Archive for September, 2012

St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Caesarea

September 17th, 2012    |    1 Comment »

From Sepastia we traveled to Kayseri (Caesarea), once the home of Armenia’s patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator. A church bearing St. Gregory’s name stands in the town, and it was here that we gathered for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian celebrated badarak, with the Very Rev. Fr. Vazken Karayan assisting. Pilgrims from our group served on the altar and sang in the choir. In his sermon, Archbishop Barsamian spoke about the life of St. Gregory and stressed that sometimes it takes just one man to change the course of history.

Following the Divine Liturgy, Archbishop Barsamian performed a requiem service for the souls of the Armenian martyrs from Kayseri. At the conclusion of services, we paid homage to the poet Vahan Tekeyan, a native of Kayseri, by reciting “Egeghetsin Haygagan” (The Armenian Church).

We also had time to explore St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. The present building was erected in the mid 1800s, though an older church probably existed on this site. An Armenia School and other facilities once formed a large complex around the church, but today most of them are in disrepair. The Armenian community of Istanbul has been working to renovate these structures.

The Divine Liturgy is celebrated at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church once a year on the feast of St. Gregory in June. Armenians from the surrounding towns, as well as pilgrims from Istanbul, travel to Kayseri to take part in the celebration.

Caesarea was an important city in the early Christian world. In 240 A.D. St. Gregory’s father, Prince Anag, was dispatched to Armenia by the king of Iran on a mission to murder King Khosrov. Prince Anag succeeded in murdering the Armenian king, but was himself captured and killed near Ardashad. Only Gregory and his brother survived the retaliatory attack at Ardashad.

The infants were taken by their nurse to Caesarea where they were brought up as Christians. St. Gregory returned to Caesarea again at the beginning of the 4th century, after the conversion of Armenia to Christianity. It was in Caesarea that he was consecrated as the patriarch of all Armenians. Until the latter part of the 4th century, succeeding Armenian catholicoi also received their consecration at Caesarea.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

The Armenian Cemetery of Sepastia

September 15th, 2012    |    2 Comments »

We left Kharpert early on Saturday, September 15, and headed to Sepastia (Sivas). On the way, we enjoyed beautiful views of the Euphrates River, its calm waters reflecting the hills dotting the banks.

It took about six hours to reach Sepastia. Our main stop was the town’s Armenian cemetery, which was recently cleaned and renovated. The local Armenian community extended a warm welcome to our group and joined us for prayer in the cemetery, where Archbishop Khajag Barsamian performed a requiem service.

The only surviving Armenian Church in Sepastia is part of an Armenian monastery presently located in a Turkish military compound and cut off to the public. Members of the local Armenian community, which numbers some 20 families, visit Kayseri each June to take part in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. A visiting priest from Istanbul travels to Sepastia to perform sacraments.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

Arapkir Rekindles Childhood Memories for Archbishop Barsamian

September 14th, 2012    |    No Comments »

As we approached Arapkir on Friday, September 14, we were welcomed by a large group of Armenians who had traveled there from Istanbul and Malatya to greet the pilgrims from our Diocese. They held out the traditional Armenian offering of salt and bread. Also present were the city mayor, district governor, and other local officials.

It was a special occasion for Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who is a native of Arapkir. He left the town when he was 12, and had not been back since. Archbishop Barsamian thanked the welcoming Armenian community and the city officials for their warm hospitality.

We visited the Armenian cemetery, where a new monument was built only two years ago, and held a prayer service and a hokehankisd for the souls of the Armenian martyrs of Arapkir. Archbishop Barsamian then led us on a tour through the narrow streets and rocky hills of the town. Among the stops was a museum where we saw traditional Armenian pottery.

We also walked by a number of old Armenian houses, including a 19th-century building inscribed with the letter “է” which, we were told, served as the pastor’s home. As we continued our tour, we reached an open field where an Armenian Church once stood. It was destroyed in the 1960s, and today not even the ruins remain.

We finally reached the street on which Archbishop Barsamian grew up. Though his childhood home is no longer standing, the Primate shared with us memories of his early years in the town, speaking of the way his grandmother and his parents passed on the Armenian Christian faith to him.

Before departing, we visited the house of two Armenian brothers who are the only Armenians living in the town today. The walls of their home were covered with icons of saints and old family photographs. Archbishop Barsamian blessed their house, and they joined us for a luncheon hosted by the visiting Armenian community of Istanbul.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

Malatya’s Holy Trinity Church

September 14th, 2012    |    No Comments »

On Thursday, September 13, we arrived in Malatya and visited the city’s Holy Trinity Armenian Church. Built in the 1880s, the church has been abandoned since 1915. Now the city plans to renovate and reopen the house of worship.

When we arrived the church was locked, but a local Armenian resident opened the doors and gave us a brief tour. Once Armenians comprised half the city’s population. Today only 20 Armenian families live here.

While the walls of Holy Trinity Church remain intact, its dome has been completely destroyed, and the interior is overgrown with weeds. Inside, we gathered for a requiem service for the souls of those who perished in the Armenian Genocide. Next we drove a short distance to an Armenian cemetery, where we said a prayer for the souls of the departed.

Later in the day, we stopped in Kharpert (Elazıg), where we saw a fortress dating to the ancient Urartu kingdom. At the foot of the fortress were the ruins of the 8th-century Sourp Garabed Armenian Church.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage


September 13th, 2012    |    No Comments »

Our group of pilgrims began the morning of Wednesday, September 12, at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Aintab. It houses the world’s largest collection of mosaics, and it is packed with masterpieces from the lost city Zeugma, situated some forty-five kilometers from Aintab. From the museum, we headed toward the city’s old bazaar, where we explored the merchant stalls that seem little changed from centuries past.

Later, we visited the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Catholic Church, built in the 19th century. The church was converted into a cultural center a few years ago, but as is often the case with such conversions, the Armenian Christian character of the sanctuary still makes itself felt. A descending dove carved above the old baptismal font of the church was just one indication of the center’s origin.

Another Sourp Asdavzdzdzin Church—this one an Armenian Apostolic edifice built in 1892—stands very close to the Armenian Catholic church, and was another stop on our itinerary of the day. At one point this church had been made into a jail, but since 1984 it has been used as a mosque. The local imam greeted our group of pilgrims, and spoke to us about the history of Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church. We had a chance to sing the Lord’s Prayer in the old sanctuary prior to our departure for Marash.

Marash was once home to no fewer than six Armenian churches. But nothing remains of those churches today. A lunchtime stop at a peaceful spot in the city afforded us a chance to hold a requiem service for the souls of our countrymen martyred in Marash.

Then it was back on the bus for the drive to the ancient Armenian stronghold of Zeytoun (now called Süleymanli). On the journey we entered a different world of mountains, rocks, and forests, traversed by a river called Shoughouri. The rugged terrain seemed to reflect the character of the Armenians of Zeytoun, who throughout Armenian history were hailed for their bravery and indomitable spirit. We sang one such patriotic song dedicated to the Zeytounsis on the way to the village. Disembarking from the bus we found modern Zeytoun to be a lovely, fertile setting, and could easily imagine Armenian life there as we explored the town and talked to the locals.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

From Dikranagert to Edessa

September 12th, 2012    |    No Comments »

We spent most of Monday on the road, driving from Van to Dikranagert (Diarbekir). Along the way, we stopped at the Fortress of Van, erected during the Urartu kingdom in the 9th century B.C. In the town of Silvan, about 50 miles east of Diarbekir, we saw the remains of what scholars believe to be the original city of Dikranagert, built by Tigran the Great.

Entering Dikranagert, we drove by its ancient walls, which date to the Byzantine period, and saw the Tigris River winding its way through the city. Our first stop that evening was at St. Giragos Church—the16th-century Armenian Church which was renovated and re-consecrated last October—where we enjoyed a classical concert.

Canadian-Armenian pianist Raffi Bedrossyan performed the works of Komitas, Khachaturian, Alan Hovhaness, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin. Some 300 people gathered for the concert, including Dikranagert mayor Osman Baydemir, his wife Reyhan Yalçındağ, and member of parliament Ahmet Tan. Mr. Baydemir gave warm welcome remarks, and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian thanked the mayor and Mr. Tan for their hospitality.

On Tuesday, we returned to St. Giragos Church for a morning service followed by a hokehankisd for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. We received a short tour of the church, whose recent renovations were undertaken by Armenians of the diaspora. Just this month, the Armenian community of Russia donated a 200-pound bell, which will be installed in the St. Giragos bell tower in November.

Our next destination was Edessa (Urfa), where we visited Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church. Tradition has it that the church was founded by the apostle Thaddeus in the 1st century. In the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, the church building began to be used as an energy station, and in 1994 it was converted into a mosque. Though the building has seen its share of reconstruction, we were able to identify the site of the original Armenian altar, as well as some other details created by its Armenian architects.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

We Bow Down Before His Cross

September 11th, 2012    |    No Comments »

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. (I Corinthians 1:18)

This coming Sunday will be the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: the start of the season of the Holy Cross, one of the five major divisions of the Armenian Church calendar.

The Feast of the Exaltation recalls a story about St. James, the brother of the Lord—one of Christ’s Apostles and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was the first to exalt a cross in the likeness of the original cross of the Crucifixion, and venerate it as a symbol of the power of God, saying: “We bow down before your Cross, O Christ.” We still recite those words in Armenian: Khachi ko, Krisdos, yergirbakanemk.

From the perspective of that time, James’ act of exaltation could only be called unexpected. After all, to residents of the Roman-dominated world of the 1st century A.D., crosses were instruments of torture and humiliating death. Yet for James, its association with the miracle of Christ made the cross an object of reverence—eventually to become the Christian symbol of salvation and victory over death.

We today can only marvel at the eyes which first beheld the once-fearsome cross, and perceived it as a divine sign of Life. But perhaps we can gain an insight into the Exaltation through another story, about another cross. The story is not a part of our holy tradition (although perhaps one day it will be). For this cross was exalted, not in 1st-century Jerusalem, but in New York City, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Today marks 11 years since that dreadful event, and we can all remember the horror and outrage we felt as we confronted the incredible loss of life, and the prospect of an evil enemy who would willfully extinguish those lives. One couldn’t help wondering, at the time, whether anything could ever arise to redeem the despair of that day.

And yet, something did arise. Digging amid the ruins of Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers had collapsed only a month before, one of the rescue workers discovered something he felt to be a miracle. Two steel beams from the wreckage had fallen together, and landed in the form of a cross. The cross was set upright in the middle of the wreckage, to cast its shadow—literally and symbolically—over the scene. News spread quickly, and soon firefighters, police officers, and construction workers were making “pilgrimages” to the cross, to pray and reflect on the 9/11 attack.

In that bleak landscape of despair, the “Hero’s Cross,” as it came to be called, became a source of spiritual strength. At a blessing service before that site, a Franciscan friar offered these words: “Behold the glory of the cross at Ground Zero,” he said. “This is our symbol of Hope. Our symbol of Faith. Our symbol of Healing.”

Perhaps that’s the divine message St. James intuited, when he first raised the cross some 2,000 years ago. It’s the message of many beloved Armenian sayings: Khachi ko, Krisdos, yergirbakanemk (“We bow down before your Cross, O Christ”), and Sourp Khachn yeghitsi eents oknagan (“Let the Holy Cross be my support”).

And it is certainly the message St. Paul wished to convey, in the words which began this essay: “To those of us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God.”

On this day of deep sorrow, as we pray for the souls of those who were cruelly taken from this world on September 11, 2001, and as we ask our Lord to grant peace to those who have suffered loss and hardship in the long aftermath of that day, let us also bow down before the Cross of Christ: the unexpected sign of God’s love for, and solidarity with, mankind—which exalts us, even in our pain and suffering.

And let us always proclaim that through the Cross, God has truly revealed His power to the entire world.

Badarak on Aghtamar Island

September 9th, 2012    |    No Comments »

Clear skies and warm weather greeted us this morning as we boarded a small boat to Aghtamar island. We sailed on the azure waters of Lake Van, and before long the beautiful Holy Cross Church came into view.

Our group climbed up a hill and entered the church for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. About 1,000 pilgrims—including groups from Canada, Armenia, and Istanbul—gathered for Badarak. When the church became crowded, some of the pilgrims lined up outside to follow the service.

Inside the sanctuary, light streamed from the windows of the church illuminating what remains of the frescoes decorating its walls. Incense filled the air, and like so many Armenians before us, we began to pray and to sing our ancient Armenian hymns.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian celebrated the Divine Liturgy and gave a powerful sermon on the significance of the cross as a symbol of victory for Christians. Pilgrims assisted the Primate on the altar. Clergy from Armenia and the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, including Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the Patriarchal Vicar, also took part in the service. In addition, the mayor and the chief of police of Van traveled to the island on this occasion.

Following the Divine Liturgy, a requiem service was held for victims of the 2011 earthquake in Van and the civil war in Syria, as well as for the souls of those who built Holy Cross Church in the 10th century. Later in the afternoon, a dance group from Armenia performed in front of the church.

All the pilgrims were moved by this rare opportunity to gather at this historic house of worship. It awakened in us a kind of wistful joy, a pride tinged with sadness. As I marveled at the sculpted reliefs on the exterior of the church, my own thoughts wandered to Keats’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Like the figures on Keats’s urn, the intricate carvings on the walls of Holy Cross Church have been preserved for hundreds of years—greeting generations upon generations of visitors with the same story of the Armenian faith, of human struggle and perseverance, and of the ultimate redemption we receive in Jesus Christ.

On the way back to Van, we stopped at the lakeside village of Khorkom, where the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky was born. We were greeted by Kurdish kids as we made our way through the village to the schoolhouse where the young artist studied as a child. Nothing remains here to remind one of Gorky, though the village is famously memorialized in the artist’s paintings.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

Visiting the City of a Thousand and One Churches

September 8th, 2012    |    No Comments »

We left Kars early on Saturday, September 8, and after a two-hour drive we arrived at Ani. Here the earth has a reddish color and little vegetation grows on the rocky landscape. At first it is hard to imagine that this deserted site was once a center of Armenian civilization, but look closely and you will see evidence of a devout and prosperous people who channeled their resources and creativity into erecting a glorious city.

We made our way through the ruins to the Soorp Asdvadzadzin Cathedral, the largest and most famous church at Ani. Completed in 1001, the cathedral is one of the masterpieces of the great Armenian architect Trdat. In the sanctuary, we gathered between the stately clustered piers as Archbishop Khajag Barsamian performed a requiem service for the souls of Armenian martyrs. Our group then joined in the singing of the “Hayr Mer.”

Next we headed toward the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Construction of the church was underwritten by the Armenian merchant Tigran Honents in 1215. The exterior of the building is decorated with beautiful carvings of animals and plant motifs. Inside, the walls are covered in frescoes depicting the twelve apostles, St. Mary, and scenes from the life of Christ.

While exploring the holy sites, we met a group of pilgrims from Armenia. On clear days, it is possible to glimpse Ani from the Armenian border. Archbishop Barsamian blessed the pilgrims, and we joined them in singing a song about Ani. We spent the rest of the afternoon viewing the other churches and monuments at Ani before setting off for Van.

On the drive to Van, we had an opportunity to admire the beauty of Mount Ararat, and made a short stop at Ishak Pasha Palace. Built in the 17th an 18th centuries, the palace served as an administrative center during the Ottoman period. We also saw the sun set over Lake Van. Our group is looking forward to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at Holy Cross Church on Aghtamar Island tomorrow.

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage

Pilgrims Begin Journey Through Historic Armenian Lands

September 7th, 2012    |    No Comments »

We arrived in Istanbul on the morning of Thursday, September 6, and began our pilgrimage to historic Armenia by visiting the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in the city’s Kumkapi neighborhood.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, and the Very Rev. Fr. Vazken Karayan, pastor of Holy Cross Church of Union City, NJ, led our group of 72 people to the Patriarchate Center, where we were welcomed by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the Patriarchal Vicar.

Archbishop Ateshian spoke about the rich history of the Patriarchate, which was established in 1461 following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Last year, the Patriarchate marked its 550th anniversary. We then toured the Patriarchate Center and the nearby Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church, where we prayed together and sang “Der Voghormya.”

On Friday, September 7, our group set out for Kars: once the capital of Armenia’s Bagratuni kingdom. We began our tour with a visit to the Kars Archaeological Museum, an aging two-story structure surrounded by a small garden. Inside we discovered a number of Armenian treasures, including rugs, khachkars, and coins from the kingdom of Tigran the Great.

Our next stop was the Holy Apostles Church (Sourp Arakelots), built in the 10th century during the rule of the Bagratuni king Abas. The church, constructed entirely of basalt stone, was later converted to a mosque and is used as such today. Minarets rise nearby, but the church building itself remains unmistakably Armenian, with its carved reliefs of the twelve apostles, small stone crosses, and other elements of traditional Armenian architecture. We stopped to recite the “Hayr Mer” outside the magnificent structure.

Not far from the Holy Apostles Church is the Kars Citadel, which bears Armenian inscriptions and crosses. Overlooking the city, the fortress once served to protect the medieval Armenian dynasties that ruled the region.

We concluded our second day of the pilgrimage by visiting the birthplace of poet Yeghishe Charents. The house where the young Charents grew up is now in ruins. Graffiti covers its remaining walls, and water has pooled amid the weeds growing inside the now roofless structure. Stirred by the spirit of the great poet, one of the pilgrims paused to recite “Tagh Andznakan.”

–Artur Petrosyan of the Diocese’s Communications Department is covering the two-week pilgrimage