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| Contents |
| Contents | ................................................................................................... 2
() .................................................................................. 3
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1864 . ............................................................................. 9
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. .................................................... 20
.......................................................... 22
The Surb Nshan Project (English) ................................................................................... 24
Contents in English ......................................................................................................... 24
Introduction..................................................................................................................... 25
The earliest information about the church .......................................................................... 26
Construction of the new church building ............................................................................ 27
Solemn consecration of the new building in 1864 .............................................................. 29
Lapidary inscriptions ........................................................................................................ 31
St. Nshan as a religious center ......................................................................................... 33
Vardanants School .......................................................................................................... 34
Church property .............................................................................................................. 35
St. Nshan in Soviet years ................................................................................................. 36
Latest developments around St. Nshan ............................................................................. 37
Distribute information about Surb Nshan............................................................................ 39
( ) ................................................................................... 41
................................................................................................. 41
....................................................................................................................... 42
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1864 . ........................................................ 46
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. ............................................................................................ 53
. ............................................................. 54
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| Photos | .........................................................................................58
Poster............................................................................................................................................71

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The Surb Nshan Project (English)

Contents in English
The Surb Nshan Project (English) ............................................................................................ 24
Contents in English ..................................................................................................................... 24
Introduction.................................................................................................................................. 25
The earliest information about the church................................................................................... 26
Construction of the new church building ..................................................................................... 27
Solemn consecration of the new building in 1864...................................................................... 29
Lapidary inscriptions.................................................................................................................... 31
St. Nshan as a religious center ................................................................................................... 33
Vardanants School ...................................................................................................................... 34
Church property........................................................................................................................... 35
St. Nshan in Soviet years ............................................................................................................ 36
Latest developments around St. Nshan ...................................................................................... 37
Distribute information about Surb Nshan .................................................................................... 39

24

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Introduction
St. Nshan church in Akhaltskha (Zarehnu Surb Nshan, i. e. Holy Sign Church, or St.
Vardanants) is one of the most important churches in Lower Javakhk (Samtskhe).
It was taken from the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1938 (see below), and the
problem of its return still is not solved. Recent Armenian-Georgian disputes around
some churches stress importance of unbiased study of this problem.
The first aim of the Surb Nshan project is to collect material about St. Nshan from
various sources and to present them in the Internet for maximally wide access. The
next aim is translation of the material to English and Russian to present the issue to
broader audience (we also prepare French and Georgian translations).
We hope this material will also help Georgian readers to understand how important
is St. Nshan for Armenians, and how harmful and unpromising are attempts of its
kartvelisation. The Georgian people has such a historical heritage that doesnt
need to be enriched by a church, the Armenian origin of which is more then
convincingly documented.
Sometimes the political situation pushes to do historical mistakes (such as: seizing
of many churches in the Soviet years of fighting atheism). But sometimes poetical
development allows to correct the mistakes done (such as: the spiritual rebirth of
the last Soviet years allowed to restore thousands of churches in Armenia, Georgia,
Russia and elsewhere). But if one doesnt use those opportunities to correct
mistakes, the mistakes get even worst. In 1990 the attempts to return St. Nshan
went I a very unexpected way (see below). Thus, the problem created in 1938 did
no receive a solution in 1990, but yet received one more layer, which reflected
the nationalist issues of the collapsing USSR.
Now, twenty years after the events of 1990 we again have the same problem to
solve. And it depends on us if we solve it or add one more layer to it.
The main source of historical information for the project was the valuable
monography of Samvel Karapetian Akhaltskha. A few other sources also are used.
Information on the newest period is based on testimonials of eyewitnesses. The
Russian text is prepared by Pandukht. The English version and edition are done by
Kars. Photos are taken by Armenian Youth Center in Akhaltskha. The project
concept, Armenian text, design and programming are done by Javakhk191523.com site.
The authors of this project invite to cooperation everybody, who has information,
document, photos of St. Nshan. Your material will be published with your
contribution acknowledged.

Javakhk.net, Hayastan.com
Akhalkalak - Akhaltskha - Yerevan - Los Angeles, 2009

25

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The earliest information about the church


Zarehnu St. Nshan (St. Vardanants),
Church of Saint Sign of Zarehni,
Church of Saint Vardan is a domed
church. It is located in a picturesque
hill in Marda quarter of Akhaltskha
City (Lower Javakhk).
The exact date of its founding is not
known for certain. One of the first
references to the church dates back
to 1575: In the year of 1024 of
Armenian calendar (1575) one
pilgrim
(to
Jerusalem)
Mkrtich
arrives to the doors of Akhaltskhas
St. Nshan for worshipping, erects a
new altar and leaves a notation
about it, asking to be remembered
in the liturgy. (1)
Information about the following restoration of the church is found in a note, written
in 1619 and attached to a manuscript, dated 1445: And Gods Church of Saint
Sign, destructed by infidels long time ago, has been restored. In the same
manuscript it is noted, that This memorandum is written in the capital city of
Akhaltskha, under the auspices of Zarehnu St. Nshan (2). In the same year of
1619, the following was donated to the Church: two crosses, one beautiful goldembroidered chasuble with complete vestment, one cilice, one cover for the ambon,
one censer (3).
It is noteworthy that the location
of the church (and sometimes of
the entire hill) in Akhaltskha was
called Surb Nshan even after the
demolition of the old church.
Moreover, the people would call
the church Surb Nshan even
after a new church building was
erected in 1864 and officially
consecrated as St. Vardanants
(Saint Vardan the Warrior).

Akhaltskha in 19th century

(1) Hakobian, P., To reasonability (in Armenian), St. Echmiadzin, p. 51.


(2) Armenian manuscripts of 17th century (in Armenian), A, Yerevan, 1976, p. 687.
(3) Same place.

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Construction of the new church building


Past two and a half centuries, by the middle of the 19th century, the hill where St.
Nshan was located was still called St. Nshan (4), even though the original old
church, within the last two centuries, turned into ruins, not subject to restoration.
As reported by Russkiy Vestnik in 1862, In the city of Akhaltskha, on the location
called Surb Nshan, the construction of the church of St. Vardan the warrior has
begun(5).
The permit for the construction of the church,
with project authorization, was issued in 1861
(6).

All

expenses

of

the

construction

were

financed by the Honorary Citizen of Akhaltskha


Vardan

Vardanyants.

The

Russkiy

Vestnik

informs: by the expense of righteous civil


servant, nobleman, pilgrim Vardan Vardanyants,
and by his advice, the Diocese vicar in the city,
vardapet Grigor Saginyants asked and received
the grace of Saint Echmiadzins Sacred Synod to
permit the income of the new church be assigned
for the education of poor students ov the local
College(7).
Project of St. Nshan church (St.
Vardanants) in Akhaltskha (the
original of the project is kept in
NAA (National Archive of Armenia, . 53, . 1, . 125, . 5).

This is what writes about it Meghu Hayastani, in


1864: Year by year the need for a church was
sensed, but none of the plans nurtured by the
spiritual authorities realized, for the lack of
financial means.

Everybody was hoping for a patron, who would undertake this big task, inspired by
piety. [] devoted citizen of Akhaltskha, warrant officer Vardan Vardanyants, one
of the Erzerum migrants, who, on his own expense, built the notorious and
beautiful stone church on the sanctuary called Surb Nshan(8).

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The churchs foundation ceremony was attended


by Armenian clergy, representatives of the
Armenian Catholic, Georgian, Russian clergy,
notorious public figures. During the ceremony
Father Grigor vardapet Saginyan noted, that the
temple is being built specificly on these ruins
since, according to the tradition, thats where
the old church was (9).
The construction work lasted a little over two
years and was completed in 1864.

Exterior of the church is a rectangular composition with triple-pitched central dome,


which was widely accepted by the Armenian church architecture of Middle Ages. It
is built by finely ground stone, the interior walls are plastered. Its height is 5.
length is 7,5, width is 5,5 cubits, wall width 5 spans. The temple has three
entrances from the northern, southern and western facades, and two pairs of
interior pylons, as well as vestries to the both sides of the altar. The hexagonal
drum, which rises to pointed spire, is supported by vaulted archs rested on
columns. A three-storied bell tower is attached to the western faade, which is
standing on four columns on the level of the first and second stories, and on six
columns on the level of the third storey. External measurements are: 15,35 x
10,83 m. Materials of Caucasus archeology (19th c.) says the following, regarding
the architectural appearance of the church: On the top of the hill, over the
fortress, there is a new Armenian church, in the style of Echmiadzin temple, with
deck-through and lateral bell towers (10).

(4) (The list of Armenian manuscripts of private


personalities, in Armenian) , , . 13, , 1980, p. 331.
(5) ( , "Russian News"), 1862, N 27, p. 3.
(6) NAA (National Archive of Armenia), . 56, . 1, q. 6228, papers 33-34.
(7) ( , "Russian News"), 1862, N 27, p. 3.
(8) Hazarapetiants, I., Solemn consecration of St. Vardan church in Akhaltskha (in
Armenian), "Mekhu Hayastani", 1864, N 18, p. 148.
(9) "Mekhu Hayastani", 1862, N 27, p. 107.
(10) Archeological materials of Caucasus, issue IV, p. 75 (in the original: "...
, ,
...").

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Solemn consecration of the new building


in 1864
The solemn inauguration took place on February 27, 1864. This important event is
described by its participant Isahak Hazarapetyants.

The conduction of the solemn ceremony was scheduled for February 27, i.e. on
Pancake Friday, when the Armenian Church celebrates St. Vardanants holyday; in
the evening of the church celebration, the Akhaltskha vicar bishop Grigor
appropriately dressed and with all church brethren exited the St. Savior Church
and headed towards the newly built temple.
Following the clerical procession there were people of Akhaltskha and artisans,
visiting from other places to celebrate the occasion, standing along the road, on
both sides of it, with their banners it was a glamorous scene; the sunrays, as if to
give more splendor to this sight, breaking through reddish clouds, reflected on gold
and silver sacred cruets; the bell rings blended with sweet chorus of psalm
chanting, roofs and windows of the houses on both sides of the passing procession
were filled with more or less festively dressed women and children. Upon
approaching the new church, the clergy conducted evening liturgy on the eve of the
upcoming holyday. And on February 27, at 10 oclock in the morning, in the
presence of all civil and military ranks who were invited by the builder of the
church, Mr. Vardanyants His Holiness bishop Grigor, accompanied with clergy,
conducted the consecration of the church and christened it by the name of Great
Martyr Saint Vardan the Warrior

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Prophetic words sounded in the speech of


Isahak Hazarapetyants, which described Surb
Nshan in the best way possible:


(We built this beautiful
temple, and it has become a place of holiness
and remembrance for us...) (11).
The construction of the new church actually
became a significant event for Armenians of
Akhaltskha.

Floorplan of the church according


to the project (1861) and the
finalized building (measurements
by S. Hakobyan)

Tombstones of Akhaltskhas Honorary Citizen Vardan Vardanyants and his


spouse.

(11) Hazarapetiants, I., the cited source, p. 149. See also ", 27 1864
..."
(in Armenian).

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Lapidary inscriptions
No lapidary inscriptions preserved from the older building of St. Nshan before 1864.
The existing inscriptions are related to the newer building only. Lapidary inscription
on the eastern faade of St. Nshan (St. Vardanants) church.
There is an inscription in 9 lines on the eastern faade:

,

.
, , ,
, , ,
, ,
,
,
1861 1863 1868 .
This temple of the Lord, exuberating in the name of St. Vardanants,
which was erected by Vardan Vardanyants, on his own expense,
for ever-living memory of his soul and the souls of his beloved:
father Aghabab, mother Taguhi honorable parents,
wife Maryam, brother Stepanos, sister Peprone,
his son, a nobleman Hamazasp, daughter Gayane,
daughter-in-law Eranuhi and the uncle mahtesi Hakob,
newborn grandchildren: the elder Hmayak, the younger Vardan.
Started in the year of 1861 and consecrated in 1863 and completed in
1868.

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The inscription in 8 lines on the northern faade:

() () ()
()
()()
,

()
()() () ()

Under the supreme supervision of Lords powers,
this temple of Saint Vardanats was erected
in memory of honorable house of Vardanyants,
by diligent contribution of the same Vardanyants,
which shall rest, with eternal hope,
at this holy Armenian church.
During the patriarchate of His Holyness, elected Catholicos Matthew the
First
and the vicar bishop Grigoris, from Saginyan family.

The inscription on the northern faade was


destroyed during partial repair work in 1970-ies
(photo 1988).

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St. Nshan as a religious center


From 1864 the priest of the church was
Hovhannes Arvanyants (12).
On

January

13,

1879,

Deacon

Tigran

Sisakyants was consecrated as the priest of


the

church,

before

that

he

served

in

Vardanyan School for ten years (13).


In 1888 the ktitor of the church was
Alexander Borakchyants (14).
In 1904 two priests of the church are
mentioned:

Gevorg

Ter-Sisakyants

(consecrated as priest in 1879) and Minas


Aznavuryan (October 11, 1897) (15).
In 1897 the parish of St. Vardanants church consisted of 347 homes, out of which
246 were served by priest Gevorg Sisakyants and 91 by gray-haired priest Grigor
Vanandyants.

(12) Matenadaran, pap. 157, doc. 276, p. 52.


(13) Mekhu Hayastani , 1879, N 7, p. 4.
(14) Ararat, 1888, p. 510.
(15) NAA (National Archive of Armenia), . 53, . 1, . 795, . 29, 66.

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Vardanants School
National benefactors, the Vardanyants, started to take steps in opening of an
Armenian school as soon as 1864, in order for the children of that location, who
cannot overcome long distance because of being far away from the other part of
the town, did not remain deprived of science and faith (16). However, as attested
by the schools construction inscription, which was miraculously preserved in the
Akhaltskha Fortress museum, the school was founded in 1865.
The inscription regarding the foundation of St. Vardanants boys school (presently
inside a mosque, turned to a museum):

[] ()
... '
... ...
... ()()()
... () ()()()
[] '
...
... , 4.1.1865
In 1866, Akhaltskhas hereditary honorary citizen Hamazasp Vardanyants
constructs the school building, spending 8000 rubles of his own money and
allocates 1000 rubles annually for the maintenance of the establishment (17).
In the school, they were learning reading, arithmetic, Law of God, Armenian and
Russian calligraphy, morals and singing. In 1869 the teachers of the school were:
Hovhannes Hakobyants, Meliksedek Mkrtchyan, Tigran Sisakyants, Ghazaros
Baghdasaryants and priest Martiros Metsatunyants. The school was supported by
the means of St. Nshan church (18), and by the means of the founder. According
to Garegin Ghazinyants, by the August of 1868 the school had one prep class, first
and second grades, 4 teachers (19).
In 1872 the inhabitants of Marda district of Akhaltskha city send a letter to the
Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg IV, where they note the work of the school in

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particular and ask him to distinguish the benefactor with some kind of incentive
(20).
Martiros Dzitoghtsyan visits the school in 1875 and, having felt pleased and
satisfied by the achievements of the students, praises them and donates 50 silver
rubles for obtaining stationery (21).
However, due to material causes the school closes down after few years, in 1884.
During the years of 1864-1884 the school had 90 to 160 students per year.

(16) Matenadaran, pap. 157, doc. 275, p. 51.


(17) NAA (National Archive of Armenia), . 355, . 1, . 329, . 3.
(18) Mekhu Hayastani, 1868, N 36, p. 275.
(19) Same place.
(20) NAA (National Archive of Armenia), . 56, . 1, . 6228, . 2.
(21) Ararat, 1875, August, p. 319.

Church property
St. Nshan church owned tax exempt real estate
property (see details in the Armenian version).
The following is a short description of the church
property.
According
to
property
inventories,
conducted on May 27, 186, and February 15, 1875,
the church owned: the adjacent lot, the school (built
in 1864), two cists (given as a gift by Vardan
Vardanyants), one-storey stone building with
adjacent lot, a portion of a fruit orchard and a garden
(given as a gift by Arakel Saginyants), a grain barn
(built in 1869), two hides of farm land, acquired on
September 2, 1868 by bishop Grigor Saginyants and
donated by him to the church school (22).

(22) NAA (National Archive of Armenia), . 53, . 1, . 125, . 40-40.

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St. Nshan in Soviet years


In 1938, by the decision of Soviet government authorities, church services in St.
Nshan were prohibited. Despite this, the church continued to function up to 1941.
In 1941-1943 the church was used as a warehouse for military uniforms, in 19431949 as a storage for general content, and from 1949 to 1970 as salt
warehouse.

Akhaltskha. View of St. Nshan (St.


Vardanants) church from northeast (photo of 1960-ies)

In March of 1957, in a memorandum


report, sent to the Chairman of the
Council of Religious Affairs of the Council
of Ministers of the USSR, an authorized
person from a similar Council in Georgia,
Shalutashvili, reports, that Akhaltskhas
St. Nishan Armenian church was built in
1840. The floor space of the church
building is 107 square meters. From the
moment of closing of the church, the
building up to present time is used as
district archive. In 1956, the District
Executive Committee installed special
two-layer wooden shelves inside the
church building for safekeeping of
archival material; a working room for the
district archive employees was also built.
Total amount of 15 thousand rubles was
spent for all of this (23).

In the 70-ies the church was partially restored and then it was used as the District
Council building; in the process of said restoration the lapidary inscription
disappeared from the tympanum of the northern entrance (24).
In 1976-1978 representatives of the towns Armenian community and priests
brothers Ruben and Shmavon Saghoyans cleaned up the church and were
eventually fined by the authorities, for doing that. The church was still not returned
to the Armenian people and later became the district Museum of Ethnography
(Museum of Friendship of Nations).

(23) (Proc. of Arm. Archives) , 2001, N 1, p. 91 (in original: " ".


" 1840 . 107
. ,
. 1956
,
. 15

").
(24) Karapetyan, S., Marutyan, A., Nahatakyan, R., St. Vardananc church (St. Nshan) in
Akhaltskha (in Russian).

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Latest developments around St. Nshan


With beginning of the end of the Soviet era, the process of returning of church
buildings, expropriated from the faithful during the Soviet years, also began.
Thousands of churches were returned to true owners in Armenia, Georgia, Russia.
This process also touched many churches in Javakhk. Unfortunately, unforeseen
problems aroused in connection with St. Nshan the process of returning of an
Armenian temple, belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church, became a hostage
of inter-ethnic intolerance, which swept through Georgia during the rule of
nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
On April 24, 1990, Armenians of
Akhaltskha were marking the 75th
anniversary of the Genocide of
Armenians
in
1915-1923.
The
mourning
procession
peacefully
entered the St. Nshan church. They
took out museum exhibit items and
placed a church bell (earlier priest
Ruben had received permission for
returning of St. Nshan, from the
Chairman of the District Executive
Committee Otari Jinchveladze). The
mourning procession turned into a
spontaneous, perpetual rally at the
church.
Unfortunately, certain circles in Georgia took it with hostility (towering on a hill, St.
Nshan dominates over the city and has a symbolic significance for the city). Roads,
conncting Akhaltskha with Armenia and with Akhalkalak were cordoned off, the post
was blocked. Rumors were intentionally spread throughout Georgia, claiming that
Armenians blew up a Georgian school in Akhaltskha, that there are numerous
victims, many dead children Armed forces were started pulling in to Akhaltskha.
There were up to 1000-1500 Armenians at St. Nshan church, everybody
unarmed. But according to witnesses, in the center of the city, by a hotel, more
than 5000-6000 Georgians have gathered, many of them armed. There was a
real threat of inter-ethnic clash. Fortunately, Armenians and Georgians were
successful, with the help of negotiations, in subduing the emotions, and the rallies
dispersed peacefully.
Practically, Akhaltskha Armenians did not receive any help from outside. Even
Armenian Apostolic Church did not take any steps for returning its own church St.
Nshan. This atmosphere of indifference allowed the authorities to punish the
movement activists in Akhaltskha. Many influential Armenians of the city lost their
employment, some even had to leave Javakhk.

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Moreover, someone even cooked up a new Georgian name for the church
Iovane Natlismtsemeli (John the Baptist). Simultaneously it was declared a
monument of Georgian culture, as well as the famous educational complex at St.
Nshan. In April of 2005 gravestones with Georgian-language inscriptions appeared
in the churchyard (25).
In January of 2002 the relief hollows of the lapidary inscription on the eastern
faade were outlined with black paint by unknown persons, and as a result it looked
like new. To identify the perpetrators was impossible, but a professor, Doctor of
Historical Sciences Tina Ivelashvili decklared: It has become known to us, from
confidential sources, that this inscription was carved by the members of illegal
organization Javakhk, by direct orders from Yerevan. She also announced that
before there was no lapidary inscription on the church at all (26) (see details in
(27)).
In April of 2004 next to St. Nshan church a Khachkar was installed in memory of
victims of the Genocide of Armenians in 1915-1923. However, some time later the
Khachkar was dismantled by Georgian law enforcement personnel, allegedly
because of the absence of a permit for such installation, even though there was
such a permit. And only a day prior to the opening (April 24), all problems
regarding the installation of the monument were successfully resolved.
Fortunately, there are Georgian public figures, who accept historical realities. For
example, Georgian ombudsman Sozar Subari, after visiting Akhaltskha, announced:
After seeing St. Nshan church, I personally have absolutely no doubts that it is an
Armenian church both by the architecture and by the essence. In any case, the
ownership of St. Nshan church can be established within a week (28).

(25) "", 2003, N 4, p. 14. These attempts were answered in the Armenian press
( , , , " ", 22.02.2003, p.3,
in Russian; Karapetyan, S. - ..., , 8.02.-2006, No
8, in Armenian).
(26) Karapetyan, S., Marutyan, A., Nahatakyan, R., cites source, p. 85.
(27) " ", 2004, N 2, in Georgian.
(28) , 02.03.2006, N 38, in Armenian.

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| Photos |

Photos from the book of Samvel Karapetyan "Akhaltskha"

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Photos from Armenian Youth Center in Akhaltskha

www.Akhaltskha.net

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