An Illuminating Morning / Saturday 31 March 2018
An early start this morning. We had a quick breakfast before 7AM. I got to chatting with a very friendly waitress, Martine – she said it might be a cloudy day and we may not get a very clear view of Mt Ararat – which was to be the highlight for today. I could only hope she was wrong.
Katar was waiting for us in the lobby and we were off just before 7.30AM. As we drove through the suburbs and eventually out of Yerevan, Mt Ararat loomed – not so far away it seemed. Clouds obscured its peak but it nevertheless was majestic, seeming to watch over Yerevan and the Armenian countryside.
What a quirk of history and politics – the biblical Mt Ararat, thought to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark, considered a sacred mountain by the Armenians, and probably Armenia’s most famous icon (it features on the country’s coat-of-arms)…and it lies across the (closed) border in Turkey.
We knew (as we were told many times) that we would get a ‘better view’ as we got to Khor Virap, our first stop for today – and yet, we really couldn’t help trying to get a shot of the magnificent mountain as we drove along the 3-lane highway. Finally, I suspect to put us out of our misery, as we tried to get a clear shot from the car, Katar asked Mello to try and stop somewhere safe – and so he did – and we happily hopped out for some quick photos from the highway – and we spent the rest of the drive with less twitchy camera hands.
Khor Virap – Dungeons & Mountains
It wasn’t long before we caught our first sight of Khor Virap – the postcard view, with Mt Ararat as backdrop. Katar said this was the only spot from which we’d get that view, and that this was the closest we’d get to Mt Ararat in Armenia; needless to say we spent some time here.
Khor Virap was where it all started – ‘it’ being Christianity. Grigor Lusavorich was born in Armenia but he and his family fled to Rome when he was a child, after his father assassinated the then-king of Armenia. He returned 20 years later, preaching Christianity – this angered the king – King Tiridates, son of the assassinated king. He had him tortured in quite innovatively horrific ways, from driving nails in his feet then making him walk, to having molten lead being poured over him. Grigor, who was Gregory by this time, survived it all, ostensibly on account of his faith. The king had sort of calmed down and was ready to let him go when a troublemaker (there’s one in every story) told the king that Gregory’s father was the king’s father’s assassin. That set King Tiridates off again and he threw him into a deep dungeon (Khor Virap = Deep Dungeon). Some accounts say he shared the pit with snakes.
Most people thrown into that dungeon didn’t last more than a few days. However, a lady living near the dungeon, had a dream in which she was told to provide Gregory with food. So everyday, she threw a loaf of bread down the pit to him. And so, he remained alive…
Meanwhile King Tiridates was not behaving very well. In Rome, the emperor had put the word out to find him the most beautiful woman available. This turned out to be a nun named Hripsime. Hripsime ran off to Armenia to escape the emperor’s advances – but she ended up in Tiridates clutches. He was spurned by her – in a rage he killed her and 36 other Christian women. Karma came quickly and he went mad, or as Katar said, he had an incurable illness where he behaved like a boar (or boor?). His sister now had a repeated vision where she was told that Gregory could cure him. The King scoffed [Note: use of the word ‘scoff’ might be a result of my binge-watching stuff on Netflix…’scoff’ is a favourite subtitle for various indiscernible noises] – Gregory would’ve died years ago.
But it came to light that Gregory wasn’t dead – he was brought into the light, cured the king – and the king saw the light. Together with Gregory, they proceeded to convert Armenia to Christianity – and that’s how Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301AD – and Gregory (later St. Gregory) became the first bishop of the Armenian church.
The monastery was built over the dungeon some 300 years later. The dungeon is still there, with a steel ladder leading into it – we decided to give this a miss, and stayed above ground.
It was a lovely crisp morning, blue skies and the very photogenic Mt Ararat centrestage. We weren’t the only ones taking endless images of it from various angles…
Geghardavank – Monastery of the Spear
Next on the agenda, a monastery carved out of rock – Geghardavank. [We added to our Armenian vocabulary today – ‘vank’ = ‘monastery’. We were still trying to remember ‘thank you’ – ‘schnora galem’ and ‘hello’ – ‘ba-rev’…I think Swahili is easier…] Geghard translates to ‘spear’ or ‘lance’ and refers to the spear that pierced Jesus’ side while he was on the Cross. It was brought to Armenia by the apostle Thaddeus, and now is at the museum at Etchmiadzin. It was mind-boggling, how casually all this information was conveyed.
The whole monastery complex (mainly built in the 12th century) – a UNESCO World Heritage site – was quite amazing, chapels carved out of the mountain, interconnected chambers – one was home to a spring with ‘prayer-answering’ qualities – so, of course we had some of the ice-cold miracle water. The acoustics were amazing – in one rock-carved vestry, a young girl began to sing – I don’t know who she was, but she looked like a tourist. Her voice soared to the heavens and in this barely lit cave, with its stone columns and cross-stones, it felt like the angels were singing.
Cross-stones or ‘khachkars‘ featured prominently – some had fairly simple crosses carved into the centre of a stone slab, others more elaborate, with various sections – each almost a chapter of a biblical story – but always with the cross in the centre. For the most part, the cross-stones are focal points for prayer. Katar said that each khachkar is unique and there are no two identical ones. Many had a reddish hue – I thought this was from the rock used but it was actually a dye from a type of worm! Amazing that this colour has lasted through the ages.
A Symphony of Stones
There was a slight change in schedule. We were supposed to visit another monastery, Norvavank, but Katar thought we might appreciate another Armenian special – the Symphony of Stones at Garni Gorge. She was right. We switched to a 4WD at the Garni village – the young driver was no Mello and probably fancied himself as a race car driver, accelerating at the slightest opportunity.
As we drove down the steep mountain road, he solicitously turned up the heat when Shobs said it was a bit cold…and turned it down only when we all felt like we were in a sauna. It wasn’t a long drive down into the gorge – and when we got to the bottom, it was indeed spectacular.
The sheer cliffs comprised these most regular hexagonal basalt cylinders, lining the entire height of the cliff – some cylinders shorter than others – it really did look like a ginormous church organ – truly a symphony. We walked along the base of the gorge, along the Azat (aka Garni) River – standing right beneath those cylinders of stone, I did wonder about what might happen if one of those columns detached itself from its brothers…thankfully, not even a pebble fell from above.
We took the 4WD back to the village – it was a short walk to lunch. I was starving by now. There are no restaurants in the village – lunch was at Sergei’s, an enterprising local who has opened his farm to tourists looking for some local fare. At Sergei’s you can see your lavash being made and pick a couple up for your lunch – you don’t get fresher lavash than that. There was some vigorous rolling pin action before the bread was popped into the clay oven in the ground. The experience was slightly marred by a large group of tourists (from guess where) who elbowed their way to get their bread, with selfie-sticks, almost stepping on the ‘bread cooling area’ on the ground. Fortunately this group had a table far far away from us.
We had an outdoor table – sun was out but it was still a bit nippy – and some time was spent standing in the sun to warm up while waiting for the food. The food was absolutely fab – the healthy wraps with our very own lavash, the grilled fish and potatoes – and dessert – gata – which is the Armenian version of bread with condensed milk. The portions were far too large – and so we tapau‘d the remainder to have later – dinner maybe?
The Last Pagan Temple in Armenia
The Temple of Garni dates back to the 1st century AD, and is the only ‘pagan’ temple left standing in Armenia. Many of the beautiful pre-Christian era structures were destroyed when Armenia was converted to Christianity following Gregory and Tiridates’ ‘partnership in conversion’. Obviously religious insecurities aren’t the prerogative of any one religion – insecurities that continue in various forms even today.
As the story goes, King Tiridates was all set to destroy this temple (as he had all the others after his conversion to Christianity) – fortunately, his sister (the same one who had the dream about Gregory being able to cure her boor-ish brother) persuaded him to let it remain – as a ‘summer palace’ for her. And so it was spared. A Roman-style bath was included – some of the ancient mosaic flooring remains till today.
As we were leaving the temple grounds, we heard the strains of O Sole Mio floating through the air. A tenor and a violinist were being filmed, with the temple and mountains as a backdrop; it was a perfect 3D scene – the voice, the mountains, the crisp mountain air – we shamelessly jumped in with our cameras, and as there was no objection (and even a bit of encouragement from the tenor) we didn’t stop.
Cascading back to the hotel
As we had missed a couple of the outdoor stops at Yerevan yesterday on account of the rain, we decided to make those stops before calling it a day. First stop, the statue of Mother Armenia – which replaced a statue of Joseph Stalin in the 1960s. It represents the women who not only supported their men, but also fought alongside the men in various battles against the Turks and Kurds.
We then stopped at the Cascades – a very hip and happening part of Yerevan. Loads of trendy cafes, modern art pieces (with many Boteros), beautifully landscaped gardens – and of course the Cascades itself – a complex with multiple levels (five, I think) – which you can either climb via stairs – or you could take the escalator or lifts – we did a bit of both.
On the outside, there were fountains (though none were on) and sculptures of divers, etc.; on the inside there was an eclectic collection of modern-ish art – which included traffic lights, coloured beings lit from inside and the like. There was an eclectic mix of people too – locals, selfie-sticked tourists, one who sat on a Botero and gave the police some work to do, and even someone in a saree.
By this time, we were history-d and art-d out – at least I was. So, back to the hotel for a welcome shower and snoozette. We decided that a light meal was in order and had the leftovers from Sergei’s that we’d cleverly packed (pat on back) – it was as delicious cold.
We’d covered quite a bit of ground today…
Tomorrow – Easter service at Etchmiadzin.