One of the world’s oldest, predominantly Christian lands, Armenia is dotted with centuries-old monasteries inhabited by scores of monks, but its convents are limited to one: the newly opened Ghazaravan Convent, located in northwestern Armenia. Its seven nuns are the only nuns in all of the country.
Until 2000, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenia’s predominant faith, did not allow the practice. Women were needed to boost the population, the thinking went for decades.
When the Church’s spiritual leader, Catholicos Karekin II, reversed the ban, a handful of women responded to the opportunity.
Seventy-year-old Sister Elizabeth was among the first. She says she “got to know God” after the devastating 1988 earthquake in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri, “[b]ut I had never thought of becoming a nun because it was banned in Armenia.” She took her vows in 2000.
“I wanted to become a surgeon, but God took me this way. I wanted to have ten children, but God dedicated me to my sisters. Now I’m happy. There is not a single moment when I would like to leave this place,” she adds.
The Ghazaravan Convent, where she lives outside of the village of Ghazaravan in northwestern Armenia, opened seven months ago. It resumes an age-old tradition.
The Ghazaravan Convent sits outside the village of Ghazaravan, a hamlet of about 419 people, in northwestern Armenia. Opened in 2017, the cloister was built after a ban on women joining the Armenian Apostolic Church’s monastic communities was lifted in 2000.
Sister Elizabeth, 70, was born in Abkhazia, but moved to Armenia at the age of 13. She became a nun in 2000.
In 2000, Sister Tatev quickly responded to Catholicos Karekin II’s decision to ordain nuns. “My secular life was not completely happy because there is no happiness without God,” she says.
Fifty-eight-year-old Sister Rima knits a bracelet, with Sister Mariam and Sister Seda sitting to one side. Sister Rima became a nun in 2015 and enjoys cultivating vegetables in land adjacent to the convent. It is a tough test, she says, because the soil is stony and, without an irrigation system, she has to carry water in buckets to water the plot.
Five of the seven nuns at Ghazaravan. When the Armenian Apostolic Church lifted its ban on nuns in 2000, 11 women applied, but the demanding life meant that only five stayed after a four-month trial.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, the faith of an estimated 92 percent of Armenia’s 2.93 million people, was founded in the first century. In the early 4th century, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Not long after, convents began to appear.
“Historically, Armenia always had convents,” says theologian Vardan Khachatryan, who lectures at Yerevan State University.
“In 353 AD, during the rule of the Catholicos of All Armenians Nerses the Great, convents were flourishing. But in 370, King Pap of Armenia forbade the activity of convents and gave nuns the right to marry, justifying it with the fact that during different wars the number of the population and births had dropped.”
When King Pap’s reign ended in 374, the ban was lifted, but the focus on women’s reproductive role re-surfaced in the 20th century.
“After the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and World War II, because of the deaths of thousands of women, the birth rate dropped and the goal was to stimulate births,” Khachatryan adds.
In Soviet Armenia, posters with slogans declaring that “The natural condition of a woman is to be pregnant” were not uncommon in maternity wards.
Yet Khachatryan sees no reason why women today cannot choose to follow another path.
“Nuns are the brides of Jesus Christ,” he maintains. “This is an accepted opinion in theology. And if someone becomes a nun, nothing can hinder her from making that choice. The justifications that women must give birth lest the population of our war-torn nation declines are ungrounded.”
Sister Tatev, now a 60-year old resident of the convent in Ghazaravan, grew up amidst those justifications. Born in Yerevan, she formerly worked in the Armenian capital as an English-language translator in institutions ranging from the National Library of Armenia to the Izmirlyan Medical Center and the microfinance non-profit FINCA International. She had a stable income and could support her parents.
But in 2000, she decided to give that all up. “I had a secular life, but my inner voice always told me that I should have a monastic life. God always called me,” she says.
When she applied to become a nun some 18 years ago, she was one of 11 people sent for a trial period to the Haghpat Monastery in northern Armenia’s Lori region. After four trial months, only five of the aspirants wanted to continue. They were taken to St. Hripsime Monastery, while the others went back to secular life.
Life at their new convent is demanding. The day begins at 6am and is strictly scheduled, with specific hours for prayer and work. The nuns observe all fasting days, which they say is an opportunity for contemplation and to get closer to God. When they fast, they only eat bread and drink water.
Nuns are allowed to visit or host their relatives in the convent once a month. Fifty-eight-year old Sister Rima decided to become a nun three years ago. She has one daughter, one son and five grandchildren, and misses them.
“I forbid my grandchildren to visit me often. When I see them, my soul turns upside down,” she says. The other four nuns -- Gayane, Mariam, Seda and Shushanik -- say they miss their families, too.
Sister Gayane looks after the flowers she planted in the Ghazaravan convent’s garden. The nuns plan to sell the flowers’ oil to generate income. Sister Gayane used to sell candles in a church and decided to become a nun in 2008.
Sister Elizabeth takes care of the convent’s puppies, giving them water from the palm of her hand.
Sisters Rima, Shushan and Elizabeth (from left to right) during a late-afternoon liturgy.
Sister Tatev during her prayer time.
The nuns’ work also includes maintaining the convent, offering spiritual services in a nearby church and tending to agriculture. Sister Rima cultivates vegetables in stony land adjacent to the convent, even though she lacks the appropriate tools and must carry water in buckets to irrigate the plots. The nuns also keep chickens and bees. The women get their food from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, about 27 kilometers to the south, but they aim to be self-sufficient.
Their cloister marks a new chapter in the Armenian Apostolic Church, notes Khachatryan.
“The culture of convents is quite new for us, [but] I am convinced that the number of nuns will increase. This step also strengthens the Church’s social foundation.”