It was once a beacon of light for an entire country, home to 500 monks, a seat of learning and spiritual fulfilment.
Little remains of the glorious past of the 9th century Tatev Monastery in southern Armenia. But that could soon change thanks to an ambitious restoration project.
During the Middle Ages, Tatev was one of the country’s most important spiritual centres. The university created in the 14th century excelled in scientific, literary, and religious studies.
At its height, Tatev was at the forefront of education. Philosophers, theologians, musicians and artists, the greatest Armenian thinkers of the day would congregate at the university.
Within its imposing walls, three churches and various monuments make up the present complex.
Now, the Tatev Revival Project – a public private initiative – plans to restore the monastery, reviving both its monastic and its scholarly tradition.
The restoration will include work on the famous swinging column, a feat of medieval engineering.
Built in 904 AD, the eight-metre high pillar is crowned with a cross-stone.
But its beauty lies in its pivoting-base which allowed it to tilt. An earth tremor or the sound of the hooves of enemy horses pounding the ground would be enough to set it in motion, alerting the monks to danger.
But the column could not prevent the destruction created by a massive earthquake in 1931 that destroyed much of the complex.
“After the earthquake, the monastery was partially restored on several occasions,” explains Pegor Papayian, head of the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia. “But in the 1980s, in the final years of the Soviet era, there was a full restoration effort. And that was unfortunately largely flawed. There were structural mistakes and there were water leakages.”
Among the monuments that urgently need work – partly due to the Soviet era effort – are the base of the bell tower and the dome of the St. Paul and St. Peter church, the main church of the monastery.
The upper part of the perimeter fence is also damaged.
Gaianè Casnati is one of the specialists who will carry out the restoration of the site. She is also one of the top experts on the monastery.
Casnati divides her time between Armenia and Italy, where she works in the Armenian Studies Centre in Milan.
She explained the project to euronews.
“This monastery has had a very troubled history. From its initial construction until today, the monument has been repeatedly damaged through earthquakes or enemy attacks,” she said.
“Since 1920 it has been practically abandoned and now the Church wants to bring it back to the same level of past centuries, when it was considered a beacon of light in Armenia.
“One of the first interventions will concern the unattractive cement leakages which arise from the restoration carried out in the 1980s.
“A low quality and very liquid cement was used, which leaked down the walls, even covering old inscriptions. The same low quality cement caused the appearance on the walls of incrustations of salt, which damaged the stones and therefore have to be removed.”
Restoring the interior of the cathedral of St. Paul and St. Peter will require particular attention. Its walls were decorated with frescoes, visible in photos taken prior to the 1931 earthquake.
One shows a representation of a throned Christ surrounded by prophets and saints. Now the frescoes have almost completely disappeared.
During the Soviet restoration, the church’s floor were replaced by coloured marble which experts say is not really in keeping. The floor will be relaid using more appropriate stones.
But this is not just about restoring Tatev. The plan is also to create a viable tourism industry for surrounding villages.
“There are six villages surrounding the Tatev area, on either side of the gorge, and they are very impoverished,” said Papazian. “The monastery is the competitive advantage of this area. These people do not have very competitive agriculture, they don’t have natural resources, but they have Tatev. This will bring tourists; this will create a livelihood and jobs for them.”
Promoters hope the monastery will eventually draw students, artists, academics and even pilgrims.
And that it will once again be a beacon of light – at least for this corner of Armenia.