Saint Yeghishe the Apostle: A monastery to behold

Yeghishe monument

For those of us who live in first world countries, it is hard to deny that life is pretty good.

I mean, while there are certainly things that could be better, disease and illness is at an all-time low, poverty is trending downwards, and the opportunity to build a life that you and your family can be proud of has never been greater.

But this is not what it’s like everywhere.

Unbeknown to most, there are several distinct countries that face death and destruction on a daily basis. Countries full of people who struggle through heinous acts every single day. Countries that have remained unhelped for centuries.

Countries like Armenia.

A small European country sharing its borders with Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, Armenia is known for its beautiful scenery, stoic people, and amazing architecture.

It also happens to be one of the earliest Christian civilisations on the planet, making it home to some of the words most incredible and ancient religious sites and structures.

However, many of these are currently in danger.

Over the last few centuries, Armenia faced several invasions before eventually succumbing to the Soviet Union in the 1900s. Then, after regaining its independence in 1991, it was drawn into a bloody war with Azerbaijan – a country intent on wiping out its religious history completely.

Including the amazing monastery of Yeghishe.

The History of Yeghishe

Yeghishe monument

The monastery of the Holy Apostle Yeghishe is in the Martakert province of Artsakh. It is situated within the north-west of the village of Mataghis and is one of the most ancient Christian monastery complexes on the planet.

Sitting at the peak of one of the spurs of the majestic Mravsky ridge, Yegishe truly is a sight to behold.

Built on the top of a cliff, with one side of the building staring into a steep canyon, and the other three sides surrounded by defensive walls, it is a challenge to enter. 

And when you combine that with the fact that the trail leading up to the monastery is arduous, requiring one to pass through a virgin forest and over tracks comprised of loose rocks and boulders, it should come as no surprise that in ancient times making the trek to the top of the ridge and reaching the monastery was a pilgrimage of its own.

Within the monastery’s walls, you can hear the faint sound of water running.

This comes from the crashing of the small Jrvshtik waterfall, which is a short work from the monastery and that which the building was once named. 

Before Christianity took hold in Armenia, there was an ancient sanctuary in the place now known as Yegishe, called “Nersmira”. This small building was home to locals during times of invasion and threat – a haven for the Armenian people.

Then, after the acceptance of Christianity in the 5th century, the ruler of Artsakh, “Vachagan the Pious”, transferred and buried the relics of Saint Yegishe at Nersmira, building a chapel and a tomb in the process.

It was this that created the name “the monastery of the Holy Apostle Yeghishe”.

Throughout the 12th and 15th centuries, the monastery complex was continuously developed into what we now recognise today. 

In 1244, the church of Statin Apostle Yegishe was built, then, in 1286, a second church was built on the grave of Vachagan the Pious. These two structures quickly became the most well-regarded religious sites in the region.

After the churches, a total of seven individual chapels were erected within the monastery. Each was an arched two-tier structure, with altars of various configurations. And beside the chapels, a refectory and a two-story residential building were built, providing housing to the abbot of the monastery.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the complex remained unaltered, until the year of 1716, when the walls of the monastery were strengthened, and arched gates were built. 

Yegishe became a major educational and spiritual centre of Artsakh. Numerous manuscripts and secular documents were created and stored there, and then, in the 18th century, the monastery became the centre of the national liberation struggle for independence.

Unfortunately, when the soviets took over Armenia in the 1900s, Yegishe was left abandoned. Over time, it feels into disarray and dilapidation – lacking the service and attention of its people.

However, while it does not shine as it once did, the charm and spirit of the complex is ever present, one restoration away from its former glory…

The Threat of Azerbaijan

Yeghishe monument cross

Whilst we would hope that the restoration of Yegishe is not too far away, it is not something that can happen without intervention. In 2020, Azerbaijan attacked Armenia for the second time in their modern history. 

This led to what is now known as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war.

After months of fighting, Armenia was forced into a ceasefire with Azerbaijan, requiring their withdrawal from the Kalbajar region, forcing them to return the surrounding area to Azerbaijan. 

And as you may have guessed, the monastery was included in the territory to come under Azerbaijani control. 

There is now a very real chance that Yegishe will never return to the care of its people and be restored to what it once was. It may be destroyed in its entirety, becoming nothing more than a memory of the Armenian people.

Although Armenia has surprised the world with is strength and stoicism in the face of danger time and time again, this threat may be too much for them to face alone.

To retake the beautiful monastery of Yegishe, they need the help and faith of the world.

Your help, and your faith.

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