27 September 2018
Our first excursion is to Geghard (UNESCO), another monastery. Today promises to be different. I hope so as I may be getting a little jaded about climbing to monasteries. So far I have visited about 1-2 a day for two weeks.
It is said Gregory the Illuminator founded the Geghard Monastery at the site of a sacred spring during the 4th century. Nothing remains of this original structure. What church that does exist was built in 1215 by generals of Queen Tamar of Georgia who pushed out the Turks from this region. A series of chapels were hewn from the rock in the mid-13th century and the complex later expanded to include more chapels, vestry, several caves, large chambers and tombs. It indeed is a special and impressive site carved into and out of the mountain.
Geghard, meaning “Spear,” is a large complex with only a small clerical presence. The ubiquitous bee hives line the upper gardens, each box a colorful bright yellow, blue, or orange, like the colors of the national flag of Armenia. However, since Armenians do not grow oranges but a plethora of apricots, they usually refer to the color as apricot.
Both exterior and interiors of the central church have wonderful ornamentations of bas-reliefs, inscribed and carved khachkars, and rock-carved crosses throughout. Many skillfully carved khachkars are cut directly into the rock surfaces and decorate chamber walls.
The portal to the cave church of St. Astvatsatsin is especially noteworthy with its intricate floral carvings and carved fowl over the arches. The finely carved cupola supported by four massive pillars and arches and the church ceiling are exceptional. Armenians built with large blocks of stone and entering the central apse of the Church, one is made small by the enormous size and height of the arches and dome. There is no feeling of delicate or fragile. These walls were built to last. And built to support the very large and heavy iron chandelier hanging from the dome.
In the chamber of tombs, the open dome lets in light. The room is hewn from the rock and is basically unadorned. A small group harmonized within the chamber to demonstrate the acoustics. This is just one of many chambers open for exploring. One large chamber is where the sacred spring still flows. Pilgrims come great distances to contemplate and drink the water.
As with all the monasteries I have visited, the locations are picturesque. Geghard’s position at the base of rugged ochre and red cliffs, surrounding mountain peaks, and above the Azat River Gorge offers a beauty and solitude to any who spend time here.
Garni was a surprise. And different.
We drove just 6 miles southwest towards the small village of Garni to marvel at the unexpected site of a magnificent Roman Temple. Garni has an ancient history dating back to the 8th century BC. Fortifications were built around the 3rd century BC and the temple became a royal summer residence until, around the 1st century BC, the Armenian king was cowardly assassinated by his son-in-law and evil nephew. The fortress was sacked in 1386 by Tamerlane. An earthquake finished the destruction in 1679.
Fortunately, the classical Temple of the Sun was expertly reconstructed in 1975 using its original stones for the most part. It remains the only Greco-Roman columned building in Armenia and represents a symbol of the pre-Christian/pagan era of Armenia. The temple is classical Greek in architecture, supported by 24 Ionic columns 21.5’ in height. It is a covered temple with triangular pediments richly decorated with floral sculptures and geometric designs. The frieze is sculpted with a continuous line of the acanthus plant. The side cornices have added lion heads along its length. The temple can also be found on the 5000 Armenian Dram bank note, equivalent to about $10 US, and good for about 6 beers in Armenia!
Also being excavated and only partly restored are the Roman baths. The complex involves a fire pit and four rooms in which bathers could have privacy and sweat their cares away. There is also a partly restored mosaic (original in the Museum of History). There are also ruins of a 4th-century single-aisle church and of several shrines about the complex. Excavations continue to discover artifacts, many of which are held in the Museum of History in Yerevan.
Garni is a fortress complex with only fortified walls on one side. That is because of, once again, location, location, location. The temple overlooks the ruggedly beautiful Garni Gorge and the Azat and Goght rivers far below. Invaders would have a tough climb to attack the complex from below. There is sparse cover and any army could be seen for miles. The Gegham Mountains tower in the background.
Armenian dining and spirits – both liquid and historical
At our restaurant in Garni, we watch two ladies expertly make the Armenian flatbread called Lavash. One lady rolls out the unleavened dough and throws it to the other. Treated like a giant pizza crust, it is made very thin and then spread out onto an oblong pillow of straw and harshly slapped into an underground clay oven called a tandoor. The bread sticks to the side of the oven and cooks in seconds. The baker uses a hook to retrieve the bread ready for eating. (Thankfully, the women do not sit on the floor for hours; they sit with their legs in a pit beneath them.) The bread can be soft or with time dry to crispy. A little water will soften the bread once again. Used for wraps of cheese and greens, and served with every meal, the Lavash is excellent.
The food in Armenia is very tasty and well prepared. Our table begins with an assortment of appetizers, including cheeses; four or more dishes using vegetables and walnuts; always tomatoes and cucumbers; and a variety of breads. The main course will include a meat or fish which is roasted or grilled and usually potatoes. Dessert follows and it can be ice cream, cakes, or a huge plate of fruit fit for Bacchus. One will never go away hungry!
After this marvelous lunch, we were also treated with a glass of local “fire water” called Chacha. Chacha is a Georgian/Armenian “brandy,” a clear and very strong alcoholic spirit ranging between 40% alcohol for commercially produce to 65% for home brew. It is widely distilled from home-grown garden fruits including apricots, pears, mulberries, tangerines, tarragon, or grape residue left after making wine, sort of a “waste not want not” drink. One might think of it as vodka on steroids. One could compare it to raki from Turkey, Oghee from Nagorno-Karabakh, or Greece’s ouzo. Armenians would describe is as a traditional breakfast starter.
Chacha was once only distilled as home brew using the best fruits available, which are plentiful! Today, it is produced by professional distillers and most wineries. You can chacha about anywhere.
Chacha is described as a “strong alcoholic beverage with rich aroma and unique smooth taste.” I will call it moonshine. Many claim chacha has medicinal properties and a dose is suggested as a remedy for a number of ailments, including ear blockages, indigestion, and stomach aches by applying it to the abdomen. It is also said to cure acne by applying to the face.
Chacha did not cure my bee sting, though I drank it rather than applied it to the wound. But the bee was probably happier.
Departing lunch fully sated and “spirited,” we will spend the next hour and more desperately trying to absorb the information and artifacts of Yerevan’s Museum of History. We are led through many displays of weapons, pottery, jewelry, coins, history and archeology. The museum chronicles the ancient finds around Armenia, including that “oldest shoe in the world” found in the cave near Khndzoresk. The cow-hide shoe dates back to before 3,500 BC and was made of a single piece of leather shaped to fit the wearer’s foot. It contained grass for cushion, humidity or because that is how the size 7, probably female, wanted to safeguard her shoes.
Over my beer tonight, overlooking busy Republic Square, I will contemplate the oldest shoe in the world. Who wore it? Where did she trod? What amazing sites did she visit in the Caucasus? Did she chacha?