Saved by the monuments
Published: Saturday March 21, 2009 in Living in Armenia
Geghard Monastery and the Temple of Garni are two of the most popular tourist destinations in Armenia. I have taken many acquaintances, friends, and family members to these spectacular monuments. In the summer, one can see busloads of tourists from every corner of the globe. In the autumn, the magnificent shades of fall colors abound as the smell of winter is ripe in the air. And in the spring, when the fruit trees are in blossom and the air is fresh and crisp, the scenery is punctuated by beauty beyond the imagination.
Last week I went to visit these historic locations with guests from Germany at a time of year that is neither winter nor spring - a season when the trees are bare, the shrubbery is a dull gray, melting snow runs into the muddy rocks, making a slushy mess, the sky is dark and foreboding, and a light drizzle is mixed with intermittent flakes of snow.
To get to Geghard and Garni, you must drive through Voghchaberd (Living Fortress), where the population of the village is being evacuated because of soil erosion. For years the state has been fighting to keep the only road leading to these historic monuments in working condition as the forces of Mother Nature battle the unending repaving and restructuring.
Today the village resembles a ghost town with only a few stubborn inhabitants left fighting to stay in their babenagan homes. Jars of different preserves, from apricots to cherries, line rickety tables on the main street running through the village, the handiwork of local women searching for the ever-elusive customer.
There are exposed water pipes, houses that have shifted off their foundation, stone fences that have buckled or are leaning precariously toward the earth. The reality of this devastation is hardly bearable in the summer, when the lush greenery and the brilliant blue sky surrounded by mountains shift your focus away from the slow decay. But at this time of year, when it is dreary, damp, and cold, the image is far more depressing.
Driving through Voghchaberd, we notice that the roads have deteriorated even more since the previous year. You have to drive carefully to avoid sudden holes in the road, where the soil has shifted and destroyed the asphalt. One or two villagers can be seen wandering aimlessly. We pass a house where two young boys are shoveling manure to be used for fertilizer. One of them is barely old enough to hold the shovel. Their woolen hats and scarves are the only colors in this dismal village.
My heart was sinking further and further as we continued through the village. My plan for my German guests to see the splendor of the country was failing miserably. If at least the sky were clear, their attention would shift to the outlying mountains. I admit it: I still have the need to impress. I kept wondering what they were thinking about this overwhelming bleakness. I couldn't wait to get to Geghard.
We turned the final corner of the winding road and the monastery of Geghard could finally be seen, nestled among jagged mountains, covered in snow.
When we got out of the car we could hear the sound of the rushing Azat River below us. We began the ascent toward the monastery complex along an ancient cobblestone path.
Geghard or Geghardavank, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the most spiritual places one can visit in Armenia. Geghardavank means Monastery of the Spear - for the spear that pierced Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. According to legend, that spear was brought to Armenia by the Apostle Thaddeus; it remains on display in Etchmiadzin.
The main chapel was built in 1215, but the monastery complex itself was constructed in the 4th century by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. Its original name was Ayrivank, which means Monastery of the Cave, as portions of the church are carved from the mountains.
When we entered the complex, I felt all my ridiculous angst dissipate. My guests were silently walking beside me, listening to my brief interjections about the history of the church. When we entered the vestry, it was dark and quiet. Hundreds of yellow candles were burning and the smell of newly burned incense was floating around us.
Partly carved into the cliff rocks, Geghard is a magnificent example of Armenian Church architecture. A natural mountain stream, which was historically considered to be sacred, runs through the church, whose natural acoustics make even the untrained voice sound heavenly.
After touring the church and the various chambers carved from the mountain, we took a walk around the grounds, looking at the khachkars (stone crosses) that resembled delicate embroidery. Some were carved into the mountainside while others were carved and then placed throughout the complex. The mist from our breath made dizzying configurations as we continued our conversation about the number of churches strewn throughout the country.
Then it was off to Garni.
The Temple of Garni was built by King Tiridates I of Armenia in the 1st century C.E., although traces of human occupation date back to the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Garni served as the summer residence for the kings of Armenia. At one time there was a two-story summer palace, a bath complex, a church built in 897, and a cemetery on the grounds. All that is left of the entire complex is the Greco-Roman Temple built in the Ionic order.
In 1679 the temple was destroyed by an earthquake and it lay in ruins till the 20th century. It was rebuilt between 1969 and 1975.
Garni sits on the edge of a soaring cliff, and the Azat River Gorge is spectacular at any time of the year. Electricians were busy installing new lighting throughout the grounds and on the temple itself, as the soulful sound of the duduk played over loudspeakers.
While the day continued to be cold, damp, and dreary, and as we were witness to dying and decaying villages, the historic monuments of this country saved the day. They are the treasures that we have inherited. They are the monuments to the longevity and strength of the Armenian nation.