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Tomb raiders

Tomb raiders

Catholic Church hunt for Armenian saints relics

Armenia entered the 17th century as a ruined country deprived of statehood, with the church being the only uniting force. However, even then, it presented a peculiar interest for “independent looters”, who launched a hunt for the relics of Armenian saints.

PanARMENIAN.Net - According to historian Arakel Davrizhetsi (Arakel of Tabriz): “In the tenure of Catholicos Meikset, Catholic clergymen arrived in Armenia (from Italy) and started touring monasteries in Ararat gavar. They had a book written in their language that resembled a geographic map, which showed the sites of saints’ graves, as well as the chapels with the doors and windows. Following the notes in this book, they found relics of the saints and seized them.”

Then, the historian continues: “St. Hripsime and St. Gayane churches were half destroyed, while the foundation, shrine and floor was dug up by Persians, who searched for church treasures, at the same time desecrating the sacred places.”

Three catholic priests appeared at St. Hripsime Church after wandering for a long time. Looking around, they thought where to start digging to reach the remains. The chapel above the grave was under the ground. It was later left under the shrine when the church was built. There were no doors seen, as those were hidden behind a huge stone that seemed to be one of stones in the wall. However, the priests knew about chapel and succeeded in finding the door. Breaking the ceiling, they penetrated inside, pushed away the gravestone and dug unless they came across the reliquary. They took it out and were about to leave when two Armenian bishops noticed them and asked what they were doing. Not getting a proper answer, the bishops saw the hole in the shrine. Frustrated with the intrusion, they beat robbers and take the relics back to Etchmiadzin. The local residents were shocked to learn that foreigners knew about the chapel and the reliquary inside. The Armenian clergy hoped for a just trial, however, corrupt Catholicos Melikset did not punish the priests and lets them go with part of the relics, while the rest was reburied in Etchmiadzin.

Regained treasure

After taking the relics, the priests headed to Nakhijevan, where they divided the treasure into three parts. They sent one part to a Catholic monastery in Isfahan and kept the other two parts, waiting for an opportunity to transport them to Rome through India. A certain Krikor, who served at the Isfahan monastery, learnt about the plans and informed bishop Davit, who, together with the local Armenian nobles, appealed to mayor Mirza Mammad with a request to get the relics back. The mayor ordered some of his guards to accompany the Armenians to the monastery and take the relics. After long search, the remaining parts were found as well. The captured priests stood a trial of vardapet Poghos, however, the latter lets them free, as they were Christians. Taking a part of the relics, vardapet erects St. Hripsime church in Nachijevan.

Punishment

The Catholic priests appeared before the Shah, but he let him go as well, over political motives. Glad to be free, the priests again left for Ararat gavar to search for other relics and met Mahsut-sultan, the gavar ruler on their way. During a conversation about faith, the sultan asked the priests whether they worshiped Prophet Muḥammad and got a rude answer: “Who is Muḥammad? He is hardly worth a dog.” The sultan was deeply insulted but kept silent. However, when the priests continued their way the sultan sent his people to kill them.

A time to gather stones together

Arakel Davrizhetsi’s story embraces the 17th century and also tells how churches in Etchmiadzin were reconstructed under Catholicos Philipos. During the reconstruction of St. Gayane and St. Hripsime churches, Monk Hovhannes recovered the reliquary of Gayane, as well as the remains of St. Hripsime, presumably those that the bishops saved many many years ago…

PanARMENIAN.Net / Tsets
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