Armenian Monastery Finds Unlikely Saviour in Arab Sheikh
Standing next to a newly refurbished bell tower, priest Aristakes Aivazyan says it needed divine intervention to save Armenia's medieval Haghartsin monastery.
But it also took a lot of money from a very unlikely benefactor -- the Muslim ruler of the resource-rich Arab emirate of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi.
"I cannot recall anything similar to this happening in our history that some Arab sheikh, a Muslim, helped to restore and rescue an Armenian Christian church," Aivazyan told Agence France Presse.
"Without doubt it was God who brought the sheikh to Haghartsin," the priest, dressed in long black robes, said.
Perched spectacularly amid thickly forested mountains about 100 kilometres northeast of Yerevan, Haghartsin monastery is a masterpiece of medieval Armenian ecclesiastical architecture.
Founded in the tenth century, the monastery -- which includes three churches and once housed some 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 in recent years meant the complex looked headed for collapse as plants twisted through walls and cracks threatened to send buildings tumbling.
'In need of serious reconstruction'
"The monastery was in need of serious reconstruction but the repairs were always delayed by the lack of finances," father Aivazyan said.
That was until a fortuitous visit from al-Qasimi, who had been invited to Armenia by former president Robert Kocharian on a trip set up by the Armenian business community in the emirate.
"In 2005 his royal highness visited Armenia and generously offered to renovate the complex during a tour of various Armenian regions," says Varouj Nerguizian, a Sharjah-based Armenian businessman who has advised the sheikh.
Nerguizian refused to say how much the sheikh had given for the refurbishment but local media reported that it could be around $1.7 million.
Now, after years of building work including a new road up to the monastery to help boost visitor numbers, the refurbished structure was finally opened last month.
"It falls within the natural context of his royal highness' philanthrophy as well respect for other religions," Nerguizian.
Perched on the Persian Gulf, after Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sharjah is the third largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE.
Al-Qasimi, 74, -- who came to power in 1972 after his brother, then king, was killed in a failed coup -- has sought to boost the emirate as a tourist and cultural hub in the region.
Despite a thriving community of Armenian businessmen that now boasts its own church in the emirate of some 900,000 inhabitants that now boasts its own church -- there have been few links between Yerevan and Sharjah.
'The word of God was heard here'
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," recalled 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," Sahakyan said.
Armenia is considered to be 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 site.
After a history of conflict between Armenia and its Muslim neighbors of Turkey and Azerbaijan, those working at the Harghartsin monastery say they hope the support they have received from a Muslim ruler shows that the two faiths can get along.
"The sheikh is a deeply religious man so seeing a monastery is such a bad state it is not surprising that he felt touched," says father Aivazyan.
"It is as if the with this generous gesture the sheikh is saying that we need to be tolerant of other religions as in the end we all serve one God," Aivazyan said.