A coun­try with unique ar­chi­tec­ture, sto­ries

Ar­me­nia’s re­li­gious ar­chi­tec­ture is like noth­ing you have seen in any other Chris­tian coun­try be­fore. Hence, me and my team of wan­der­ers set out for a jour­ney to track down Ar­me­nia’s most amaz­ing churches and monas­ter­ies

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Adventure -

AR­ME­NIA was one of the first ever Chris­tian coun­tries, as the lo­cals never hes­i­tate to tell you. They were so ex­cited about be­ing the first Chris­tians that scads of them ran up into the hills to build as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful and com­pellingly strange monas­ter­ies. They put stone cones on their tops, they dec­o­rated their graves with in­tri­cate braided carv­ings. For this trip, my team of wan­der­ers went to Yere­van to jour­ney what an­cient faiths had in­spired the lo­cals to build.

We had se­lected a hand­ful of the most ar­chi­tec­turally un­usual places of wor­ship for our tour. On our first day of monastery-spot­ting, we ac­tu­ally got a pack­age tour. I know, I felt like a to­tal sell­out. But Hos­tel Yere­van of­fered a four-hour ex­cur­sion to see both Khor Vi­rap and No­ra­vank Monastery, which were both on our list.

Khor Vi­rap has a dra­matic place­ment: It juts out on a low promon­tory in front of Mt. Ararat ris­ing be­hind it in the dis­tance. Khor Vi­rap means “deep well,” in Ar­me­nian, but what it ac­tu­ally means here is “snake pit.”

Let me ex­plain. The story of Ar­me­nia’s con­ver­sion is full of blood and be­trayal. A no­ble­man named Anag as­sas­si­nated the Zoroas­trian King Khrosov II. Anag was pretty nat­u­rally ex­e­cuted in re­sponse, and his son Gre­gory fled to Cap­pado­cia to be raised by the un­der­ground Chris­tians in the caves. The pa­gan Ro­man Empire still con­sid­ered Chris­tian­ity bor­der­line hereti­cal in those days, but they tended to tol­er­ate it as long as they kept out of the way of the state. Caves were there­fore a con­ve­nient way to hide out. Gre­gory came back to Ar­me­nia as an adult to spread the gospels. At that time the king was still not too keen on the idea of a pros­e­ly­tizer, es­pe­cially one re­lated to a guy who had killed his dad, so Gre­gory was thrown in a snake pit at Khor Vi­rap for 13 years. The lo­cal lead­ers hoped it would en­cour­age him to aban­don his new re­li­gion, but in­stead, the snakes sup­pos­edly lived down there with him in peace, sub­dued by his med­i­ta­tion, prayer, and su­per­power snake charm­ing. His as­ton­ished keep­ers opened the door every day to find a smil­ing Gre­gory chill­ing with snakes, so they kept feed­ing him, try­ing to wait him out. It didn’t work out for them. Rather than be­com­ing a mar­tyr, he got to be snake king. I mean, a pros­e­ly­tizer.

This was the draw of Khor Vi­rap. We wanted to see the same snake pit, and hope­fully, some snakes. We set out to the north, and the road got des­o­late. We passed through a few vil­lages seem­ingly held to­gether by wire and bricks. We stopped at a road­side stand to buy a sack of fresh orange apri­cots for 4,000 dram. Though it was an hour be­fore we reached the ac­tual town of Ararat, the moun­tain of Ararat was per­pet­u­ally loom­ing on the hori­zon. We took a right and could see Khor Vi­rap across the flat plains, sil­hou­et­ted against the peak. We threw apri­cot pits out the wall as we ap­proached the monastery.

We parked and a man ap­proached us, hold­ing a dove. He had sev­eral more doves in cages. Our guide spoke to him and ex­plained to us.

“If you pay him a dol­lar, you can take a dove up to the top of the monastery, and throw it off.” Be­fore I could even laugh, the man gave me the dove. I balked. I tried to ad­just my grip, and the dove leaped at its chance to es­cape, fly­ing up to alight on a power line above. The man de­manded I give him a dol­lar.

“It’s not my fault,” I said. “The dove es­caped.” The man was in­sis­tent, and so I gave him the dol­lar any­ways. I looked up to the top of the hill, and watched a luck­ier and more sure-handed man than I throw his dove into the sun­light.

Khor Vi­rap is set on a low and squar­ish hill in an oth­er­wise flat green plain. Four cas­tle walls sur­round an im­pos­ing stone cathe­dral peaked with a smooth cone. We climbed up the hill to ex­plore the com­plex and, of course, made a bee­line for the snake pit in­side the cham­bers. We fol­lowed the few tourists to a back room where a line stretched out un­der­neath a stone arch. We waited our turn, and then were let in. A black hole in the stone floor, and a lad­der de­scend­ing into it. The snake pit. We climbed down, one by one.

Snakes! Snakes ev­ery­where! No, just kid­ding. It was empty, save for an im­pro­vised al­tar. There was enough space at the bot­tom to walk around, but not much more. The walls were black and cov­ered in graf­fiti, pre­sum­ably the last words of those who were eaten by snakes. I imag­ined be­ing sur­rounded by hiss­ing men­aces in the dark­ness. Our hos­tel guy told us that last time he was here, a fat woman had got­ten stuck in the lad­der tun­nel. It cut the spooky mood.

Next, we piled back into the van and tried to take ex­cel­lent pic­tures of Khor Vi­rap and Ararat be­hind it, but the clouds had ob­scured the moun­tain. We ate more apri­cots, sul­lenly, and drove for an­other hour up the nar­row Amaghu river gorge.

No­ra­vank was next on our list be­cause it has the great­est col­lec­tion of Khachkars any­where on earth. The Khachkars are the carved tomb­stones of the monks who lived out their lives at these farflung monas­ter­ies. The de­signs of­ten look like Celtic knots, de­tailed spi­rals and ropes of crosses or an­i­mals on yel­low stone.

No­ra­vank is a tiny monastery on a tiny square block with in­sane carv­ings ev­ery­where, po­si­tioned next to and on top of bright red rock cliffs. No­ra­vank had been a crum­bling wreck at the turn of the cen­tury, but new stonework has re­stored it to its glory - the same stone-box-and-pointy-cone de­sign of Khor Vi­rap.

The doors to the church were cov­ered in carv­ings, so were the stair­cases, and so were the walls. Just above the out­side doors, an ab­surdly nar­row stair­case pro­truded from the walls, up the sides of the church. We climbed tee­ter­ing on our hands and knees up the odd stair­case to the sec­ond floor bel­fry, and took silly pic­tures of our­selves med­i­tat- ing un­der the bell. We clam­bered down and peeked in­side the monastery - it was al­most bar­ren, a sen­sory iso­la­tion cham­ber.

We ex­am­ined the Khachkars in the grave­yard and their twist­ing, ob­ses­sive de­signs, and won­dered who and what had spent so much time mak­ing these things, so far away from civ­i­liza­tion, so long ago, for the glory of God.

On our next day trip, we paid a taxi driver the equiv­a­lent of 30 bucks (27,000 dram!) to take us up to Geghard and Garni, a pair of tem­ples sort of close to each other. First was Geghard, a monastery built into the side of a moun­tain. Its name means “Monastery of the Spear.” It used to be called sim­ply “the cave monastery,” since it’s built into the side of a cliff, and some of the com­plex’s cham­bers go into the moun­tain it­self. Of the monas­ter­ies we vis­ited, this felt the most like a fortress.

A lot of other pil­grims had gath­ered in the park­ing lot, where en­ter­pris­ing grand­mas had set up stalls to sell fruit leather and wal­nut candy. Stone walls sur­rounded the monastery com­plex, and we could see the black roof of the church it­self, a cone ris­ing out against the rough moun­tain­side. We got out of the taxi and walked un­der­neath the arch, in­side the com­plex, and made for the church’s door.

Geghard monastery felt alien. The wooden doors were cov­ered by carv­ings in me­dieval Ar­me­nian, an al­pha­bet which is ba­si­cally a magic spell. In­side, it was dark and the ceil­ing was jagged and spiked, and made of black stone. The floor was made of tomb­stones. We lit some beeswax can­dles and ex­plored. Art had been carved into every sur­face - every wall showed broad­faced an­i­mals and fat bun­dles of wheat, all in the same color of black bare stone. It was eerie.

We bought some home­made green ap­ple fruit leather from some grand­mas as a snack, hopped back in the car, and drove up and down through a vil­lage to our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, Garni tem­ple. Garni, for to­tal con­trast, is not even Chris­tian. It is a Greek-style minia­ture pa­gan tem­ple whose con­struc­tion was or­dered by a first cen­tury Ar­me­nian king to make the king­dom more Hel­lenic. It was de­stroyed by an earth­quake in the 17th cen­tury, and the USSR, to their credit, re­built it. Af­ter Ar­me­nia’s con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity, most of the pa­gan tem­ples were de­stroyed, but Garni en­dured.

It looked ex­actly like a small Parthenon - the col­umns, the roof, the bricks. It looked a bit like a jig­saw puzzle put to­gether in a hurry - the col­ors of the bricks and col­umns did not al­ways match their neigh­bor bricks and col­umns, prob­a­bly due to an in­ac­cu­rate (if still beau­ti­ful) re­build. But it was at odds with the sur­round­ings, a tiny Parthenon at the top of a jagged gorge delv­ing to un­told depths be­low. I spent more time look­ing out at the view than at the tem­ple it­self. We found Ara­bic and French graf­fiti carved into the tem­ple from other ar­chae­ol­o­gists of a dif­fer­ent age. Who else had come here to won­der at the tem­ple, to look at the view? It seemed an ap­pro­pri­ate place to con­tem­plate our long and cu­ri­ous pil­grim­age through an an­cient, won­drous part of the world.

Mount Ararat

Khor Vi­rap Monas­try

No­ra­vank Monas­try

Tem­ple of Garni

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