Vardavar: In Martuni, the day is about more than just water fights

Vardavar: In Martuni, the day is about more than just water fights
23 July 2004

By Vahan Ishkhanyan
ArmeniaNow reporter
Photos by Ruben Mangasaryan

While in Yerevan the celebration of Vardavar has turned into little
more than water fights, in Armenian regions like Martuni it remains a
holiday of significance.

Vardavar is a pagan holiday, which became “Christianized” when Armenia
became a Christian nation. The Apostolic Church realized that Vardavar
was too entrenched in the nation’s culture to dismiss it as pagan. So,
the Church adapted the day, and used it to commemorate the day of
Christ’s transfiguration.

Wet fun for kids . . .

Orginally it was connected with a water cult. Sacrifices were made to
the spirit protectors of water for the rains to come there would be no

The pagan day was dedicated to the goddess Astghik to whom roses were
given In Martuni, cafes and restaurants close for the day (which was
celebrated across the republic last Sunday).

“What cafes on Vardavar?” says a boy from Martuni. All the residents
of Martuni are celebrating Vardavar with their families.

In the morning Martunetsis pilgrimage to Ishkhanavank, an 11th century
church in Vardenik village. Once a year, the church and cemetery
become a place for celebration. (In general, every old church has its
pilgrimage day, the pilgrimage of Ishkhanavank is on Vardavar.) On
the right side of the entry to Ishkhanavank there’s an altar where
they kill the matagh (sacrifice) animal, a sheep or a rooster. Tamar
Minasyan promised a matagh for her grandchild Minasik’s successful
birth and happiness.

“My Minasik’s birthday was yesterday. We promised if he is born, we’d
do a matagh on Vardavar.” For twin grandchildren, the Minasyans
promised to do seven mataghs to Yeghegnadzor’s Saint Cross. For seven
years they would go there and do sacrifice. Now the twins are grown.

And for the newborn, they promised matagh to their favorite
Ishkhanvank. The head of the family cuts the sheep’s ear on a stone,
dips his finger into the blood and makes a cross with blood on
Minasik’s forehead.

. . . not so much fun for sheep.

“When they do matagh, they put a cross so that it is accepted,”
explains Tamar and another woman says because they are Christians,
they put a cross, and that the custom is centuries old. In
Ishkhanavank, hundreds of people have had blood traces on their

The Minasyans are from Vardenik, their house is close, so after
cutting the sheep’s ear, meaning after doing matagh they take the
animal home to kill it.

Those who come from far, kill the animal right there. First, they feed
the victim with the salt put near the stone. The salt has to be
blessed by the priest, so that according to church custom the animal
becomes clean and acceptable for God. There was no priest at
Ishkhanavank, but the pilgrims said that the salt had been previously
blessed (there was a priest last year).

The heads of the sheep are put on the stone one after the other and
are cut.

Yasha Movsisyan came here with his family from Nor Hajn (a village
near Yerevan). He says they come here each year with the family.

“I was born in Karabakh, but my grandfather was Martunetsi, so from
then on every year we come here for Vardavar.”

Even the young participate in old traditions

Unlike Minasyans Yasha doesn’t have any special purpose for matagh in
his mind. Matagh is their family tradition. Every year in
Ishkhanavank, they have to kill a sheep, then go down to the gorge and
flay it and make khashlama. According to the tradition the victim has
to be circled around the church seven times and only then it has to be
killed and the matagh, khashlama, has to be given to seven
strangers. But not everyone keeps to that tradition. They greet each
other, make toasts for happy matagh, happy Vardavar and celebrate at
the river bank.

Hundreds of candles light the half dark church. On the only table
filled with sand there’s no place to stick a candle. People stick the
candles to the walls of the church. At first sight it seems that the
walls are burning.

On the left side of the church entrance there’s a tree with many
pieces of clothes tied to it and each one of them is somebody’s
wish. People make a wish in their minds and tie a piece of their cloth
to the tree for the wish to come true.

Anush Martirosyan, together with her son David, ties a red cloth. “I
tie this cloth for my son to be happy and to appreciate my sufferings
when he grows up,” she says. The son, in his turn, makes a wish for
his mother. “For my mom to be healthy and for a good future for me.”

Anush, 38, was born in Vaghashen village. Now she lives in Yerevan and
it’s been 20 years since her last Vardavar at Ishkhanavank.

“I was baptized in this church, it’s my favorite place. I’ve always
dreamed of coming here again. I remember when I was small we used to
come here every year, we would walk to the road from the village and
from there we would come by bus. Then I remember on the way back there
was no place in the bus and once I was put in through the window. To
me Vardavar was the best day of the year, I liked it more than the New

Anush is not alone in that opinion. Nor have the traditional meanings
of the day completely disappeared. Which is why last Sunday while
children throughout Armenia were pouring water on passers by and cars,
in Varndenik they were also observing the ancient custom of covering
their streets in roses. Just like when the day honored the goddess

This year, construction was completed on an new church in
Vardenik. But no one goes to the new church on Vardavar.