Suitcase and World: Medieval Geghard Monastery.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Medieval Geghard Monastery.

Khachkars at Geghard Monastery.

We headed to Geghard Monastery after visiting the Hellenistic Temple at Garni. Our drive took us through a part of the village of Garni.  The countryside was dotted with fruit trees in bloom.  It was so pretty.  I'm so glad we decided to come to the Caucasus in April.  We had a similar experience traveling through Central Asia at this time last year and we enjoyed the spring time scenery so much.

The cow brigade.  This is sight you will never see in the US....not even in the countryside.

As we rode along, I remember what Gurgen said about the landscape in Armenia - how it can change in an instant.  Indeed, in no time, we had left behind hills of green.  The became a winding road as we made our way into the heart of the mountains.

Arshak parked the van in the lot and we all got out.  From the vantage point of the parking lot, we could only see the tops of the buildings.  Still, I knew right away, I was in for something very special.

These painters were perched, high up on a hillside, with a perfect view of the monastery.

There was a row of vendors lining the path leading up to the monastery's entrance. They were selling gata cakes and dried fruits. Arshak had invited us to his place for afternoon tea and I decided that we needed to bring something to the house so I asked him if a loaf of the bread would be appropriate. He acknowledged that it was fine so I forked over 1000 dram for a loaf. Arshak had the vendor put it in a bag that he would then pick up on his way back to the car, after our visit to the monastery.

That's our gata she's holding up!

I like to take photos of dried fruit but I don't like eating them!

We then climbed the cobblestone paved road up to the entrance and began our time at Geghard Monastery.

The arched entry leads to some caves adjacent to the monastery.

As we approached the entrance, I paused to watch a group of boys and men who looked to be tossing small stones on to a ledge on the cliff wall.  Apparently, you toss the stone and make a wish at the same time.  If  the stone manages to stay on the ledge, then your wish will come true.

At the entrance, a clergyman was watching a young woman, crouched down on the cobblestone path, painting.

Admiring the artist and her work.

I was curious to see what she was painting as well so I stood behind her for a few seconds.
Sometimes it's nice to see the world through someone else's eyes.

Entrance to Geghard.

Reading about Geghard was challenging but very interesting as I've had to learn about medieval Armenian church architecture and the terms that are used to describe various structures.  I am such a nerd.

Geghard or more fully Geghardavank (Գեղարդավանք), meaning "the Monastery of the Spear" is a medieval monastery that is partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.  The name, Geghard, takes its origin from the spear which had wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion.  The spear was allegedly brought to Armenia by the Apostle Jude (or Thaddeus as he is known in Armenia) and was stored at Geghard amongst many other relics. The spear was worshipped by pilgrims making Geghard an important pilgrimage site in medieval Armenia.  The spear is now on display in the Cathedral Treasury at Etchmiadzin. In addition to the spear, the monastery was said to have housed a number of other Christian relics, including relics of the Apostles Andrew and John and a piece of wood from Noah's Ark.

According to tradition, Geghard monastery was founded by  St. Gregory the Illuminator and was built at the beginning of the 4th century AD at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave.  Nothing remains of this first monastery, as it was destroyed in the 9th century AD by the Arabs. At the end of Muslim rule in Armenia, however, the monastery was re-established. The most ancient part of the present monastery is the Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The earliest inscription on its external wall has been dated to 1177 AD. This small chapel is located to the east of and outside of the main monastery complex. Carved directly into the rock of the mountainside, this project was abandoned before it was completed. By the first half 13th century,  another building project was underway, thanks to the patronage of the brothers Zakare and Ivane, of the Zakarian family, who were generals of the Georgian queen, Tamar.  They were given Geghard Monastery after having commanded Armenian forces which joined with the Georgians to defeat the Seljuks.  Under the Zakarian family, the Kathoghikè (the main church) was built. According to an inscription, this church was built in 1215.  Prior to 1250, the first cave church was also built.

In the mid 13th century, the Zakarians sold Geghard to the princes of the Proshyan (aka Zakarian) dynasty. Under the patronage of this Armenian noble family, the monastery was further developed. Over a short period of time, a second cave church, a hall for gathering and studies, as well as numerous monastic cells were also built. Furthermore, the family sepulchre (aka zhamatun, also spelled jhamatun) of the Proshyan dynasty is also located in the monastery. This is indicated by their coat of arms – two chained lions, between which is an eagle with half-spread wings, whose claws grasp a calf, carved in the rock.

The monastery complex is situated on a spot that is surrounded by towering cliffs at the entrance to the Azat Valley and consists of the Kathoghikè, the adjacent narthex (or gavit as it is called in Armenia), eastern and western rock-cut churches, the zhamatuns of the Proshyans, as well as numerous khachkars.

Back to today.

Arshak left us to walk around Geghard and Pat and I each went our own separate ways as well as I often linger in one spot just to wait for the right moment to take a photo.  Ordinarily, I just snap away but every now and again, I have a picture in mind that I just must capture.

Here are some of the shots I took at Geghard.  I could have taken many more!!

I started with taking photo after photo of the numerous khachkars here. Most of them date back to between the 11th and 13th centuries.  I found the ones at Geghard to be extraordinarily beautiful.  I later learned that the red color found on some of the cross stones is a result of being painted with Vortan Karmir, a red dye made from beetles native to Armenia.  

Khachkars, embedded in a stone wall near the monks' cells.

More khachkars. 

And more khachkars!

And crosses carved into exterior facades.

Kathoghikè (main church), built in the 13th century.

Entrance to one of the churches adajacent to the Kathoghikè.

The Kathoghikè was built in 1215.

Entrance to Kathoghikè

Another view of the entrance.

Panel of the entry door.

Stepping inside the gavit, the first things that struck me were the soaring stone walls and just how large the interior space was.  There were four massive free-standing columns supporting a stone roof with a hole in the center to let in light.

The whole, in the ceiling is surrounded with carved stalactites, supposedly the best example of this technique anywhere in Armenia.

The apse.

Connected to the gavit is a small cave church that was hewn in the 1240s in an ancient cave with a spring.  Water still trickles down a shallow trough running through the stone floor.   There were so many people inside this small place and it was so dark that I didn't even bother taking any photos.

Also connected to the gavit is the rock hewn zhamatun chamber with the tombs and inscriptions of the Proshyan family.  The zhamatun is a roughly square chamber cut into the rock, with deeply cut reliefs in the walls. Of interest is a rather primitive high relief on the northern wall, above an archway. In the center, there is a ram's head with a chain in its jaws; the chain is wound around the necks of two lions with their heads turned to the onlooker. Instead of the tail tufts there are heads of upward looking dragons.  Between the lions and below the chain there is an eagle with half-spread wings and a lamb in its claws. This is likely the coat of arms of the princes of the Proshyan dynasty.  The zhamatun leads to a small rock church.

The upper zhamatun is accessed from a separate exterior entrance.  This burial chamber contains the tombs of Prince Papak Prosh and his wife Ruzukan and the Proshyan princes Merik and Grigor.  Other members of the family were supposedly buried here as well but their tombs have disappeared.  An inscription shows that the chamber was been completed in 1288.

Numerous crosses cut into the stone in the wall of the corridor leading to the upper zhamatun.

Peering inside the entrance to the upper zhamatun.

Also carved into the rock, the form of the zhamatun reproduces that of a gavit.

After seeing a few interiors, I head back outside.

Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God Church) which dates from 1215 and was built by the Zakarian family.

The entry portal of Surp Astvatsatsin.

Bas-relief of pomegranates and grapes.

Bas relief of a lion killing an ox, thecoat of arms of the Zakarian family.

Looking up towards the monks' cells.

Khachkars decorating the rock wall of the monks' cells.

Considering how much there is to see at Geghard, we didn't really spend a lot of time here.  Part of the challenge for me is I didn't have a map of the place and there were no descriptive plaques indicating what you were seeing.  If I ever get to come back to this place....which I hope I do, I will definitely come armed with a map and printouts of each church, chapel, and zhamatun.  What I have quickly realized is that you have to walk into every room and not just glance inside a room.  I think I missed out on seeing some interesting ceilings, wall carvings and columns simply because I didn't walk far enough.  Truly, I should know better.

By now, it was mid afternoon and time to make our way to visit Arshak's family.  I'm very much looking forward to that as I will finally get to meet Areg's sister whom Arshak is married to.

Back to Yerevan!