Armenia (III) – History in 3D (Etchmiadzin – Zvartnots)

St.Hripsime Church – a post-script to Tiridates’ boor-ish life / Sunday 1st April 2018

First stop this Easter Sunday morning was at St. Hripsime Church, a short drive from Yerevan. This 7th century church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and was built over a pagan temple.

Quick recap from yesterday’s post – Hripsime was the beautiful nun who, while escaping the advances of the Roman Emperor, was tortured and killed by Tiridates when she spurned him. More than 30 other good women were also killed. Post-conversion to Christianity, Tiridates tried to make amends by building a church dedicated to Hripsime, over which the current church was built some 300 years later.

Katar pointed out the triangular niches that ran the height of the church on its outer walls – these apparently earthquake-proof the church – it obviously works as the church has remained standing despite several earthquakes.

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St. Hripsime Church was filled with a sense of peace. As in Geghard, there were young and old in quiet prayer, lighting candles or, in the case of one elderly woman doing a circumambulation around the church – no different from the circumambulations one might see at a Hindu temple or a Bhutanese chorten.

As we walked back to the car from St.Hripsime, traffic on the main road was stopped to allow a motorcade through – the President on his way to Easter service at Etchmiadzin Cathedral – our next stop.


Easter Service at Etchmiadzin Cathedral

There was a buzz as we drove into Vagharshapat (aka Etchmiadzin), with everyone in their Sunday best, heading towards the cathedral. The original church was built in the 4th century by …you guessed it – Gregory the Illuminator. And yes, again, it replaced a pagan temple. Over the years, various buildings were added to the large complex; the cathedral, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the seat of the catholicos.

Unfortunately, being Easter, the museum which housed some very exciting relics was closed – so we didn’t get to see the lance that pierced Christ while he was on the Cross, or the fragment from Noah’s Ark.

Scarves over our heads, we joined the throng inside the cathedral – it was a standing church, no pews. The cupola and frescoes were quite beautiful (thankfully I remembered to look up…there’s a backstory to this, but I’ll save that for another time). Before the service started, a couple of women with selfie sticks (yes, again from the country that shall remain unnamed for now), shoved their way through the crowd – nevermind that _0ST6299some people were obviously deep in prayer; they got to a choice spot, turned their backs to the altar, lifted the selfie stick – almost taking out some eyes and noses in the process – took their selfie and shoved their way out. I wished I could’ve smacked them over their heads with their selfie sticks – then remembered where I was and banished all uncharitable thoughts (well, not all). The security chaps who were peppered through the crowd (easily recognisable by their ear pieces) were surprisingly calm, though one of them did seem to be keeping his eye on the selfie stick-wielding pair.

The service was pretty spectacular, a throwback to an era long gone, and yet very much alive and well here in present-day Armenia – it was almost medieval. The catholicos Karekin II, who is the leader of the Armenian church and the Armenian diaspora, was in attendance. There was much red and gold, incense and sonorously soothing prayers in Armenian.  The choir was equally hypnotic and I was transported to another plane – this was a good place for prayer.

We stayed for about an hour before it was time to leave to meet Katar at the gift shop. We_0ST6368 didn’t see President Sargsyan or his wife, but according to the news later that day, they were very much there.


Zvartnots Cathedral

We had one more cathedral to visit before we headed for lunch – the remains of Zvartnots Cathedral – yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three things stood out for me here –

  1. The ever-present Mt Ararat looming in the background which was practically shimmering in the noon-day sun.
  2. The unusual shape of the cathedral – it was circular. The cathedral was in ruins but there was a model on display inside a little museum.
  3. Komitas (who made his first appearance yesterday at the Genocide Memorial Museum) appeared in a photo taken with a group of men at the cathedral…and I actually recognised him before reading the caption. From then on, Katar referred to Komitas as, “Your friend, Komitas.” 🙂

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Easter Lunch at the Tavern Yerevan

Just yesterday, in my googling of ‘where to eat in Yerevan’, the Tavern Yerevan popped up many times – as a place with authentic local food, good service, etc. So it was a pleasant surprise to find out that this was where our Easter lunch was going to be.

Easter is the biggest celebration of the year for Armenians – it was interesting to see that IMG_2163it was observed with a lot of quiet contemplation, and with family at home. There were no Easter bunnies, or Easter egg hunts, and definitely no rainbow coloured eggs – just eggs painted a dark red symbolising the blood of Christ. The closest one got to ‘fun and games’ was the ‘egg cracking competition’. Katar said kids had competitions where they knocked their eggs against each other’s – the one whose egg didn’t crack, won. Shobs and I played the game – my egg won…

 

Besides the hardboiled eggs, there was a lovely fresh salad, (too much) trout for the main and some very yummy baklava for dessert. Today too we packed the leftovers and had this for dinner.

Frunzik the Poet

After lunch, we said goodbye to Katar for the day, as she headed home to spend the rest of Easter with her family. Back at the hotel, it was editing and lolling time before we headed out to Yerevan’s flea market at about 4PM – Katar had said the stalls start packing up at about 5PM . Many steps were chalked up as we went in search of an ATM machine to get some Dram – zero success with 3 ATMs, so we had to head back to the hotel to change some USD, and dash back to the market, which fortunately was just a short walk from the hotel.

The market had an eclectic mix of things  – mainly Armenian and Russian. From chess sets and brandy glasses to guns and knives, and the usual touristy knick-knacks. Near the market there was a Red Indian performing…not sure what that was about.

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A Red Indian in Yerevan

As we started to walk through the open-air market, an elderly gentleman manning a secondhand bookstall got up to say hello and ask where we were from. When we said, “Singapore”, he promptly launched into a poem in Armenian – at some point I thought I heard him say ‘Singapore’ – it turned out to be a poem about Singapore! He said that someone had taught him that poem and had said it was about Singapore. That was the first of many poems – it was rather impressive that he could spout poetry with barely any effort. He then launched into “an English poem” – ‘Mother’…it was a poem I had learnt in school – and for the life of me, would never be able to recite it today!

The man in the neighbouring stall said something to our poet – it sounded like he was

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Frunzik

telling him to stop talking so much. But Frunzik – that was his name – who would be 75 in May, was unstoppable. He said we looked ‘warm and simple’ and that perhaps we had met in another life!

I bought a book from Frunzik on his recommendation (“I think you will like this.”) – it was by William Saroyan, a Fresno-born Armenian and, as I later found out, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has been compared to Hemingway and Faulkner.

The poetry only stopped when another customer came along – and we said our goodbyes. We wandered up and down the aisles and bought a few gifts to take home – some books for J2 and a stone for J1.

And so ended our last evening in Yerevan. As we crossed the road to get to our hotel, I thought, “The last road we’ll be crossing in Yerevan” – much as I’d loved my time here, I don’t think I’ll be in Yerevan again.

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The obligatory cheesy tourist shot

We’d covered quite a bit of ground in the 3 days here – to the east yesterday, the west today – and tomorrow north and then to the Georgian border.

Day 3


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