Khachik’s 100 houses and his one castle
Published: Saturday March 24, 2007 in Armenia at work
Yerevan - Khachatur Hairapetian really has 100 houses in Armenia. Maybe more. The master mason, who lately turned 40, tries to remember how many houses he's built in the 22 years he has been at his craft. No less than 100 he says. Not counting the houses he built with his friends in Russia during their years as gastarbeiter - guest workers - in various Russian provinces.
As for the castle: that's Master Khachik's family home in the village of Sarnaghbiur, in the Ani region of Shirak province. It is a castle whose foundation stands on the worldview, spiritual life, and values espoused by this cheerful representative of our constructive nation.
We build houses to maintain our home
My first meeting with Master Khachik was by happenstance and unplanned.
In a faraway suburb of Yerevan called Third Village, a group of builders is laying a wall. One of the masons catches my eye because - notwithstanding the brute force and focused attention his work requires - his movements are light. His face holds a friendly smile and an open, bright expression when he pauses for a moment to help me with directions.
"Have you been a mason long?" I ask the smiling man after we've made ourselves comfortable sitting on some blocks.
"Since childhood, you could say. Masonry is our ancestral craft," Master Khachik says in the Gyumri dialect. "My father, Lukashin, was a mason; my grandfather Martiros too. And among our forebears, who lived in the Khnus village of Moush [in Western Armenia] in the 15th and 16th centuries and then settled in Sarnaghbiur, there were many masons. The trade has been passed on from father to son, from grandfather to grandson. I might not have liked it much, but I've been doing it since I was 10 or 11."
"And do you like your craft now?"
"Definitely, 100 percent."
"What brought about that affection?"
"That's what happened, eli. Times changed, everything changed with them. My father was no longer around to be my master. He died when I was two. But I learned from my paternal uncle. They called him Usta Karo: Karapet Hairapetian. First I was a mason's assistant. When I turned 18, I started getting paid as a full artisan."
"What is the most important thing in your craft, Khachik?"
"The most important thing is that we build houses. We create Armenian homes. There's that, and there's our family concerns. After all, you've got to make a living. It's good that we are working, and it's better that our work is building houses. We maintain our home by building houses.
"Now they have asked us to make this house. It is a private home, well designed, a good architectural structure. Working with stone is always hard. But if you're a master of your trade, you take the tool, and you shouldn't have trouble with any kind of stone. You have to shape the stone with the sweat of your brow, give it life, an architectural style. For myself, I derive the most pleasure from working with tuffa, because tuffa is more pleasant to shape than other, denser stones. But if you're a master, then it doesn't matter what stone it is. Other than that, stone houses breathe, whereas concrete houses seem lifeless."
"How do you breathe life into stone? What does that mean?"
"To breathe life means to build the wall such that the stone comes to mean something, and by looking at that stone, you think something of it. I think about that every time I hang the plumb, with every strike of the hammer. I keep thinking I should give some sort of life to the stone so that people looking at it feel in awe, say how appropriate, beautiful, and balanced it is.
"Moreover, our Armenian style needs to appear and stay in every structure. Those are the carvings, the arches, the balance of the structure, the cross-shaped base of the churches. In an Armenian building, there must be something Christian. You must think and put something distinctive in the building - but in the right place, and in good taste. The handwriting must remain."
Yes, the handwriting must remain. The distinctive Armenian handwriting of the builders. The first Armenian mason was, presumably, Haik Nahapet, the legendary progenitor of the Armenian race. He was the creator of that rock-hewn "handwriting." And from generation to generation, from millennium to millennium, it has been preserved and transmitted - in a manner analogous to the scribes and monks who maintained Armenian libraries to transmit literacy and learning.
We chat and I feel like Master Khachik can speak at length, patiently, in detail about his ancient trade, the secrets of laying stone on stone. Only someone who loves his craft and is dedicated to it can speak thus. And the conversation continues, pleasant and interesting, like the growing wall in the master's hands.
There's no sweetness in other mountains and water
Many skilled craftsmen and women have left Armenia over the last 10 to 15 years. The economic crisis of the 90s, and the need to find a job, any job, to maintain one's family have dispersed them throughout the world, and especially to Russia and other CIS countries. True, there's a construction boom in Armenia now, and a mason can make 1000 drams ($2.80) for a square meter of wall. Not bad - but not enough to make all the guest workers rush back home. So there must have been other factors too that brought our hero back from Russia. What brought Mason Khachik back to the homeland? Did he miss it so much?
"You know, in Russia there is psychological pressure. It's hard to work under psychological pressure. You miss Armenia and it draws you back to our stones, our mountains. Living abroad is oppressive. There is no sweetness in other mountains and waters," Khachik says, and perhaps unaware of his poetry, continues: "This land is our land. We miss our land. Without carving these stones, without looking at these stones, without touching these stones, your day seems not to be a day. That is the psychological pressure. You understand?"