The Mountain of Varak, on which was built the Monastery of Varak and the Monastery of the Holy Sign, is at the centre of the uniquely Armenian feast of the Cross we celebrate as the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak (Varague).
The Armenian Church celebrates this feast two weeks after the Feast of Exaltation of the Holy Cross, that is, the Sunday during the period of September 25 – October 1.
According to the tradition of the Armenian Church, St Hripsime and her companions, running away from the Roman Emperor Dioklethianos, who had started persecutions against Christians, reached Armenia and found shelter in Vagaharshapat. However, before reaching Vagharshapat they stopped at Mount Varak, which is to the southeast of Lake Van. Taking off from her neck the relic of the Lord’s Wooden Cross, St Hripsime gave it to the praying monks living on the mountain and asked them to preserve it in one of the caves. Thus, the sacred relic remained hidden till the seventh century.
In 653 AD, a monk named Totig (Todik) and his student Hovel saw an apparition of the Cross above the mountain that led them to the sacred relic. The Catholicos of All Armenians, Nerses III the Builder (Creator), and Captain Vard, son the Knight Theodoros, learning about the miracle, went to Mount Varak to personally witness The Cross. Catholicos Nerses verified the relic’s authenticity, and established a feast in honour of the discovery.
With the support of the Armenian people, the Pontiff built a magnificent church, which in honour of the miracle was named Saint Nishan Church. The Pontiff Nerses also wrote the marvellous church hymn “By means of the most powerful sign”, which is sung in the churches on the day of the feast.
Vaspurakan or Van, was one of the most important regions in all of historic Armenia. The Mkhitarist Father Hamazasp Voskian writes that the history of the founding of the Monastery of Varak is “shrouded in mist,” though there were clearly already monks and pilgrims visiting the mountain by the 7th century.
In the 10th century, the Monastery of Varak and the other churches and monasteries on the mountain of Varak were supremely important. Although King Gagik I kept his court on the island of Akhtamar, he directed that the Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Varakavank) be built on Mount Varak. For generations King Gagik Artsruni and the Artsruni family members were buried at Varakavank.
The sacred relic remained at Mount Varak till 1021 AD, when the Armenian King Senekerim Artsrouni brought the relic to Sebastia. After the latter’s death, the relic was again transferred to its old place and remained there until 1651 AD, when the relic was taken to Khoshab. In 1655 AD, the relic was placed in the Church of Holy Godmother, in Van, which was renamed the Church of the Holy Sign. The relic was preserved there till 1915 AD. Today, the location of the relic remains unknown.