Muradiye Falls and St. Argelan Monastery, Muradiye, Van, Turkey.

The town of Muradiye lies a few kilometres north-east of the most north-easterly extremity of Lake Van. Muradiye Falls and St. Argelan Monastery are a few kilometres north and west of the town respectively.

Muradiye Falls can look very spectacular, in winter when it freezes, and in autumn and spring when rain guarantees that a lot of water tumbles a distance of about 30 metres from the river above. However, I was visiting the falls in summer when common sense suggests that the flow of water will be much reduced. I therefore approached the waterfall resigned to the fact that it would not present a stunning sight, but, once on the wobbly footbridge that spans the gorge just to the south, was delighted: lots of water tumbled over the ledge and did so in five or six places, thereby creating a waterfall about 60 metres wide. Moreover, the views everywhere were sublime, along the gorge below the falls, above the falls where mountains and trees frame the river in the most picturesque manner imaginable, and where the water itself cascades over rock that has assumed many different colours. The falls are so substantial that, even when quite a lot of people visit, their majesty is not impaired. Rocks and trees at the foot of the falls add to the delightful views, and nothing commercial has been located nearby (a few small shops lurk among trees beside the car park about 200 metres away, and a cafe overlooks the falls from the far side of the gorge. One of the cafe tables is on an isolated outcrop of rock providing a stunning view of the falls. The cafe table does not spoil the views in any shape or form).

As far as I could tell, all the visitors except me were Turks or Kurds. Most Turks and Kurds were from the local region, but some were passing through on holiday. Some visitors sat at the cafe tables enjoying the views as they had something to drink, but most people descended a path so they could stand below the falls where the river continues its journey along the gorge. As you would expect, a few males had stripped to their underpants or put on swimming trunks and were swimming or playing in the deeper pools, but females above the age of about thirteen had to remain fully dressed. The best the older females could do was remove whatever they had on their feet and paddle where the water was at its most shallow. Because trees and rocks are just to the north of the falls, some families had set up camp in the shade and were finishing large picnics. Everyone seemed in a holiday mood even though Seker Bayram (Eid-ul-Fitr) had concluded…

It was now about 3.45pm, but I had no intention of returning to the town of Muradiye because, about 2 kms west of where I stood, almost half way up a mountain, I could see the distinctive outline of a ruined Armenian church, and the ruin looked in quite good condition. Next to a vehicle repair business, a side road branching from the main road seemed to lead directly for the ruined church, but, when I asked a man fixing the engine of a lorry if this was so, he said the side road deceives the eye. The man downed tools, summoned me to a nearby car and drove me about 2 kms south along the road to Van. We stopped at a point where a river, no doubt the same river with the falls further north, tumbled out of gently undulating hills and spread over flat ground covered with rock (local boys, some naked, played in the water, which nowhere looked deep enough to swim in). A footbridge crossed the river and led to a cafe on the opposite bank where people came to drink tea and smoke nargiles (water pipes) in quiet but pretty surroundings. The man told me to walk past the cafe and follow a dirt road leading north toward the ruined church. The road would follow an irrigation channel for about 2 kms. Eventually I would arrive at a point where the ruined church is clearly visible to my left. I was to approach the ruin along another dirt road and begin the ascent.

Everything was exactly as the man had said. The irrigation channel was about 4 metres wide and very full, no doubt with water directed from the river just alluded to. Butterflies, birds and frogs benefited from the channel and the vegetation it supported along its banks. Tall cypress trees grew in a few places, which made the views even more enchanting. High mountains lay to the west. To the east was the wide and fertile valley on which the town of Muradiye is located. Beside the river near the cafe and the footbridge, a large flock of sheep and goats looked for vegetation among the rocks.

I arrived at the point where I had to make a left turn. Ahead, about 400 metres away, were a few very old stone houses. The houses amounted to no more than a hamlet, but they suggested to me that, in the past, a larger settlement may have existed, perhaps because of the church high above. The families in the hamlet appeared to be very poor. Most of the families grew crops or reared livestock on the nearby pasture.

The ascent to the ruined church was quite exhausting, partly because the church was further away than it looked, and partly because there were places where the slope rose at about 45 degrees. Another problem was that the rock was often unstable underfoot. This said, I would have been bitterly disappointed had I missed seeing the church up close. It is a remarkable ruin.

The church is part of what was once St. Argelan Monastery. T. A. Sinclair (a renowned scholar specialising in eastern Turkey) writes that the church:

“was certainly built by the 13th century, when St. Argelan, an ascetic famous for his miracles, took up residence in the monastery. Argelan was buried in 1251 in a funerary chapel built near a cave where he had been in the habit of retiring. The chapel was pulled down in the mid-17th century and the present church was then built in its place. (The church) stands on a broad, gentle (?) hillside. From one side a tapering aspect is preserved: in one respect it is actually enhanced by the loss of facing stone from the roof and walls. The church is a domed rectangle in which the w. walls supporting the dome are unusually short, and the w. ends of the n. and s. arches under the dome rest on the face of the w. arch. However, the sw. angle and the sw. quarter of the drum and dome have fallen. Above the rooms by the apse are windowed spaces, to which, however, there seems to have been no access. Much of the facing stone seems to have been renewed in a restoration of 1700.”

There are a number of things interesting about the church. First, the church stands on a very narrow ledge high above the valley and below a mountain wall rising steeply behind. I could not do other than marvel at the ingenuity of those responsible for its construction. Second, the dome and the drum, and the dressed stone that encases their exterior walls, are in unusually good condition. Third, because so much of the  church survives, it is easy to appreciate how cleverly the rectangular nave, which is not very large, transitions into the dome and the drum. Fourth, carved into the rock beside the church are some remarkably intricate and sometimes unusual khatchkars (Armenian for “stone crosses”. There are also many conventional crosses, but they are more basic in execution). Last, caves exist beside the church and in the mountain wall above, and carved crosses decorate some of the cave entrances. It seems reasonable to assume that monks keen to engage with the ascetic practices favoured by St. Argelan lived in some or all of the caves.

Needless to say, the views from the ledge are outstanding. To the east you admire the wide fertile valley with Muradiye about 3 kms away, to the south you see high mountain slopes, to the north you peer along the pretty valley toward Muradiye Falls and Dogubayazit far beyond, and downward you overlook the hamlet. Far below, a few people were working in the fields and the orchards.

Getting down from the church proved considerably easier and quicker than getting up. I found a fairly reliable path among the rocks, the flowers and the wild herbs and arrived in the hamlet about thirty minutes after setting off.

N.B. The monastery featured in the photos below belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite/diaphysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as being of one incarnate nature where both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite/diaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

One last point: Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the religion of the state (Georgia was the second country to do so). 301 is usually identified as the year in which Christianity became the state religion in Armenia. Note that 301 pre-dates adoption of Christianity as the state religion in Georgia by over thirty years (337 is now widely accepted as the date when at least part of modern-day Georgia adopted Christianity as the state religion), and the Roman Empire’s edict of toleration of Christianity in 311 by ten years. But the edict of toleration did not make Christianity the religion of the state in the Roman Empire, nor did legalisation of Christianity in 313 or Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 321. These events merely made it a lot safer to be a Christian within the empire’s borders. Note that at least one later Pagan emperor, Julian in the 360s, engaged in the persecution of Christians, as had occurred prior to 311.

It is very sad that Armenia’s importance in the history of early Christianity is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

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