Michelle Isenhoff

A Lost Armenian Monastery and the Bones of St. Matthew

This is the second in a 4-part series about the research that went into Taylor Davis and the Quest for the Immortal Blade, book three in the Taylor Davis trilogy.

My research into my last Taylor Davis book carried me to Kyrgyzstan, where I found some fascinating history and legends concerning the coming of Christianity to the shores of Issyk-Kul. Since my Taylor Davis series is Christian fantasy (not necessarily religious, but inspired by Rick Riordan’s use of various ancient gods), I dug a little deeper.

Svetly Mys was an ancient Christian community on the shores of Issyk-Kul that tradition holds was established by St. Matthew himself during his missionary journeys to the region. We don’t see much in the historical record to support this until 1375, when a cartographer named Cresques, the son of Abraham published the Catalan-Majorcan Atlas. At this time, the island of Majorca was an important trading center, and the maps produced there were considered first class. Issyk Kul is indicated on the pages showing Asia, along with a building on its northeast shore and a caption that reads: This place is named Ysicol. A monastery of Armenian brothers is situated here, where, they say, lie the remains of Apostle and Evangelist Matthew.

Catalan-Majorcan atlas

A few decades later, another world map produced by Estenze of Ferrara in the year 1450. It likely mentions the same monastery, though the reference is more vague. Along with simple and not very clear directions, it reads: This monastery belongs to monks who preserve the remains of St. Matthew and who are Armenians.

A few centuries later, a Russian traveler named P. P. Semenov saw the Cresques map and wrote that it showed “a monastery of Nestorian Christians who fled from the countries of the Middle East to Asia and in the twelfth century founded their monastery on the shore of Issyk-Kul.” He went on to assume that the monastery was located on the Kungey (now Kermenty) bay to take advantage of the good fishing and the protection from rough water. He visited Issyk-Kul in 1856-57 and noted: “Kurmenty bay meets these conditions, but unfortunately I did not find on the shore nor in the drifts of the neighboring shore any objects supporting my supposition.”

A Russian Orthodox monastery was built in the same general area in 1888, which was attacked and abandoned during an uprising in 1916. The scholar V.V. Bartold and the artist Dudin (I didn’t look up either of these fellows) saw on the lakeshore “ruins of considerable fortification surrounded by a tetragonal bank…the area of fortification is covered by many small land elevations.”

Russian Orthodox monastery. Photo credit: Paul R. Byler

Throughout the 1900’s various and underfunded attempts to find the monastery met with varying degrees of success. At the turn of the century, however, underwater explorations revealed evidence of nine medieval settlements and three ancient ones and began digging up LOTS of artifacts: bricks, pottery, a ceramic pot stamped with Armenian or Syrian writing.

In 1999, Professor Vladimir Ploskikh from the Kyrgyz Slavic University excavated the remains of a double wall in Kermenty Bay, where he and his team uncovered more artifacts, including a bronze cross. Locals then guided them to catacombs about 500 yards from the excavation site. The team found that the tunnels had been professionally excavated and led several small rooms. According to locals, a second, deeper tunnel had still been accessible in the middle of the last century, but had since become blocked.

Underwater exploration in Kermenty Bay.

In 2005, the Geo Explorers Club in conjunction with the Russian Underwater Confederation began a new stage of exploration in Kermenty Bay. Their “Aerial photography of the ancient Kurmenty settlement has shown that it had a square layout with a perimeter of more than one kilometer. The ancient settlement is protected on three sides with deep bulwarks formed by backwater and deep breaks enveloping the settlement from both sides. The south wall follows the relief of the land—built at a slant leading to a ravine. There is some raised land at the corner of the settlement and openings at the eastern and western sides of the wall. At the southern part of the settlement, there is a pit with a diameter of 2.5 meters and depth of 5-6 meters.”

And the explorations continue…

So, is this Kermenty settlement truly the lost medieval Armenian monastery? Will they someday find the bones of St. Matthew? Who knows? Recent archaeological efforts have obviously faced some serious challenges, including Soviet control, a general lack of interest in preservation displayed by the Kyrgyz people, and a particular lack of preservation of Christian history in this Muslim region. But the evidence was enough to convince me to use the northeast shore of Issyk-Kul as an important historic location in my book.

Check out the first post in this series, Lake Issyk-Kul. Here’s the link to the next post, The Nestorian Trading Community and the Start of the Black Death.

A Lost Armenian Monastery and the Bones of St. Matthew

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