Chuches of Western Armenia: Karmravank

Chuches of Western Armenia: Karmravank


Karmrakvank (sometimes spelt Kamrakvank or Karmravank) is an abandoned Armenian monastery in the historical Rshtunik district of Vaspurakan province. It is now located in the Gevaş district of Van province in Turkey, and is also now known as Göründü Kilise after the name of the nearest village, and Kirmizi Kilise (“Reddish Church”) on account of the colour of its brick dome. Göründü, now inhabited by Kurds, was the Armenian village of Mokhrapet.

Little is known about the monastery’s history – a tradition ascribed its founding to Gagik Artsruni of Vaspurakan. This king was responsible for founding many monasteries in this region, most notably Holy Cross church on Aght’amar Island, and the monastery of St. George of Goms. Karmrakvank got its name from a reliquary the monastery possessed that was decorated with red gemstones and contained a fragment of the True Cross.

In the late 19th century Karmrakvank was one of the few remaining possessions of the Aghtamar Catholicosate. In 1895 it was plundered by Kurds.

General Description

The monastery is located at the upper end of a small valley that descends to the shore of Lake Van [note 1].

The monastic complex survives as two churches and a ruinous defensive wall. The main church, called Surp Astvadzadzin (church of the Holy Mother of God) [note 2], is a large structure with a dome above a tall drum. On its north side, and built against its north wall, is a smaller church whose name is unknown. Both churches are built of irregularly shaped blocks of schist stone. The defensive wall is still fairly intact on the eastern and northern sides of the monastery where it is 1.4 metres thick. On the southern side the wall has completely collapsed and the location of the entrance cannot be identified.

Except for the two churches, there are no surviving original structures within the wall’s precincts. The cluster of single story buildings at the north-western end of the enclosure is modern and postdates the abandonment of the monastery (Thierry identifies them incorrectly as monastic cells). Used in the past as sheep folds and cow barns, they are now derelict and in a state of collapse.

Outside the walls, a little to the southeast of the main church, are the remains of a cemetery. Most of its graves have been dug up by treasure hunters and their gravestones smashed.

There is a spring of drinking water in the base of the valley directly below the monastery. So much of the water is now piped away to further down the valley that it is often dry by summer. The original location of the spring’s outlet is not certain.

Architectural Analysis


Church of the Holy Mother of God (Surp Astvadzadzin)

The plan of this church is rectangular externally. Internally it is a variation on the “domed-hall” plan. Thierry termed it a “domed nave” (nef à coupole): a nave with a barrel vault that is cut in the middle by a dome on pendentives supported by engaged piers. In a typical domed-hall plan, the engaged piers are deep enough to create side arms that extend to the north and south. However, in this church the side arms are reduced to a stepped recession of only some 60cm (though they are still articulated externally through pitched gables). Thierry identified several nearby churches with similar plans, and speculated if it was an architectural form distinctive to Armenian churches in the Van region.

The entrance into the church is on the west facade. On this facade there are also two other doorways located so high above the ground level that they could only have ever been reached by ladders. Similar upper-level doorways exist on at least two other surviving monastic churches in the Lake Van region, at the St. George of Goms and St. Thomas of Gandzak monasteries. The ones on the St. George church are inaccessible, but those on the Gandzak church can be accessed by climbing onto the roof of its narthex. On that church, each door leads to a small, narrow chamber with a stone altar against its east wall. The layout at Karmrakvank’s Surp Astvadzadzin church is a little different: each door leads to a chamber that is open on one side, forming a gallery that overlooks the nave. Thierry (citing Sargissian’s “Description of Little and Great Armenia” from 1864) says that these galleries were once enclosed by a grill and were traditionally regarded as royal oratories. There are traces of a stone balcony along the edge of each gallery, and in the east wall of each chamber there is a niche.

The internal dimensions of the church are 11 metres by 5.4 metres. The dome is 13.25 metres above the current floor level, but a layer of at least 1 metre of earth and debris covers the original floor level.

The apse of the church is horseshoe-shaped. Its domical vault has a row of clay jars set into its base to enhance the acoustics inside the church. There are more clay jars set into the barrel vault of the west arm of the church. On the south side of the apse is a small, windowless chamber that is too small to be a side chapel but may have been a storage area.

The drum of the church is cylindrical internally, octagonal externally, and supports a half-hemisphere dome. Both drum and dome are constructed of brick. The drum has four windows. Above the windows on the outside are hooded shapes that hark back to the hooded mouldings found above the windows of earlier medieval Armenian churches. But these are not true mouldings since they are inset into the drum. Above the level of the windows is a single course of brickwork laid for decorative effect, with the bricks set at angles. Thirteen courses above this is a single course of stonework: a band of red tufa carved with a six-strand interlace. The octagonal pyramid-roof of the dome has a very steep pitch, and is clad with stone slabs. The surface of the cladding is articulated by raised bands that run along the edges and down the middle of each face.

The church originally had a more highly finished exterior than its present condition suggests. The pitched roofs of the church were clad in stone slabs, now mostly gone, that rested on a cornice of finished stone. The exterior walls still retain a fragmentary coating of plaster. On the west facade the plaster exists only on the upper parts and seems to break off at the same level, suggesting that there might once have been a single-story structure in from of the church.

At the apex of the west gable is a partially-destroyed plaque with an inscription in Armenian that is too worn to decipher. On the same gable, on its cornice at the south west corner, is a short inscription dated 1878 that might refer to a repair of the roof. The church has no other surviving building inscriptions that help with its dating. One of the gallery doorways is formed from a reused khachkar. It has an inscription, stating that it was erected in 1306 by a Father Thaddeus as a memorial to Christ [note 3]. There are numerous other khachkars of simpler designs [note 4]reused throughout the walls of the church, both externally and internally. A number of them also have dates: Thierry mentions 1276, 1347, 1380, and 1411. This would suggest that the church was built sometime after the early 15th century. The quantity of reused khachkars indicates that there must have been a religious structure on the site before the present church. There are also a number of inscribed stones on the outside walls: many of these are probably votive inscriptions and are not reused material.

A major earthquake hit the Van region in 1648, destroying numerous churches and requiring their rebuilding. A design feature of these post-1648 churches is the method of transition between the pitched roof of the nave and the vertical surface of the drum: this is often accomplished using a flat, triangular-shaped plane set at 45-degrees (see photo 8 on the Surp Grigor page for an example). This design solution was probably inspired by Muslim kumbets, and is not a form found on earlier Armenian churches. However, at Karmrakvank the traditional solution is still used: a cube with a double-pitched roof (see photo 11 on the Kizilkilise page for an example). This seems to indicate that the church, including its brick dome, was not built after 1648 [note 5].

The North Church

This church is smaller than the main church (the internal dimensions are 6.54m by 3.66m), and it has a different design and a much lower construction quality. It is a barrel-vaulted, single-nave chapel with a horseshoe-shaped eastern apse. The barrel vault is strengthened by a transverse rib supported by pilasters. The north and south walls are articulated as a blind arcade with two very crudely shaped arches.

The entrance into the north church is through its west wall. However, this doorway is now blocked-up and a new entrance has been roughly hacked through the south wall, leading directly into the south church. Thierry saw significance in this opening, proposing that it dated back to the building of the south church and indicated that the north church was older than the south church. I believe it has no significance: the opening only dates from after the monastery’s abandonment and is just a crude breaking-through of the wall to enable the interiors of both churches to be used as a single sheep-fold. The north church is almost certainly younger than the south church because the vault of the north church is supported mostly by the north wall of south church.



1. The large village of Göründü is located in the Gevaş district of Van province and lies 3km off the main Van to Tatvan road. From the village, a road follows the shoreline of lake Van – about 6km beyond Göründü the base of the valley containing Karmrakvank is reached. It is possible to drive up this valley as far as a watering place for sheep (the water piped away from the monastery’s spring emerges here). From this point there is a 40 minute hike up to the monastery.
By foot, Göründü is about a 40 minute walk from the Van-Tatvan road. Behind the village a trail leads up the hillside, over a ridge, and then down into the valley containing the monastery. Using this trail, the hike from Göründü to the monastery takes about 90 minutes (about one hour less than the time to walk there using the shoreline road). The large buses that travel from Van via Tatvan to other cities in Turkey can sometimes be persuaded to stop at the road to Göründü (though you will probably need to pay for a ticket to Tatvan). However, for the return journey it is difficult to find public transport to Van because only infrequent village minibuses will stop – so be back at the main road as early as possible, and be prepaired to wait. 

2. Thierry, Jean-Michel, “Karmrak Vank” in Monastères Arméniens du Vaspurakan in Revue des Études Arméniennes, volume 4, 1967, pages 178-185. Thierry calls the domed church Surp Astvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God) and, based on a colophon in a manuscript having mentioned “at the door of the Holy Sign that is called Karmrak”, postulates that the smaller church may have been named Surp Nishan (Holy Sign). However, N. Hampikian calls the domed church the “Church of Surb Nishan (Saint Mark)” (Armenian Van and Vaspurakan, Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., chapter 6, The Architectural Heritage of Vaspurakan, page 101). The “Saint Mark” appellation is wrong: the proper name “Mark” has no connection with the Armenian word “nishan”, which means a holy cross or mark or sign or icon.
“Surp” is the Armenian word for “holy”. The word “astvadzadzin” (also spelt asdvadzadzin, astuatsatsin, astvatsatsin, etc.) is used by Armenians as an honorific title for the Virgin Mary. The word “aztvadz” is pre-Christian in origin, perhaps originally a deity in the Urartian pantheon of gods, and is the most commonly used name for God in Armenian. “Surp Astvadzadzin”, when used as the name of an Armenian church, is generally rendered in English as “Holy Mother of God” or, less commonly, “Holy Mary” or “Blessed Virgin Mary”, or, the least satisfactory of all, “St. Mary’s”. 

3. This khachkar has been described as belonging to the “school of Rshtunik” (J. M. Thierry & P. Donabédian,Armenian Art, 1989, page 262). Their characteristics are: carved from limestone, long lower arms for the crosses, the cross framed with vine scrolls and complex chains. The small group of surviving examples include one at Varagavank (from c1318), and several at Aght’amar (including the khachkar of patriarch Zakaria from 1444). 

4. The designs of these khachkars are unusual. They are carved on bluish, irregularly shaped slabs of schist. Their energetic designs are hammered or scratched into the flat natural surface of the stone. The arms of the crosses end in two disks, the flowering heads and feet of the crosses are rendered basically, and the crosses often rest on large rosettes. The crosses are almost always framed by arches carved with sinuous vine-scrolls or palmettes. The same type of designs is found on the few remaining stones in the monastery graveyard. Similar gravestones also survive on Aght’amar. 

5. In most parts of historic Armenia brick is an unusual building material to find used in Armenian churches. However, its use appears to have been widespread in the Van region. The drums of the main church and the jamatoun at Varagavank were of brick, the latter dating from post-1648. Brick was also used long before the many post-1648 earthquake reconstructions: for example, the dome of the church of St John at Varagavank was also of brick. Old photographs reveal that it’s drum was much shorter than the post-1648 drums, and the pitch of the conical roof is far shallower. The ruins of the Surp Astvadzadzin church at Surp Grigor monastery indicate that much of its internal structure was also constructed of brick.

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