Sevanavank monastery on the shores of Lake Sevan, Armenia

Discovering the Treasures of Armenia

Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.

Like any other monastery in Armenia, Sevanavank occupies a spot that is dramatic and definitely Instagram-able. The 9th-century monastery sits on a rocky hill overlooking the gigantic Lake Sevan with mountains in the distance. That was the panorama that made me fall under Armenia’s spell. But to get to that spell bound state, I needed to escape the Soviet-era boulevards of Yerevan, the country’s capital. Unlike some other travel destinations, Armenia does not serve up its treasures on a silver platter. Instead, I had to look for them inside the un-glamorous buildings of Yerevan. But just a few-hour drive away, the reward was worth it.

Treasures of Armenia, the Temple of Garni on the cliff of a gorge, Armenia
Treasures of Armenia: the Temple of Garni on the cliff of a gorge

Bordered on the North by The Republic of Georgia, the East by Azerbaijan, South by Iran and West by Turkey, the location of the Republic of Armenia in the South Caucasus has historically been at the crossroads of divergent Eurasian cultures.

Aristotle with khash

In the morning, before the first round of sightseeing, I joined my friend Martina, whom I came to visit in Armenia, and her colleagues for breakfast. That meal turned into an impromptu immersion into the country’s culture. We gathered in one of the traditional restaurants in the center of Yerevan, and as the inexperienced one, I got warnings from all sides about what was to come. Shortly, I understood what they meant when we were served big bowls of broth, made of cows’ trotters (feet). Armenians say their landscapes are majestic but not too fertile, so their cuisine has to make use of everything.

Khash an Armenian breakfast
Khash – an Armenian breakfast

We had to finish preparing the meal, called khash, ourselves. That involved crumbling dried lavash bread into the broth to thicken it, and then adding a lot of garlic, to strengthen our immunity. Despite the early words of caution, I did enjoy the meal. Actually, it saturated me so much that even the obligatory shots of breakfast vodka did not dent my consciousness. That worked out well because right afterward, we headed for Matenadaran—one of Armenia’s treasures.

Matenadaran, which translates as a depository, resides in a building from the 1950’s at the edge of the city center. While the building comes from the last century, the contents certainly do not. I could have guessed as much from the large statue of Mesrop Mashtots, the ancient Christian scholar, guarding the front entrance. His statue also guarded a tall rock tablet with 36 inscribed characters. Unintelligible to me, those characters were the foundation letters of the Armenian alphabet that Mashtots developed in 405 A.D. He hoped that presenting the gospel in a new national script would entrench Christianity, a still relatively new religion, much deeper among Armenians.

As our tour of Matenadaran showed, what happened with Mashtots’ invention went well beyond just spreading a religion. Our female tour guide took us to a manuscript of Aristotle’s “Categories”, which was translated from Greek into Armenian in the 6th century although the manuscript itself dated from the 14th century. Next there was Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, translated into Armenian in the 7th century. We also came across calendars, medical books, histories of countries and texts of the many religions. Some manuscripts had beautifully illuminated (decorated) bindings, others beautifully colored illustrations highlighted with gold. The gold color stayed vivid thanks to garlic juice, which magically protected not only people but also books.

Many of the precious manuscripts in the collection were copied by monks in Armenian monasteries who, in the process, helped preserve the ancient knowledge for us. At the time, preservation of knowledge was no small feat because Europe was entering the Dark Ages which accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire. Without the enlightenment of the emerging Armenian culture, some of the world’s most important knowledge would have been lost for eternity.

In front of Matenadaran—Mesrop Mashtots and the Armenian alphabet
In front of Matenadaran—Mesrop Mashtots and the Armenian alphabet

From Urartu to Yerevan

Any thought that Armenian history began with Christianity and the alphabet would be sorely mistaken. That proof stands just outside Yerevan in the biblical substance of Mount Ararat (16,854 ft/ 5,137 m). Ararat, like Armenian history, reveals itself only infrequently, particularly at dawn and dusk. At midday it hides in a veil of thick fog (or smog). But when the sky is clear, the mountain’s conical shape dominates the city to such a biblical extent that I for a moment accepted the story of Noah’s Ark: “…the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8).

The land around Ararat was fascinating for many ancient civilizations with the Sumerians leaving the first historical mention of the mountain in the 3rd millennium B.C. at a time when Egypt was just struggling into a unified existence. But the deep roots of Armenia are present not just in books. To see them first hand, I climbed to the top of an unremarkable hill in a suburb, and at its peak, I found the ancient remains of the long walls that once formed the Erebuni Fortress which guarded the valley below Ararat from the 8th century B.C.

At the gate to the fortress, there is a tiny monument—a stone with inscription about the foundation of Erebuni, and of Yerevan. Strikingly, the text was written in 782 B.C, in cuneiform script. It reads as: “…[King] Argishti built this strong fort to the gory of [god] Khaldi. Argishti says: The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it.” Argishti governed the ancient kingdom of Urartu. Urartu, the iron-age Kingdom of Van, was just the first major civilization created by Armenians.

The view from the Erebuni fortress shows the multi-dimensional contrasts of Yerevan. While the city lies below the ancient fortress and the Biblical mountain, it is abruptly punctuated by Soviet-style apartment blocks, which now spread over the dry hills and the desert described by King Argishti.

Ararat brandy commemorating Charles Aznavour’s visit, Treasures of Armenia
Ararat brandy commemorating Charles Aznavour’s visit

Armenia on Parisian stage

In recent decades the city has transformed itself with modern buildings springing up and boulevards in the city center lined with swanky restaurants and cafes.

My steps led next to a place in Yerevan where I could appreciate another side of Armenia. I joined Martina in the Ararat Brandy Distillery. Armenians refer to their brandy as konyak, but for international marketing, they have to say brandy because the true name resembles the protected trademark “cognac” too much.

We got a tour of the distillery, capped, of course, with tasting of a range of brandy types. The fame of Armenian brandy reaches well beyond the country’s borders. Maxim Gorky was a fan; and Winston Churchill too, after he received his first bottle from none other than Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Unfortunately, our tasting did not include the very expensive brandy created by the French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour. The maestro visited the distillery in 2017 to help create a new signature blend to bears his name, but sadly, he passed away before the bottles hit the shelves. Despite being born in Paris, maestro Aznavour, (dubbed “France’s Frank Sinatra), felt a close connection to the country of his Armenian ancestors. Armenia reciprocated generously and besides tasting his brandy, visitors to Yerevan will be able to see the new Aznavour Museum when it opens in 2021.

Aznavour, in some sense, became the highly visible symbol of the large displaced Armenian diaspora. That displaced Armenian civilization now spans all continents and accounts for about five million people, i.e., significantly more than the mere three million living now in the confines of the small Armenian country. While the diaspora grew over the centuries, reflecting the worldly spirit of Armenians, the major waves of exodus were initiated by episodes of violence and turmoil in the Ararat highlands with the most infamous example being the Genocide of 1915. Over a million of Armenians were massacred in that year and a million escaped, including maestro Aznavour’s own parents. The artist recalled the tragedy in of his songs, and he also participated in the hundred-year commemoration of the event at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. The memorial, standing prominently on a hill, makes a profound statement as the most somber place in the city.

Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia
Genocide Memorial in Yerevan

Today Armenians keep moving in, and out, of the country in large numbers. Some, whom I met, studied abroad and returned. Others came to Yerevan from Armenian communities in Syria and Iran, i.e., fleeing the war or simply wanting to live in their cultural homeland. It seems the roots of Armenia reach like tentacles to entangle its sons and daughters and preserve their birth rights.

Ladder to heaven

Armenia was the first civilization to embrace Christianity and I cannot count how many monasteries I saw on my day trips around Armenia. While all of them were built in a similar style, every one of them had a unique feature that made them worth visiting. Hayravank and Sevanavank monasteries overlooked Lake Sevan from their spectacular spots above the shore. Kecharis felt like a garden-oasis at the foot of Mt. Tsakhkadzor. Haghartsin was a gem of the Dilijan National Park, hidden within the lush forests of northern Armenia. Geghard monastery, where we even came across a wedding, contained chambers masterfully carved out of the adjacent rock, including architectural columns and beautiful decoration. It seems many early Christians seeking escape from Roman persecution found refuge at the fringes of the Roman empire in Armenia.

Some religious sites played even a bigger role than any of the monasteries. Etchmiadzin, with the oldest cathedral in the country, resembled a sort of Armenian Vatican. The head of the Armenian Church, “Catolicos,” resides there, and when I visited church officials were to be seen criss-crossing the grounds in all directions.

Unfortunately, the only sight still remaining from the ancient 6th century religious pilgrimage center of Zvartnots was the elaborately decorated arches. They preserved a memory of a structure which must have been an complete architectural masterpiece, given its creator’s invitation rebuild the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for the Byzantine Empire, at that time Armenia’s conqueror.

Haghartsin monastery in the Dilijan National Park, Armenia
Haghartsin monastery in the Dilijan National Park

Among these many cultural riches, (many featuring prominently on the UNESCO World Heritage list), one special monastery has become the icon of Armenia and the reason for Armenia become the world’s first Christian country: Khor Virap. It stands on a hill against the majestic backdrop of Mount Ararat, creating one of the most recognizable images of Armenia. That remains true despite Ararat finding itself today on Turkish territory. (Sadly, I could see the border towers between the two countries from the monastery walls).

Khor Virap, which translates as “Deep Dungeon”, became the most important site of Armenian Christianity. The faith was initially brought to the country by two of the twelve original apostles, Bartholomew and Thaddaeus. But in later times the Armenian kings persecuted the followers of the new religion, and none more ferociously than King Trdat III at the end of the 2nd century A.D. When Gregory, a missionary monk, tried to preach the gospel, the king had him thrown into a dungeon pit at Khor Virap, apparently filled with scorpions and snakes. He is said to have survived in that pit for twelve to fourteen years, depending which source you believe. While Gregory languished in the dark pit, Trdat was overcome by fits of madness. He began to imagine he was a wild boar and no healer seemed to know how to help him. Out of desperation, he followed instructions from his sister’s dreams, and released Gregory from Khor Virap. Once released Gregory miraculously cured the king and, as would happen in any other Christian legend, the king converted to Christianity. The difference from other legends was the timing. Gregory baptized King Trdat, as well as, the country’s nobility in 301 A.D., thereby making Armenia the first country in the world to officially become Christian.

Gregory, later known as Saint Gregory the Illuminator, became the first Catolicos of the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church, (the word Apostolic, of course, proudly refers to Saints Bartholomew and Thaddaeus). How crucial these events were to Armenia’s view of its own history can be seen in Yerevan today. In 2001, to commemorate 1,700 years from the adoption of Christianity, the country erected a gigantic new cathedral in the capital, named after Saint Gregory.

Khor Virap monastery and Mount Ararat, Armenia
Khor Virap monastery and Mount Ararat

In Khor Virap, I was fortunate to see the famous dungeon for myself. Naturally, it can accommodate only a few people at a time, so we had to wait our turn before slowly scaling down a ladder, through an extremely narrow hole in the floor into the pit. The dungeon was dark, cold, and wet, with a small altar created from a painting of the Saint. Given the wait and effort involved, some visitors looked this way and that, wondering if there was anything to take a picture of: the answer being no. Without knowing the significance of Gregory’s story, the place was… well, just a cold, wet, dark dungeon.

The sunlight always finds a way

Once Christianity achieved status as the official Armenian religion, monastery-building moved into high gear. The whole kingdom was covered with hundreds of clerical compounds and for every village, it became a question of pride to have its own monastery. With the monasteries and the Armenian liturgical script of Mesrop Mashtots came educational enlightenment for the country. Pointing out the significance of the texts I viewed at the Matenadaran museum in Yerevan (above).

The plan of a typical monastery contained a church in the center, surrounded by chapels, residences for monks, and sometimes defensive walls. Today the structures are, preserved to varying degrees. For example, Geghard, after some reconstruction, looks complete, while Hayravank was reduced over time to just a single church with a few memorial steles called khachkars scattered around (khachkar means “cross-stone”) to indicate where structures stood at one time.

Light in an Armenian monastery, Treasures of Armenia
Light in an Armenian monastery

Without exception, all churches are capped with the most typical feature of Armenian architecture—a drum-like tower with a conic roof, to resemble the shape of Mount Ararat. The interiors of the churches feel surprisingly dark and plain, at least to European visitors. Almost like Gregory’s dungeon. Every little piece of decoration, whether a painting or a relief carving on a column, immediately stands out. But the most spiritual sights in Armenian churches did not need any artists. The very narrow windows let inside just thin shafts of sunlight, and that created such a visual spectacle in the darkness of the interior that however simple, it was highly moving to the point where the viewer gets the message without ever reading a gospel in the Armenian script.

The monasteries may appear uniquely Armenian, but they were not isolated from the world, and nor was the country itself, despite its seemingly remote location. Besides the apostolic connection, Gregory himself obtained Greek education in Anatolia and King Trdat spent a part of his life at the imperial court in Rome. Those were just a few of the many interactions that kept Armenia linked to other centers of knowledge. Given such an intellectual climate, it is small wonder that the monasteries grew to become cultural powerhouses, as the manuscripts in the Matenadaran museum showed.

Gems, gorges, and getting out

The last religious shrine I visited had nothing to do with Christianity. Garni is a well-preserved, fully-fledged Greco-Roman temple, built in the 1st century A.D. In a typical Armenian way, it stood in a scenic natural environment, on the cliff of a gorge made of basaltic origins. In some sense, Garni provides a neat visual summary of Armenia—a combination of deep cultural heritage, on par with other great civilizations, paired with dramatic landscapes that are surprisingly diverse for a small country.

At this point, Armenia receives only about a quarter of the number of tourists that the neighboring Georgia does, a country of a similar size. As more and more travel outlets are beginning to notice Armenia, the numbers may start to change. But even then, visitors will not find the gems of Armenia to be a short walk from their hotel room. Unlike some other travel destinations, Armenia does not serve up its treasures on a silver platter. Visitors will need to get out of their neighborhoods to go and find them.

For more articles by Libor follow his link and follow these links more articles on European and the Mediterranean travel destinations.