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Erzindjan/Erzincan/Yerzenga - Churches and Monasteries

Author: Robert Tatoyan

 The Yerzenga Diocese and its Leadership

Yerzenga was the administrative center of the Yegeghyats District, located in the Upper Hayk Province of historical Greater Hayk. The city is mentioned in medieval Armenian texts as Yerez, Yeriza, and Yerazavan. It was one of the religious centers of Armenia, first pagan, later Christian [1].

Yerzenga was home to the main temple of one of the principal deities of the Armenian pagan pantheon, Anahit [2]. The temple housed a golden statue of the goddess (for this reason, Anahit was often referred to as Vosgemayr [mother of gold], Vosgedzin [born of gold], and Vosgehad [sliver of gold]) [3]. The city and the temple of Anahit were particularly crowded on the days of Navasard (the first half of August), when thousands of pilgrims converged on the area to celebrate the beginning of the Armenian new year [4].

The neighboring town of Til was also famed for its temple of Nane, daughter of Aramazd and the Armenian goddess of wisdom and war [5].

According to legend, Saint Krikor/Gregory the Illuminator (Lousavorich) confessed to being Christian to King Drtad (Tiridates III) in the temple of Anahit in Yerzenga, during the offering of sacrifices to the goddess. The confession was followed by the confrontation between the two men (in later years, the Charcharanats (Bearer of Sufferings) Saint Illuminator Monastery was built at the site where the saint was tortured on the king’s orders) [6].

After the adoption of Christianity by Armenia as the state religion, Yeriza and the province of Yegeghyats were gifted as a fiefdom to Gregory the Illuminator’s family. Til became one of the seats of the Armenian catholicoses, and a cathedral was built there, alongside a mausoleum for the catholicoses of the house of Gregory the Illuminator. Among those buried in Til were catholicoses Arisdages I (served from 325-333) and Nerses the Great (served from 353-373), after whom the Choukhdag-Hairabed [Twin Abbots] Monastery, also in Yerzenga, was later named. The cathedral of Til was destroyed in in the seventh century, during the Arab invasions. The site of Nerses the Great’s grave was forgotten until 1275, when it was rediscovered thanks to a vision. His remains were brought to the main cathedral of Yerzenga with great ceremony, and some of the relics were kept at the Dirashen Saint Nerses Monastery near the village of Ki near the city (on the eve of the Genocide, Ki was Turkish-populated) [7].

The archbishopric of the Yegeghyats district was founded by Gregory the Illuminator, who also appointed one Archbishop Movses, who had once been a pagan priest, as the archbishopric’s first prelate [8]. After the creation of the Armenian alphabet, between 420 and 430, Mesrop Mashdots opened many schools in the district, which was under Byzantine rule at the time. Tanan Yegeghetsatsi was appointed as the overseer of these schools [9].

The ecclesiastic life of the Yerzenga area experienced a period of growth between the 13th and 15th centuries, mostly thanks to the fac that the city became an important center of trade after the Mongol conquest of the area. The works of Hovhannes Blouz of Yerzenga (1220-1293 CE), a celebrated religious figure and the “pride of Yerzenga” [10], are testament to progress the area had made. He was part of the Armenian renaissance and a polymath, and contributed to Armenian philosophy, theology, astronomy, biology, interpretive literature, semiology, art criticism, aesthetics, pedagogy, music, and prose [11]. Among the other intellectual figures of Yerzenga between the 8th and the 15th centuries were pedagogist Movses Khradakir Yerzngatsi (1250-1323) [12], Bishop Sarkis (listed as a participant in the ecclesiastic summit that was held in the city of Sis in Cilicia in 1307) [13], Kevork Yerzngatsi (1350s-1416) [14], and others.

Avedik Yetvogatsi (Patriarch of Constantinople from 1702 to 1706), who served as the abbot of the Saint Hagop Monastery of Yerzenga in the 1680s, was one of the area’s most notable figures of the era. It was thanks to his efforts that the Saint Hagop Monastery was completely renovated, in addition to the Diranashen Saint Nshan Monastery, the Saint Mariam the Madonna Church in the city of Yerzenga, as well as many other churches and monasteries throughout the Yerzenga Diocese [15].

Another important ecclesiastic figure from Yerzenga was Mardiros Kulhandji Yerzngatsi, who even served as the Patriarch of Constantinople for a short span in 1706 [16].

A list of Armenian bishoprics and archbishoprics compiled around 1670 lists the Archbishopric of Yerzenga or the Archbishopric of the Saint Gregory the Illuminator Monastery as being under the jurisdiction of the Echmiadzin Catholicosate [17]. In the 1600s, the Catholicosate of Sis also appointed bishops who served in the Yerzenga Diocese [18].

In the 17th and 18th centuries, alongside other dioceses of Ottoman Armenia, the Yerzenga Diocese was gradually absorbed into the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Catholicosate. In one record from 1780, the “Erzingyan” Diocese is listed among 20 dioceses under its jurisdiction [19].

Throughout the 19th century, the borders of the Yerzenga Diocese were continually adjusted, in alignment with changes to the borders of Ottoman administrative divisions. Neighboring areas were alternately appended to and detached from the diocese. To wit, the Yerzenga Diocese absorbed, as sub-prelacies, in 1858 and for some time in 1870, the Papert Diocese (creating the Yerzenga-Papert Joint Diocese); in 1861 and again in 1880, the Terchan Diocese (creating the Yerzenga-Terchan Joint Diocese); and in 1863-1868, the Kghi Diocese (creating the Yerzenga-Kghi Joint Diocese) [20].

In the early 1880s, the Yerzenga Diocese, as an archbishopric, included the districts of Erzindjan, Rafahieh, and Ghouzichan of the Erzindjan Province [21].

In 1884, the Yerzenga Diocese absorbed, as a sub-prelacy, the monastic diocese of Gamakh (the historic province of Taranag, which included the districts of Gamakh and Ghourouchai). In 1906, this area was finally merged into the Yerzenga Diocese under the jurisdiction of a single prelate [22].

The Yerzenga Diocese was led by the following prelates, serving from the mid-19th century to 1915:

  1. Father Krikoris Alteadjian (served from 1870 to 1874 as Prelate of the Yerzenga-Papert Joint Diocese, and then from 1874 to 1877 as Prelate of the Yerzenga Diocese [23]).
  2. Father Hmayag Timaksian (ordained as an archbishop in the 1880s; served as prelate from 1878 to 1886).
  3. Father Partoghomeos Baghdjian (served from 1887 to 1889).
  4. Father Vartan Zakarian, as an interim prelate (served from 1890 to 1895).
  5. Father Housig Esmerian, as an interim prelate (served from 1895 to an unknown year) [24].
  6. Father Taniel Hagopian [25] (served from 1897 to 1904).
  7. Father Ardavazt Kalenderian (served from 1905 to 1906).
  8. Father Emmanuel Balian (served from 1906 to 1908).
  9. Senior Priest Father Yervant Perdahdjian (served from 1909 to 1914).
  10. Senior Priest Father Sahag Odabashian (appointed in 1914).

Among the prelates of Yerzenga, Hmayag Timaksian made the greatest impression on the history of the diocese. His contemporaries described him as a serious, capable, and conscientious clergyman. He also had a mastery of the Turkish language and knowledge of Ottoman laws, which allowed him to enjoy a good relationship with the local Ottoman authorities. This helped him solve many of the community’s problems [26]. It was reported that Timaksian even acted as an intermediary between the Turkish authorities and the local Kurdish chieftains, helping them resolve their differences [27].

Timaksian made Yerzenga’s churches and schools the objects of his special care and attention. He viewed them as the main vehicles for the enlightenment, edification, and for the local Armenian population. The community’s educational institutions were renovated during his tenure, and a boarding school was founded at the Abbot Saint Nerses Monastery. A new building was built to house the prelacy, and the city’s graveyard was renovated. With his encouragement, a group of youth founded the city’s first theater company [28].

In response to the unanimous desire of the people of Erzindjan, and with the blessing of the Patriarchate, Timaksian traveled to Etchmiadzin in 1880, where he was ordained as a bishop by Catholicos Kevork II on June 26 [29]. As a result, Erzindjan became the seat of a bishopric, and the stature and influence of its prelacy rose accordingly. It was highly desirable to have a prelate with the rank of bishop, as this rank was required for the right to ordain priests. As a result, during Timaksian’s term, clergymen who were ordained as priests no longer needed to make the long and costly journey to another one of the region’s bishoprics [30].

Timaksian’s term ended unexpectedly in 1886, as a result of a dispute between him and some other prominent Armenians from Erzindjan. “The people of Erzindjan still had a great need for him, but a few local Armenian notables, motivated by egotism and blinded by zeal, began creating difficulties for him. The Prelate, with his wise and circumspect temperament, was capable of stymieing these efforts in their infancy, but in order not to sacrifice his own credibility, he resigned voluntarily, and left Erzindjan covered in honor and glory,” attests one account [31].

It is important to note here that as a rule, the prelates of Erzindjan did not serve long terms. They would either commit transgressions, or would butt heads with local notables, who would force them to tender their resignations. When a new prelate was elevated to this position, it was even customary to warn him, tongue-in-cheek, to “keep in mind that we were the ones who tortured Gregory the Illuminator” [32].

Another prelate who left his mark on the history of Armenians in Erzindjan was Father Taniel Hagopian, who was described as “quite active, serious and stern, pensive, a good preacher, and a clergyman of unimpeachable virtue” [33]. One of this prelate’s initiatives was the temporary merger of the city’s parochial Armenians schools.

The short tenure of Father Emmanuel Balian, described as “an intrepid clergyman of revolutionary temperament,” was also memorable. During his term, in 1906, a pilgrimage was organized for Erzindjan Armenians to the Gregory the Illuminator Monastery. In terms of the number of participants, and the inclusion of pilgrims from the various villages of the district, this pilgrimage was the first of its kind, and was a memorable event in the life of the community. Among Father Emmanuel’s other notable initiatives was the construction of a public bathhouse for use by Erzindjan Armenians. Thanks to his efforts, plans to build a barracks for Ottoman troops in the middle of the Armenian neighborhood of the city, the church square, were canceled [34].

Father Emmanual Balian was succeeded by Father Yervant Perdahdjian, who was the last prelate officially vested with the office. He was described as a refined and educated clergyman. The people greatly enjoyed listening to his edifying sermons. At the same time, it is noted that given the state of affairs that he faced, he did not display the requisite energy and assiduity in matters that were of interest to the community, and was not remembered for any special achievements (after the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, a wide arena of action was open to him) [35].

Prior to the Armenian Genocide, Father Sahag Odabashian was appointed as prelate of the Yerzenga Diocese, but he was unable to assume office. On December 31, 1914 (or January 12, 1915 of the new calendar), he was killed on his journey from Sivas to Erzindjan, by a band of brigands formed on orders from the governor of Sivas Province, Mouammer [36].

From the days preceding Father Sahag’s murder until the deportation and massacre of the Armenian population of Erzindjan during the Armenian Genocide, the Yerzenga Prelacy was managed by Father Melkiset Hovivian, Prelate of the Kemakh Diocese. The prelate shared the fate of most of his flock, dying in 1915 [37].

Erzindjan’s Armenian Protestant (Evangelical) Community

The number of Protestant Armenians in Erzindjan, according to different sources, was 20 households (in the 1880s) [38], 40-45 households (in the 1910s, according to K. Surmenian) [39], approximately 150 individuals (according to the Ottoman authorities’ official figures) [40], or even as high as 500 individuals (in 1910, according to Ormanian) [41]. Almost all of them lived in the city of Erzindjan, and almost none were natives of the city. Instead, they had moved from other areas of Erzindjan Province, from Erzurum, and from neighboring areas of Sebastia (Sivas) and Kharpert provinces [42].

At first, the Protestants of Erzindjan convened in a private residence in the western section of the city, and later (in the 1900s), in a two-story house near the church square, which was described as “quite appropriate and tasteful” [43]. The upper floor of the building was used as a meeting hall, and below it was a boys’ elementary school. The meeting hall and school were supervised by a preacher-teacher invited from the outside, half of whose salary was paid by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the other half by the local Protestant community [44].

On the eve of the Genocide, the local Protestant pastor was the Very Reverend Hagop Israelian, who was born in the village of Vezir Keoprou in the Amasia District of the Sebastia (Sivas) Province (he was killed during the Armenian Genocide) [45]. Among the other clergymen who served the Protestant community of Erzindjan were the reverends Haroutyun Yazedjian and H. K. Donatosian [46].

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