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Saghmosavank Monastery (Armenia)

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13th century Armenian monastery in a dramatic location.

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      02.01.2011 21:59
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      A fine example of 13th century Armenian church-building in a stunning setting.


      Armenia is often described as an open-air museum. As the first nation to accept Christianity as a state religion (in 301 AD) the thousand years following its conversion bore witness to a steady programme of church building. Some of its most beautiful monasteries and churches were constructed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, a period which is recognised by scholars as a "golden era" for Armenian religious architecture. Armenian Orthodox churches are distinct - much in the same way that the famous onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches are also instantly recognisable - you can't really mistake them for anything else. However, despite their obvious similarities (floor plans, orientation, and the ubiquitous cupola) each church is unique in its external and internal decoration, atmosphere and geographic situation. Although it could be argued that visiting church after medieval church dotting the Armenian landscape could become repetitive after a while, nothing could be further from the truth. The discerning visitor will always find something new to delight and marvel at.

      There are several sites within an hour's drive of the capital, Yerevan, ranging from the cluster of churches around Etchmiadzin (the religious capital of the Armenian Orthodox Church) to the more secluded Geghard and Tegher Monasteries. However, my favourite, for its style, atmosphere and dramatic situation is Saghmosavank (literally "Monastery of the Psalms") located in the village of Saghmosavan around 30 miles northwest of Yerevan. Saghmosavank was built around the same time as two other monasteries - Ohanavank, which is just 5km further down river, and Teghervank, situated on the southern slopes of Mt Aragats (which at just over 4000m, is Armenia's highest mountain). All three were constructed under the patronage of Prince Vatche Vachutian and his wife Princess "Mama" Khatoum (both of whom are buried at Teghervank).


      Saghmosavank is relatively easy to get to by Armenian standards. The simplest option for the unadventurous traveller is to book a tour with an agency. They are easy enough to find in the capital, particularly around the main square (for example, www.hyurservice.com - no connection - honest!) who will take you around a number of sites for around 5,000 to 6,000 Armenian Dram, a steal at around £10. A visit to the monastery is usually bundled together in a half-day trip with a few other sites (and sights) in the Ashtarak region, including neighbouring Ohanavank, the tiny seventh century Karmravor Church, and Oshagan, burial place of St Mesrob Mashdots - creator of the Armenian alphabet.

      More independent-minded travellers could hire a car (though the tenuous grasp that most native drivers have of traffic rules and basic road courtesy make this signally unattractive) or arrange for a car and driver for a set number of hours. Few Armenian cabbies speak even basic English, so language may be a significant obstacle for those who don't know the lingo. Some of the more up-market hotels can arrange a personal guide and driver (as can the travel agencies), but at a much higher cost than "public" tours.


      A first glimpse of the complex comes from the main north/south M3 highway, as the monastery buildings dominate the village. The view from the road gives little indication of its remarkable setting, and my initial reaction as we wound our way through the dilapidated village was one of mild disappointment. We pulled into a gravel car park just as a coach load of school age children were leaving, so at least our timing was good. A worn, inclined and unpaved path - distinctly unfriendly to the infirm or disabled - started next to a loose wall made of reddish brown stone, and lead into the monastery grounds. The route is lined with fruit tress and berry bushes - seemingly planted by nature rather than design - so the short journey was punctuated with regular pit stops for wild raspberries, cherries and apricots - all of which were in season.

      When you crest the small hill, any thoughts of disappointment were muted by the sheer spectacle of its stunning situation. The building is constructed of deep brown, red and orange tufa stone (a local volcanic rock) with one large, solid cupola adorned with a little green vegetation, and two smaller arched cupolas, one of which also serves as a bell tower. Set behind the complex, when viewed from the path, were the iconic twin peaks of biblical Mt Ararat, though they were partially obscured by uncooperative clouds on the day of my visit.

      The ground behind the church, toward the rear, appears to suddenly drop away. Intrigued, I went to investigate and found myself standing on the lip of a dramatic, deep, stepped canyon carved out over the centuries by the Kassakh River, itself a barely discernable sliver of silver far below. A word of warning - the cliff edge is far from secure and there are no railings, so its best to keep back and make sure any children are well under control. Looking back toward the complex from the cliff, the peaks of Mt Aragats, framed against the azure blue sky, completed the breathtaking vista.


      Saghmosavank is actually one building, but with three distinct parts, each of which is crowned with a cupola or rotunda. The original structure - the Church of Zion (or St Sion - depending on source) was built in 1215 and comprises about a quarter of the complex. A much larger gavit (or antechamber) was added around twenty years later, along with a second church - St Asdvadzadzin (Church of the Mother of God) and a library. In Armenian church-building tradition, is not unusual for there to be several "churches" contained in the same building - a practice that confuses Western visitors who may expect to see separate structures when they see a number of distinct names.

      The temptation is to duck inside and sample the atmosphere, but tempted by the view, and the artistic flourishes on the exterior of the building, its well worth a leisurely walk-around. The rustic-coloured walls are decorated with interesting designs (doves, lions, and rosettes) and Armenian-style crosses, some of which are framed in arched niches. These were usually commissioned to celebrate major events, or by wealthy benefactors hoping to ease their passage into heaven. There are three external features of particular note. The entrance to the gavit (or western portal), which also serves as the main entrance, is decorated with four and five pointed stars and some very intricate stonework under its pointed arch. The front-facing façade of the library also has some wonderful carvings above the (locked) entrance and is well worth a closer look.

      However the highlight, for me, was the massive khatchkar (Armenian for "cross-stone") enclosed within an arch on the left hand side of the main church, with the canyon, hills and mountains as its backdrop. There is a smaller one next to it, connected to the church wall, but its larger neighbour is the more impressive and well preserved piece. The placement of these decorative features is well thought out - with the southern and western façades more heavily decorated than those on the east and west walls - ostensibly because a majority of visitors would approach from these directions and they also get the majority of the sunlight.


      The transition from bright sunshine into the gloomy interior takes a bit of adjustment. Very little light penetrates through the long, narrow windows, many of them no wider than the arrow slits found in English castles. The reason for this is two-fold - they keep the weather out in the harsh winters, but, more importantly, these buildings also served a secondary role as defensible fortresses where the locals could take refuge during the raids by Mongols and other central-Asian Turkic tribes that were common around the time they were built. As such, much of the interior detail is lost to the naked eye, and was only revealed by my use of flash photography when there was no one around to disturb. Like the outside, the interior walls are characterised by carvings - not just crosses - but long tracts of script in barely decipherable old Armenian.

      The entrance to the main church is flanked by two large khatchkars and segregated by a worn, heavy velvet-like curtain. Stepping into the small church felt like stepping back in time - an effect only slightly ruined by the metal folding chairs that had replaced the original pews. The altar, with its obligatory icon of the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, was illuminated by a narrow shaft of light from behind, adding to the already potent atmosphere of spirituality about the place. The small, confined space seemed cut off from the rest of the world, and it was easy to imagine monks and congregants assembled in contemplation and prayer. Entry into the library is by a side page from the gavit, and this room was much airier, with light streaming in from its arched, open rotunda.

      The interior decoration was much less in evidence than in the gavit, giving the impression that this area was reserved for learning and reading rather than for the public. That said, there is evidence that much of the room was painted in bright, vibrant colours, if the vestiges of faded paint are anything to go by. As an aside, in an amusing juxtaposition of ancient and modern, someone had left a single red flower in a green plastic bottle at the base of one of the pillars.


      Without doubt, for sheer drama, Saghmosavank is one of the most beautifully situated examples of the Armenian church-building era of the early Middle Ages. There is nowhere else that is quite so picturesque, with its deep canyons, iconic mountains and earthy coloured tufa. The downside is that there is not much information on-site to help place the building into any sort of context. Much of the knowledge I gleaned was from our friends from Yerevan who took us there, and some diligent pre-visit research (of which there is precious little available). That said, there is enough about the building and its stunning setting to make it a must visit for any discerning traveller to the region, especially given its proximity to Yerevan.

      Highly recommended.

      © Hishyeness 2011


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