JUNE 18, 2010
Time-Traveling in Armenia
by James Fidler
The cracked streets and crumbling buildings of Kars, Turkey, bear
feeble witness to better days long past. But it's also the last stop
on the journey to Ani, the magnificent abandoned Armenian capital,
which sits in the province of Kars, on the Turkish side of the
To historians, Armenia is a borderland between East and West, on which
the tide of cultural division has washed back and forth since the days
of Rome and Persia. To theologians, the country is a window through
time; this oldest national church is a witness to a Christian
tradition both ancient and unique. To students of early-Christian
history, it's both.
Since Ani's heyday in the 10th and 11th centuries, Seljuk, Georgian,
Mongol and Timurid armies have breached its walls. Now the city is
empty, ruins on a barren and treeless plain, with no visitors apart
from a young group of Turkish soldiers joyriding through the site.
The imposing Church of the Holy Mother of God casts a long shadow. It
was completed at the turn of the second millennium by the architect
Trdat, following his return from building the great dome of Hagia
Sophia in Constantinople.
The blind arcading pattern and inscriptions in Armenian that cover the
church's external walls are reflected throughout the site - on the
elegant Church of the Redeemer, built to house a fragment of the True
Cross, and the Church of the Holy Apostles. To the southwest stands
the Minuchir mosque and, on the promontory beyond it, the citadel. To
the east flows the Akhurian river, past the monastery of the Virgin
and the brightly frescoed church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents. In
the north, Ani's huge walls and towers puncture the skyline, glowing
red in evening light.
Flanked by the border fence, Armenia is a stone's throw across the
Akhurian, yet unreachable. Turkey closed the border in 1993, a
demonstration of support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenian
separatists in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turks
appear to show little interest in Ani. Yet across the border in
Armenia, Ani and her churches, some of the last vestiges of Armenia's
grand past, are deeply ingrained in the country's national conscience.
Armenia, however, has wonders of its own, worth the detour around the
closed border. The trip, through the country of Georgia, goes by bus,
van and taxi north into the foothills of the lesser Caucasus
mountains, east through herds of cattle driven by weather-beaten
cowboys and finally, at night, south to Yerevan, the Armenian capital,
flickering gold in the Ararat valley basin.
Armenia adopted Christianity in A.D. 301, and it's no surprise that
the most striking aspect of this church today is the antiquity of its
religious monuments. In Avan, now a suburb of Yerevan, stands the
chapel of St. Asdvadzadzin, which was probably built in the fifth
century and remains mostly intact less a roof. This is by no means
remarkable in Armenia.
There are no signposts for the chapel and no entrance fee; it stands
among allotment gardens and fruit trees, accessible to all who manage
to find the tiny path that leads to it. The foundations of Etchmiadzin
Cathedral, the Mother Church of Armenian Christianity, are even older,
dating to the turn of the fourth century.
Among other memorable churches seen in a several-week visit through
Armenia, there's the heavily inscribed church at Kosh with a
breathtaking vista of Mount Ararat - a symbol of Armenian identity
painfully close but located beyond the border in Turkey. Elsewhere in
Armenia, the reliefs carved into the walls of the cave-chapel of
Geghard Monastery, the original repository of the lance that pierced
Christ's side until it was moved to Etchmiadzin; the immense and
starkly beautiful Hripsime cathedral; and the 32-sided cathedral of
Zvartnots, now in ruins, are all marvels of art and engineering, each
alone worth the trip.
Three chapels, in Yeghvard, Kosh and Avan, have been ignored in
hundreds of pages of a catalog of Armenian architecture. In Kos I
unearthed fragments of inscriptions from the rubble among the graves
of the adjacent cemetery, and in Pemsazen I tripped over a large rock
in the meadow surrounding a church that, when cleared of grass,
revealed a somber bearded face carved in relief.
This world is quickly changing. The rebuilding programs of the
Armenian Apostolic church are extensive and, for some architectural
experts, overzealous. Throughout the country, fallen domes and
collapsed arches have been incorporated in restored churches. For the
Armenian church, ruined buildings are unused, but certainly not
unusable, and so long as there are people to worship in them, they
will be reborn as they once were.
Yet to focus only on ancient relics is to miss the most captivating
aspect of the Armenian church. During Sunday service in the restored
monastery of Saghmosavank, Armenian chant filled the church. Through
the heavy curtains separating antechamber from congregation the priest
could be seen, drenched in a single ray of sunlight from a window high
overhead which pierced the heavy incense to illuminate an intricate
red and gold cloak falling from his shoulders to the floor. The shroud
that separated the congregation from the divine was on that day the
thinnest of gossamer.
Armenia's worshippers come from every part of society. In Hripsime
church, a young man with a shaved head lit tapers next to an ancient
man and a young woman holding her baby on her hip. Through invasion
and occupation, the church has helped Armenians keep their identity,
and this unique relationship is revitalizing and encouraging to