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Mesrop Mashtots Church (Oshagan, Armenia)

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The Church and final burial place of St Mesrob Mashdots

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      10.09.2010 10:47
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      The strangely unheralded tomb of one of Armenia's cultural giants.

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      LEARNING MY A to F
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      During my childhood, my parents went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that I grew up with an understanding and appreciation of my Armenian heritage. Having moved us from London to New York so we could be part of the well established 300,000 strong community there, they ensured we spoke Armenian at home, taught us to read and write our unique language, and sent us to Saturday school at the local Armenian Orthodox Church.

      As a people, there are two things that have kept us distinct from our Caucasian neighbours, faith and language. These are the twin bedrocks on which our culture is based, and the genesis of both is inextricably intertwined. Armenia became the first nation to declare Christianity as a state religion in the early 4th century. Our greatest saint, Gregory the Illuminator, was instrumental in converting the (then pagan) King Tiridates to the new faith.

      However, the Armenians lacked their own alphabet and script, meaning that the Gospel had to be written and recorded in the most prevalent regional languages of the time - Greek, Persian and Syriac - none of which were really suitable for capturing the complex sounds of the Armenian language.

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      ST MESROB MASHDOTS
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      Almost a century later, an Armenian theologian, monk and scholar by the name of Mesrob Mashdots decided to remedy the situation and is credited with creating the original 36 letter Armenian alphabet (two more letters - a long "O" and an "F" were added in the 12th century to make a total of 38). The invention of an alphabet was the defining factor in cementing a national identity, and ensuring that Armenians survived as a separate people throughout the centuries - despite repeated invasions and incursions by much larger empires.

      Mashdots was canonised by the Armenian Orthodox Church and buried in a village called Oshagan when he died in 440AD. On my recent trip to Armenia, a friend of my sister - Andranik - offered to take me on a road trip to the region north and west of Yerevan called Aragatsotn - named for Mt Aragats, the highest in Armenia. I had specifically wanted to visit the monastery of Saghmosavank and the Fortress of Amberd, but my host insisted we divert to Oshagan to visit the burial place of St Mesrob. I hadn't realised it was in the area, so readily agreed.

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      GETTING THERE
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      Unlike many other religious sites of interest, St Mesrob Mashdots church is located in the middle of a well populated village, about thirty minutes drive from the capital. Apart from the church compound and tomb, there is little to see and do in Oshagan itself, so unless you have the luxury of being driven by a local, the best way to go is on a guided tour, which will typically take in a few other, nearby sites. Tours can easily be booked at any travel agent or major hotel in the capital. St Mesrob is a working church, serving the local community, and as such, there is no admission charge, although donations are encouraged.

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      THE COURTYARD
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      The area around the church itself has been much improved since Armenia's independence in 1991. It now boasts properly paved walkways and relatively well tended gardens. The undoubted highlight is the "alphabet garden", a set of 38 stone sculptures modelled on traditional Armenian "khatchkars" (literally cross-stones) each of which represents a different letter of the Armenian alphabet.

      The stones - a relatively modern addition - are exquisitely carved with religious and cultural designs related to the letter they are contained within. They stand in an orchard of apricot trees, and when I visited in late June, the golden orange fruits were heavy, ripe and irresistible. My hands were soon covered with sticky apricot nectar as I sampled the native Prunus Armeniaca while hunting for the stones with my initials.

      Unfortunately, and perhaps, inexplicably given their obvious attraction, the area around the stones was thick with weeds and overgrown grass, needing serious maintenance. As a country relatively new to the concept of tourism, Armenia's main sights remain curiously under-developed, but while some may consider this something of an inconvenience, from a selfish perspective, it's more of a blessing.

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      THE CHURCH
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      In a country so full of ancient churches that even a seasoned traveller can easily develop antiquity fatigue, St Mesrob stands out as a notable exception. The basilica, built in 1875, is practically a baby in Armenian terms. It has a simple, well-lit rectangular central hall with no traditional cupola. Instead, a bell tower anchors the north-western corner. The interior is also atypical, with colourful frescoes adorning the walls, the most beautiful and impressive of which is the one on the interior of the front wall.

      Painted in 1960, the vibrant fresco, with St Mesrob on one side and St Sahag (Isaac) on the other, frames a translucent window in the shape of a tablet with the letters of the alphabet inscribed in clear glass. The windows of the church were partly open, and I watched as several swallows darted in and out of the narrow openings at suicidally high speed. I soon realised that several were nesting in various alcoves and arches inside the church.

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      THE TOMB OF A SAINT
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      On the right hand side of the altar is a small passage leading to St Mesrob's tomb. A tall grey slab of stone, inscribed with the Armenian alphabet stands sentry alongside the narrow entrance, as if by now, a reminder was still needed of who, exactly, you were visiting. A short set of steps take you down into the mausoleum, which is lit by a single light bulb encased in an intricate wire mesh, casting dappled shadows over the walls.

      The white marble tomb, which was covered in long-stemmed flowers, lay along the far wall, with a simple inscription bearing the saint's name, and dates of birth and death. The room is quite small, with a low ceiling, comfortably accommodating no more than three or four people. On one side is a traditional khatchkar, and on the other a stone with an inscription dated back when the church was built in 1875. After a few moments of reflection, I placed a few Dram (local currency) in the red velvet covered collection box and made my way out.

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      IMPRESSIONS
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      To be frank, I left mildly disappointed. I had expected this visit to leave more of an emotional impact. Although it was undoubtedly moving to visit the final resting place of one of the undisputed giants of Armenian culture, I felt strangely detached, feeling none of the wonder and reverence for this historic figure that I had as a child. The church is pleasant enough, but in truth, there is no real reason to visit this small, relatively plain grave site, sitting in a dark underground chamber in a provincial corner of Armenia, unless you have some idea and appreciation of the man, and latterly the Saint, who is buried here.

      There is no information on-site, other than a small souvenir stall just inside the church entrance, to provide context or enlighten the curious. Independent, and especially foreign tourists are simply not catered for here, which is a shame, given the impact St Mesrob had on Armenian history. Recommended - but only as part of a wider itinerary, and if you don't have a guide, do some light background reading first to get the most of your visit.

      © Hishyeness 2010

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