A small country with Turkey to its west, Georgia to its north, and Azerbaijan to its east, Armenia is a country that boasts a rich history that spans centuries – however, Armenian history is facing a form of genocide.
Armenia is one of the earliest Christian civilizations on the planet. The first Armenian churches were established sometime around 400 AD. This was soon followed by the creation of some of the most beautiful religious sites in the world.
But after achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, this amazing country quickly became drawn into a bloody civil war with Azerbaijan over territory that sits across both borders.
And these historical sites are now at risk.
What is the Amaras Monastery?
In short, Amaras is a monastery – but that description does not begin to scratch the surface.
Upon entry to the Amaras monastery, you encounter a polished compound of pure white stone. Cut precisely, the entire compound must be seen to be believed – with its construction better than many sites built today.
Then center to the compound is one of the most recognizable Armenian monuments in the world, being the Amaras church.
A modest construction with a small lantern on top, it stands in the center of a rectangular yard enclosed by unbelievably impressive walls. These walls are marked with cylindrical turrets that sit resolutely on each corner of the fortification, watching over the site with intent.
The near perfect condition of the Amaras monastery is something that many take for granted – making it hard to believe that Amaras is one of the oldest sites in Armenia.
And incredibly, there are even older structures hidden underground.
The History of a Fourth-Century Foundation
The monastery known as Amaras has humble beginnings.
The site was first founded by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. A powerful leader who actively converted the Armenian nation to Christianity in 301 AD. This influential figure remains the patron saint of Armenia to this day.
Hoping to spread Christianity to the neighboring regions to the east, Saint Gregory founded a church on the site of present-day Amaras. And although little remains of this initial structure, there is a piece of history that stands doggedly within the compound – being the tomb of Saint Gregory’s grandson, Saint. Grigoris, who was martyred in 348 AD.
Over 100 years after his death, an underground mausoleum was built by King Vatchagan in 489 AD to celebrate the life of Saint Grigoris, and the incredible impact he had upon the Armenian empire at that time.
This structure is in the crypt, beneath the altar of the present-day church, and on the site where Saint Grigoris was originally buried.
Visiting the Amaras is a unique experience. Every step around the monastery provides wonder, before you are taken aback by the realization that there is so much more to see.
After descending to the lower level, you enter a small stone room with a low vaulted ceiling, bare except for a single rectangular sarcophagus that sits upon a low platform in the center of the space. The sarcophagus is monochrome in color, but intricately carved. As you walk closer, you can see it is decorated with ornamented crosses and inscriptions on both sides – done with amazingly intricate craftmanship.
Then on the lid is a relief image of a bishop’s hat, a visual tribute to Saint Grigoris’s ecclesiastical rank.
This modest crypt appears almost like a private chapel. You are quick struck by the aura of the ancient remains that were peacefully laid to rest thousands of years before you entered. So rarely are Christian martyrs housed in the same place for nearly two thousand years, on the same site where walked in life, it is an aura that cannot be overstated.
The mausoleum at Amaras is not only a testament to St. Grigoris, but also to his life’s work at the fourth-century church of Amaras.
A New Look in the Nineteenth Century
In the centuries that followed, Amaras was sacked again and again by the Abbasids, Mongols, and Timurids. The monastery was rebuilt following each attack, but to no avail. After repeated attacks, it became overtaken and plundered in its entirety.
It stayed this way for hundreds of years, until the early nineteenth century, Russian imperial authorities fortified the monastery. Then, in 1855, the main church of Saint Grigoris was resurrected in full.
The reconstructed church is a simple rectangular building with three interior divisions, an architectural type known as a three-aisled basilica. Importantly, it is believed that the 1855 reconstruction closely replicates the initial structure, as it is based upon architectural forms known from other early Christian monuments in Armenia.
The choice of locally sourced white sandstone was both practical and aesthetic. The consistent off-white color and smooth texture of the sandstone often likens the monastery to Neoclassical constructions popular in Russia and across Europe in the nineteenth century.
Entering the compound today, Amaras strikes you as surprisingly modern, with an almost minimalist sensibility in its light, monochrome appearance.
A Promise of Perseverance: Amaras Today
One of the compelling aspects of Amaras is the improbable perseverance of the monastery and its defenders throughout history. Not only has the site survived for over 1600 years, the monastic community has fought a nearly constant battle for survival – for centuries and into modern day.
After the sacks and plundering of various medieval armies, Amaras rebuilt and continued to serve its local Christian community, as well as honor its saint in residence, Saint Grigoris, without fail, and never wavering.
While the USSR forced Amaras to shut down in the twentieth century, the spirit of the monastery prevailed. After being fully reconsecrated in 1988, it again functioned as a monastery for the local community. The Nagorno-Karabakh war of the early 1990s damaged the monastery once again, but as history could have predicted, Amaras rebuilt once more.
Now, with Amaras again in jeopardy as it enters the care of the Republic of Azerbaijan, we hope it will continue surprise us with its resilience, and that its historical preservation continues. Many Armenian cultural monuments are at risk of destruction, and its religious sects at risk of genocide.
To survive and rebuild once more, it needs the help and faith of those around the world.
Your help, and your faith.