Khor Virap: From Dungeon to Monastery
As we drive through the Ararat valley, I can see the ancient monastery of Khor Virap rising up from its fortified perch on a hill. As we approach the site, the landscape comes into focus: a breathtaking view of Mount Ararat's snowy peaks that has served as the backdrop for this church’s epic history.
Khor Virap was originally built as a royal prison near the Armenian capital of Artashat, which was established in 180 BC. It was used for centuries before King Tiridates III imprisoned Grigor Lusavorich in this dungeon for defying the Armenian pagan religion, and practicing Christianity. The king threw him in the dark pit to die, but legend says that a Christian widow from a nearby village, following instructions seen in a dream, fed him regularly for thirteen years by dropping a loaf of freshly baked bread into the pit.
In the fourteenth year of Grigor’s imprisonment, King Tiridates went mad. An angel came down to the king’s sister Khosrovidhukt, telling her about a prisoner named Grigor in the city of Artashat who could cure her brother. Khosrovidhukt ignored the vision, thinking that Grigor must have died after so many years, but after she began having the same dream over and over again, she decided to send her brother Awtay to the pit to find him. To everyone’s surprise, Grigor was still alive, and was able to bring the king back to his senses. After witnessing this miracle, Tiridates asked him for forgiveness and converted his entire kingdom to Christianity in 301 AD, making Armenia the first Christian nation. With this, Grigor became known as St. Gregory the Illuminator, and remains one of Armenia’s greatest national heroes today.
The church was built after Tiridates’s conversion, and kept its name of Khor Virap, or “deep pit” to commemorate the event. Today, thousands of Armenians make pilgrimages to the site for its religious significance, as well as its view of Mt. Ararat and the Arax river, two of the most important symbols of Western Armenian land that the country lost during the Genocide of 1915. Khor Virap even made international news this June, when Pope Francis, who has been widely celebrated among Armenians after his recognition of the Genocide, visited the site with the Armenian Catholicos Karakin II and released doves toward Turkey.
We are welcomed to this holy site by Manvel, the site’s caretaker, or, to many tourists, the man with the impressive Armenian mustache.
“I love this place,” he tells us. “I have been the caretaker for 36 years. I never expected that this is what I would do, but I was interested when I was 21 and they offered me the job, and since then I’ve restored a lot of the site with my own hands.”
He then pulls out his flip phone to show us snapshots of him laying floor tiles, fixing the roof, and even rebuilding one of the sanctuaries along the church’s outer wall. Thanks to his hard work, this little enclave now serves as another place for people to pray and light candles.
Khor Virap is a very spiritual place for many Armenians like me who can look over the Turkish border at the land our families lost when they were forced out of their homes and murdered. I look past the watchtowers at the river I was named after, and think about Manvel and all the other Armenians, whose dedication and love for their home gives me hope for the future. And, on the count of three, Anahit and I release doves towards the border in a prayer for peace.