Some 20 km south of Maku in Western Azarbaijan province lies the famous and marvelous monastic complex of St. Thaddeus. It is located on a mountain ridge beside a stream sunken into the rock, thus giving it a natural fortified position. The outline of it, placed on gently rolling hills, stands out sharply against the vastness of the horizon. Sourb Thade (St. Thaddeus) or Ghara-Kilisa (the black church) as it is called by the people of Northwestern Iran, forms a harmonious, integral part with its surroundings both in the material with which it is constructed, and in its form.
The location of the monastery was surely chosen for strategic reasons, for it was built during a period when neighboring peoples seriously threatened it. The thick walls around the monastery, also, had an important defensive function during sieges, and the complex was built especially to withstand them. It is situated within a natural circle of mountains, a short distance from a river. Wells drilled within the enclosure guaranteed a water supply. The church was surrounded by vast, fertile fields, quite suitable for farming, and therefore capable of supplying food for both men and animals. The harvest was well protected in special storage rooms, thus enabling the monastery to keep its independence and relative security.
Although it is not dated, according to the legend, the monastery was founded by Apostle Thaddeus (66AD) on the spot of a former pagan temple. Time after time it was destroyed by invasions, and struck by earthquakes, the most devastating of which occurred in 1319. The monastery was rebuild, and further renewed and enlarged during the course of the following centuries. St. Thaddeus consists of two adjacent churches, a portico, numerous ancillary rooms (monks cells, abbot? cells, work cells) lined up against a very massive surrounding wall, that? been fortified for defense purposes.
Within the walled area there are two large interior courtyards. The first, to the west, seems to have been used for agricultural purposes, where the second encircles the two churches, the portico, and the cells. Two round towers protect the monastery's west side and soften the harsh outlines of the wall. A center opening made on west side is decorated with ornamental motifs and two khatchkars (stone crosses with intricate and decorative designs etched into the flat rock, like lacework) inserted into the masonry.
This opening leads to the first courtyard where, in the South-East corner, are a series of rooms given over to the processing and preserving of agricultural produce. Among other things are found rooms equipped for oil making, a miniature windmill, an oven, and a fountain.
A small door opens to the second courtyard where the monks cells for living and working line the perimeter of the wall together with the abbot? rooms, the refectory, the kitchen, and the facilities. The oldest building at the eastern end is a domed, central plan cruciform for the interior, and quadrangular for the exterior. On one side, the dome rests on the two pillars incorporated into the external western walls, which were later included in the eastern part of the central church. The later central structure, built in the 19th century, acts as the fulcrum of the entire composition because of the complexity of its mass and exceptional dimensions, thus extending the volumetric play of the older church.
Located on the same longitudinal axis as the older church, this later one with its special plan is reminiscent of the church of St. Etchmiadzin (niche-buttressed square plan) in Vagharshapat. This structure, built in 1811-1820 in front of the former church, became the main church of the complex, and replaced and expanded the west side of the older one. Like the cathedral of Etchmiadzin, it has a square layout with four free-standing supports, but it has three apses instead of the usual four.
Moreover, the west apse is reduced to make room for the portico (porch). Resting on cruciform free-standing pillars, the central arches support the cupola and the dodecagonal drum surrounding it externally. The portico, inserted at the point corresponding to the western exedra of the main church, was never completed and dates back to the middle of the 19th century. It probably was intended to have a second floor and a true bell tower. The portico? Massiveness is lightened by little blind arches, decorative and geometric figures repeating those of the central church, to further unify the two parts of the complex. The element connecting the portico-bell tower and the church wall is missing.
The building technique of this section, artially demolished and partially unfinished, is typical of Armenian architecture with the external surface of the walls in ashlar stones,and the supporting section of the walls in roughly worked stone. From the outside, as well as from the inside, the three different constructive periods - the oldest church, the main church, and the portico-bell tower - are evident. The first of the three has smooth walls in gray-black tuff, from which its name Ghara-Kilisa (black church) is derived.
Placed on the two-step high baseboard of the building are decorative half-columns with an unfinished base, more than likely
remains of the first church destroyed prior to the 14th century. The roof has 2 layers of large stone shingles: the surface of the tympanum is carved with bas-reliefs, some of which are in white stone, which can probably be attributed to restoration work done in later centuries. The twelve sided tambour is in alternating light and dark colored stones. Of particular interest are the three miniature models of the church placed at the vertex tambours bringing to mind the architectural structure of the Seljuk tribe, for instance, Mama Hatun of Derchan. with the use of rhythmic horizontal bands. Below, the decoration comprises the foundation, the first area of smooth stone, and then a series of panels with round, blind arches alternating with pointed ones, all resting on slender half-columns. Inside the panels are various decorative motifs such as rosettes, khatchkar, coats-of-arms, flowers and animal figures.
Near the impost of the arches are winged cherubim heads, and statues of angels are placed in the corners of the church facade.
Above this finely sculptured double band of bas-reliefs, richly adorned with episodes from the Old and New Testaments, scenes with animal and human figures, goes around the entire church. Slightly higher, the panels, formed by half-columns surmounted by decorative capitals, with mythical animals flanking their baseboards, are repeated. Inside the panels are bas-reliefs depicting saints and other figures connected with the life of the monastery.
Still higher up are isolated figures, and on the North and South facades, there are crosses designed in the wall with dark-colored stone. The relief figures in the main church are clearly inspired by the ones at Akhtamar (10th c). It is curious to note that the Saints at St. Thaddeus have no halos, due undoubtedly to a certain influence of Islamic art, especially in its Persian tradition, which must be recognized in the decoration of the monastery.
The Monastery of St. Thaddeus has a surprising ethereal ambiance of a living presence within its walls. It must be due to this feeling that numerous pilgrims gather there each year for the traditional feast-day of St. Thaddeus