Unseen Armenia: Varagavank, Nor Varagavank

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.

Varagavank, with staff and students, Western Armenia, pre-1915

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.

Entrance to Varagavank ruins, 2016 (Photo: Hovsep Daghdigian)

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.

Inside one of the remaining Varagavank churches, believed to be Church of Holy Cross, 2016 (Photo: Hovsep Daghdigian)

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.

Procession to Nor Varagavank, Varaga Surb Khach Or, 2016 (Photo: Hovsep Daghdigian)

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.

Varaga Surb Khach Or, celebration of Holy Cross of Varag Day, Nor Varagavank, 2016 (Photo: Hovsep Daghdigian)

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.

Grandfather and grandson, vineyard, Varagavan village, Tavush province (Photo: Hovsep Daghdigian)


*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.


Hovsep Daghdigian

Hovsep Daghdigian

Joseph “Hovsep” Daghdigian is originally from Lowell, MA. His grandparents were from Kharpet in Western Armenia. He is active in the Merrimack Valley community and a former chairman of the AYF CE. Dagdigian is a retired electrical and software engineer with a MS in computer engineering. Dagdigian spends three to five months per year in Armenia and Artsakh exploring sites with his friend Vova Tshagharyan. His adventures are described in his “Unseen Armenia” series of articles. He, with Anahid Yeremian, co-founded the Support Committee for Armenia’s Cosmic Ray Division (SCACRD) in 2000 to support the scientists and students at the Cosmic Ray Division of the Yerevan Physics Institute (now the A. Alikhanyan National Laboratory). He lives in Harvard, MA with his wife Lisa.


  1. Varaka Vank

    In the 1980´s I visited Varaka Vank several times partly with an Armenian friend, partly with my family. We got to know a Kurdish villager who told us that there is another Armenian Church some hundred Meters up the mountain behind the village.
    As the Kurd proposed to lead us up to that church we happily agreed. Walking up there was strenuous and lasted nearly two hours. When we got there I was pretty sure that this ruin was a place of worship of prechristian times, though there were two crosses cut in a stone over the entrance. The church ruin was about two Meters high and filled with soil. There was no roof and the stones were unlike normal Armenian churches not cut. I shot some pictures and later we returned.

    Two years later I returned and the Kurd again brought me to this church. Before we got there he told me that some time before several Turkish archaeologists were there and dug inside the church. Besides some little Khachkars with Armenian inscriptions which the archaeologists threw away, they also left a stone with a Cuneiform inscription of only two words and a part of a statue that could have been part of the dress of the statue. I again made some photos and took one of the little Khachkars with me. So for me it was sure that this church was most probably the ruin of a former Urartian temple which the Armenians turned into a church later.
    This is very interesting as we know that Krikor Lussavoritch always ordered to destroy old temples and build a church on the same place. Till now the only temple he didn´t order to destroy was the temple of Garni. This temple only survived, because some of Krikors relatives used it.

  2. WR, about a two to two and a half hours hike further up the mountain is Upper Varagavank. This was where the relic was discovered by Todic. There was a pilgrimage route linking Surp Grigor Vank (on the other side of Varag mountain) with Upper Varagavank and Varagavank. There are 19thC photos showing the ruins (Upper Varagavank has been abandoned for centuries) and some pilgrims. There was a rather inaccurate survey of Upper Varagavank done in the 1970s by German researchers. I have been there about 10 times and have never seen anything Urartian there – I think you might be misinterpreting what you saw. The design of its two main churches appear to copy those at lower Varagavank. Those “archaeologists” your Kurd told you about were probably just treasure hunters, and he was probably one of them, and his story just an excuse to account for the damage. I would very much like to see your photos of the site in the 1980s – I was there first in the late 1990s and by then there was no church doorway with crosses above it. Only the lower sides of the doorway survived and even that had been completely destroyed by the late 2000s.

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