Lake Gokcha and the Black Monastery

The Black Monastery sits on a peninsula at the northeast end of Lake Sevan in Armenia. Up and down the lakeshore, remains of ancient towns encrust the landscape. Fifteen miles to the southeast, 900 cross-stones — the largest number of khatchkars in the country — rise out of the harsh soil at the Noratus cemetery.

Brady Kiesling describes the region and the monastery in Rediscovering Armenia: An Archaeological/Touristic Gazetteer and Map Set for the Historical Monuments of Armenia.

The Sevan basin is windswept, treeless and austere, but with stunning skies, an ever-changing lake surface, and a rich history.  All around the lake are the tumbled stone remains of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and towns, and little boulder clumps marking vast fields of prehistoric burials with superb burnished pottery. …

Continuing straight past the Sevan city turn-off, passing various hostels, one crosses the Hrazdan river and, about 2 km later, reaches a wide parking area with the road (right) leading to the Sevan peninsula.  Ignoring the red “no entry” signs and bearing right, one comes to the parking area and restaurants at the foot of the steps to Sevanavank* (once also known as Sevank, “Black Monastery”).  Here on the then island, Princess Mariam Bagratuni sponsored construction of a monastery, first post-Arab example of an important religious/architectural regional school, under the spiritual guidance of the future katholikos Mashtots.  As the 13th c. Bishop/historian Stepanos Orbelian describes it,

“In that time, the venerable Mashtots shone for his amazing virtue on the island of Sevan. … He received the order in a vision to build a church in the name of the twelve apostles and to set up a religious community there.  In his trance, he saw 12 figures walking toward him on the sea, who showed him the place for the church.  After this vision and a warning from on high, the great queen Mariam, wife of Vasak of Syunik, came to St. Mashtots and, having persuaded him, built a richly ornamented church called the Twelve Apostles, next a second called the Mother of God. She furnished them abundantly, and made them the house of God and the refuge of pious men, in the year 323/AD 874.”

The monastery fell on harder times, and there is a terrible tale that, in the mid-18th century, the monks were ashamed lest the visiting katholikos see their collection of ragged and water-damaged manuscripts, and so secretly dumped them in the lake.

In ages past, Sevan was called Lake Gokcha. Ancient routes through the region were known to Arab geographers, but according to The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade, by H.A. Manandian, they sometimes got the distances wrong. “The Arabs, being plain dwellers covered their distances more rapidly than in the more mountainous regions of the Caucuses where the distances could indeed seem much greater than they actually were. The Arabs rarely had recourse to other means of measuring distances.”

The book is available online, along with an excellent selection of other ancient works, at Robert Bedrosian’s History Workshop. Here is the page which contains a map of old roads around Lake Sevan.

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

In my novel, one chapter takes place around Lake Sevan, then named Lake Gokcha. A small group of Armenian traders are leaving Erivan Fortress, having received approval from the conquering Murad IV, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

They stopped briefly at the edge of town while the Turks asked questions. Mina heard raised voices asking about the firearms, Khatcheres responding belligerently about the Sultan’s approval, and finally they were waved on. The road rose slowly northeast all day through farmlands and small towns, and what Khatcheres said about pushing hard proved to be true. They ate as they walked, and the snow-covered peaks that were due east in the morning were almost due south as Gokcha Lake came into view.

The word came back from the front. “We stop for the night in Ordaklu!” Mina was glad to hear it. She knew she’d traveled further this day than on any day with the caravan, and the wound sent a pulsing ache through her whole body.

“What’s in Ordaklu?” she asked Vartan, trying to divert her attention from the pain.

“Not much. I’ve only been there once, when I was small. My father worked for the mint in Erivan, and was sent up here on business. He brought me, and I remember playing in the cemetery and the ruins of the fort.”

“Where is your father now?”

“He was executed by the last Ottoman governor of Erivan, just before the Persians took the fort. They accused him of helping to plan the invasion.”

“You said your sister was murdered by the Persians.”

“Yes. Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Interesting!” Mina felt outrage at Vartan’s callousness. “That’s what you call it?” A thousand other threatening words filled her mind, but the look of sorrow in Vartan’s eyes stopped her from speaking.

“That’s what happened. I’ve tried to avoid following my father’s example.” He whistled and urged his beast forward, leaving Mina to fall back into line.

The contrast of beauty and horrible sorrow struck Mina once again. The blue waters of the lake, the rich red dirt of the road, the verdant green hills, and the capes of snow and frost that flowed down from the high mountains. The road was curving back to the south, and the lake was visible view past a trio of hills that marked the border of a small valley. She knew that their way in the morning would take them forty miles in the opposite direction they’d been traveling all day.

The history around Lake Sevan is also rich, beautiful and horrible. Ethnic cleansing has featured prominently in Armenia’s past. But, as Brady Kiesling writes:

But there is another Armenia, a subtly green, richly textured landscape, every corner of which has been sculpted by millennia of human triumphs and tragedies.  There is a gifted and generous population, now mostly cut off from outside stimuli but still desperately eager to demonstrate to foreign visitors its traditional hospitality and pride at its survival.  There is nature, exotic, sometimes heart-rendingly beautiful, now mostly unvisited but far from inaccessible.  And of course there is the basic human truth, that enjoyment of a place or activity is directly dependent on the investment made.  Armenia is still difficult to explore unaided, but the rewards of doing so are commensurately great.

(Updated Feb. 10, 2013 – AGW)