26 July 2013, 16:51
1914 |

The Mystery of the Treasure Mountain

In Artsakh, on the top of Mount Gandzasar, which means “Treasure Mountain,” stands one of the most beautiful and mysterious temples in the world. According to the accounts of the thirteenth century historian Movses Kalankatvatsy, the head of Saint John the Baptist is buried at this site. The prior of the monastery, Father Hovaness, supports this claim with stories of miracles performed by the sacred relic.

Gandzasar has been described in many ways – the greatest miracle, the gem of Armenian architecture, a unique and an outstanding work of art, a church similar to a celestial domelike temple. In spite of these accolades, as soon as I saw it from the road through an opening between two hills, I understood how futile are all efforts to capture this majestic sight in words. 
While we waited for Father Hovaness, I entered the church itself. The inscriptions on the walls present the most reliable account of its creation:
«In the name of the Holy Trinity; Father and Son and Holy Spirit, my inscription was ordered to be carved. I, God's servant Djalal Dola Hasan, Vakhtang's son, Great Hasan's grandson, ruler of the high and great Artsakh area, King of Khokhonaberd with large regions. Before his death my father bequeathed to me and my mother Khorishah, daughter of the Great Prince of Princes Sargis, to build a church and cemetery for our fathers in Gandzasar, the construction of which we started in the year 765 of Armenian timekeeping (1216 CE) with the help of the blessings of our Creator and when the eastern wall was built above the window, my mother, renouncing high life, for the third time went to Jerusalem, where wearing a hair shirt she spent many years in a hermit's life near the Resurrection Temple's gate. She passed to her rest in Christ on Easter day... and was buried there. We, remembering the many misfortunes lying in wait for us in life, hurried to complete the building and finished through the mercy and blessings of Merciful God in 1238».
Contemporary historians, including Kirakos Gandzaketsi, speak about the construction and consecration circumstances of the temple with admiration. Gandzaketsi writes that Hasan-Djalalyan, «built a pretty church with a dome, a temple for God's Glory... And called it Gandzasar, which stood in front of Khokhanaberd.» As the historian describes it, there were 700 priests among the people present for the consecration ceremony. The church was sanctified in 1240, on the day of the Festival of Vardavar, on the 22nd of July, which was a Sunday in that year. 
While I gazed upon the flickering candle flames, Father Hovaness’ wife approached me and whispered, “You can ask the God your innermost desires and He will hear you. It has been tested for centuries – this is a special place, miracles happen here.” 
“What kind of miracles?” I asked. 
She answered, “The sickly ask for health and are cured. Young unmarried girls ask for husbands and soon are wed. Whoever doesn’t have children asks for a child; later they bring their newborns to be baptized…” 
She lit more candles and asked, “What about you? What are you asking for?” 
I replied, “I am praying for the safety and health of my four sons. I am asking for peace, so there will be no more war, and no one would experience what I went through… 
Treasure Mountain has its secrets. In 13th century historian Movses Kalankatvatzi’s “The History of Aluank” there is a chapter titled, “The True Head of John the Baptist.” This chapter describes how the holy relic was brought to the province of Artsakh and buried in Holy Gandzasar, where the throne of Aluank is located.” The history goes on to tell us how the priceless relic, capable of both curing and consoling ,was moved from place to place. Kalakantvatsi version of the story of the movement states that the Baptist’s head was transported to Iberia, in possession of the brother of Djalal Dola, who was the ruler of Artsakh. In 1211, Djalal Dola visited his brother and asked him to make him a gift of the sacred head, a gift his brother refused to make. Djalal Dola then took the head through force and brought it to Gandzak, in Artsakh, into his family’s tomb. He buried the relic there and built a magnificent, astonishing church at Katoghike dedicated to Jesus Christ and St. John the Baptist. On the day of sanctification of the church Dola named it after St. John the Baptist.
As a matter of fact, some historical sources of the ninth and tenth centuries (for example Anania Mokatsi, 946 – 968) and the two remaining khachkars (stone crosses with the intricate carvings) nearby, dated 1174 and 1182, show evidence that even before the year 1240 not only was Gandzasar a place of political and religious gatherings, but that there was an previous church at the same holy site.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Father Hovaness. The man before me, who wore the humble black frock of a priest had taken up arms in the form of an automatic machine gun during the recent war. In spite of his religious beliefs, he fought while defending the temple when Gandzasar was surrounded by the enemy. There was a catastrophic shortage of manpower among the defenders of the church and the enemies forces were closing in. A small group of forty soldiers defended the tiny piece of land on the top of a hill with the sacred house of their God. However, no one among them began to think of asking the priest for help in an actual firefight. The priest, the soldiers believed, was already doing everything he could -- he was praying to God. One day he remained on his knees praying longer than usual. When he stood up, he took off his frock, folded it, and placed it with reverence on the altar. He then took the automatic gun and left with the soldiers. He returned only when Gandzasar was out of danger. I can clearly imagine Father Hovaness at the altar praying. Who knows what words he found for God before putting on his holy garment once more.
We entered the vestibule (built in 1266) adjacent to the church. The holy Father pointed to Djalal Dola’s tombstone. I tried in vain to make my way by the tomb without stepping on it, but it seemed impossible.
“Isn’t it a blasphemy to step on it?” I wondered aloud.
“It was his desire that all who came to pray to this church stepped on his gravestone as retribution for his sins,” replied the priest.
“Was it a sin to take away forcibly the head of John the Baptist from his brother?” I asked.
He stated, “Whoever had the holy relic of St. John’s head in their possession was visited by him in their dreams. The Saint even pointed out its location to some pilgrims. In this way, he came to Djalal as well and ordered to bury it here and to build this church.”
“What happened to Djalal afterwards?” I asked.
He concluded, “He was captured by his enemies. They tried to convert him to Islam, but he was faithful to his religion. They killed him and cut his remains into pieces. Learning about his father’s death, his son Atabek, found his remains and buried them.”
By the end of the seventeenth century, with support and assistance of Catholikos Yesai, Gandzasar became a center of the Armenian national liberation movement. Israel Ori, the leader of the Armenian national liberation movement, took the first steps by opening negotiations with Russia. As a result of a consolidated effort of the Hasan-Djalalians (particularly of prince-catholikos Yesai) during the traditional Council of the Armenian Princes in Gandzasar in 1714, a military and political pact was sealed between the five principalities, or melikdoms, of Artsakh. They also corresponded with the royal houses of Europe and Russia seeking political support in their liberation struggle against Persia, to whom they referred as, “the barbarians threatening from the East.” As a result of these efforts, in 1813 Artsakh and other eastern Armenian provinces became a part of the Russian Empire.
Stepping on the tombstone of Djalal Dola, we entered the church. Father Hovaness pointed to two strange, worn drawings on either side of the altar.
“Look,” he said, “on your right is a standing angel, and on your left – a sitting angel.”
“I see them, “ I replied, “ What is their story?”
He continued, “No one drew them. They appeared by themselves. Every day the drawings become clearer. Some time ago the second foot of this angel was hardly visible, and now – it can be seen quite clearly.”
I looked around the church. There was a high-flying archer inside the central domelike construction with the two-story sacristies on four corners, the upper sacristies leading to cantilevered stairs, the high ceilings decorated with stalactites… one can’t enter this church a nonbeliever and exit remaining an atheist.
There is a tall stone in the churchyard. The inscription says “Nerses Hasan-Djalalian, Doctor of Medicine of the University of Berlin, 1886-1911.” This young man was a descendant of Djalal Dola. Father Hovaness told us that Nerses lived in Berlin when he learned about the epidemics raging in his homeland. He bought medications and came to cure the sick. When he had himself fallen ill, there were no more medications left. And he died. Strangely, death does not frighten in this holy place. It is no small coincidence that the Armenian word for cemetery translates literally as “rest.”
It is hard to imagine that until recently this had been a war zone. Tons of metal ammunition fell on Gandzasar; missiles and bombs exploded all around while the temple remained standing. After the war, people who witnessed the attacks spoke in tones of disbelief about the many hundreds of missiles which flew toward the temple, only to change their direction in midflight and fall to the canyon below.
“Is it true that not even one reached the Church?” I asked Father Hovaness.
“Actually,” he began, “one reached not the church itself, but the outside stone wall of the monastery. Yet it did not explode. I can show you that place, if you want.”
True to his description, the unexploded missile still sticks out from the ancient stone wall of the churchyard. People didn’t remove it, preferring to keep it as a relic, a memory of those sad days.
I asked, “Isn’t it dangerous? What if it suddenly explodes?”
“If it didn’t happen then, there is no need to worry about it now,” he said.
“But really, what happened to those missiles?” I asked,
He declared, “We were defending Gandzasar, and it was protecting us. Just think about it; there were only forty of us against four hundred, plus the constant air attacks. And we didn’t lose a single soldier. Moreover, we didn’t have anyone who was seriously injured. Praise be to God. It was St. John the Baptist who protected his house and its defenders.”
I entered the church again before departing. In the vestibule I confidently stepped on the tombstone of Djalal Dola, because it is truly something very great – to become the stepping stone leading to the Temple of God.

Yerevan Magazine, Summer, N1, 2008

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