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Friday, January 22, 2021

Memories of Armenia: St. Nicholas of Dadivank Monastery

Catherine Tsounis
Catherine Tsounis
Contributing Editor The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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 “Don’t be astonished to see an icon of Saint. Nicholas in our monastery,” said Garush, our 2018 guide of the Holy Martyrs Armenian Apostolic Church pilgrimage. “We are Orthodox Christians. We believe in Saint Nicholas.”
St. Nicholas stands apart from Christian saints. His fame spread across empires and generations to make him one of the most recognizable saints in history. But the popular perception of Saint Nicholas today diverges greatly from his original veneration as a compassionate almsgiver and defender of the poor. Saint Nicholas has been reduced to the pop culture fi­gure of Santa Claus, a jolly old man who brings presents to good little boys and girls.
Nicholas, a man who found greatness not simply in spreading “good cheer,” but in being a true icon of Jesus Christ in word and deed. He was born in Patara, Asia Minor, in 270 AD.. He died on December 6, 343 A.D. at Myra, the southern coast of present day Turkey. In Nicholas’ time, the region was part of the Greek-speaking world known as Lycia.
He was an orphan raised by his uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara. As no biography of Nicholas was written until centuries after he died, much of Nicholas’ life is known more from legend than from contemporary sources. What is certain is that he became Bishop of Myra and that, after his death, he was recognized as a saint. Thousands of churches have been named in his memory. He is seen as a model of gift-giving and pastoral care.
I experienced a moving moment when we traveled to Dadivank monastery in the  Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, before the devastating Azerbaijan war in October-November  2020.  A charismatic priest, Father Abraham Malkhasyan, invited me to join his pilgrimage to Armenia recently with the Holy Martyrs Church under the leadership of President Aram Ciamician in coordination with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR ).

Dadivank Monastery, Artsakh

In Artsakh, we traveled to Dadivank, a monastery of incredible beauty in a scenic gorge. It is being restored. Poor Kurds, struggling to exist, lived in it, destroying its mosaics through heating sources. This monastery’s restoration will rewrite our perception of Armenian Orthodox monasteries. The numerous monasteries we visited did not have mosaics or iconography as in Greece, Russia, or Italy.
Restoration of the 1214 fresco of St. Stephen is being conducted in the Katoghike Church that was used as stables during the communist regime. “The Enthronement of St. Nicholas” and restoration of the St. Stephen frescoes are beautiful.
Father Abraham had a religious service in Katoghike Cathedral. He chanted Armenian hymns, blessing the souls of all martyrs with traditional Armenian religious chanting.
The St. Nicholas fresco in St. Mary Mother Church of Katoghike was explained in detail by a monastery sign. It was erected in the year 1214 by the Queen Arzou of Haterk. The interior walls of the Memorial Cathedral are richly decorated with frescoes. Part of a large inscription in Armenian, which covers the entire entrance wall of the Cathedral reads: “I, Arzou-Khatoun, obedient servant of Christ … wife of King Vakhtang, ruler of Haterk and all Upper Khachen, with great hopes built this holy cathedral on the place where my husband and sons rest in peace … My first-born Asan martyred for his Christian faith in the war against the Turks, and, three years later, my younger son Grigor also joined Christ … Completed in the year 663 of the Armenian calendar.”
“The Enthronement of St. Nicholas” fresco amazed me. St. Nicholas was an exact replica of Byzantine icons, with fair features in religious Roman garments. Jesus is passing the bible to St. Nicholas. The Archangel Michael and Virgin Mary are seen watching the enthronement. Some fragments of the frescoes were painted in crimson red (vordan karmir) color. According to the inscription, they were made in 1297.1
Dadivank is no longer part of Artsakh. As a result of Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 which resulted in a cease-fire agreement stipulating an Armenian withdrawal from Dadivank and a hand-over of the surrounding area to Azerbaijan, the Abbot of the Dadivank Monastery decided to transport the monastery’s Christian art of significance, including bells and khachkars, to Armenia. After the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the region, the monastery was placed under the protection of the Russian peacekeeping forces.2
I stood in an abandoned church built by a Queen who lost her husband and children fighting for their Christian faith. St. Nicholas, the wonderworker, meant a lot to this sorrowful Queen. This image haunts me at the time of St. Nicholas Feast Day. Father Abraham’s service was in a church of martyrs. Will there ever be a religious service in front of the St. Nicholas fresco again? St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, has always been the most admired saint. I went to Artsakh in 2018 to see St. Nicholas is alive and well in the hearts of Armenians.
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