Monastic Magnificence

Armenia is speckled with centuries-old pagan temples, churches and monasteries steeped in myth, finds Neeta Lal

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Monastic Magnificence
Clockwise: Khor Virap monastery; Geghard monastery; women selling goodies outside Geghard monastery; Caucasian religious art at Khor Virap—Neeta Lal


Armenia, a south Caucasian country of three million people – wedged between Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan – was the world's first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. The legacy of this is a wealth of churches and monasteries, 4,000 in fact, with some dating back to the 4th century.

"Most of our shrines are situated on highlands, where they were less vulnerable to attacks," our Armenian guide Sira elaborates, while delving into Armenia's turbulent history. The Romans, Persians, Ottomans, Soviets, Tatars, the Seljuks as well as vicious ethno-territorial conflicts ravaged the country's cultural heritage leading its kings to relocate their kingdoms further down south.

"Preserving our cultural heritage has been the most important thing for us," the guide explains as we nip up to the Khor Virap monastery, negotiating a craggy hillock in the Ararat region about 30km south of the capital city, Yerevan. Silhouetted against Mt Ararat, next to Armenia's now closed border with its arch rival Turkey, Khor Virap is a typical representation of Caucasian religious art with exquisite carvings and khachkars (stones with elaborate engravings representing a cross).

Though the building itself is humble, the setting is bewitching. From a vantage point, my gaze sweeps across verdant pastures, fertile valleys and vineyards all the way up to Ararat's 5,137m summit. Legend has it that in the monastery's snake-filled dungeon, Trdat III incarcerated Gregory the Illuminator for 13 years, because he preached about Christianity. However, God punished Trdat for his wrongdoing by depriving him of his sanity. The king roamed aimlessly in the wilds mimicking a wild boar.

Temple splendour

The Hellenic-style temple of Garni is located in the foothills of the Geghama range, only an hour away from Yerevan. We coil up a steep gradient leading up to the monastery, where old ladies sell delicious round sweet cakes called gata, filled with dried fruits and nuts. Musicians with wizened faces and knobby hands play the duduk (a flute made from apricot wood in the Caucasian highlands) and sing old songs adding to the area's atmospherics.Story goes that when Christianity was being introduced in Armenia, all pagan temples were razed and replaced with churches. Garni, however, was thought to be too precious to be destroyed, so it was left untouched.

The 4th-century Geghard Monastery, located next to the holy temple in a steep scenic canyon, is carved partly into the rock. We tiptoe through dimly-lit, labyrinthine passages – our paths illuminated by our mobile phones – to get to the monastery's stony ramparts filled with khachkars, pillars and caverns. In its cavernous interiors, a cloying scent of incense hangs in the air. Devotees light votive candles in an area next to a large grill window that overlooks the Caucasian highlands. Geghard is still a functional shrine; a few worshippers lean against the chapel's age-old walls, kissing them or praying in fervent devotion. The entire cave monastery, carved inside a rock mountain, makes one wonder how this complex construction took place centuries ago with limited tools and zilch technology. There are excellent acoustics to boot, and as we speak, our words – even the slightest whisper – resonates beautifully! We trod over an uneven path to see the shrine's famous healing spring under the north wall of the main church.

"The word 'Geghard' means spear," Sira elaborates as we take in the temple's damp walls shrouded with green and red algae glistening from the rains. "This spear was used to pierce Christ after he was crucified on the cross, to check if he was still alive. Many pilgrims head here to see the relic of the 'spear' and hence they eventually renamed the monastery to Geghard Monastery (Spear Monastery)."

As the monastery is partially carved out of the mountain, the locals have their own explanation for this. Story goes that a sister and brother from a noble family decided to build a temple higher up the gorge of Azat River and live there. But, they were undecided where exactly to build it. They asked for help from God, who sent a sign – by sticking the sibling's hoe on top of a mountain. The siblings built the temple inside the rock with the help of a saint virgin and lived there happily ever after!

Amazing Armenia

Armenia nestles beside spectacular gorges, under the shadow of
the Biblical Mt Ararat on the shore of the azure Lake Sevan
It has shrines hewn from volcanic tuff rock that have popped up in desolate locations
Neeta Lal, a Delhi-based editor and journalist, has worked with leading Indian publications, and was a nominee for SOPA Awards and World Media Summit Awards 2014

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