But why was I in Solhan at all? The explanation is simple. A few kilometres across the border in the neighbouring province of Mus are the scant and badly neglected ruins of Surp Karapet Armenian Monastery, which is known locally as Cengelli Kilisesi (Sinclair and many others call the monastery “Surb Karapet”, but, to be consistent with spellings I use elsewhere in this blog, I will call it “Surp Karapet”). Type “Surp Karapet Monastery near Mus, Turkey” into your search engine and you will find many images of how the complex once looked. The images will confirm just how large, magnificent and unusual the complex was until 1915 when it was stripped of its valuables, burned, abandoned and plundered for stone to build and repair houses in the village that has grown up on or close to the monastery site. Shame on the people who murdered the Armenians who once worked in, worshipped in or visited the monastery, and shame on the people who sought to remove, in the years that followed such senseless murders, all traces of Surp Karapet for future generations to admire. The unjustified hatred of one people for another has robbed humankind of an Armenian ecclesiastical complex of immense importance, beauty and majesty.
After settling into my room for twenty minutes, I went to the main road and tried to flag a lift as I walked east toward the border with Mus province. I had got about half a kilometre from the hotel when the driver of a minibus stopped to give me a lift of about 2 kilometres to where the vehicle turned north off the main road to take some passengers to their destination, presumably a village. I walked a short distance, then a van stopped and the driver and his companion offered me a lift to the village with the ruined monastery. The driver and his companion were going to a village a short way from the monastery to install a new, flat-screen TV.
The monastery was further along the road than I had been led to believe. From Solhan it is about 14 kilometres before you reach a turning to the left, a turning with a sign indicating that Cengelli Kilisesi is another 6 kilometres away. I was pleasantly surprised that an Armenian monument of now-modest appeal is identified with a road sign like the one for Ergen Kilisesi near Hozat. This was proving a trip with many surprises, some of an encouraging variety. The explanation for the sign? Growing numbers of Armenians are visiting the monastery and people in Mus province want to encourage such tourism to boost the area’s prosperity. Mus is an economically deprived province in a region of Turkey full of economically deprived provinces.
The scenery from Solhan as far as the road junction for Cengelli Kilisesi is very similar to that from Bingol to Solhan, but something much more interesting enlivens the few kilometres to the monastery itself. The road leads across almost flat pasture grazed by many sheep and goats, then enters a village of about twenty or so houses, half of which are old and half new. The village looked so interesting that I resolved to walk around it after visiting the monastery. The road then enters a valley and begins to ascend. Fields, pasture, fruit trees, wild flowers, woodland, rolling hills and distant mountains provide visual diversion of an enchanting character and a roadside cesme dispenses chilled water of excellent flavour. The road is soon high in the hills and ahead lies Yukariyongali, the village in which the ruins of Surp Karapet are found. The compact village lies on a gently inclined shelf that drops away quite steeply to the south-east. It is possible to see the next village along the road, the village where the TV had to be delivered and installed.
We pulled up in the middle of the village. There were already quite a lot of men and boys milling around, partly because an open-topped lorry had driven into the village to sell fruit and vegetables, but my arrival brought out an even larger crowd of people to see who the visitor was. Some very young girls arrived with their brothers, but women and girls, the latter in their mid- to late-teens, stayed close to the safety of their homes. By the appearance of the people alone it was obvious that the village was home to very poor families. As I looked around for about the hour that followed, nothing I saw suggested that a local family was well-to-do. Many of the children walked around without shoes or in shoes that were scuffed hand-me-downs once belonging to older relatives whose feet were now too big for them.
A man who looked a little more prosperous than all his neighbours came over and introduced himself as the muhtar, or village headman. I explained how grateful and privileged I felt to be in his village and he kindly led me on a tour of Yukariyongali, a settlement which, despite its economic problems, has many friendly people, male and female; lots of remarkable stone houses, most of which spread over only one storey and have flat roofs; the ruins of the monastery; and many a wall in which stone from the monastery has been recycled. Yukariyongali is a destination I would definitely like to visit again to examine in far more detail.
Of Surp Karapet, Sinclair notes that:
The monastery… (the Holy Redeemer, St. John the Baptist) was in the early days of the church Armenia’s second most important monastery and retained a prominent position until the present (20th) century. The ruins of its churches stand on a bluff 2,000 feet (about 650 metres) above the plain. The long hillside in which it lies looks towards the plain over an intervening ridge of hills. Below and to the west is the long valley by which the monastery is reached, and to the south is the curving floor of the plain’s western end. Beside the ruins a small village has grown up, its houses decorated haphazardly with carved blocks taken from the churches.
The monastery contained a church supposed to be the first foundation of St. Gregory the Illuminator. It was the seat of synods in the 4th and 5th centuries and the burial place of the Mamikonean princes of Taron. It was endowed with great estates and further enriched by the donations of pilgrims visiting the remains of St. John the Baptist. St. Gregory destroyed the great pagan temple of the three gods Vahagn, Anahit and Astghik at the nearby shrine of Ashtishat, brought the remains of St. John from Caesarea (Kayseri) and buried them here in the church that he built. The monastery was active until its destruction in the first world war.
The outline of the main church and of some of the smaller churches at its e. end can be made out from among the fallen masonry. The smaller churches were older and the larger main church was built westwards from them. Its roof was supported in a square grid of sixteen pillars. The basic fabric of the present structures seems to be late 18th century, but preserves earlier ground plans. The now headless belfry at the w. end of the main church and the church’s nw. corner are clear; a modern house stands at the former sw. corner. Further e. on the n. side is a small building (door on s. side) and at the ne. corner three apses: these are respectively the chapel in the nw. corner and the apse and side chambers of the church of St. Stephen, built, probably in the 7th century, as a cross of apses in a square. Immediately s. is the e. end of the church of Surp Karapet, considered to be Gregory’s foundation. After a further narrow room built against the e. wall the originally long chapel of St. George, no doubt medieval, is reached: its e. end is discernible, and the s. wall, with internal blind arcade, stands above a man’s height. A refectory below the general ground level and apparently just s. of St. George can be reached by some steps. Still complete, but tunnel-like and gloomy, it has a ribbed vault. There is a further underground room, now, it seems, half demolished for building material, by the s. end of the e. wall of the main church… The monastery’s outer wall enclosed both the underground room on the e. end and the underground church on the s.
The long, well preserved building with a pilastered façade built against the slope to the w. of the main church looks to be a large stable and possibly dormitory for pilgrims: 1835 or 1836.
Sinclair’s description of Surp Karapet is in itself highly revealing. For example, how sad that Armenian Christians engaged in the destruction of the “pagan temple of the three gods Vahagn, Anahit and Astghik at the nearby shrine of Ashtishat”, which confirms that the problem of religious people using their power in irresponsible ways is not something new. Nonetheless, I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in this remarkable monument to access more information on the internet. Even in its current regrettable condition, Surp Karapet is an Armenian monument of immense interest. I am surprised that “Virtual Ani” does not devote a post to the monastery, but anyone interested in Armenian ruins in Turkey should at some point access this otherwise excellent website. The website’s posts examine in sometimes great detail many monuments a long way from Ani, the ruined medieval Armenian city not far from Kars that overlooks in such dramatic fashion the border with Armenia itself.
After we had examined the best surviving parts of the monastery, the muhtar walked me around some of the village. Some of the stone houses have verandas and many utilise metal sheeting to patch holes and/or provide additional protection from the wind, the rain and the snow. But what is most remarkable is how much carved and inscribed stone from the monastery has been recycled in the walls of the houses. The high quality of the carved and inscribed stone confirms that Surp Karapet was a monastic complex of immense importance. Interestingly, some stone is inscribed with Armenian script and some with Aramaic. The latter suggests that at one time Syriac Orthodox Christians had a presence in the locality.
The man who had installed the TV in the next village along the road drove me the 5 kilometres to the village not far from the main road between Solhan and Mus and, after thanking him for his kindness, I had a look around. The houses have been built in a dispersed fashion so there is no centre as such. The new houses built with breeze blocks have pitched corrugated iron roofs, but the old houses made with stone have flat roofs composed of logs and mud. Some houses have small gardens behind stone walls or fences made of wire or branches where people grow a few vegetables, but with so many sheep and goats in and around the village, I suspect that most families acquire an income from their livestock. Small structures made with stone, breeze block and flat metal sheets exist here and there and, while one may be an old toilet, the others probably shelter livestock or food, the latter for human or animal consumption. Two donkeys nibbled at the long grass and blocks of animal dung mixed with hay dried in the sun to provide fuel during the winter months. The only people I saw in the village itself were a few women, their husbands and sons no doubt caring for sheep and goats on pasture some distance from the village. Between the village and the main road were three children aged about five, seven and eight caring for a flock of sheep and goats. Three of the goats had long horns that would have made excellent shofars.