My Armenian sojourn is bookended by two of the most iconic monasteries in Armenia, Khor Virap and Tatev. My host village, Tap’erakan, was just a few miles from where King Trdatt III was converted to Christianity by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 301, making Armenia the first officially Christian nation. My permanent site, Goris, in the southern end of the country, is near the remote and historical monastic center of learning, Tatev. If you’ve seen images of monasteries in Armenia, chances are it was one of these two; but in between are hundreds of others, a testament to the strong history of faith that runs through this country, and its people.
Khor Virap monastery sits on a rocky point overlooking the Arax River, with Mt. Ararat looming just across the river — which is also the Armenian/Turkish border.
Visitors to Khor Virap can climb down into the dungeon, or “hole” where Grigor Luisavorich languished for 13 years before being released by King Trdatt.
St. Gregory’s dungeon is located in the smaller St. Gevorg Chapel, while the main church, St. Astvatsatsin is just across the courtyard. Built in the 17th century, the style is typical of churches and monasteries across Armenia; no-nonsense, squat buildings with little ornamentation. Notre Dame they are not.
But because this was the spot where Christianity began in Armenia, it holds a special place in their hearts. I’d only been here a few weeks before my host family took my friend and fellow volunteer Cathy and me there to check it out. It was also where, just a year before, their son and adorable daughter-in-law were married. The church is still in use and is a popular place for marriages and christenings.
I figured no visit to Khor Virap would be complete without climbing down into the “hole” as they call it. Safety standards are far less stringent in Armenia than in the U.S., enabling visitors to climb freely down a narrow shaft on a questionable steel ladder into the dungeon. Pretty sure the lighting was added later, but it was a surprisingly large space. I’m sure it would get old after 13 years though.
My host family surprised Cathy and I another day by suddenly announcing that we were going to another monastery. At least that’s what we gathered from the combination of our minimal language skills and their ample pantomime.
Things got even more uncertain when, about 20 minutes into the trip, we suddenly veered into an alley in a small village and pulled up behind a man polishing a white Mercedes. Then we learned this man was the godfather to my host parents’ children. Or maybe he was the Godfather, not sure. Anyway turned out he was loaning us his Mercedes for the trip to Noravank, swapping it for my host family’s humble, rattle trap Soviet-era Lada.
With Maise (my host father) happily behind the wheel, we drove for nearly two hours up a winding mountain road — passing every vehicle we encountered, as is mandatory here — and through a narrow, red rock gorge, to Noravank (literally New Monastery). New being a relative term, as it was built in the 13th century, beating Khor Virap by 400 years. The main church is also named St. Astvatsatsin, which means Mary, Holy Mother of God. It’s a common theme among Armenian Apostolic churches.
Armenia has a long history of being pillaged by every passing horde, so they developed a self-preservation tactic of building their important religious centers in remote and difficult locations. The result is monasteries with jaw-dropping views. Noravank is surrounded by jagged red rock mountains, from which its building stones were carved by hand.
Noravank’s most recognizable feature is the stone steps on the outside of the main church that form a triangle leading to the second story entrance. Where St. Gregory’s dungeon tests one’s claustrophobia comfort level, Noravank tests one’s agoraphobic tendencies. The steps are only about 18 inches wide, with no pansy guard rail to keep one from plummeting some 20 feet onto the brick courtyard.
But like thousands of visitors annually, up we went. Coming down is the hard part. I chose to turn around and descend ladder-like, thus decreasing the fear factor.
Noravank is unique in that it features a carving of God over the arching doorway. He is depicted in human form with almond-shaped eyes. It is said that the carver, Momik, carved them thusly in an attempt to appease the Mongol hordes and possible spare another sacking. It didn’t work.
But nature is the greatest threat to these magnificent stone edifices. Like many monasteries around Armenia, Noravank has been damaged by earthquakes and painstakingly reconstructed, the last time being in the 1940s.
Toward the end of the grueling three month Pre-service Training, Peace Corps decided we needed something to lift our spirits, so they gave us a Saturday off to explore on our own, with transportation reimbursed. I and several others chose to check out Geghard monastery, located about an hour and half from the capital city of Yerevan, again tucked away in the mountains.
It originally housed a sacred relic, the Roman spear, or geghard, that was used to poke Jesus while he was on the cross to see if he was still alive. The relic is now housed in the Echmiadzin monastic complex/museum near Yerevan.
The monastery, built in the 12th century, is most notable for the fact that part of it is carved out of the massive rock that surrounds it. The chapel of St. Gregory was built by chiseling the walls of an existing cave, creating a domed chamber with pillars and beautiful decorative carvings. It may have been built to take advantage of an existing natural cave, but still, the amount of labor expended is mind boggling. The acoustics in this chamber are outstanding.
The entrance to the cave chapel passes by a stream coming from a cleft in the rocks. Armenians lined up to fill water bottles with the water that they consider to have healing powers.
Buildings like this were not cheap to build, and were usually owned by local rulers. Princess Proshian is credited with funding much of Geghard, which would explain one of the large bas relief carvings: two lions, collared and joined by chains, over an eagle holding a sheep in its talons. Game of Thrones, anyone?
From the moment I started learning about Armenia I was struck by one image: Tatev monastery. You could not get a more breathtaking location, perched on the point of a 1,000 foot cliff, surrounded by rugged mountains. I was thrilled when I learned I would be posted in Goris, just a taxi ride away from “Wings of Tatev,” the aerial tramway that whisks visitors to the site. (Volunteer Ryan is actually working in the tiny village of Tatev, but it’s kind of nice to have the amenities of Goris.) My second weekend here several of us set out on a pilgrimage to Tatev.
In a country that is still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, riding the world’s longest reversible cable car, spanning three and a half miles and a gorge over a thousand feet deep might not sound like the best idea. But Wings of Tatev is Swiss made and state of the art, thanks to generous funding from an international consortium.
The 12-minute ride is definitely the way to go, unless you like careening up narrow bumpy roads that switchback up mountainsides.
After soaring over the Voraton Gorge, Tatev monastery suddenly swings into view. The cable car lands gently just up the hill from the complex, with its majestic backdrop. Tatev was built in the 9th century, and in the 14th and 15th centuries hosted Tatev University, an important center of learning. Much like the medieval monks of Ireland, Tatev scholars preserved Armenia’s treasures of culture and knowledge during turbulent times. At its peak in the 11th century it housed 1,000 monks, artisans and scholars.
But Tatev’s history is older than the 9th century, as a pagan temple on the site was razed and replaced by the first modest Christian church in the 4th century.
Despite its remote and precarious location, Tatev has been sacked seven times over the centuries, and in 1931 a devastating earthquake destroyed two major domes and a bell tower. The domes of Sts. Peter and Paul have been reconstructed, but the bell tower remains in rubble.
Visitors now pick their way around reconstruction work, where numbered blocks stretch along the cliff side.
Like so much in this country, Tatev seems to be a way for the proud Armenian people to cling to their glorious past. But with the aerial tramway and serious restoration work underway perhaps it can be part of a glorious future as well.