Ruler of Sharjah’s generosity enables Armenian monastery to reopen

Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed visited the Haghartsin Monastery in 2005. His donation helped fund the completion of refurbishment work.

A significant donation by the Ruler of Sharjah has enabled a medieval monastery in Armenia to reopen. AFP Photo
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A significant donation by the Ruler of Sharjah has enabled a medieval monastery in Armenia to reopen.

Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi made a fortuitous visit to the Haghartsin Monastery several years ago at the invitation of the former president, Robert Kocharian.

“In 2005 His Royal Highness visited Armenia and generously offered to renovate the complex during a tour of various Armenian regions,” said Varouj Nerguizian, a Sharjah-based Armenian businessman who has advised Dr Sheikh Sultan.

Mr Nerguizian would not say how much was donated, but local media reports said it could be about US$1.7 million (Dh6.2m).

Now, after years of building work including a new road up to the monastery to help to boost visitor numbers, the refurbished structure was finally opened last month.

“I cannot recall anything similar to this happening in our history that an Arab Sheikh, a Muslim, helped to restore and rescue an Armenian Christian church,” the priest, Aristakes Aivazyan, said. “Without doubt it was God who brought the Sheikh to Haghartsin.”

Perched spectacularly amid thickly forested mountains about 100 kilometres north-east of Yerevan, Haghartsin Monastery is a masterpiece of medieval Armenian ecclesiastical architecture.

Founded in the 10th century, the monastery, which includes three churches and once housed about 250 monks, survived attacks from Arab and Ottoman invaders and anti-religious campaigns under Soviet rule during its turbulent history.

But after weathering those storms, decades of neglect meant the complex looked headed for collapse as plants twisted through walls and cracks threatened to send buildings tumbling.

“The monastery was in need of serious reconstruction but the repairs were always delayed by the lack of finances,” Father Aivazyan said.

The donation, said Mr Nerguizian, “falls within the natural context of His Royal Highness’s philanthropy as well as respect for other religions”.

Sharjah has a thriving Armenian community which has its own church.

For those working at the monastery, the surprise of seeing an Arab leader visiting the holy Christian site remains a vivid memory.

“He came with his entourage of about 10 people and looked around for quite a while at all the churches and stone crosses before asking to go into the main Church of Our Lady,” said Artak Sahakyan, who sells candles to visiting worshippers. “When he came out he said that he believed that the word of God was really heard here.”

Armenia is considered the oldest Christian country in the world and its Apostolic Church belongs to the ancient Oriental Orthodox branch.

The church is hugely influential in Armenia and two monasteries and its main cathedral are already listed on Unesco’s list of world heritage sites.

* Agence France-Presse