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THE TURKISH-OCCUPIED MAGARAVANK

Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra
katoomba@cytanet.com.cy

The Sourp Magar (Saint Makarios) monastery - also known as Armenomonastero (Greek),
Magaravank (Armenian), Armenian Monastery (English) or Ermeni Manastr (Turkish) - is
the only surviving Armenian monastery in Cyprus, holding a particular historical, religious
and sentimental value to the Armenian-Cypriot community. It is situated in a picturesque
location, at an altitude of 530 m. within the dense Eastern Plataniotissa Forest, about 1
Km to the west of Halevga on the eastern part of the Turkish-occupied Pentadhaktylos
range [Latitude: 351715 N, Longitude: 333120 E]. Its vast land (nearly 8.500 donums
= 11,37 Km) extends up to the seashore and includes about 30.000 olive and carob trees.
From the idyllic site of the monastery, one can gaze the Taurus mountain range in Cilicia,
especially during winter when there is little humidity and snow is covering the mountains.

The monastery is dedicated to Saint Makarios the Hermit of Alexandria ( 395 AD), who
according to tradition had spent some time in the caves of the region as an ascetic. His
memory is celebrated on the first Sunday of May, although the monastery equally
celebrated the memory of Saint Makarios the Elder of Egypt (300-391 AD) in December. The
original establishment of the monastery took place at around the year 1000 AD. By the year
1425 it had already come to the possession of the Armenian Apostolic Church: the exact
date and other circumstances of this transfer are unclear to us, but we do know that its
monks followed very strict rules of ascetic life and religious penitence. During the Frankish
Era (1192-1489) and the Venetian Era (1489-1570) no females (including animals) were
allowed near the monastery, while during the days of the Great Lent the monks avoided
eating pulses that could potentially contain insects, such as beans and lentils.

In July 1558, Sebastian Venier, the Venetian Proveditore (governor) and later Doge of
Venice, visited the Magaravank, as well as the nearby castles of Saint Hilarion and Kantara.
During the Ottoman Era (1571-1878) it was known as the Blue Monastery (Gabouyd Vank),
because of the colour of its doors and window blinds. The Magaravank had been a popular
pilgrimage site for Armenians and non-Armenians alike, as well as for local and foreign
travellers and pilgrims en route to the Holy Land, such as Hovsep Shishmanian (better
known by his literary name Dzerents): an official doctor sent by the Ottoman
government to a hospital in Nicosia, he spent much of his time at the Magaravank; inspired
by the visible outline of the distant Taurus Mountains, in 1875 he wrote the historical novel
Toros Levoni, set in the times of the Cilician Kingdom of Lesser Armenia.

For centuries, the Magaravank served as a place of retreat and recuperation for Catholicoi
(Patriarchs) of Cilicia and other Armenian clergymen from Cilicia and Jerusalem, with
which it maintained close relations. Perhaps the most renowned of these was Abbot
Mekhitar of Sebaste (1676-1749): with the hope of visiting Rome, Mekhitar left his
hometown Sivas in 1695 and sailed from the port of Alexandretta. However, during his
short stay in Alexandretta he had contracted malaria, which made him unwelcome on
board the vessel; a good Samaritan rowed him on the shore of Famagusta, but as the news
of his apostasy from the Armenian Orthodox faith became known, he was no longer
welcome. From Famagusta, he was taken by others to the Magaravank: there, through the
summer months, he eventually managed to convalesce.

On Sunday, 8 September 1901, the students of the National Educational Orphanage of


Vahan Kurkjian (better know by his literary name Pagouran) erected on the hill to the
north-east of the monastery a small stone monument on the occasion of the 200th
anniversary of the founding of the Mekhitarist Order, which was celebrated on the
monastery grounds. An artistic obelisk in memory of Abbot Mekhitar was constructed by
graduates of the National Orphanage as a souvenir to the event on 8 September 1931, with
the help of local architect Garo Balian, a graduate of Pagourans Orphanage himself and
the architect of the Melkonian Educational Institutes buildings. The hill itself where the
monument is located is known as Mekhitara Plour (Mekhitars Hill), while the hill to the
south of the monastery, where the observatory is located, is officially registered as
Vounon tou Armeni (The Armenians Mountain).

In 1642, a firman exempted the monastery from paying taxes after the request of Mesrob
Vartabed; its terms where renewed in 1660 and in 1701. The years between 1650-1750 are
considered to be the Golden Century of the Magaravank and vast plots of land were given
to it, such as in 1744 by Krikor Badrian. In 1734 Haroutiun Vartabed took the initiative to
renovate the monastery, which was completed in 1735. Reference to the monastery was
made in 1738 by British Bishop and traveller Richard Pococke (1704-1765), who described
Armenians as few in number with an ancient church and a Bishop in Nicosia and
monastery in the country. A new permit was granted in 1811, allowing renovations to the
monastery, with the financial contribution of Khrimtsi Symeon Agha. The renovation was
completed on 3 June 1814, as immortalised by a marble inscription. Also in 1814, the new
chapel was completed, to the north of the previous monastery chapel. The icon of Sourp
Magar, placed just before the entrance to the chapel, was considered to be miraculous and
many pilgrims used to light candles there. In 1866 a small-scale renovation took place by
commission of Constantinoples Armenian Patriarch, Boghos Taktakian.

It appears that the last monks permanently resided in the monastery before 1800.
Throughout the Ottoman Era, the vicinity around the Magaravank was inhabited by
Armenian families until the early 20th century. Following the Hamidian massacres (1894-
1896), many of the Armenian refugees who fled to Cyprus found refuge at the monastery,
and until the early years of the 20th century a small Armenian school operated on the
monasterys grounds for the children who resided in the region. The National Educational
Orphanage, operated by Vahan Kurkjian between 1897-1904 on Victoria street in Nicosia,
had its summer sessions within the monastery estate, which was also used as a summer
resort by Armenian-Cypriot families: there were three private houses (owned by the
Goudsouzian-Levonian, Ouzounian-Soultanian and Pilibbossian-Nshanian families), in
addition to small guest houses rented by other families; later on, the Ouzounian-Soultanian
house was bequeathed to the Church and was rented by the Delifer family.

The establishment of the renowned Melkonian Educational Institute in Aglandjia, Nicosia,


in 1926, after the generous and benevolent donation of Egyptian-Armenian tobacco trading
brothers Krikor and Garabed Melkonian, had a significant impact on the monastery. Agha
Garabed Melkonian donated 1.000 Egyptian pounds for the construction of a paved road
linking the monastery with Halevga, thus allowing easier access to it. As of 1926 the
monastery was also used as a summer resort and summer site for Armenian scouts and
students of the Melkonian, many of whom had been orphans of the Armenian Genocide.
The students and scouts of the Melikian and the Ouzounian School also spent their summers
at the Magaravank, as did AYMAs scouts. A large number of Armenian-Cypriot families
resided in the monasterys guest houses during the weekends, holidays and the summer.
During the first weekend of May, nearly the entire Armenian-Cypriot community would visit
the monastery and herissa was prepared to be served on Sunday, feast day of Magaravank.

In 1926, the chapel was renovated by commission of Dikran Ouzounian, Ashod Aslanian and
Garo Balian; the latter replaced the metal belfry with a cement one. The monastery was
again restored in 1929 and its gate was renovated by commission of Boghos and Anna
Magarian. The square to the east of the monastery was constructed by commission of
Catholicos Sahag II, who inaugurated it on 8 September 1933, as witnessed by an obelisk to
the south of the square. Catholicos Sahag II, who also commissioned the decoration of the
monastery in 1931, spent many of his summers at the Magaravank estate, where he
enjoyed one of his hobbies, horse riding. In the courtyard of the monastery, a small
circular fountain pool and some pomegranate, loquat and citrus trees provided visitors with
a tranquil ambience. In 1945, the colonial government of Cyprus granted the Armenian
Prelature of Cyprus with official title deeds for the over 80 plots of land (9.000 donums =
12,04 Km) owned by the monastery. Between 1948-1962 about 500 donums (0,67 Km) of
land were sold, thus reducing the former 1 Km of coastline to 400 metres.

The last major renovation took place between 1947-1949, by initiative of Hovhannes
Shakarian Chairman of the Administrative Council (Varchagan) -, who paid 400 out of the
total 5.000. This renovation was made with the help of the Antiquities Department and
was overseen by Vahram Toundatian. A major problem the monastery faced was the lack of
water. In 1948, after multiple failed attempts, a successful borehole (about 300-400 m to
the south of the monastery) was drilled thanks to the efforts of Kapriel Kasbarian, who also
donated 300 for the erection of the Archangels fountain, inaugurated on 2 May 1948. In
1949, Sarkis Marashlian donated 500 for the water distribution network, the turbine and
the electricity generator. The vast area of the monastery was full of pines and cypresses
and about 30.000 carob and olive trees; in 1974, the annual income from their exploitation
amounted to about 8.000, the most important source of income for the Armenian
Prelature (in the early 1960s the income was about 5.000, while in the mid-1920s it was
over 600 and was distributed for the maintenance of Armenian schools).

A large number of exquisite and priceless manuscripts (the oldest dating back to 1202 and
the newest to 1740) were written and kept at the monastery, the most valuable of which
were an illustrated Gospel of 1293 and a Psalter of 1678. Also kept at the monastery were
valuable ecclesiastical vessels. In 1947, 56 of the manuscripts were transferred to the
Catholicosate (Patriarchate) of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon. In 1998 they became part of
the newly-inaugurated Cilicia museum of the Catholicosate, boasting over 230 rare
Armenian manuscripts. In 2000, as part of the Religious Groups Cultural Festival a
booklet was published, containing 15 of Magaravanks manuscripts.

The vessels that were kept at the Magaravank were brought to the Armenian Prelature in
Nicosia for safe keeping; they had an adventure of their own, as in 1964 they were
transferred to the government-controlled sector of Nicosia following the seizure of the
Prelature building by extremist Turkish-Cypriots. As of 1986, they are kept in the newly-
built Prelature building in Nicosia, in a special display case commissioned by Nshan and
Garabed Arakchindjian. Unfortunately, the altar with its Virgin Mary icon and the
miraculous Sourp Magar icon perished during the brutal 1974 Turkish invasion.

On 12 June 1966, Archbishop Makarios III visited the monastery, where a ceremonial lunch
was served by the Diocesan Council on the occasion of the visit in Cyprus of Bishop
Sarkissian. On this occasion, Makarios offered a 3.000 cheque to Catholicosal Vicar
Vartabed Yervant Apelian for the needs of the Armenian Church of Cyprus, and planted an
araucaria tree in the monasterys yard. In June 1968, Karnig Kouyoumdjian donated the
new baptistery of the chapel on the occasion of his grandsons Magar christening. Because
of its idyllic location, many Armenian-Cypriots were baptised at the monastery. The last
christening was held on Sunday, 14 July 1974, Mr Kouyoumdjians granddaughter, Shogher,
just before the first phase of the Turkish invasion on 20 July 1974.

The Magaravank was occupied during the second phase of the Turkish invasion (14-16
August 1974). A few years later, the occupying regime used it to house illegal settlers from
Anatolia, while in the 1980s it was used by the so-called security forces. In February
1997, the Greek-Cypriot journal Politistiki Kypros mentioned that it was extensively
damaged by a fire. On 21 January 1998, Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Kbrs printed a first-
page article about plans of the occupying regime to turn the monastery into a 50-bed
hotel, a $1.000.000 project that would have been undertaken by businessman Dervi Ulus
Snmezler, who on 26 November 1997 leased the monastery of 49 years. After reactions
by the Armenian-Cypriot community, the Armenian Prelature, the Catholicosate of Cilicia,
UNESCO and the governments of Cyprus and Armenia, the issue was brought to the
European Parliament in late September 1998 and was eventually averted.

On 17 and 18 April 2005, Turkish-Cypriot newspaper Yenidzen and Greek-Cypriot


newspaper Politis, respectively, reported that the Magaravank was turned by Snmezler
into a caf, with the intention of turning it into a recreation centre of a hotel. Following
reactions by the Government of Cyprus and the Council of Europe, other international
bodies expressed concern on this matter, while the Vatican issued a severe response on 5
September 2005, as reported in the Greek-Cypriot newspapers Financial Mirror and Cyprus
Mail on 6 and 7 September 2005, respectively. As a result, the so-called Department of
Historic Monuments and Museums halted these plans in December 2005, according to an
article in the Turkish-Armenian Agos newspaper on 14 February 2006. Instrumental in these
protests was the Czech EuroMP Vlasta tpov, who on 29 October 1999 had visited the
Magaravank, the Apostolos Varnavas monastery in Salamis and the Bellapais Abbey.

In April 2006, the leadership of the Armenian-Cypriot community visited the Magaravank
for the first time since 1974 and were able to see for themselves its terrible condition, not
only the result of abandonment, but also the work of vandals who defaced all inscriptions
and decoration and desecrated the sanctuary and the walls of the monastery or used the
roof tiles for their houses in the nearby villages. In December 2006 and July 2008, Hrant
Dink and Catholicos Aram I visited the Magaravank, respectively.

By initiative of the Armenian Representative, Mr Vartkes Mahdessian, in co-operation with


the Armenian Prelature of Cyprus, the first pilgrimage took place on Sunday, 6 May 2007,
the first in nearly 33 years. About 250 people (including people who came especially from
abroad), travelled in a convoy of 5 buses and some cars, escorted by members of UNFICYP.
Upon arrival, the pilgrims enthusiasm was dampened by the buildings tragic decay. Many
of them used to spend their holidays there prior to the invasion, and were confronted with
the buildings tragic decay. After they explored every corner of what was once a very lively
place, soon the walls of the chapel echoed with prayers for the first time in 33 years since
the Turkish invasion, led by Catholicosal Vicar, Archbishop Varoujan Hergelian, who had to
travel in civilian clothes so as not to provoke any reaction from Islamic fanatics.
Commenting on the defacement of the baptisterys inscription, Archbishop Varoujan
remembered his last christening there in 1973 and recollected images of the past.

The second pilgrimage was organised on Sunday, 10 May 2009, again with the co-operation
of the Office of the Armenian Representative and the Armenian Prelature, with the
participation of about 200 Armenian-Cypriots, including some people from abroad. Again,
the 5 buses were escorted by UNFICYP members, accompanied by some Armenian-Cypriot
families who went there by their own cars. The third pilgrimage was organised on Sunday,
9 May 2010, with the participation of about 200 Armenian-Cypriots, some of which came
from abroad. This pilgrimage was covered by the CyBC news, while on 23 May 2010 CyBC 1
broadcasted the event and hosted a small discussion on it with the Representatives
Spokesman, Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra, on the show Kyprion Nostos.

Left at the mercy of nature and vandals, silent, semi-ruined, desecrated and deserted, the
Magaravank patiently awaits for its rightful owners and pilgrims to return in peace