“ Ancient temple of Garni situated in the Kotayk district of Armenia „
A TEMPLE AMONGST CHURCHES
In a country rich with exquisite medieval churches and monasteries, it's often easy to forget that some of Armenia's most impressive architectural and historic treasures pre-date the conversion to Christianity in 301AD. However, these sites are scarce - for two main reasons. Firstly, the very antiquity of these relics has worked against them. Armenia is located in an earthquake zone and features hot summers and harsh winters, so nature has taken its toll over the centuries.
Secondly, when King Tiridates III decreed Christianity as his country's state religion, a programme of church building began. In common with the spread of Christianity in Europe and the Levant, pagan religious sites were simply built over. This served a dual purpose - it obliterated traces of the old religions while at the same time providing the people with a familiar, physical place of worship.
Given these circumstances, it is all the more remarkable that most of the pagan Temple of Garni has survived since it was originally built by King Tiridates I in the 1st century AD. The words "originally built" are deliberate. It was actually destroyed by a powerful earthquake in the late 17th century and lay in ruins until the Soviet era, when an archaeological team painstakingly reconstructed the temple - using the original building materials on site - over the six year period between 1969 and 1975.
The Garni temple complex is located in Kotayk province, near the small village of the same name, which is around 30km southeast of the capital Yerevan. The well travelled local road off the main highway is in better shape than most in Armenia, so the journey takes about an hour. For foreign tourists, the most reliable way to get there is to go on a guided tour that also takes in the nearby Monastery of Geghard.
Tours can be booked from most travel agents and hotels in the capital. For example, a five hour day trip that takes in both sites can be booked through Hyur Service ("hyur" means "guest") on Nalbandian Street (www.hyurservice.com) for 5000 Dram (around £9/$14), There are local bus services that serve Garni, but there is very little reliable timetable and destination information in English, and no onward bus service to Geghard.
I had the benefit of being driven to the site by a family friend. You get to the complex by driving through Garni village, giving you little idea of what to expect when you arrive. The non-descript car park, which abuts an ancient looking wall, is the first hint that you have arrived somewhere special. The car park hosts a number of crudely constructed stalls selling home-made goods, dried fruits and tourist tat. There are no parking charges sign-posted, but an elderly chap resting under an apricot tree demanded 100 Dram (about 20p) for the privilege and we coughed up without question.
As it turns out, the outer wall dates from the 4th century BC and formed part of a robust set of fortifications. The complex is strategically built on a promontory overlooking the Azat River gorge, and is protected on two sides by sheer 100m cliffs. The walls, which are two metres thick in places, created an enclosed and easily defensible fortress containing, at various times in history, the 1st century temple, a 3rd century Roman bath house, a summer palace for a princess, and a 7th century church.
As you walk through the arch in the outer wall you get your first glimpse of the temple, which is reached by a long, paved and tree-lined avenue. Immediately on the left hand side of the arch is a ticket kiosk. This is one of the few sites I visited which actually charged an admission fee - a very modest 1000 Dram (around £2). Guide books are available, but none were in English when I visited. In any event, there are a series of well researched illustrated boards with information and maps of the complex in three languages - Armenian, English & Russian - on the right hand side opposite the kiosks, with a number of others dotted around the site.
However, if you don't fancy the heavy reading, the Armenian Department of Antiquities provides official guided tours in a number of languages for a small fee (500 Dram - i.e. £1 per person). Although I didn't hire one, I got to chatting with an English-speaking guide called Baron Kolya ("Baron" is an Armenian honorific) who was loitering outside the on-site (and totally out of place) souvenir shop. Apparently, he had been working at Garni for 28 years, and in all likelihood, had been there when I first visited as a teenager in 1987.
Without doubt, the main attraction is King Tiridates temple, thought to be dedicated to the pagan sun-god Mithras. Even in reconstructed form, it is an impressive edifice, blending naturally into its beautiful and relatively unspoilt surroundings. Much of the decorative flourishes have been salvaged and can be seen in-situ as they appeared centuries ago. A series of steep stone steps leads up into the temple, and it is impossible to climb them without bowing deeply toward the altar. Apparently, this was deliberate, to ensure that visitors demonstrated the proper reverence.
The interior is rather unremarkable, housing a plain stone altar and lit by a single open skylight high above. However, there are two noteworthy inscriptions in the entrance - one, oddly, in Arabic and the other in old Armenian, both bearing witness to the number of cultures and ideologies that must have passed through this oft-criss-crossed land. Close-up, it is obvious which of the stones are new and which are ancient, but the construction work is top-notch and the seams and joins between old and new almost imperceptible.
Immediately to the right of the Temple are the ruins of a 7th century, roughly circular, church called St Sion. However, not much of it is left other than its foundations, and it is best viewed from the temple porch, which gives a good overview of its size and probable construction. A path leads around the side of the Temple to a terrace overlooking the beautiful gorge. This was also the site of the summer palace, thought to have been built for Tiridates' sister, but as with the church, nothing of note has survived.
However, during excavations in the 1950's, the dig unearthed a stone tablet, inscribed in cuneiform symbols, dating to the 8th century BC. The rock is on display, open to the elements on the terrace, with the indentations barely identifiable. According to a nearby board, it is attributed to an Urartian king, Arghisti 1, who also built the Erebuni Fortress back in Yerevan.
Continuing on the path brings you to the 3rd century Roman bath house. A building has been erected around it to protect it, with a raised walkway inside laid over the top of the hypocausts - the under floor heating system used to heat the baths. The bath house features a decorative mosaic floor in relatively good condition, which is the only one of its kind in Armenia. Unfortunately, it was covered in a layer of dust which did not allow us to see it in its best light, but to add to the culturally and religiously diverse feel to the site, there is a clear Greek inscription inlaid into the design.
Given its proximity to Yerevan and how cheap it is to visit - even with a guided tour - Garni is an easy and worthwhile day trip, especially with Geghard just seven miles further down the road. The site is well maintained, easy to get around, provides a welcome antidote to anyone suffering from church fatigue, and offers some breath-taking views. Armenia is often referred to by historians as the "crossroads of civilisations" and Garni is a physical and tangible representation of this premise, giving visitors a genuine glimpse into Armenia's pre-Christian and multi-cultural past.
© Hishyeness 2010