By Gayane Abrahamyan
Armenian officials tend to be quick to voice concern over the destruction or deterioration of Armenian churches and monasteries in neighboring Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. But conservationists complain that the same officials who sound the alarm about sites abroad, often are reticent about preservationist challenges within Armenia itself.
Experts claim that almost 50 percent of the 24,000 religious monuments in Armenia are in urgent need of repair, and that around 30 percent are on the verge of collapse.
For many, Armenia’s status as the first country in the world to accept Christianity as a state religion (in 301 AD) means that the dilapidated state of religious monuments is a blow to national pride. “Who among our officials has seen the state of the churches in our country?” said historian Rafael Tadevosian, a member of a public commission on the conservation of historical-national values and monuments.
The area around central Armenia’s Geghardavank Monastery, founded in the 4th century, “is a dump with as much garbage and waste as there is in city dumps,” asserted Samvel Karapetian, a historian and the head of Research on Armenian Architecture, a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization that promotes architectural preservation. “And it’s not the Turks or Georgians or Azerbaijanis who do that. We are the ones littering, polluting, destroying.”
While the Armenian government has been part of successful campaigns for the restoration of the 10th-century Church of the Holy Cross near Turkey’s Lake Van, and is engaged in an ongoing tug-of-war with Tbilisi over the state of Armenian churches in Georgia, 5 officials seem less active when it comes to preservationist issues inside the country.
One rare exception occurred in 2011, when a popular campaign assembled video footage that showed the derelict state of northern Armenia’s 10th century Sanahin monastery complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The footage prompted a strong wave of discontent against the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, who responded that he had “nothing to do with the monasteries and churches in the mountains.”
Amid Facebook calls for Garegin II’s resignation, the Ministry of Culture created a commission on churches and invited German experts to examine the property to identify the cause of gaping cracks in Sanahin’s walls. A restoration effort began early this year.
Money is the most frequently cited problem. The Armenian government only started allocating money for the restoration of historical-cultural monuments in 2005, 14 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the time since, the dram-equivalent of around $5 million has been spent to restore 34 churches.
The restoration process remains controversial in Armenia. In 2009, the Chamber of Control charged that the Ministry of Culture had misused 186 million drams ($465,000) out of its budget, resulting in “incorrect, unprofessional reconstruction” work at the 12th-century Kobair monastery, the 10th-century Vahanavank monastery and the 7th-century Hnevank monastery.
Stones removed from the original structures “were later replaced by new ones of a different kind,” resulting in the “distortion” of the monasteries’ original design, Ishkhan Zakarian, chair of the Chamber of Control, asserted in a 2010 report to parliament.
(As a result, the head of the ministry’s agency for the protection of historical-cultural monuments, Gagik Gyurjian, was dismissed, but three months later was appointed as head of one of Yerevan’s most important museums, the Erebuni Fortress, dating from the 8th century BC).
Serzhik Arakelian, the current head of the Ministry of Culture’s Historical-Cultural Monument Protection Agency, told EurasiaNet.org that his agency now has “stricter and more professional control over restoration work.”
Yet he concedes that the state “doesn’t have too much money to do everything.”
Citing the near-destruction of 13th-century inscriptions on the walls of Haghartsin Monastery in northeastern Armenia, Karapetian, the preservationist, argued that, in some cases, it is better not to attempt repair work on Armenian churches and monasteries at all since “the monument suffers rather than benefits.”
Meanwhile, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, also periodically comments that it lacks the funds to look after Armenia’s churches and monasteries. “We [the Church] have limited resources and have to restore the monuments by state means, but if those funds keep being misused, then one day everything will simply disappear,” commented Father Vahram Melikian, a church spokesperson.
Bakur Hovsepian, a state-appointed administrator who oversees the 12th-century Goshavank Monastery in northern Armenia, says he has repeatedly turned to the Ministry of Culture and Church for help in restoring the monastery’s main church, Mariam Astvatsatsin (Church of the Virgin Mary). He contends that the structure is on the verge of collapse.
The monastery administration has decided to close parts of the church to tourists to avoid accidents from stones falling from the church walls and dome.
But the short response from church and state alike is always the same: “No money.”
Hovsepian says that he wonders why the 20 million – 26 million drams ($50,000-$60,000) the monastery sends per year to Echmiadzin from the sale of candles, souvenirs and visitor donations cannot be used. Echmiadzin representatives say they are trying to find private sponsors to underwrite preservation work.
Deputy Culture Minister Arev Samuelian contends that “the issues are under control.” He places the burden for action on the general Armenian public.
“Attitudes have to change. The state or the church cannot put guards in front of each church to not let people write on the walls or light candles on cross-stones or inscribe their names,” Samuelian told EurasiaNet.org. “Society has to become aware of the value of [historical] monuments.”
“The ministry,” she added, “is not almighty.”
Editor’s note: Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.
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