Holy Cross of Varag Day
In third century A.D. on Varag Mountain, on the south shore of Lake Van in Western Armenia, Saint Hripsime and her maidens were fleeing the persecution of Christians by the Byzantine Empire. There they hid a piece of the Holy Cross from the pursuing soldiers. Later, in 650 AD, the fragment of the cross was found by the Armenian hermit Todik. To commemorate this event Catholicos Nerses proclaimed the nearest Sunday to Sept. 20 to be the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varag.
In 981 a church was built on this holy site by the Artsruni rulers of Vaspurakan (Van region) and ultimately a monastery, Varagavank, was established there in the ninth century. Varagavank housed the holy relic of the cross. Periodically the monastery was destroyed by invaders and subsequently rebuilt, often thanks to the devotion of wealthy Armenians. Unruly Kurdish tribes on occasion would steal the treasures of Varagavank, including the fragment of the holy cross, and ransom them back to the Armenians. The relic of the cross was periodically moved for safety. For a period, it was housed at the Surb Khatch (Holy Cross) church on Akhtamar Island on Lake Van.
In the 13th century, in the northern part of the territory of what now constitutes the Republic of Armenia, King David Kyurikian of the Tashir-Dzoraget district established a monastic complex. When Varagavank was threatened by invading Mongols in 1237, Varagavank’s Father Ghukas rescued the relic of the cross and other treasures, bringing them to the monastic complex established by the Kyurikians. Thus the monastic complex was subsequently renamed Nor Varagavank (“New Varagavank”) and the nearby village was renamed Varagavan.
Varagavank played an important role in Armenian history. In the late 1800s Khrimian Hairig (1820-1907), one of Armenia’s most honored clerics, became the rector of Varagavank. Here he published a newspaper, Artziv Vaspurakan (Eagle of Vaspurakan), established a school and seminary, and advocated education for women. Khrimian Hairig led the Armenian delegation to the Congress of Berlin peace conference in 1878 where he attempted to champion Armenian rights. He lamented that, unlike the powerful European nations, the Armenian delegation did not have at its side Armenian officers with bloody swords hanging from their belts. He deplored Armenia’s weakness. In 1892 he was elected Catholicos.
In 1915, during the Armenian Genocide, Varagavank was nearly completely destroyed with only shells of a few of the buildings remaining. The late Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian worked with the local Muslim cleric to ensure that what remains of Varagavank would not be destroyed.
Every year, on the day before Holy Cross of Varaga Day, the relic of the cross is brought from Echmiadzin, its current home, to Nor Varagavank*. That evening clerics post an all-night vigil. The following day a procession, lead by the relic of the cross, proceeds up the small hill to Nor Varagavank where Holy Cross of Varaga Day is celebrated.
As we were leaving Varagavan, there appeared a distant view of the monastery from a vineyard at the edge of the village. I walked into the vineyard to take a photograph. The sweet aroma from fresh, ripening grapes was intense. The family which owned the vineyard, having finished their lunch break, were back picking grapes. I was invited to some of the remaining food, with a couple of glasses of very strong oghi. After thanking the family for their hospitality, I was handed a large bag of grapes. I sent grandfather of the family some photographs I took of him with his grandson, the women of the family having declined to be photographed.
*Thanks to the financial support of Mr. Norayr Khachatryan, the owner of the Ideal System chain of stores in Armenia, the partial renovation of Nor Varagavank was accomplished during the past 5-6 years.