Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua
At the 13th-century Noravank Monastery of Armenia, about 70 miles from Yerevan in the heart of a dust-red gorge, the church seems set to outlast the rocks themselves.
The carvings above the church doors look virtually new. One, in particular, catches my eye: the eagle of the once-great Orbeliani Princes who ruled the region, and a rare depiction of God the Father, his beard flowing and loose.
Not even the Bolsheviks could tear down this church. Although up to 800 were razed under the anti-clerical Soviet regime, churches such as Noravank were considered too architecturally valuable to destroy. Standing at its entrance, looking at the smooth blocks of stone rearing up against the rougher gorge, I find it easy to see why. Only one thing has noticeably changed in the 700 years since its foundation. A shiny metallic photo-booth, courtesy of Armenian network provider Vivacell, now allows visitors to record video messages and email them to loved ones.
The church is empty. Above me, the stones are bare, the walls heavy and dark. Outside, the sun is scorching and white; but here the only light comes from windows carved into the dome, cutting a swath of sunshine into the shadows. Every dust mite glows. The only sound comes from the baby bats nestled in the darkness.
Other churches of the Caucasus, those in nearby Georgia, for example, can feel faded and ruined. Paint on frescoes wears easily. Even those images not corroded by time have been defaced by other means. It is not uncommon to see churches in which every saint’s face has had its eyes gouged out, a legacy of marauding Ottoman armies, who saw in such frescoes evidence of the “evil eye.”
But Armenian churches have suffered no such lasting damage. Frescoes were never popular here, as the Armenian church was suspicious of life-like painting, deeming it dangerously close to what they saw as the heretical use of icons. Stone masonry was the traditional craft of choice. Animal miniatures and intricately carved khachkars, uniquely Armenian stone crosses, took the place of painted Madonnas and, unlike paint, stones do not easily fade.
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