An incomprehensible speech in an exotic language…a stern glance, and the high priest thrust his blade into the fire in front of me. I had stumbled upon a full-blown Armenian pagan ceremony in the oldest intact Pagan temple in the world, the Garni temple, just outside of Yerevan, Armenia. Here, amidst the ghosts of pagans past, I witnessed a full blown pagan ceremony unfold before my eyes. Not some half-baked Disneyfied version setup solely for the tourists, mind you, but a real ceremony by the descendants of ancient pagans. They were gathered here in a 2000 year old temple to perform a rite of passage for one of their members who was entering into the Armenian military.
After a fascinating ceremony, the priests and attendees then proceeded to file outside of the temple and started an impromptu traditional Armenian dance. The entire scene was surreal, and I had to ask my Armenian friends if it was all real or of it was some type of a reenactment. This was the real deal, however.
My travels had taken me to Armenia, the modern day nation that has evolved from an ancient kingdom, surviving for millennia in the Caucasus mountains. Armenia was the second stop here in these mountains; part of a speaking tour I took to the area that also involved a visit to the fascinating nation of Georgia to the north, a topic I covered in my previous blog post.
Today’s Armenia is the remnant of what was at one time a powerful empire that spanned the region from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. That empire had roots that stretched back to at least the 6th century B.C.E., when it was called the Satrapy of Armenia within the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
Throughout the centuries, Armenians went through various cycles of independence followed by domination by various neighboring empires. At the crossroads of civilizations, Armenians dealt with Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Russians, and eventually the Soviets, becoming one of the contingent parts of the Soviet Union before independence was once again achieved in 1990. This small country is a fascinating place to explore, and is filled with wonderful sights and delicious foods. My short time here just scratches the surface in places to explore, and the Garni Temple was just the start.
In the shadows of Mt. Ararat, a mountain sacred to Armenians, lies the monastery of Khor Virap. A sacred place of pilgrimage for those in the Armenian Apostolic Church, it was the site of the imprisonment of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia. Saint Gregory is credited with convincing the King of Armenia to convert to Christianity and made Armenia the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion in the year 301.
Indeed, one of the biggest draws of visiting this monastery is to be able to descend into the pit where Saint Gregory was imprisoned for over a decade. The pit is accessible by a very tight passageway and ladder that descends below the chapel on the grounds of the monastery. Word to the wise…it’s not a journey for the claustrophobic, and it can get fairly humid in there as well.
Just downhill from the monastery lies a massive Armenian cemetery, with both old and new Armenian graves. Armenian gravestones, known Khachkars, are elaborately designed in many cases, and they cover the ground around the monastery. This place is extremely significant to Armenians, not only for the ties to historical Armenian Christianity, but also as the location of the ancient city of Artashat, which has been described as the ‘Armenian Carthage.’ The ruins of the ancient city can be found all around Khor Virap, and extend out and under heavily fortified border fence with Turkey, just a few hundred meters away from the monastery itself.
The oldest state-built church in the world, Etchmiadzin Cathedral (Մայր Տաճար Սուրբ Էջմիածին) is located in Armenia, in the town of Ejmiatsin, not far from Yerevan. Originally constructed between the years 301-303, it is the official central cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church and of great importance in Armenian culture.
While it was renovated a few times, the church as it is viewed today has essentially remained unchanged since the year 618, quite the feat considering the regular invasions and political upheaval in the area over the last 1500 years.
The church is built in the middle of what is known as the Armenian Spiritual Academy, which encompasses a seminary, the Gate of St. Tiridates, and examples of several ornate Armenian khachkars. The entire town is built on top of the ruins of the ancient Armenian city of Vagharshapat, capital of the Kingdom of Armenia and most important city during the point in which the Armenian Empire was at its largest.
The modern capital of the Republic of Armenia is Yerevan, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Its capital status is relatively new, however, only having become the capital in 1918. For the most part, its architecture is subsequently relatively modern, and is the economic and industrial center of the country.
Yerevan is a dynamic city that feels very European, while at the same time having somewhat of a Middle Eastern vibe. At the same time, the influence of the decades of Soviet rule in this area are still visible in the architecture, street layout, and in the fact that you can still hear Russian spoken here in many cases.
The best part of Yerevan for me, however, was the food. Armenian cuisine is exquisite, and consists of a mixture of fresh vegetables such as eggplant, and extensive use of quality fruits and nuts, mixed with meats and spices. One of the restaurants featured a live Armenian band playing traditional music, a great accompaniment to a fantastic meal that was accented by some superb Armenian brandy and green-colored tarragon flavored soda known as Tarhun.
Visible from the Armenian capital on the horizon is the bulking presence of Mount Ararat, the highest point in the Republic of Turkey and traditionally a sacred mountain to Armenians, appearing on the coat of arms of Armenia.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Turkey and Armenia has been tense over the past 100 years, a situation with its origins in a mass exodus of Armenians from the area of modern-day Turkey formerly known as Western Armenia or Turkish Armenia. A large memorial to these events is named Tsitsernakaberd and can be found on the hills above Yerevan. Today, Armenians can only gaze upon the slopes of Mt. Ararat from a distance, as the politics of this event influence Turkish-Armenian relations and the borders between the two countries are still closed after all of these years.
My time in Armenia was short, and after a few days we headed out across the country back to Georgia. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in this ancient land full of fascinating and historical sights. I leave the country with hope for what the future holds for the resilient and industrious Armenian people.