“ 13th Century Armenian Monastery on the slopes of Mt Aragats. „
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Before my recent trip to Armenia, I spent a fair bit of time planning where to go and what to see. As the primary reason for going was to attend a wedding, my free time was relatively limited, so I wanted to ensure I maximised what little I had. Fortunately, my sister's network of local contacts, developed mainly during her two year stint in-country, ensured that there were plenty of people keen to show me around.
There is no substitute for local knowledge, and so it proved as my driver (and now friend) Andranik, repeatedly took me "off itinerary" to visit places I had never heard of, much less planned for. One such bonus, on a trip that included a brilliant excursion to Amberd and a chilly sojourn to a crystal lake near the snow-covered summit of Mt Aragats, was to the little known 13th century church and minor monastic complex at Teghervank.
Tegher is a small village on the southern slopes of Mt Aragats (the highest mountain in Armenia) and overlooking the city of Byurakan, which is situated across a river gorge and a little lower down the valley. The city is easily identified from above by the shiny silver dome of the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory, which was one of the main astronomy centres of the former USSR. There is little heavy industry in the area, and combined with the clear mountain air, the region is ideal for observing the night skies. There is little to see and do in Tegher other than the monastery complex. The village is virtually abandoned during the winter months due to the harsh weather, with most of its population relocating to the Yerevan suburbs.
It should therefore come as little surprise that there is no public transport to the area and nothing at all in the way of tourist infrastructure. If you want to get to Tegher, you'll have to either hire a car and driver in Yerevan or go on a guided tour that takes in a number of other sites - usually Amberd and Lake Kari, both of which we had visited earlier in the day. The drive from the capital takes a little under an hour. The complex is clearly visible from the road as it snakes up the valley, getting bigger and more impressive as each bend brings you closer to it. You lose sight of it completely as you enter the close confines of the dilapidated village, only seeing it, close up, when you reach the end of the dirt track that's serves as a drive. I have the utmost admiration for the coach drivers who manage to manoeuvre their buses in such tight confines.
Tegher is usually described as a monastery (called "vank" in Armenian), but the only surviving building is a large, stark, well preserved 13th century church in dark grey basalt called St Mariam Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mary Mother of Christ) which also features a large gavit, or anteroom. It's main attraction, and a focus for local pilgrimage, is the tomb of Princess Khatoum and her husband, Prince Vatche Vachutian, who were both prolific sponsors of church building in the area. Tegher has two well-preserved sister monasteries, Saghmosavank and Ohanavank, which are situated further down the valley and were built by these two benefactors around the same time.
The building is noteworthy for the distinct lack of design flourishes that were otherwise typical of church building at the time. While not totally featureless, it has little ornamentation, with only a few crosses carved into the stone walls of its façade (memorials to wealthy benefactors ostensibly looking to secure a passport to heaven). Apparently, the absence of decoration was a reflection of church teaching at the time - to achieve grace and a oneness with God, you needed to demonstrate humility, austerity and deprive yourself of distractions.
However, as noble as this sounds, having seen Saghmosavank earlier in the day, the contrast between the two monasteries could not be more dramatic. Next to its more aesthetically pleasing and well "dressed" sibling, Tegher looks a little like the plain sister. That said, what Tegher lacks in curb appeal, it makes up for in powerful presence and character.
The gavit, or anteroom, is almost as large as the main church and features two towers, one on each of the front corners, which are smaller replicas of the main drum-shaped cupola. Oddly, the pointed arch above the main front entrance to the gavit is reminiscent of Islamic designs found on mosques. The complex was built around a time in Armenia's history when Mongol invasion was common, and it is thought the inclusion of such a feature, prevalent in Central Asia, would deter the invaders from sacking and destroying the church. The fact that it is still standing today suggests the plan may have worked. Interestingly, the initial arch is supplemented by two further, overlaid arches, so that the door has three points, one for each component of the Holy Trinity, a clever way of hiding a Christian message in Muslim camouflage.
The wooden door to the gavit is intricately carved, but the bold inscription of "1995" belies its modernity. Inside, however, is an altogether different story. The uneven floor of the gavit is covered with medieval memorial stones, most of them eroded after centuries of human traffic. On the left hand side, as you enter, a white lace cover, decorated with dried poppies, is draped over two graves in particular - Princess "Mama" Khatoum and her husband. Curiosity got the better of me, and as there was no one around, I carefully rolled back the cover to take a look at the graves. There are no obvious markings to distinguish one from the other. One of the stones is badly pock-marked with virtually none of its decorative features surviving. The other has the rough outline of a person which looks vaguely feminine.
Had the cover not been in place, I would have been none the wiser. In fact, there is no on-site information at all for the casual tourist, which is a shame, as a post-visit internet search revealed very little information on this undoubtedly influential couple. Only two modern signs survive, both of which were originally installed on the exterior of the building in Soviet days to mark them as protected buildings. As foreign tourism was unheard of at the time, they are only in Armenian and Cyrillic, with the founding date of the buildings - 1221 AD for the gavit and 1213 AD for the church - the sole tidbit of information.
The interior of the main church is atmospheric, but relatively unremarkable. Sunlight was streaming through the narrow, slit-like windows in concentrated beams, highlighting a tatty altar curtain, some wooden benches and a few priestly bits and bobs (which bizarrely included an old HIPP Baby Formula tin) providing some evidence that the church is still used for worship. The front of the raised altar, which is crowned by a relatively modern painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, is decorated with yellow painted arches, coloured in with faded alternating red and blue infill that has seen much better days.
I emerged into bright, blinding sunlight and went around to the back of the complex to take in the stunning views over the river gorge below and the city of Byurakan further down the valley. I wandered down a little used path off to the left to try and get a better angle for my photos and, spotting a flash of white through the trees, I was stunned to discover an enormous radio telescope built into the mountainside. Feeling a little self-conscious, I couldn't resist taking a few snaps.
As there was no one around to ask, I satisfied my burning curiosity by checking it out on-line when I returned to Yerevan - it is the Herouni Mirror Radio Telescope near the village of Orgov (named after the notable Armenian professor - Paris Herouni - who was responsible for its design and construction). Built in 1986, it was the largest in the Soviet Union, and is apparently still one of the biggest of its kind in the world. However, like most things in Armenia, it is operating under capacity due to a lack of investment.
Teghervank was a little off the beaten track, but turned out to be a well judged and worthwhile diversion. Its stark austerity aside, the monastery is a fine and well preserved example of 13th century Armenian church architecture with some notable and interesting features. I would allow at least an hour to visit it properly and be able to appreciate not only the buildings, but the immediate surroundings - a luxury you may not get on a guided expedition. If you can solve the problem of getting there, the only real issue is the total lack of information on site about the history of the complex - and its founders buried within.
During my late-June visit, a number of curious locals wandered up to watch my touristic and photographic endeavours, and with the help of my driver I was able to glean some of the useful information I have reproduced here. Other sites I have visited, such as Geghard, Haghpat and Garni cater much better for Armenia's burgeoning tourist trade. I hope its only a matter of time before Teghervank receives similar investment and attention.
© Hishyeness 2010