St. John the Baptist Monastery
At one point, Surp Garabed Monastery (or Vank, in Armenian) in Efkere was one of the most important sites of pilgrimage for Armenians throughout the Ottoman Empire. Robert Hewson (Armenia: A Historical Atlas, 2001) describes it as “one of the wealthiest, most frequented, and most sacred shrines of the Armenian Church.”
It should be noted that there were two Surp Garabed Monasteries in the Ottoman Empire of extreme importance to Armenians, the other being near Mus.
Known in Turkish as Efkere Buyuk Manastir, the Armenians named the monastery after St. John the Baptist, whose relics are said to be housed here. Legend holds that St. John the Evangelist located the remains of St. John the Baptist in Jerusalem, and sent these relics to Ephesus. The relics were relocated to Caesarea in 251, and in 301, St. Gregory the Illuminator appealed for them. St. Gregory was said to have received a portion of the relics (the bones of the left arm and of both legs), and carried these relics with him as he traveled from Caesarea to Armenia. Resting at the site that would become the monastery, it is said that he raised a large cross on the hillside, and left a portion of these remains in Efkere. The hillside where the monastery is located is known as Surp Khatch, or Holy Cross, in reference to St. Gregory’s raising of the cross here. Another portion of these same relics are said to be at the monastery with the same name near Mus.
The exact date of origin of Efkere’s Surp Garabed Vank is unknown, however, and some locals believed that it was St. Thadeus who established it it in the first century, rather than St. Gregory the Illuminator in the fourth century.
The first clear reference to the monastery is from an Armenian colophon dated 1206.
By the time Simeon Lehatsi visited the monastery in 1617-1618, Surp Garabed Vank was clearly a large, and impressive center:
“St. Garabed, which was on the high hill, with a dome, large and glorious, the whole city lying before it. And there is a vast and expansive field before the monastery. And all the buildings and villages are Armenian, and all the churches and monasteries are built and completed…And it is quite an amazing building…”
Four images of Surp Garabed Vank. The photograph on the left dates from before 1915, and the second photograph, which is a close-up of the eastern portion, is circa 1903. Both of these images were initially postcards, and have been credited to M. R. Chalukian and A. Stepanian, of Talas. The third photograph shows the central courtyard of the monastery, prior to 1915. The final image was an engraving of the eastern portion of the monastery published in Tour de Monde, Paris, 1896.
Reverend H.F. Tozer traveled to this part of Anatolia in the late nineteenth century, and his description of Surp Garabed Vank is included in his narrative, Turkish Armenia (Longmans Green and Co., London, 1881):The gate of the entrance stands in the middle of the front, where a long terrace overlooks the steep slopes below. Here we found the monks and a number of the other occupants of the monastery waiting to welcome us, for one of our zaptiehs had ridden on and given notice of our coming. By them we were conducted to the guest chamber, a good-sized room with a divan running around three sides of it, and a large airy window occupying the whole of the front, and commanding a superb view…In Armenia we heard it spoken of as ranking probably third among the conventual establishments of the Armenian Church, those of Etchmiadzin in Russian Armenia and of Jerusalem being the two first…
After the moon rose, the appearance of the plain below our windows, with the long shadows of the poplars thrown over it, was very impressive. During the night, we heard the noise of the semantron, a wooden board, grasped in the middle by the left hand, and repeatedly struck with a mallet – by which here, as in the Greek Church, the brethren are summoned to prayers; and again, at an early hour of the morning, the sound of chanting proceeded from the church, boys voices being distinctly audible among the others.
The monastery had many revisions and additions carried out over the centuries, and became a sprawling complex by the time of the First World War. The northern half of the complex included a school building with houses for teachers, dormitories, a kitchen, and a library with an extensive manuscript collection. The southern half of the complex included a barn, a very large courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls, and 93 rooms for pilgrims.
As one entered the monastery from the side, a few steps up were climbed, which led into an open area. From here, one could enter the church of the Holy Archangel. This beautiful sanctuary had its walls covered with tiles from Kutahya, extending 3 feet above the ground. Above these tiles, two rows of paintings, all framed in gilt, lined the walls.
A chapel of even more importance within the monastery was Surp Garabed Church, which was the older of the two sanctuaries. This was the site of the crypt which contained the relics of St. John the Baptist. Two doors heavily inlaid with mother of pearl led into the crypt.
The doors leading to the tomb of St. John the Baptist, left, and the tomb altar of the saint, right.
The monastery was generally open to the villagers daily for prayer.
In addition, the expansive grounds in front of the monastery were also an important social gathering place for Armenians from Efkere, as well as from much of the surrounding area. Aleksan Krikorian, a native of Fenesse, Turkey, related the significance that the monastery had to Armenians from his village, which was some forty miles from Efkere:
“Soorp Garabed Monastery in Efkereh was…a venerated holy place for the natives of Evereg-Fenesse. The pilgrimage to this sanctuary was organized in connection with the Transfiguration. Armenian pilgrims in large numbers traveled there from all over to pray, rejoice and spend a pleasant holiday. The rooms of the monastery were made available to the guests…People made donations to the monastery and paid for ‘madagh,’ each according to his means. Those having made vows or pledges also brought gifts, such as silver items. ‘Madagh,’ the Divine Liturgy, and various services were held. Candles were lit on the grave of Soorp Garabed and lame, blind and crippled persons, as well as those suffering from other afflictions, would kiss the ground, hoping for miraculous cures. Those women, who bore children only after participating in a pilgrimage to Soorp Garabed Monastery, took their children there and ‘bought’ them from the saint in order not to remain indebted to him…After the Divine Liturgy, a feast was prepared and the monastery confines looked like a fairground.”³²
Yeghiazarian describes the monastic complex as follows:
The sight of its arched promenade, its amphitheater-like streets, and especially the school constructed recently fills your heart with frolic. And when you are near it, you notice its centuries-old rampart, on top of which, like eagles’ nests, the rooms of pilgrims as well as the apartments of the monks and the abbot are lined up – you are already charmed…To appreciate [the monastery’s setting] to its attractive fullest, one has to go up the rampart’s arched promenade. An almost circular field stretches out in front of you, wrapped in the beautiful season in a wonderful greenery; in the hot season, in the harvest of the monastery and the nearby villages; and, in the winter, in a monotonous sheet of snow, which is barely interrupted by footprints and irregular tracks…On the left, at the corner formed by the adjacent hills that are to the south, steep cliffs, with a road climbing through them like a staircase, though which cheerful pilgrims pass and turn, or a few paths, through which the monastery’s goats wander…
Armenians from all over Anatolia made pilgrimages to this monastery. During the summer months, many families from the surrounding villages, and from Kayseri, stayed on the monastery grounds. 93 rooms were available for pilgrims, which on feast days could number in the thousands.
Surp Garabed also served as an important center for education, with a school being built on monastery grounds prior to 1750.
Bishop Dertad Balian (photo on the right) became primate of Kayseri in 1887, and created a high school at the monastery shortly afterwards. The school was opened in May, 1888 with 16 students. This school existed until 1915, and had a total of 215 graduates, some of whom are included in the photos below.