“ Monastery dating back to the 10th Century situated in the Lori region of Armenia „
TWO PEAS IN A POD
I recently visited the land of my forefathers - Armenia - to attend my sister's traditional wedding in the capital, Yerevan. Given the unusual location, my wife was uncertain about bringing our eight-month old son along, especially as a number of friends who had been there before warned us that children tend to suffer with tummy trouble in the first few days. As such, I was given a unique opportunity to travel alone, allowing me to experience a completely different type of holiday than if I had my young family along. I was determined to make the most of it, and had my sights set firmly on the long trip to the Northern province of Lori to visit two medieval monasteries of considerable renown - Haghpat and Sanahin.
Both of these sites were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list (in 1996 and 2000 respectively) and are usually visited together because of their proximity to each other - they are just seven miles apart as the crow flies. In the winter, when the deciduous mountain trees are stripped of their foliage, apparently it is possible to see one from the other across the valley. During their heyday, both of these 10th century monasteries were healthy competitors, in fact, the name "Sanahin" actually means "this one is older than that one" in medieval Armenian, a sly dig at its near neighbour.
AN EPIC JOURNEY
Getting to Lori is usually a fairly straightforward, if rather lengthy journey from Yerevan. On a good day, with a fair wind, it takes just under four hours to get there, but unfortunately for our small travelling party, the day started badly when an inattentive petrol station attendant started filling our van with diesel instead of petrol. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, hearty protestations by the owner that this was, in fact "no problem, is good, is best diesel in Yerevan", and a committee meeting involving our driver, the station manager, six of his employees - and me making lawyerly noises with words like "liability", "damage" and "loss" - it was finally decided that the tank would be siphoned.
The delay cost us an hour, but more trauma was to follow when we found the main highway to Alaverdi (the closest large town to Haghpat) had been shut. The diversion ensured that a manageable and relatively smooth four hour trip turned into a five and a half hour nightmare of dirt tracks, dodgy suspension and potholes you could lose a Mini in.
Having visited Sanahin first, we arrived at Haghpat in late afternoon. The drive between the two monasteries takes around half an hour, as you have to descend into the Debed River gorge, cross over another river, and drive back up the other side. It was immediately apparent that the village of Haghpat, which the monastery overlooks, was much better off than its northern neighbour.
There is a car park in front of the main monastery building and a basic restaurant/café alongside which also sells souvenirs and cold drinks. It turns out that the churches of Haghpat are still used extensively for baptisms, weddings and funerals, and given its location, it is something of a prestige posting for Armenian Orthodox priests. Very few of these fellows adhere to the ascetic principles of their forebears, and the well appointed equivalent of a rectory - adjacent to the complex - was ample evidence that the resident priest was not exactly deprived.
After running the almost obligatory gauntlet of souvenir and tat sellers in the forecourt, we made our way up to the steps onto a large, lush lawn seemingly littered with ancient buildings. Haghpat has a couple of working churches, so there is no admission charge, and as my companions filtered into the first one they encountered (St Krikor), I decided to have a walk around to get a sense of the place.
A WALK AROUND
Haghpat is in remarkably good shape for a complex of buildings that have been around, for the large part, since the 10th century. Unlike Sanahin, although there is some significant foliage adorning the roofs of the various chapels and churches, these buildings are far better maintained. Haghpat achieved its UNESCO status four years earlier than its long-time rival, and there has clearly been much more investment in its potential as both a working church and a potential tourist destination. In fact the contrast between the two could not be greater.
Sanahin comes across like an atmospheric, evocative ruin that offers glimpses of its past glories. Haghpat is more animated, and still echoes with the sound of chanted prayer, the unmistakeable tang of fragrant incense, and the waxy smell of burning yellow tapers. Putting aside the difficulty of getting here (unfortunately, guided tours are still the best and only option for tourists) foreign visitors are well catered for.
A site map and a series of well researched and clearly explained sign boards are scattered about the complex (in Russian, English and Armenian) offering a wealth of context and information. This is a monastery steeped in history - a religious and academic centre that played a significant role in the development of Armenian culture, the extent and breadth of which is apparent when you read up on its impressive achievements.
The core of the monastery, enclosed in a walled compound, features the main cathedral (St. Nshan - Armenian for "Mark"), a number of side chapels, churches and gavits, the 12th century free-standing bell tower, a refrectory, a library and a corridor called "The Saviour's Passage" which was used as an academy and now houses a very fine 13th century khatchkar called "The Holy Redeemer" (Amenaprgitch). The stone, dedicated to a long-forgotten general, is coloured with a local and indelible red dye called "vordan garmir" - literally "beetle red" - extracted from a native Armenian insect.
Part of the monastery is built into the side of the hill and sections of the lawn are roped off at the back where the grass is growing over the roof of the complex. The eastern side of the cathedral, facing the bell tower (which is inaccessible unfortunately) is easily its most attractive. A set of stairs leads down from the tower to a grassy terrace, and looking back up you get a real sense of how impressive these buildings really are. Back on the main "concourse" is a modest memorial to the celebrated 18th century poet, folk singer/songwriter and musician Sayat Nova - a legendary figure in Armenian history - who, ironically, was born at Sanahin, but spent his last days as a monk and musical director at Haghpat.
Also of particular note is a small, self contained 13th century chapel to the left of the main buildings called St Asdavdzadzin (Holy Mother of God). It was built at the request of a noblewoman called Lady or "Mama" Khatoun, who, along with her husband, Prince Vatche Vatchutian, was a prolific sponsor of religious building. The interior, like the other buildings at Haghpat, is quite sparse, but the main façade is beautifully carved with crosses and other decorative features.
The complex extends beyond the medieval walls. A short walk out of the northern gate and up a small hill takes you to a covered spring (the imaginatively named "Spring House"). The water flows into a trough at which around half a dozen sheep were watering themselves, totally oblivious to my presence. Continuing up the path takes you into a graveyard with a 13th century chapel (St Tiramayr) at its centre, but I didn't have time to explore it properly. Apparently, there are also the ruins of an unnamed 4th century church in the village itself - the first Christian structure at Haghpat, but there is not much of it to see.
It was a almost a wrench to leave the stunning views and the bright sunshine for the gloomy and underlit interiors. After the grandeur of the exterior, the contents of the chapels and churches are slightly underwhelming. Having visited a fair few of these sites during my time in Armenia, I must confess that after a while, the inside of one church looks very much like any other.
To the more seasoned and practised eye, I am sure there are marvels of architectural and design detail to distinguish them, but given that the most colourful elements - such as paintings and frescoes - have long since been removed or obliterated, the ancient inscriptions and crosses carved into the stone on the otherwise spartan walls offer the only glimpse into glories past. The refrectory is particularly featureless and currently serves as home to a legion of swallows if the constant chatter and the piles of guano on the floor are anything to go by.
That said, the complex is full of atmospheric corridors and nooks, and occasionally, areas like the Saviour's Passage (and one other notable gallery lined with cross-stones) provide a welcome break from the dull grey monotony. In the church of St Krikor we stumbled on a baptism in one of the side altars. The feeble light from the narrow windows was augmented by several dozen candles being held by the congregants, casting everyone in an orange glow, as a priest in traditional vestments intoned ancient old Armenian prayers in a deep baritone, while dripping the infant's head with water from a centuries old font. I could not have asked for a better little vignette to contrast the old with the new.
After the long journey up from Yerevan, we had a precious four hours to spend in the Lori region, which we split equally between Sanahin and Haghpat. Each of these two treasures deserves a half day on its own, so it's safe to say we could not do either full justice in the limited time we had. However, despite the brevity of our visit, I left much enriched and impressed, and didn't regret the long journey for a minute. If you ever manage to come out to this part of the world, try and make sure you leave yourself enough time to explore these outstanding sites with the dedication and attention they so richly deserve.
We couldn't contemplate the journey back without some food and drink, and happily, the café next door to the monastery was only too happy to serve us with a selection of their dishes of the day. The owner, a portly, jovial lady who was a primary school teacher in nearby Alaverdi, eagerly sat down to speak with us. She was a goldmine of local information and her cooking wasn't bad either.
A consummate businesswoman, she tried to sell us on the idea of staying overnight, showing us the three or four rooms she hires out for the purpose. As tempting as the idea was, we were resolved to go home, and we left Haghpat, full of lamb chops, chicken kebabs and Kilikia beer, clutching a bottle of homemade mulberry vodka and feeling that all of our needs - spiritual, cultural, emotional and victual - had been completely satisfied.
© Hishyeness 2010