Monasticism

The history and foundation of Armenian monasticism is explored in the topographical, archaeological and geographical works of the Mkhitarist Fathers: Ghoukas Inchichian (1822, 1835), Nerses Sarkissian (1864), and Ghewond Alishan's topographical works on the provinces of Ayrarat, Sis, Shirak and Sisouan, published in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The number of monasteries listed in the publications of Ghewond Alishan, and more recently in the monograph by Hamazasp Oskian, is as follows: Vaspourakan 189, Siunik' 150, Artsakh 126, Karin 116, Ayrarat 52, Tourouberan-Taron 48, and Cilician Armenia 62.

Armenian literary sources employ various terms to define the numerous types of monasticism: anapat, vank', ukht, menastan, kronastan and miaynaworastan. P'awstos Buzand, writing on the life of the hermit Gind vardapet, says 'he was [Gind] the leader of the religious monks (abeghayis), and teacher of the hermits (miandzants), and prelate of solitaries (menaketsats), overseer of solitary-communities (vanerayits), and teacher of all anchorites-dwelling-in-the-desert (anapataworats)' (1989: VI, xvi, 239).

Ghazar P'arpetsi, in a passage in his History, describes the life of Mesrop Mashtots after he had accepted the monastic habit and turned to the eremitic (anapatakan) life and lived in the deserts (yanapats). Here Ghazar draws a clear distinction between the 'monastic life' and the 'eremitic life', and gives the main disciplines of the communities under rule, with special mention of clothing. Koriwn, the biographer of Mesrop Mashtots, presents it in these terms: 'He [Mesrop] experienced many kinds of hardships, in keeping with the precepts of the gospel - solitude (zmiaynaketsut'ean vars), mountain dwelling, hunger, thirst and living on herbs, in dark cells, clad in sackcloth, with the floor as his bed' (1964: IV, 27).

The Rule of Basil of Caesarea, with modifications, was adopted by the Armenian Church, which is to be found in Gregory the Illuminator's Yachakhapatum, under sermon 23. The differences in the two rules are immediately apparent. While in the Caesarean version the monasteries were to be fully endowed, so that the monks would only be concerned with prayers, in the Armenian case the monks had to work to secure their living. The fruits of their labours were to be shared among the needy, pilgrims, travellers and farm workers. Catholicos Nerses I (373-7) who convened the council in Ashtishat in 365 extended the secular interests and objectives of the monasteries.

These are implied in the names given to monasteries operating in Siunik': Got'atun (house of mercy), Aspanjakanots (place of refuge), Otarats (for foreigners), Hiwranots (hospice) and Aghk'atanots (alms-house). The monasteries with these specific disciplines were the monasteries of Rshtunik', Narek, Derjan, Horomos, Gladzor, Andzewats, Hogeats.

To the two principal tasks of monasteries, asceticism and caring, just outlined above, a new role was introduced, which proved crucial for the survival of Armenian Christianity. The dynamic educational programme that the 'senior' and 'junior' t'argmanitch initiated in 406 developed into the unique order of the vardapet (unmarried priest); he had the powers to teach, interpret the scriptures, and to excommunicate and re-admit ex-communicants, as bishops had. The monasteries became intellectual centres, whose graduates were known by epithets such as Translator, Historian, Philosopher, Grammarian, Rhetorician, Poet, Scribe, and Illuminator.

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