A voice of one crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. This is how the Gospels, quoting the Book of Isiah, describes St. John the Baptist, also known as St. John the Forerunner, in Armenian կարապետ, Garabed/Karapet. Preparing and pointing to Jesus Christ, the source of salvation and all life, St. John the Baptist helps us ready ourselves for the source of all. For this reason, Ս․ Կարապետ is one of the most revered saints in Christendom and has held a special place in the lives of Armenian Christians. This is abundantly apparent in the singular devotion given to two different monasteries dedicated to St. John the Baptist, named Սուրբ Կարապետ. One Surp Garabed was in the region of Mush, and the other near Gesaria, modern Kayseri. According to Malachia Ormanian, the great church historian and Patriarch of Istanbul, in the late nineteenth century, “the most celebrated places of national pilgrimage are the holy cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the cathedrals of Soorp Karapet (St. John the Forerunner) at Moosh and at Caesarea, and the sanctuary of Charkhaphan (Our Lady of the Reservatrix) at Armash, near the town of Izmit.” Illustrious company indeed!
Previously, we have emphasized the importance of monasteries and monasticism as a source of inspiration and theological knowledge for Armenian Christians. Today, in celebration of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s commemoration of the “Birth of St. John the Forerunner” on Monday, we will spend some time with these two specific sources of inspiration and learning, Surp Garabed in Mush and in Caesarea. We begin with Surp Garabed of Mush, the more celebrated of the two monasteries, one of the most important in Anatolia at the time of the Genocide.
As with many churches and monasteries of Armenia, the origins of Surp Garabed in Mush are shrouded in mist. The monastery is mentioned in several medieval Armenian sources, but their descriptions of its foundation do not align. Traditionally, the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner was established by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who deposited relics of the body of St. John the Baptist at the site of the monastery whose foundations he himself laid. Establishing it as one of the oldest monasteries in the Armenian Christian world, this traditional attribution to St. Gregory occurs in only one source (and then some subsequent sources who are citing directly from it), a text that is known as The History of Taron, Taron/Daron being another name for the region of Mush. Incredibly popular, there are over fifty extant copies of the manuscript of this book, more than most other Armenian histories. It claims to be a compilation of at least two authors, the first Zenob of Glak, a Syrian Christian appointed by St. Gregory as the first abbot of the monastery and “bishop of the Mamikoneans” and a later, seventh century abbot and “thirty-fifth” bishop of the Mamikonean. Yet textual and historical evidence suggests that it was actually written later, in the tenth century, during a period when the region of Taron was not in the hands of any one Armenian noble house. Though called The History of Taron, the book is at its core a history of the Monastery of Surp Garabed, sometimes called Glakavank after its first abbot, or Innaknean, “on account of its sweet tasting springs,” according to a thirteenth century author. As Levon Avdoyan points out, this makes The History of Taron unique among Armenian histories as a history of an institution—yet another piece of evidence for the prominence of Surp Garabed as a source of learning!
Avdoyan suggests that the book was written to establish or boost the prestige of the monastery and appeal to multiple Armenian noble families to fund the institution. Perhaps the monastery was newly founded in the tenth century, or perhaps it was a smaller church which was in the middle of growth and revival. Ultimately, however, the author of The History of Taron was successful: Surp Garabed of Mush became a rich, storied, central monastery and source of inspiration for Armenian Christians. Glakavank was so popular that a regional folk song talks of making the pilgrimage there. During the nineteenth century, the beloved churchman and eventually Catholicos, Khrimian Hayrig, served for a time as the abbot of the monastery, which, during that era meant that he was also the Bishop of Taron. From Surp Garabed, he published the journal Artsvi Tarono, “The Eagle of Taron,” the successor to Artsvi Vaspurakan, which he published from Varakavank near Van. Up until the Genocide, as Ormanian notes, it remained one of the most important pilgrimage sites in all of Armenian Christendom, a major source of inspiration!
|The History of Taron||A popular but problematic medieval Armenian history largely about the Monastery of Surp Garabed in Mush, the only Armenian history focusing on an institution.|
|Aristakēs Lastivertcʿi’s History||An eleventh century history detailing the travails of the period of Seljuk invasions and the fall of the Bagratuni Armenian Kingdom centered at Ani, Lastivertci’s history mentions the destruction of the monastery of Surp Garabed Mush.|
|Tiezerakan patmutʿyun||A “Universal History” written in the eleventh century by Stepanos of Taron, also known as Asoghik. The history is more ambitious than The History of Taron but does detail some events in the region of Mush around the monastery. In Armenian.|
While the monastery of Surp Garabed in Caesarea might not have had folk songs written about it, Ormanian makes it clear that the Surp Garabed nested in the hills not far from the important city of Kayseri was also a major pilgrimage site. Bishop Drtad Balian, the late nineteenth century Bishop of Kayseri and abbot of Surp Garabed (so perhaps slightly biased) describes the monastery as about a three hour walk from the city, in the “mountainous plains” south of the town of Efkere, a “renowned monastery” with clean and healthy air and incredible views. It was so large that the local Turkish population knew it as the Big Monastery of Efkere. As Balian notes, “the real and precise foundation of the monastery remains completely unknown.” This does not stop him from reproducing a foundation story reminiscent of our other Surp Garabed. Balian tells us that the monastery was there in the time of St. Leontius of Caesarea, housing the relics of St. John the Forerunner, which were gifted to St. Gregory the Illuminator during his visit to Kayseri to be ordained by St. Leontius. Other traditions have connected the foundation of the monastery to St. Thaddeus.
Like Surp Garabed Mush, however, these origin stories extend further than historical accuracy allows. The first actual mention of the monastery is in a colophon (a written statement at the end of a manuscript by the scribe who copied the book, often with historical information) from a Gospel Book copied in 1206. Whatever the origin story, the Monastery of Surp Garabed outside Caesarea, like its counterpart in Mush, achieved considerable renown over the years. One of its chapels, named for the Holy Archangels was covered with the famed Kutahya tiles. There were khatchkars and other carved epigraphs all around the ancient monastery. In 1888, under the direction of the Prelate, Drtad Balian, a school was opened, called Zharangavorats Varzharan. Before the Genocide, the library housed over 2000 printed books and over 200 manuscripts.
Ultimately, it was the presence of the relics of St. John the Forerunner that made the monastery such an important pilgrimage site. Father Garabed Kalfayan, whose name is connected to the “renowned” monastery, was a native of the village of Chomaklou in the Kayseri region who served for many years as the pastor of St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Yettem, California. He recalls in his writings a formative trip to the monastery for a pilgrimage: “And it was an unforgettable morning when with my mother, we joined the caravan of those going on pilgrimage from our village,” ascending the hill atop which the monastery sat by donkey, approaching the magnificent doors of the monastery on bended knee. Continuing his description, he tells us that “from every corner of the world, Armenians gathered there, under the shade of the Sosyatz Forest—they were singing, dancing, and rejoicing.” With its relics of St. John the Baptist, its manuscript collection and library, and its school, the Monastery of Surp Garabed near Gesaria, like its counterpart in Mush, remained a pilgrimage site and vibrant source of inspiration and education right until the Genocide of 1915.
|Hay vanoraykʿ||By Bishop Drtad Balian, prelate of the Diocese of Gesaria and abbot of the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner near Kayseri, the book is a detailed description of monasteries throughout historic Armenia written in the years just preceding the Genocide. In Armenian.|
|Chomaklou: The History of an Armenian Village||One of several books by Archpriest Garabed Kalfayan, the priest of St. Mary Yettem, CA, who was a native of the region of Caesarea and who visited the Monastery of Surp Garabed.|
|Tsʻutsʻak hayerēn tsʻeṛagrats Vanutsʻ S. Karapeti ew S. Daniēli i Kesaria||Compiled by Bishop Drtad Balian, this is a list of the manuscripts in the collection of Surp Garabed of Gesaria and the nearby monastery of St. Daniel. In Armenian. At the Library of Congress.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter for pictures of the Monastery of Surp Garabed Mush in its current state taken by the Director on a recent trip to Turkey.