From Pagan to Present

Yerevan, Armenia
Jul 18, 2018

“I don’t want to kill you today” said Carlo.

It occurred to me then, that I should have probably asked how many people he had killed before, or maybe maimed. Or even how well he could ride himself. But it was a tad too late; I was committed to riding pillion, especially after all the effort spent in renting a helmet. Apparently, Armenians are unused to the idea of wearing a helmet. No travel agencies or car rental services could help; nobody rents motorbikes here and so no helmets are to be found. I eventually found one decorating the display window of a bicycle rental.
“For show only” said the young woman, bemused and no doubt wondering about my sanity. But some vigorous convincing later, I came trotting back with helmet in hand. So, yes, I was committed. We were off to the temple of Garni and the monastery of Geghard, not particularly marshrutka-friendly destinations.

The asphalt road wound its way southeast, past small hamlets. Stalls of homemade pickles and jams and baskets of fruits stood guard in front of houses while sun-baked fields of dry scrub lay beyond. Heat lay like a blanket, dispelled somewhat while in motion. In the distance stood Mount Ararat, called Masis in Armenian, with its sister peak Sis, next to it. But so dense is the layer of pollution that only the snow-covered peak is visible. It floats like a dollop of ice-cream in mid-air seemingly conjured from thin air like a magician’s trick.

Temple of Garni
The prevailing theory states that the original temple was built by Tiridates I in 77 AD, dedicated to Mithra, the Zoroastrian god. But when Tiridates III adopted Christianity in the 4th century, in keeping with the new-found zeal, all pagan temples were destroyed. Only Garni was spared, a fact that has generated opposing theories.

No longer a temple, it then served as a residence, with baths installed and other modifications made. But a devastating earthquake in the 17th century leveled the temple and what we see today is a 20th century reconstruction albeit almost entirely from the original stones that had remained scattered in the area. Broken fragments of the frieze and columns now decorate the pathway that leads to the temple.

Geghard Monastery
Further down the same road is the monastery of Geghard. Like most places of worship, this too owed its origin to pre-Christian times. In this case, the source of a sacred spring inside a cave, and hence the oft-used name, Ayrivank – the Monastery of the Cave. The spring gushes to this day and the faithful jockey to reach it, balancing carefully on an uneven, wet rocky floor.

Although founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator, nothing of the original buildings exist. Damaged significantly in the 10th century by the Arab caliph of Armenia, the re-building of this monastery was largely made in the 13th century when this area was under the reign Queen Tamar of Georgia. Between wars and earthquakes, there has been damage aplenty and repeated re-construction over the years to the present.

Surrounded by the towering cliffs of the Azat river gorge, it is an enchanting location. Large carved kachkars grace a path above the church. Caves used by monks in the past are fronted by rows of beehives, guarded ably by their buzzing denizens. In the church below, most chambers are dug out entirely from the cliff face, with upper and lower levels. Altars and chapels, columns and walls are liberally decorated with crosses and sculptures, some more elaborate than others.

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