2013 Armenia 2

Armenia, Yerevan, Day 2

Highlights

Zvartnots Cathedral in Yerevan: Built in 641-661 by Gregory the Illuminator, the only part that now remains is the steep stone steps, the massive stone plinth on which the cathedral was built, and several columns. Reputed to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world at the time, it housed the relics of St Gregory, the first patriarch of the Armenian Church. It was a round structure with a hood-shaped dome roof, which is typical of Armenian churches. Inside the ruins a group of two men and two women, were singing sacred music (and selling their CD). They really did have wonderful voices.

There was a museum at the back of the temple and in it were posters of Armenian churches – the 2 photos at the top of the page. Ironically, one of the posters, not shown, showed the Armenian church ruin in Ani, which is in Turkey, and which I saw in 1996. Ani was the 10th C capital of Armenia but it is now in Turkey, just inside the border with Armenia.

Echmiadzin: the former capital. We visited the Cathedral, our visit planned to coincide with Sunday Mass. The main cathedral is called Mayr Tachar (Mother Church of Armenia) and stands in a quadrangle of hedges and lawns surrounded by 19th century buildings.

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The Supreme Patriarch (like the Pope) joined the service at the end to hand out blessings, and people were queued up outside to see him process from the Palace to the Cathedral.  I went to an area where no one else was and got some good photos of him through the fence, and then realised that I had walked past him earlier.  I had seen two priests walking towards me, and I noticed they had lovely shining pendants or something. As we walked towards each other, I inclined my head to them, and they to me. So I got a really close up look at him! They are the two guys at the very back – not sure which is the Supreme Patriarch.

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Of course, the church was being renovated so there was scaffolding all over it. These churches are so old – the original church was built in 301-303, fell into ruin, and was rebuilt in 480-483. The adjoining monastery and palace is now the home of the present Supreme Patriach of the Armenian Church, and as such it has unparalleled importance in the minds of Armenian Christians. Armenia was the first country in the world to embrace Christianity in 301 AD, when according to legend, King Tradt 111 declared Christianity the state religion after he was cured of madness by Gregory the Illuminator (yes, him again) who had survived several years imprisoned in an underground pit (the time varies from 1-12 years – but with practically no food or water, even with God’s ‘help’, it is more likely to be the shorter time. However, for the story and religious people, 12 years sounds much better!) Historians, being more cynical, believe the King made this decision to create national unity while fending off Zorastrian Persia and pagan Rome. Whatever the reason, the church has remained a pillar of Armenian identity ever since.-

There were a lot of gravestones – I took photos of so many throughout the trip, but here are three from this church.

Geghard Monastery: it is a complex of several cave chapels and a church in a valley near Garni, about half an hour from Yerevan. It was founded about the 4th C. The chapels are on the lower level, carved out of the rock. At the top of some steep steps is a 10 metre dark passage leading to another church carved directly out the rock, and small monastic cave cells where the monks lived. There was a group of singers in this church – the acoustics were wonderful. There was also a large church on the ground level, and some small micro-chapels at the top of some extremely worn rock steps – one way traffic only!

When I see rock worn down from the thousands of feet that have walked them, I really feel how old they are. I went up because there were some lovely carvings on the external wall, and I was  expecting something bigger through the door but there were only 3 tiny chapels, with small (no more than 2 feet wide) altars – which were very black from the candle smoke.

While walking down the hill towards the bus we stopped at the stalls and bought some dried fruit threaded onto strings – it was delicious – I bought strings of apricots, figs and white cherries.

The rebuilt Hellenic Temple at Garni: Built in AD 77 by King Trdat 1, it was dedicated to the sun god, Mitra. This extraordinary Roman site, located in a Nature Reserve east of Yerevan, looks totally out of place here, so far from the rest of the Greek world. It became a summer house for Armenian royalty after the Christian conversion; nearby are the ruins of the palace and bath house. From the temple some of the others hiked down the Garni gorge to see the hexagonal basalt formations that are part of the UNESCO world heritage site – I didn’t go down as I have seen better examples elsewhere in the world, and also it was very hot.

There were houses built right on the edge of this amazing cliff – the gorge was really deep – but evidently the rock is extremely stable even though Armenia gets quite a few earthquakes.  I certainly wouldn’t live there.

Day 3

Armenian Letters Monument – out of Yerevan: This consists of carved Armenian letters, situated at an altitude of 1600 m, and each letter is 1.6 m high – this is because the Armenian written language was created in 1600!

Those of us with names beginning with J had a photos taken in front of the J!

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The setting overlooking the valley below was spectacular. We had travelled through the flat Aragats plain before heading up into the mountains, through tiny villages where they have a lot of orchards. Up on the mountain slopes where it is too cold in winter for any settlements, we saw herds of sheep with their shepherds. These belonged to the Ezidi people, a semi-nomadic tribe which came from Iran in the 16th century, and who still retain their traditional beliefs which are a blend of Zoroastrian fire worshipping and Sufi Islam. They live on the high plains in summer in tents or caravans.

Amberd Fortress ruins: on the southern flank of Mount Aragats. We got off the bus before the ruins so we could walk along the road and enjoy the view and the exercise – sitting on the bus for hours is quite tiring. The Fortress is surrounded by cliffs on three sides, which protected it for a long time, until the Turkic Ruler Tamerlane managed to sack it in the 14th century. There was also a church (of course!) which looked out over the valley. [We see a lot of churches on this tour!]

Lunch with a family in Oshakan village: We watched the traditional flat bread, Lovash, being made by the grandmother and another woman – it is stretched very thin and large and cooked in a fire pit.

It was amazing how the younger woman flicked it around to stretch it before putting it onto a shaped board and slipping it into the sides of the fire pit – when it was ready, she caught it with a stick or something and flicked it out. It is served cut into small rectangles. The family obviously have a business feeding tour groups and they had two western style toilets in the garden – the squatting, Turkish style toilet is the norm.

The mother and her four daughters all helped with the meal – they had tables set up under an awning in their garden. We had several different salads, cheese, two types of delicious stuffed vine leaves, and baklava for desert.

Dinner that night was goat kebab from a tiny barbecue shop near the hotel. Some of the others had gone into the city but it was raining really hard so we decided to go to have chicken kebabs – as it was raining so hard, I volunteered to go and get them. I asked for chicken, no, then I asked for beef or lamb, and again no – so I pointed to a red meat skewer and he said ‘horse’ – oh dear! I then pointed to a minced meat skewer and he put his fingers pointing up on his head (horns) – goat!  I have had goat meat before so I was game – however, rather than 4 chicken kebabs (which had been the order from Judy and the two Irish men) I got 2 goat kebabs cut in half – much cheaper as well. They were quite spicy but they were ok

Continued in next post…