The Armenians. In their little patch of land, tossed between the Islamic Ottoman and Persian empires, somehow managed to become and remain the world’s first Christians. Through the years they have maintained a distinctive Christianity which is more closely related to the Coptic Church than most other things. Their Monasteries are impressive and cover the country and are unlike anything that exists in Europe or anywhere else we’ve visited.
Arriving from Georgia to the north we set off to visit a handful of these structures. The first, Kobayr, was basically in ruins and saw only a handful of tourists each week. It is currently being reconstructed to become a house of prayer once again but this is likely to take many years. The second (Sanahin) and third (Haghpat ) were larger and more elaborate. Both were still in use and one,Sanahin, even had it’s Priest there, a man who spent 20 years with the Armenian Church in California and was only too happy to speak to a few Americans. The architecture in all of them was unique and interesting to explore if only for a short while. All were covered in Armenian script lettering which added to the ‘Indian Jones’ allure of the locations.
The fourth Monastery (Aktala ) we visited proved to be the most interesting. In it, we met the Priest who had only been ordained 6 months prior, and at this monastery for only 5 of those months. He was the first Priest of the monastery in over 200 years and was working painstakingly to to finish the refurbishments (outside asphalt was being poured to rebuild the crumbly road). The inside of the this church though was covered in Byzantine styled frescoes unlike the other churches we had seen in Armenia. This particular building had been designed according to the styles and customs of the church in Georgia as something of thank you for protection and a few centuries later fell out of use for this reason. (Nationalist identities in the Caucasus are particularly strong!)
He shared stories of each fresco and stopped when he reached the front of the room, where a canon had blasted a hole in the ceiling where Mary’s face should have been. He told us this had been done by some Turks but noted that they stopped after that one shot when they saw another fresco. This other fresco he described as Jesus’ trial by the Jew Herod who was wearing a turban. He told us that when the Turks saw this scene they stopped because they felt Allah was in the room. We neglected to point out the several flaws in his story of events as he was a rather nice man…which was good because he then took us to the secret rooms which were pretty cool.
IF YOU GO: We based ourselves in Vanadzor. There are few tourists in this region and even less in the way of infrastructure. The easiest way to see these sites is to hire a taxi for the day, which we did for ($22) 8000AMD. Vanadzor is a 2-3 hour bus ride from Yerevan on the Yerevan-Tbilisi road, if coming from Tbilisi you’ll need to pay the full fare to Yerevan and let the driver know you want to get off in Vanadzor. There is one institutional hotel in the town and several homestays for the same cost which can be more comfortable. The pizza place in town quotes its pizzas by the cost per slice, not per pie, so be careful! A ride to Yerevan should cost you about 1200AMD.