Gandzasar facelift: Vandalism or restoration as tiling continues at Karabakh medieval church’s fence?

Gandzasar facelift: Vandalism or restoration as tiling continues at Karabakh medieval church’s fence?

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The recently initiated tiling of the wall of a medieval church in Karabakh has stirred a great controversy among the public, especially after some images of the re-facing work were posted online.


Gandzasar or Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich (St. John the Baptist) Church is a 13th century monastic complex situated in the village of Vank of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Martakert district.

For centuries it was considered to be a major religious center of Armenia’s eastern provinces. Today, the wall of the church is being tiled at the initiative of and with funding from Russia-based businessman and well-known benefactor Levon Hayrapetyan, who is a native of Karabakh. The businessman has invested millions of dollars in the rebuilding of war-torn Karabakh and that also included the restoration of the monastic compound and the road leading there years ago.

But young activists of a Facebook group called “We Won’t Keep Silent” claim the tiling of the monastic complex walls is tantamount to destroying a historical and cultural value. Some even call it vandalism.

State bodies in Karabakh, in particular head of the Monuments Preservation and Study Division at the NKR Government-affiliated Tourism Department Slava Sargsyan earlier announced that they were, too, against the initiative because the work would harm the monastic complex’s appearance and would result it its failure to comply with UNESCO standards -- in other words the renovations would hamper the complex’s inclusion in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list.

However, the pastor of the St. John the Baptist Church in Gandzasar, Fr. Grigor Markosyan, downplays such concerns, saying that the church will incur no harm as a historical and cultural value.

“I believe UNESCO attaches importance to the church where under the altar there are so many sacred objects rather than to the wall, because here the cultural value is the church,” the priest explained.

Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan, the primate of the Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, says that at the advise of His Holiness, he had written a letter to the Artsakh Monuments Department and the agency got in touch with Armenia and made a negative decision about the tiling of the church walls. However, according to the archbishop, the wall runs the risk of collapsing, so they were pressed for time and the kind of work was a necessity and only means to save the wall.

“In fact, the church walls are not of the thirteenth century, but were constructed later. But they were periodically dismantled and repaired. The fence needs repairing today as well, because grass keeps growing inside the walls, which weakens the construction and adds to the danger of a collapse,” says Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan, adding that no particular architecture is needed for tiling and that’s why no professional group had been called in.

The executive director of the Ata Vank Les company that is carrying out the project is Vladimir Hayrapetyan, who is a younger brother of Levon Hayrapetyan. He insists that unless the wall that was built in 1980-84 is fortified it will collapse soon.

“When cement is mixed with sand it becomes concrete and in the 13th century there was no cement. But here everything is made of cement, simply there was so little cement that the concrete is getting ruined. I even found the person who worked on this wall, he is still alive and lives in Stepanakert,” says Hayrapetyan, adding that the controversy around the issue was stirred on purpose by those who would want to do the work themselves.

According to Hayrapetyan, a special workshop was set up on the site to process the Gandzasar wall stones. He said four people were currently involved in the wall restoration work, but added that another 13 people would join when they got permission so that the work could be finished more quickly. The estimated cost of the total wall tiling work is $1 million.

Meanwhile, many in the Vank village also oppose the tiling of the Church’s walls.

“This wall has been there for ages and I’m against its tiling. Today we need antiquities, we want to prove that it is Armenian, but the Turks will see this and say that we built it only recently,” one elderly resident in the village told ArmeniaNow.

Nevertheless, despite different opinions, the work at the St. John the Baptist Church walls in Gandzasar continues and the project is expected to be completed by autumn.