Geghard – "the Monastery of the Spear" – takes its name from being the alleged home of the spear used on Jesus at the Crucifixion. The spear is said to have been brought to Armenia by the Apostle Jude and has made the monastery a site of pilgrimage for centuries.
Armenia – Long Read

Medieval churches have left their mark

Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua

Armenia – Long Read Medieval churches have left their mark

Hello Armenia, which in 301 became the first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity, tracing its conversion to two of the 12 apostles of Jesus. Its medieval churches have left their mark on western church architecture and its capital, Yerevan, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, with a near-3,000-year history.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

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.

Thus have the greatest churches of Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian country, outlasted centuries of conflict and invasion, subjugation and genocide. Byzantine, Ottoman, Russian and Persian armies have all carved out territories of this once-powerful kingdom. Even today, several of Armenia’s most iconic landmarks lie across borders, such as Mount Ararat in Turkey.

Armenia’s churches remain a symbol not just of religious but also of national identity. “People are getting more religious here,” says my friend Artur, a native of the capital, Yerevan. “When I was growing up under the Soviet Union, we weren’t exposed to religion. We were all atheists.”

Echmiadzin sent me a Bible as a graduation gift

After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, people – particularly the young – began to return to the faith they saw as inextricable from their identity as Armenians. “I was in sixth grade when the change started. By the time I graduated from high school, Echmiadzin (the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church) sent me a Bible as a graduation gift.”

Here at the 13th century Noravank Monastery, 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.

I head south to Goris. Sandwiched between the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory driving the Armenia- Azerbaijan conflict, and the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan, Goris is less than an hour’s drive from these heavily militarized borders.

Strawberries so impossibly red that tasting them feels dangerous

Not that it is easy to tell. Sleepy and subdued, the 19th century stone houses of Goris, their thresholds shadowed by grapevines, feel worlds away from conflict. Around me, violently green cliffs rear up, breaking apart the blue monotony of sky.

Khachik Mirakyan, owner of what he proudly proclaims to be “the oldest bed and breakfast in Armenia”, is on hand, beaming, to greet me. I am not quite up to the social caliber of his first-ever guest – “the German ambassador”, he says with a wink – but I will have to do. He offers coffee, tea, cherry-tart wine he has made from the grapes that overhang the balcony, fresh orange slices and strawberries so impossibly red that tasting them feels dangerous.

He is pleased to learn I have come to see the nearby 9th century Tatev Monastery, one of the country's most famous churches, but more than a little dismayed to learn I plan to take the bus rather than walk the eight miles up to the summit.

“Some visitors to Goris do not hike,” he says, offering me another serving of wine and freshly-made compote and chiding me for not finishing the last of the yoghurt soup. “They just want to sit on my terrace, enjoy the sun, enjoy sleep, enjoy the food, enjoy life here.”

I am offered food or drink by most of the people I pass

For his part, he prefers to be active. “I hike every day,” he says. “To the caves of Old Gori. Around the mountains. Even in the winter, when I cannot go outside, I hike back and forth across the room.” He sighs. “But I can only do that so many times.” He offers more wine before he leaves to put his words into practice.

The difficulty of refusing anything in Goris soon becomes apparent. As I head in search of the bus to Tatev, I am offered food or drink by most of the people I pass: in Armenian, Russian, English, and various forms of pantomime. As I gather up my bags to get on the bus, an old man at a nearby cafe sends over a glass of brandy on a red plastic tray. “Slow down,” he says. “Relax.”

By the time I arrive at Tatev, jostled between sacks of potatoes on a Soviet-era minibus, the brandy feels less welcome than it first did. But no sooner do I stumble down the dirt road leading to the monastery entrance than I am stopped again, this time by Anna Arsharkyan: proprietress of the Tatev information centre – and offered new sustenance: thyme-brewed tea, fresh biscuits studded with slices of fresh apple.

Of all Armenia’s monasteries, few have the sheer epic scope of Tatev. Perched on the edge of a basalt expanse, the cliff plunging only inches from the monastery’s edge, Tatev feels less like a man-made structure than like a natural outcropping of rock: its columns and archways carved out by the rain. The labyrinthine chambers twist and turn into one another; a few lead precariously to the cliff’s edge, where no railing separates the green of the earth from the whiteness of sky.

It is impossible to tell where the sound is coming from

I enter the St Peter and Paul Church: the largest in the complex. The entry dome is intricately carved and each stone burnished. Inside, a young woman in white – I learn later that she is another visitor – begins to sing. Her melancholy song echoes so diffusely off the dome that at first it is impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. The notes blend into one another; they echo and repeat until the whole church is filled with sound. The sounds moves me to tears.

As we head north to Yerevan, Artur offers to take me to an evening sung service at the 5th century Mayr Tachar – the Mother Church – in the town of Echmiadzin. According to legend, it was here that St Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s national saint, had a vision of a beam of divinely falling light: inspiration to found Armenia’s first church.

Artur has visited Echmiadzin once or twice, he says, but he does not know too much about the other churches here. “Under the Soviet Union, we rarely had school classes on Armenian history or culture,” he says. “Russian history – just Soviet history, really – was far more common.”

Today, those attending the service are almost uniformly young. There are couples holding hands, pregnant women, children scampering and hiding behind pillars. All ignore the “no cameras” sign, snapping photographs through the haze of incense and the glimmer of flame. Even the black-hooded priests, their chant echoing across the dome, all look under 30.

She kneels before a silver cross and kisses it

Families buy fistfuls of candles, lighting 20 or 30 at a time in prayer; men in long coats stalk the church’s edges, gathering left-over wax into pails. “I guess it saves them money to re-use it,” says Artur, laughing. A young woman, sporting an “I Love Paris” T-shirt and a covered head, approaches a central altar that marks the sacred spot where Gregory’s beam of light first hit the ground. She kneels before a silver cross and kisses it.

Another family approaches. They place their two toddler girls – twins – in front of the altar, taking a series of photographs before directing the girls to kiss the cross, to move aside the carpet and kiss the spot where Gregory’s light first fell.

Artur watches in surprise. “Everything’s so different now,” he says, whispering. “My parents were scientists – they would never have let me do that. It’s not just the religious aspect. I mean, all those people kissing the same cross. My mother was very big on hygiene.”

After the splendor of Southern Armenia, Yerevan itself is all the more striking in its ugliness. A city of brutally functionalist architecture, mingled with a few Neo-Classical facades, Yerevan makes little attempt to seduce its visitors: funneling me instead down the rigid and congested thoroughfares that link the Yerevan Opera House to the central Republic Square.

However, the wide streets and clearly-defined boulevards make perfect places to sit on outside terraces and the city’s cafe scene has evolved into the coolest in the Caucasus. On the balmy days that make up most of the year, locals congregate at their particular favorites to smoke and drink pomegranate wine.

Soviet tower blocks block out the sky

I spend a few days tracking down the latest trendy “underground” ones, where you can find yourself wandering through a deserted-seeming parking lot, only to end up at the hottest joint in town.

Then Vardan, a friend of a friend, insists that I should meet a “real” Armenian family. We meet near his grandfather’s house in Bangladesh, a suburb of Yerevan, so called because of its distance from the city center. Nothing is Neo- Classical here. Soviet tower blocks, charred by decades of exhaust pipe detritus, block out the sky.

As we enter the staircase of a block of apartments, Vardan apologizes for the smell of urine. Here, as in other former Soviet cities, communal space is little-valued. Entry-halls and elevators are for the stashing of cigarette butts and the relieving of bladders. Behind the door of each home, he assures me, everything is different.

His grandfather’s apartment proves him right. The walls are lined with books, faded Armenian classics in neat cloth binding. Crosses and makeshift devotionals occupy the many corners. The sofas are covered with traditional fabric; carpets line the floors. The steam from cooking dolma fills the room.

She allows me to call her Babushka instead

As we are introduced, Vardan’s family set upon me. They embrace me as I am passed from one to the next: Lilit, Vardan’s younger sister in impeccable miniskirt; their mother Anahit; grandfather Nikolai and his wife, who introduces herself only as Tatik (Grandmother). Eventually, she relents, allowing me to call her Babushka instead.

When we start talking about Armenia, they grow excited. Nikolai leads me out onto the balcony. The terrace – on the 7th floor – overlooks the gray and dilapidated towers of Bangladesh; Nikolai does not see them. He points beyond the buildings, at the horizon: at the spiking outline of Mount Ararat, clearer here than anywhere else in Yerevan. “You see, our history is there,” says Nikolai. “All our history is there.” I no longer see Bangladesh either.

When I return to the living room, I find that plates have already been set. I had expected to stay only for a chat, a cup of tea at the most. But Lilit is helping her mother and grandmother lay out a cornucopia of dishes: coriander- steamed beans and home-cured meats. Babushka has done the pork, Vardan tells me; her husband the beef, with cucumber and tomato salad, fresh bread, dolma with strong yoghurt. To drink there is strong coffee, lightened with fresh milk that is newly boiled on the stovetop for extra safety.

Lilit notices that my ring, the traditional comedy and tragedy masks that serve as the international symbol for theater, matches her necklace. She beams with excitement. I ask her if she is an actress.

Tumanyan’s makes us kinder and fairer and braver

She laughs. “I’m a schematics engineer,” she says. “But I love art – all kinds of art.” She hopes to travel to Italy with her brother but the visa process for Armenians going abroad, even on holiday, is a laborious one. I tell her about my visit to Echmiadzin. She sighs. She believes in God, she tells me, but she does not go to church as often as she should. “Only once or twice a month.”

Tonight, there is a different kind of celebration in store. It is museum night in Yerevan: all museums are free and open to the public until midnight; many also offer live performances. I head to the house-museum of Hovhannes Tumanyan, Armenia’s national poet, an object of almost religious veneration among locals, who see him as a spiritual as well as aesthetic leader. “Tumanyan’s past changes us,” reads the plaque at the entrance, “makes us kinder and fairer and braver. It helps us to re-find our identity and become citizens of the world. Tumanyan cuts our glance from the ground and directs it up to the universe, to the eternity where the TRUTH is.”

In the garden, a trio of musicians sing and pluck at the dulcimer. They wear the traditional dress of the ashugh, the mystic bards of old. The crowd is varied: there are hipsters in panama hats and silk shirts, old women in kerchiefs, couples nuzzling in corners, obscured by vines.

As they sing, one little girl gets up to perform an impromptu traditional dance. Her arms are jerky, her movements shy. Her grandmother starts to clap; the girl moves faster. Her motions are fluid now; she begins to spin; other children join her, swaying to the music, spreading their arms wide. They sing a song they have written about Armenian history, about Armenia’s legacy, about Tumanyan, the immortal poet whose words no amount of conflict can wipe out.

The girls keep dancing.

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