Harput), founded as an Ottoman administrative unit in 1880. The Kaza of Arapgir borders the Kaza of Agn to the north, Dersim to the east, Gaban-Maden to the south, and Sivas to the west. [1]

Town of Arapgir

The town of Arapgir had six apostolic churches – St. Asdvadzadzin or the Mother (Main) Church, which was the biggest and most ornate of the six; St. Hagop, St. Kevork (in the Keshishler neighborhood that was used as a holy site); St. Mamas; and St. Lousavorich (in the Shahroz/Ara Giavour neighborhood). They were a half hour’s distance from one another. [2]

St. Asdvadzadzin

This church was located on a promontory in the center of town. It was a large monastery, made of stone and lime, with a wooden roof. Separate schools for boys and girls were located close by. The diocesan building was located in the middle. The structure could accommodate 4,000. Prior to its renovation, it had five altars with separate arches and one crucifix.

The church’s interior was richly adorned with silver lamps, gold and silver religious books and crosses, beautiful vestments, chalices, etc. They were all purchased with funds donated by the faithful. On Sundays and holidays, donation plates would be placed outside the church entrance. The faithful would donate gold and silver coins to renovate the church, care for the needy, to operate the school and the diocesan office. [3]

Donation plates would also be passed around during vespers and liturgical services. The money was used to pay the priest celebrating the liturgy, the altar servers and the sexton, to pay for the upkeep of the cemetery, and to pay for the oil used to light the lamps (Yughakin). [4]

A large cemetery, surrounded by mulberry trees and bushes, was located near the church. A small spring flowed by the entrance. [5]

Pakhdigian writes that people once said that another monastery stood on the site of the St. Asdvadzadzin monastery in the Arapgir neighborhood of Keshishler. [6]

Most of the stores and the inn located in the market to the south of the Holy Mother Church belonged to church. Arapgir residents would gather in large numbers every Easter on the roof of the inn and have egg fights under the mulberry trees. In 1894, on the Friday before Easter, thousands of Arapgir residents, as per tradition, assembled on the inn’s roof. It suddenly collapsed from the weight. Forty people died that day. Their remains were removed from under the rubble. It was a sad Easter Sunday. [7]

Church Renovations

The Mother Church was renovated four times. According to Poladian, the co-primates Tateos and Aleksanios of Tokat, served for six years in Arapgir and proposed that a new church be built on the site of the old one. They ran into difficulties. They asked for help from one Kasbar Amira from the nearby village of Mashgerd. The amira was well liked by Sultan Mahmut II (1808-1839). The amira raised the issue to the sultan who issued an edict allowing the church’s renovation. The work lasted two months and was made possible by a donation of 30,000 ghouroush/tahegans by Vartabed Tateos. The donation was unprecedented for the time. [8]

We see an inscription about the renovation work in a May 26, 1893 article, penned by teacher H.B. Manuelian, in the Constantinople paper Arevelk.

This church was restored in the name and to the glory of the Holy Mother of God. At the forceful order of Sultan Mahmud, the mighty king that makes the world tremble. And through the efforts of the great Garabed [Balattsi] Rapounabed [Patriarch] of Constantinople, with the intercession of the nation’s amiras, Eternal benevolent clan, with the council of our Amira, Mahdesi Kasar, and with the efforts and donations of our compatriots in Arapgir. [9]

As we see, the inscription mentions the services rendered by Kasbar Amira. But there is no mention of Vartabed Tateos, who donated most of the money for the restoration. We read about his donation in the writings of Vartabed Moushegh. [10]

According to Maghakia Ormanian, Garabed Rapounaped mentioned in the renovation inscription was the 62th Patriarch of Constantinople, who, Poladian believes, could not have remained indifferent to the renovation of the Arapgir church. Ormanian uses the name Lord Garabed of Balat to describe him. [11]

The second renovation of Arapgir’s Holy Mother Church took place in 1893, when Housig Kachouni was vicar. In order to renovate the roof, a regional council of national leaders was formed that instructed the clergy and architects to inspect the entire church structure. A Greek architect drafted a renovation plan that cost 1,500 gold pieces. This was a huge sum. H. Manuelian describes the sum in the following words.

“Some, perhaps, will find the amount extreme. At issue is merely the conversion of the dirt roof into a new one, where the old walls will remain, along with the altar, etc. However, when we consider the expansiveness of this sacred institution, of which there are only three or at the most four in our midst, it is easy to be convinced that the specified amount doesn’t exceed the bounds of normalcy.” [12]

The local government created many barriers to the roof reconstruction, particularly regarding the height of the dome. After receiving the notice of two investigators sent from Harput/Kharpert, a construction permit was finally issued, allowing Arapgir residents to start the work. [13].

The third renovation of the church took place in 1902, during the era of Father Moushegh Seropian. Construction material was brought from the town of Anti [an ancient Arapgir settlement from whence the population migrated and founded the city of Arabkir] and the surrounding villages. Until 1902, the church was standing on 24 pillars, decorated with oil paints and adorned with frescoes portraying Bible stories. It is said that these images immediately captured the attention of the people [14].

The fourth renovation tool place during the time of Meroujan Vartabed Ashkharouni. They affixed an oil painting with plaster on six columns in the church, replacing the previous 24. There were twelve windows on the church roof. While removing the 24 columns, a number of crosses, church items, bones and skulls appeared. Three altars replaced the previous five. The main altar was in the middle, and above it was a marble dove, its beak directed to the baptismal font. [15]

The cathedral had three upper galleries for women. The upper one was reserved for girls. There were balconies on the northern and southern walls of the gallery. The church had three entrances, of which two looked to the west and one to the north. [16]

For this costly renovation, Vartabed Ashkharouni sought the assistance of Arapgir natives living abroad, especially in Egypt. They made significant donations to renovate the Mother of God Church. Two letters about the donations are particularly interesting. The first is the letter of Arapgir native Bedros Garabedian to Primate Mgrdich Vartabed Aghavnouni of the Armenian Church in Egypt, in which he reveals that he’s donating 200 Ottoman gold pieces to renovate the church’s roof on condition that Arapgir national leaders contribute the same amount. [17]

The second letter is an official bulletin, drafted by the Cairo Political Assembly, that appeared in the records of the fundraising committee.  From it we learn that Vartabed Ashkharouni sought the help of his spiritual brother, Mgrdich Vartabed, noting that local funds weren’t sufficient and there was a need for Arapgir natives who had left the homeland to carry out fundraising as well. [18]

Pillaging of the Church

Brigands pillaged the Mother of God Church in 1871. The incident was widely covered in the local press. On the night of March 31, 1871, three Kurds broke the iron bars of the church, entered through the window, and stole the precious items inside. The estimated value of the stolen items was 30,000 ghouroush/tahegans. Church sacristan Father Mardiros, from his adjacent room, heard the noise and called out for the church sexton. The latter entered the church and saw the robbery taking place. The bandits fled the scene, probably after hearing the priest’s shouts. Upon hearing the news, Hadji Djihan Mamasian Agha  linked up with Sarkis Khahvedjian and Hadji Ohan Semerdjian and they went looking for the Kurds. Reaching Gebik, Hadji Djihan chased after the Kurds for six or seven hours. The brigands tried to defend themselves but were unable to use their only gun due to the wet weather. The police arrive on the scene and a group of Armenians hand over the Kurds to them. The Armenians, led by Hadji Djihan, return to the church carrying the stolen items on their shoulders. The kaymakam (provincial district governor) invites Djihan Agha to the Medjlis and publicly congratulates him for his bravery. The robbers are taken to Gaben-Maden and are interrogated. They confess to pillaging 48 churches and one mosque. The government seizes their property and jails them. [19]

The Mother Church’s Exiled Chalice

The Arapgir Mother Church was pillaged during the 1915 Genocide. None of the church’s property was saved except for a silver gold-leafed chalice that travelled from country to country, from person to person, and finally wound up at the Mekhitarist monastery in Vienna. Vartabed Yeprem Boghosian gives the following description of the chalice after reporting the news in the Nor Arapgir bulletin. [20]

“The chalice is 301/2 cm tall, the circumference of the cup is 30 cm, and the diameter is 9 cm. The circumference of the chalice pedestal is 56 cm and the diameter is 171/2 cm. The chalice is made of silver, and the inside and outside are gilded. The grapevines are also gilded with the leaves and lintels of the vine on the cupboard. The chalice itself is a work of art, handcrafted by Armenian jewelers. There are ornaments around the upper part of the chalice or around the cup, around the middle or by the handle, as well as on the bottom ends of the base and on the upper face. Angels with six wings are depicted around the cup. The instruments and objects remind us of the sufferings of Jesus - the plowing pillar, the whip, the washbasin and vase used by Pilate to wash his hands, the hammer, tongs and nails used by those who crucified him, the crook and the gems, the centurion’s spear, the wood over the cross, and so on. The base is decorated with three bunches of wheat leaves and three branches of fruit and berries, and the bottom edges are decorated with ornaments. In the upper part of the chalice, around the glass, and on the bottom, there are also Armenian inscriptions. There are also three inscriptions on the cup of the chalice.” [21]

Take, eat
Get drunk of it
I am the bread of life
 [22]

There are the following three inscriptions on the base of the chalice.

  1. A remembrance of Kalsdian Mh [mahdesi] Mardiros Agha, Arapgir Mother Church, 1897
  2. A remembrance of Aroutiun Amir, By the hand of Avedik
  3. A remembrance of Agent Melkon of Zarbkhan

The chalice is well preserved. There are no broken or crushed parts. There’s a one-centimeter long and one-millimeter wide small hole is at the edge of the lower part of the base. [24].

Other Church Items

H. Aleksis writes that the Mother Church had many church items -  silver lamps, golden and silver gospels, crosses, gorgeous vestments, and so on [25].

St. Hagop Church

Poladian notes that the St. Hagop Church in Arapgir was led by a strict and thick-armed celibate priest. Poladian also writes that it was located in the Keshishler neighborhood of Arapgir and was called Keshishler Monastery. At that time, it was a monastery and owned large tracts of land and other property. Pakhdigian writes that "the original monastery is an infinite space on the two sides of the Kar-Pnag road, that extends to the Mansoub Dedeh (St. Mesrob) of Shahad village, Ambrga, Amadoun, Dishdereg, Hntsanag, Oughouzlar and Galoug. [26].

St. Prgich Catholic Monastery

The St. Prgich (Holy Savior) Catholic Monastery was a wooden structure. A school for Armenian Catholics was attached to the monastery.

There’s also a  recollection that Vartabed Abraham, the religious leader of Armenian Catholics in Arapgir, had converted the barn of his rented house into a Catholic chapel and school. There was another house in Arapgir, acquired by Archbishop Andon Hasounian for 32,000 ghouroush, to turn it into a church, however. Poladian notes, however, that at that time it was still being built. [27].

The monastery, in ancient times, had been a place of pilgrimage where many religious monks lived. A school of literature and teaching also existed there.

Gh. Indjidjian writes that St. Prgich Monastery refers to the district of Agn and calls it St. Yerevoumn or St. Yerevan. He writes that a spring, named Cheopler, bubbled out of the ground below the monastery.

S.Eprigian calls the monastery St. Yerevoumn or St. Prgich, and also believes it was located in the Agn district. [30] The monastery is closer to the district of Agn, however, as we see from the above-mentioned manuscript, the territory of the Arapgir diocese was much more extensive in 1446 and St. Prgich Monastery was included in its jurisdiction, otherwise the words “In the land of Arapger” wouldn’t have been noted in the manuscript. According to S. Eprigian, the monastery was only included in the Arapgir district in recent times, and since it didn’t have any monks or brothers the primates of Agn also, at the same time, served as the monastery’s abbots. [31]

St. Mamas Church

There was a ruined church in Arapgir named St. Mamas. Karekin Srvantsdiants writes that it was destroyed in 1878 and that it was close to the St. Pilbos Apostle Monastery. Drtad Balian considers it to be the Malatia Monastery and Kevork Aslanian notes that Malatia did not have a monastery with that name and says the clergyman may have jumbled the names. [32].

Hamazasb Vartabed Vosgian says that St. Mamas Monastery belonged to the village of Vank, from which the village got its name [33].

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