Understanding the Swinging Seismographic Gavazan Column at Tatev Monastery
The Gavazan Column, called the Gavazan Siun, is a unique monument located in the compound of the Tatev Monastery in Armenia. During the Middle Ages, the monastery was a great center of learning in Armenia, and its monks made various contributions in the fields of science, religion, and philosophy. The Gavazan Column is an example of the achievements of the monks of Tatev Monastery. Erected during the Middle Ages, the Gavazan Column functioned as a kind of medieval seismograph, as it was able to provide early warnings about potential earthquakes.
The seismographic Gavazan column at Tatev monastery (Black Dog Bicycling)
Tatev Monastery: Its History and Where It Got Its Name
Tatev Monastery is an Armenian Apostolic monastery situated not far from Tatev, a village in Syunik, Armenia’s southernmost province. The monastery was built on a plateau on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River. Legend has it that the monastery derived its name from Saint Eustathius, one of the disciples of Saint Thaddaeus (known also as Saint Jude the Apostle). According to tradition, Saint Thaddaeus and Saint Bartholomew were the first to bring Christianity to Armenia. Saint Eustathius is believed to have accompanied his master to Armenia to spread Christianity, and was later martyred in the area of Tatev. During the 4th century AD, a shrine was built over the saint’s grave, drawing many pilgrims to the site. Eventually, the shrine was replaced by a monastery. As time passed, the name Eusthathius turned into Tatev.
Saint Thaddaeus or Saint Jude the Apostle. (Anthony van Dyck / Public domain)
According to another legend, Tatev was not named after a saint, but after a miracle that occurred at the time when the monastery was built. In the legend, when the master builder had completed constructing monastery, he asked for two wooden chips. He took the wooden chips and prayed to God, saying “ogni Surb ta tev”, which is Armenian for “May the Holy Spirit send down the wings.” When he had finished his prayer, the master builder threw himself into the gorge. As he was falling, wings grew on his back, and he flew away. Thus, the monastery was named Tatev, which translates to mean “give wings”.
Legends aside, the site of Tatev Monastery was already a religious site even before the arrival of Christianity, and was originally used for pagan worship. The first church is recorded to have been built during the 9th century AD. In 844 AD, Philip, the prince of Syunik, commissioned the building of the Saint Gregory Church. Several decades later, another church, the Saints Paul and Peter Church, was built at the site. The construction of this church began in 895 AD and was completed 11 years later. The church was built during the time of Bishop Hovhannes, and received the support of the princes of Syunik.
Tatev Monastery, Peasant Uprisings and the Tondrakians
Although Tatev Monastery was supported by the elite, it had problems with the peasants. When the Saints Paul and Peter Church was completed, for example, ownership of the villages adjacent to the monastery was given to the monks by an edict as a gift. The villagers, however, rejected this arrangement, and protested. At times, these protests turned into violent uprisings, and on at least two occasions the monastery was attacked by the peasants. In 915 AD, for instance, several of the monks were killed by the peasants who attacked peasants. When the monastery was attacked again in 1003, the bishop lost his life. The authorities reacted by suppressing these uprisings with force.
Image of Tatev Monastery from 1881. (Paros Hayastani / Public domain)
Historians have associated these peasant uprisings with the Tondrakians, since both appeared in Armenia around the same time. These were members of a sect who were opposed to the feudal system, as they advocated class and social equality. Additionally, they were considered to be heretics, as they held religious views that ran counter to those held by the Armenian Apostolic Church. For example, the Tondrakians denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, rejected the traditional rites of the Church, and denied the immortality of the soul and life after death. The Tondrakians were willing to resort to violence in order to achieve their aims, and fought against the authorities. The movement began around the beginning of the 9th century AD, and flourished for two centuries. By the end of the 10th century, however, the movement began to wane, and around the middle of the 11th century the last of the Tondrakians were eliminated.
Golden Era of Tatev Monastery as a Center of Learning: Library With Over 10,000 Manuscripts
During the 9th and 10th centuries, Tatev Monastery wielded considerable influence in the region, as it was the seat of the Bishop of Syunik. The monastery, however, was not only a religious site, but also a center of learning and culture. Tatev Monastery is said to have entered a golden era during the 11th century. At that time, the monastery is said to have housed up to 1000 monks and artisans. In addition, the monastery had a library that boasted a collection of over 10,000 manuscripts. The Seljuqs invaded Armenia during the 12th century, and in 1170 Tatev monastery was plundered by the invaders. Although the manuscripts belonging to the monastery’s library were sent to a fort for safe-keeping, they could not be saved, as the fort was razed to the ground as well.
It was only during the 14th and 15th centuries that Tatev Monastery began to recover. During this period, the monastery became a university, which operated from 1390 to 1435. One of the factors that contributed to the rise of Tatev Monastery as a university was the decline of the University of Gladzor, the other great center of medieval Armenian learning. One of the university’s former students, Hovhan Voronetsi, eventually came to Vorotn, not far from Tatev, where he obtained the patronage of the Orbelians (the Armenian noble family controlling Syunik) to develop Tatev Monastery as a university. Voronetsi’s improved the curriculum and regulated student admissions and the qualification of teachers. As a result of Voronetsi’s efforts, Tatev Monastery became renowned as a center of learning once again throughout Armenia. This came to an end in 1435, following the invasion of the Timurid ruler, Shah Rukh.
The Gavazan Column at Tatev Monastery (Diego Delso / CC BY-SA)
Battling the Greatest Threat of All: Earthquakes and the Gavazan Column
It is clear that Tatev Monastery suffered much destruction at the hands of foreign invaders. The monastery, however, had to face an even greater threat – earthquakes. Armenia is located in one of the world’s most active seismic zones. As a matter of fact, it is one of the few countries situated entirely within a zone of high seismic risk. According to a report published by the Asian Disaster Reduction Center, earthquakes account for 94% of losses caused by disasters in Armenia. Tatev Monastery has not been spared from earthquakes either. As an example, the Saint Gregory Church was destroyed by an earthquake during the 12th century, whilst much of the monastery suffered damage during the 1931 Zangeur earthquake.
A khachkar, is an Armenian cross-stone characteristic of medieval Christian Armenian art. (Inna / CC BY)
In order to counter the problem of earthquakes, the medieval monks of Tatev Monastery came up with an ingenious solution – the Gavazan Column. This is an octagonal pillar located near the residence of the bishop, facing the southern wall of the Saints Paul and Peter Church. The Gavazan Column rises to a height to 8 m (26.2 ft.), and is topped with a khachkar, or Armenian cross-stone. The monument is believed to have been built around 906 AD and was dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Unlike other pillars, metal bands were not used to keep the stones of the Gavazan Column from falling apart. Instead, it was created with hinges, which enabled the pillar to ‘swing’ or ‘shake’. It is due to this ability that the pillar received its name Gavazan, which translates to mean “staff” or “live staff”.
The Ingenious Design of the Gavazan Column. But, What Exactly Is It?
The most common explanation for the Gavazan Column’s unusual design is that the monument was meant to function as a type of medieval seismograph. Thanks to this unique medieval engineering, whenever there were minor tremors in the ground, the pillar would shake. This would have served as a warning to the monks that the area might soon be struck by an earthquake. With such an earthquake warning system in place, the monks would have had some time to prepare for the disaster. It has also been claimed that the tremors caused by an approaching army could be detected by the Gavazan Column as well.
According to a less common explanation regarding the pillar’s unique design, the Gavazan Column was meant to serve a defensive purpose. It is claimed that when the Seljuqs sacked the monastery, they tried to destroy the Gavazan Column. Although the pillar bent as the soldiers pushed it, it did not topple, but returned to its original position on its own. When the Seljuqs saw this, they were terrified, as they believed they had encountered a “demonic pillar” and fled.
The Gavazan Column’s design remained a secret for more than a thousand years. It was only during the 1950s that the mystery was solved. At that time, the pillar was disassembled by architects, thereby revealing its hidden mechanism. Subsequently, the Gavazan Column was reassembled. The architects involved, however, decided to enforce the medieval monument with metal bands and bolts. Although this has prevented the Gavazan Column from falling apart, it has also stopped it from swinging.
What Does the Gavazan Column Have to Do With Astronomy?
It seems that the Gavazan Column’s ability to swing is not its only mystery. It has been claimed that the pillar’s builders had some astronomical consideration in mind when they were erecting the monument. The Gavazan Column is said to be associated with the celebration of the ancient Armenian New Year, known also as Navasard. For the ancient Armenians, their new year fell on the first day of Navasard, which is equivalent to the 11th of August. According to ancient Armenian chronicles, on that day in 2492 BC, Hayk the Great, the legendary founder of the Armenian nation, defeated Bel, a tyrannical Babylonian king, or the Babylonian god of war. Therefore, Navasard marks the beginning of the Armenian nation, and was celebrated to commemorate Hayk’s victory over Bel.
Hayk the Great, the legendary founder of the Armenian nation, defeating the tyrannical Babylonian Bel. (Juliano Zasso / Public domain)
In astronomy, Hayk has been identified with the Orion constellation. Like the Greek Orion, Hayk is also believed to have been a hunter, and that he slew Bel with a bow and arrow. It is said that in ancient times, the king of Armenia would lead his people to Npat, a sacred mountain near Bagavan, on the night of the New Year. There, they would patiently wait for the appearance of Orion, more specifically, the star Betelgeuse, which the Armenians referred to as “Hayk’s Shoulder”. It was found that at Tatev Monastery, Orion can be seen above the Gavazan Column on the 11th of August if one were to stand facing east and the monument.
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A New Lease of Life: Tatev Monastery and Its Gavazan Column as Tourist Destination
After the invasion of the Timurids, Tatev Monastery lost its political importance, and was never able to regain its status as a center of learning. Although the monastery continued to exist in the centuries that followed, it was in decline. By the 20th century, the monastery was in dire need of restoration. By this time, Tatev Monastery had become a tourist destination. Nevertheless, not many visitors came to the site, partly due to the fact that the mountain road that led to the monastery was not an easy one to travel. Apart from that, due to the monastery’s remote location, it has been largely excluded by tour packages.
Tatev Monastery received a new lease of life in 2010, when the construction of the Wings of Tatev was completed. This is a cableway that connects Tatev Monastery with Halidzor, one of the surrounding villages. Spanning a distance of 5.752 km (18871.39 ft.), the Wings of Tatev holds the Guinness World Record for the “Longest non-stop double-track cable car.” Travelling at a top speed of 37 km per hour, visitors can now easily reach the monastery in 12 minutes. As a consequence, Tatev Monastery has seen a rise in tourist numbers in the years following the completion of the cable car.
The construction of the Wings of Tatev cable car in 2010, gave the Tatev Monastery a new lease of life, attracting tourists to the area. (Wirestock / Adobe Stock)
The revenue from tourism has allowed the monastery to function as a cultural and religious center. For instance, the monastery now hosts theater performances, concerts, and even sporting events, whilst church holidays are celebrated there once again. Lastly, tourism has also contributed to the development of the surrounding Armenian villages. Prior to the construction of the Wings of Tatev, the surrounding area was considered to be one of the most deprived and difficult to access regions in the country. With the development of the monastery as a tourist destination, however, things have improved, as opportunities for employment and for attracting investment have increased. Thus, it may be said that Tatev Monastery, which has survived for more than a millennium, is today experiencing a revival in its fortunes.
Top image: The Tatev Monastery in Armenia is home to the mysterious Gavazan Column, a medieval seismograph created to warn the monks of an approaching earthquake. Source: Goinyk / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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