research-text: Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra. –

The church of the Virgin Mary of Ganchvor (Caller or Summoner) is situated in the north-western part of the walled city of Famagusta, a stone’s throw away from the much larger Carmelite church; it is the only surviving Armenian church of Famagusta – which during the Middle Ages had three Armenian Orthodox and an Armenian Catholic churches.

Ganchvor was part of an older important monastic, cultural and theological establishment, at which Saint Nerses of Lampron (1153-1198) is said to have studied and whose foundations survived until the mid-20th century. The monastery had its own scriptorium, manuscripts and Bibles of which survive at the Armenian Saint James’ Monastery in Jerusalem.

This modest church, built in a traditional Armenian style, was probably erected in 1346 by Armenian refugees who had escaped the Mameluke attacks against Ayas of Cilicia. Looking like a square fortress with a semi-circular apse to the east and a cross-shaped roof, its architecture is traditional Armenian, but its masonry seems to be Cypriot in style. Its walls were covered with beautiful frescoes, only some of which survive until the present day, due to the long abandonment and natural decay. Although it is unknown exactly when it ceased being used as a church, this was possibly the case already since the mid-Venetian Era.

Throughout the Ottoman Era (1570-1878), the walled city of Famagusta was a forbidden place for non-Muslim locals. We have very little information about its condition during that time, but we do know that the Ottomans used it, like other churches, to store gunpowder, resulting in its partial burning in the late 19th century. We also know that, until at least 1862, it had a small bell tower, which was not there in the 1890s, when Camille Enlart visited the site.

Unpreserved for about four centuries, it was declared an ancient monument in 1907. Earlier on, the Armenian Archbishop of Cyprus, Bedros Saradjian, had approached the Curator of Ancient Monuments, George Jeffery, regarding this church. As a result, in 1907 an iron door was placed and partial preservation took place. In 1931 the inside of the church was cleared from some debris, while in 1932 it was restored by the Cyprus Museum, under Jeffery’s care.

On 19 April 1934 Ganchvor was visited by the Catholicos of Cilicia, Papken Gulesserian, and the Armenian Archbishop of Cyprus, Bedros Saradjian. As the Armenian population of Famagusta had recently increased due to the influx of Genocide refugees, they were of the opinion that it should be given to the local Armenian community as a place of worship. Aided by Mihran Sevazlian, arrangements were made between Archbishop Saradjian and the newly-formed Antiquities Department Director Jeffery, and Governor Sir Herbert Palmer agreed to lease it to the Armenian Prelature of Cyprus for a period of 99 years on 7 March 1936. Thanks to a generous contribution by Sdepan Eramian, restorations and significant repairs were carried out during the long years of 1937-1944, under the watchful care of Theophilus Mogabgab, Director of Antiquities for Famagusta District.

The first Liturgy and its re-consecration took place on 14 January 1945 by Archimandrite Krikor Bahlavouni [also known as Topal Vartabed (Lame Archimandrite), due to a leg injury he suffered during his service with the Armenian Legion], in the presence of a large number of attendants. The church was used a few times a year to celebrate Mass, usually on Christmas and Easter.

It was partially burnt on 8 March 1957 by Turkish-Cypriot extremists. The colonial authorities denied the community’s application for another church and so Ganchvor was used for worship until 1962, when the Holy Archbishopric of Cyprus granted the use of the old church of Ayia Paraskevi, a larger church closer to Varosha, where the majority of the town’s Armenians lived; Saint John’s church in Varosha was used for large Masses, such as weddings.

Following the 1963-1964 intercommunal troubles, it became part of the Turkish-Cypriot enclave, together with the rest of the walled Famagusta. Until late 2005, when it was declassified as being inside a “military area”, it was used, successively, as a residence, a stable and a store room, initially for gunpowder, later on for weapons and finally for supplies.

Presently it is in a fair condition, requiring restoration and some repairs. Between 2013-2015, the church is being restored under the care of Michael J. Walsh, with funding from the World Monuments Fund and the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, while as of September 2015 the project has been undertaken by the United Nations Development Programme-Partnership For the Future (UNDP-PFF). Among others, the project has so far discovered traditional Armenian frescoes behind the previously plastered walls of the church. Hopefully, the restoration process will be completed within 2016.
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