Monday, April 25, 2016

Armenian Roadtrip. Khor Virap and Noravank.

Khachkars in the cemetery at Noravank.

G
urgen swung by our street bright and early at 9a this morning. Pat and I had both gotten up early and had our breakfast. We were well ready to leave when he arrived. The nice surprise was that his mom, Anush, was seated in the back.  He had said that he would ask her and I was hoping she would love to come along.  My first impression when I met her two days ago was that she's a very warm and friendly woman, a bit shy when you first meet her.  She's very different from her feisty younger sister, Areg who is a former colleague of mine.

With the three ladies piled into the van, Gurgen made his way out of town.  We headed along the road leading the Etchmiadzin.  By now, the sight of big and little Mount Ararat peaks were a familiar sight.

We're going thataway.  Hey, I don't have to worry about which way I'm going; someone else is driving :-)

As we rode along, Gurgen gave us our first lesson on Armenian politics.  I'm not even going to attempt to write any of it down because it's simply too darn complicated.  We could drive to Mars and back before we would finish a discussion on the issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan and then it would take a trip to the moon and back before we could wrap up talk on relations between Armenia and Turkey.  All I can say is that the first breath that every Armenian breathes when they wake up in the morning is the air of injustice.  Truthfully, I don't know how one

As a result of long standing and ongoing disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Armenian borders with those two countries are closed.  This leaves tiny landlocked Armenia with only one open border - that with Georgia.  Thankfully, the relationship with Georgia is stable.

Okay, back to our roadtrip.  Our first destination of the day was Khor Virap Monastery, located just about 30 kilometers from Yerevan.  Gurgen pulled over to the side of the road so I could take this iconic shot of the monastery against the backdrop of Mount Ararat.  It's just a stunning view and would be a truly amazing view in the winter time when everything except for the buildings in covered in the white of snow.  Someday, maybe I will come back for that shot.


The unmistakable shape of the cupola of an Armenian church.

Gurgen parked the car in the lot and we walked up the steps to the monastery.

We gazed back down at the cemetery.  The older graves are closer to the parking lot; the newer ones further back.


From the steps, we also had a stunning view of Mount Ararat.  In the photo below, the straight road is pretty much the demarcation between Armenia and Turkey.  So, technically, Mount Ararat is in Turkish territory and although the mountain is considered sacred by Armenians and is a principal national symbol of the country, Armenians can only appreciate it from afar.


Khor Virap's notability as a monastery and one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Armenia is attributed to the fact it was here that before attaining sainthood,  the 4th century founder of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Grigor Lusavorich (Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned in a deep pit ("Khor Virap")  for thirteen years.  He survived by being secretly fed by local Christian women.

Then, as the story goes, Lusavorich cured the ruler, King TKing Tiridates III, of a disease (either madness or more mythically from having the head of a boar) and subsequently converted the monarch to Christianity.  Having regained his sanity, the king then issued a decree by which he granted Gregory full rights to carry out the conversion of the nation. In 301, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

After Lusarovich was sainted as Gregory the Illuminator in 301,  the pit in which he was held for so many years became a popular holy site.  In 642 Nerses III the Builder built a white limestone chapel over the pit as a sign of veneration to Saint Gregory. Over the centuries,  the chapel was repeatedly rebuilt. In 1662, the larger chapel known as the Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) was built around the ruins of the old chapel, the monastery, the refectory and the cells of the monks.

The pit that Gregory the Illuminator spent 13 years living in can still be visited through the hole to the right of the altar in the St. Gevorg Chapel.  The pit itself measures 4.4 meters (14.4 feet) in diameter and is 6 meters (19.7 feet) deep.   Tourists can descend down into the pit using a narrow ladder. The circular space at the bottom has been "decorated" to look like it might have when St. Gregory was held there.

Fulfilling his mission, and in his late 80s, Gregory the Illuminator withdrew to a small sanctuary near Mount Sebuh, with a small community of monks, where he remained until his death.

As you enter the complex, the first structure you see is Surb Astvatsatsin.  As you approach the church you can see that its fountain is just bedrock.







St. Gevorg Chapel, which was built atop the pit that Gregory the Illuminator spent 13 long years living in is located just stone's throw from Surb Astvatsatsin.





The ladder leading down into the pit is located just to the right of the altar.  I did not dare to even attempt to climb down the ladder as the cast on my left foot has very little grip, especially with an odd sized rubber slipper on it.


The thing that I like the most about Armenian monasteries is their stark interiors.  However, it also means that you're in and out in very little time.



Stone cross on the grounds of Khor Virap.

Mother and son.  A very good looking family!

Walking back down to the van.

Looking back at Armenia.  Turkey is to my right.

After our short visit to Khor Virap, we continued our drive to the next destination, Noravank.

Pretending he doesn't notice my giant zoom lens pointed at his face :-)

Our drive to Noravank took us very close to the border with Armenia.  At one point, Gurgen pointed up to some very small structures sitting atop a hill.  If I remember correctly, those are Azeri military posts.  Thankfully, there is currently a ceasefire and so it's safe for us to pass by here.  Otherwise, we'd be heading back to Yerevan from Khor Virap.


We then turned onto a road that had a man made dirt embankment on one side.  According to Gurgen, the Azeri used to shoot down at vehicles, from their positions atop the hill.  Yes, we would have been one of those vehicles.  To protect Armenian vehicles from the gun fire, the government built the embankments effectively to serve as shields.  I guess, I hope it works.  For some reason, I wasn't worried at all that we would be shot at.  Today was not my day to die.


Once we passed the embankments, thoughts turned to more pleasant things.  Like the fields of red poppies that we drove by.  The land is arid here and flat.  Seeing the dots of red made me smile....and forget about that whole Azeri shooting at Armenian vehicles thing.


As Gurgen had pointed out to us a few days ago, the landscape in Armenia can change very quickly.  In no time, we went from flat, arid land to treeless mountains.



Our road trip took us to a region that Gurgen said was famous for growing apples.  We passed by one vendor after another with displays of all types of apples for sale.  We stopped so Gurgen could buy some.

A very colorful display of apples.



Apples in the trunk and we continued our road trip.  Somewhere along the way, Gurgen asked me if I could see the invisible monastery.  Huh?  If it's invisible, how would I be able to see it?  I didn't understand at first what he was trying to ask me until I spotted the tell tale outline of an Armenian church.  Indeed, it was a small church and in a strange well, quite well camouflaged....probably because it was constructed with the same stone that it is surrounded by so it blends in perfectly well with its surroundings.


I took this photo as we whizzed by.  An example of how Armenians repurpose plastic bottles.

Noravank is located in a narrow gorge. 


It was pretty scenery and made nicer with the Armenian music CD that Gurgen was playing.  Probably not his cup of tea as it was pretty, soothing kind of music but I think it was the perfect tempo for us three older women :-)


The road was a gentle winding one.  We rounded a corner and I saw the monastery perched high up on a hill.  My eyes have adjusted to spotting the Armenian churches.  Hey, after all, I even spotted the *invisible* one!



Noravank is located in a narrow gorge that is known for its tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs.   It's a beautiful but very remote location!


From the main road up, it was just a few switchbacks up a winding road to the parking lot. 


Built in place of an ancient cloister, Noravank was founded as a monastery in 1205 by Bishop Hovhannes, a former abbot of Vahanavank near the present-day city of Kapan in Syunik.  Noravank grew in size and importance during the reign of the Orbelian dynasty.  In the 13th–14th centuries, it became a residence of Syunik's bishops and a major religious center of Armenia.  According to legend, Noravank housed a piece of the True Cross stained with Christ's blood. 

The monastic complex is comprised of two surviving churches - Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) and Surb Karapet. The Surb Grigor was added in 1275 as a mausoleum-chapel for members of the Orbelian dynasty who ruled over the region in the 12th and 13th centuries.  Unfortunately, I did not go inside Surb Grigor.  It's such a modest looking structure compared to the other two that I think we simply overlooked it.

The two churches are decorated with intricate designs and religious reliefs that are the work of a man named Momik.  He is buried in a simple grave on the monastery grounds.

Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) on the left and Surb Karapet on the right.

As you walk up to the complex, the first church you walk by is Surb Astvatsatsin.  It is no doubt, the grandest structure in the complex.

Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God)






Anush admiring the relief work on the back façade of Surb Astvatsatsin.

Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) was built in the honor of Prince Burtel Orbelian, its financier.  Thus, it's often also referred to as Burtelashen (Burtel's construction).  It was designed by Momik and completed in 1339.


The most eye catching feature of the church is the steps that lead up to the second level.  They are very narrow,  very steep and there is no handrail.  I did not go up them.


A carved relief of the Holy Virgin with the Child and the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. In Syunik temples of the 13th-14th centuries, the cult of the Holy Virgin was widely spread. She was most often depicted in relief and many churches were dedicated to her.


On the upper tympanum is a relief of representation of Christ and the figures of the Apostles Peter and Paul.

There's a correct way, as demonstrated by the woman on the left, to go up and down the steps.  Otherwise, you might need a helping hand :-)
You have to descend a short flight of steps to enter Surb Astvatsatsin's stark, medieval interior.  Oddly, you feel like you're walking down into a dungeon.  The interior us such a sharp contrast to the relatively elaborate exterior. Literally, there is nothing to see inside.






Surb Karapet is the most ancient monument of Noravank, most probably built in place of an earlier existing pre-Christian worship site sometime in the 9th-10 centuries.


The semi-circular tympanum of the door is decorated with a relief of the Holy Virgin seated on a rug with the Child and flanked by two saints and surrounded by large letters interlaced by shoots with leaves and flowers. 


Inside, the space was relatively small.  It houses Prince Smbat Orbelian's mausoleum.



Easy to stumble walking on this floor!



The ruins of various civil buildings can also be found on the grounds of Noravank.  The photo below is of the ruins of an academic builidng.


Of course, there is a cemetery.

Khachkars in the cemetery.  Surb Grigor (St. Gregory's Chapel) stands just to the left.

Many of the khachars were carved by Momik.  I don't know if this particular one was or not.

A view of the side and back of Surb Karapet.

After wandering about the two churches, we spent a few minutes inside the small museum dedicated to Momik.



Inside the museum, you can see several examples of Momik's work as a painter including several bibles.


Additionally, the museum has on display, photographs of Noravank taken by one of the very talented priests who lives and works here.  He's quite the photographer!


As aforementioned, the area around Noravank is known for its red rock which is actually red tufa stone.  Gurgen decided he wanted a couple for his garden.  I helped him to pick out ones that I thought looked nice.   Lucky we're traveling in a van with a good amount of trunk space :-)  Now that I know he likes to collect rocks, as do I, I will be keeping my eye out for more for him to bring home with him.  Anush can thank me later :-)



From Noravank, we continued our journey into the heart of the Caucasus mountains.  Snow capped peaks soon appeared. 


We stopped at a riverside restaurant for lunch.


We took a table riverside.  You can't tell from the photos but the wind was blowing hard! 


I think the restaurant is situated on the banks of the Gnishik River which the road we were driving on, from Noravank, follows.  The waters of river were raging, presumably from snow melting in the nearby mountains.  At times, between the wind and the sound of the raging water, it was hard to hear a conversation!


There is no need for a menu in small restaurants like this. You simply chat with the waitress. Of course, it helps if you speak the language. :-)

At first, I thought Gurgen must have been really hungry because he ordered enough food to feed a small Armenian army but no.  This is typical Armenian hospitality.  Actually, it's true everywhere you go.  No host or hostess wants their guests to leave the dining table feeling hungry.  Better to have more food that you can take away than not enough to satisfy everyone at the table!

We had the ubiquitous plate of herbs, some salads, bread and lavash.  There was plenty of cheese as well.

There was a plate of some sort of a vegetable, most likely a foraged green, sauteed with eggs.

Some fried fish from the river.  Trout or perch perhaps?

The center piece of the meal, at least for me, was this plate of barbecued pork and potatoes.  The pork here is so delicious!

For dessert, the restaurant threw in a plate of croissant type cream puffs that the waitress had made herself.  Nice, sweet way to end the meal!

It was almost 3:30p when we finished lunch.  It was on to Areni, our last stop before the end of the day.

Vamanos!