Georgia and Armenia: a spiritual journey
By Peter Hughes
7 Feb 2014
For the people who live there, the upheavals in the Middle East have been disastrous. But for travellers they have also placed many of the region’s great archaeological sites out of bounds, leaving big blanks in the atlas of cultural tours.
Yet one site’s quarantine is another’s discovery, and holidaymakers in need of their annual history fix are casting around for new lands and new epochs for their edification. It was in that prospecting spirit that I went to Transcaucasia and the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Georgia. They were two countries that hitherto had not loomed large on my list of places to go. I was wrong.
There are 300yd of no man’s land at the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo border crossing. A no man’s bridge spans a no man’s river and carries a trickle of fleetingly stateless trucks – no man’s transport.
Two of us were on foot. An old lady dressed in black shuffled into Armenia. I was trundling my suitcase in the opposite direction, north into Georgia. Paradoxically, few places could be more distinctive than the countries we were swapping. Or different.
photo of the 7th Century Odzun Church in Debed Canyon
I had been driven to the border through the bosky gorge of the River Debed, whose steep sides were deep enough to be in shadow in the middle of the day. The river teased the road, appearing first on one side and then the other. But the road itself was so badly potholed that drivers wove between craters. Then suddenly we were confronted by an abandoned factory. In such a sylvan scene it came as a shock.
I had come to expect dilapidation in Armenia’s towns, whose edges were frayed in dereliction. Once-vigorous state-owned factories now looked like scrapyards. Clapped-out vehicles were littered around buildings of blackened concrete .
Yerevan, the capital, was the same. It’s a grey, utilitarian city, except for Republic Square, formerly Lenin Square. More oval than square, it’s ringed by ceremonious neoclassical buildings faced in tufa stone, pink and mottled like mortadella sausage. Among them is the History Museum of Armenia.
According to my guides, the triumphs in Armenia’s history owed as much to low cunning as to high command. In 1918 they duped the Turks about the size of their army, and in the Seventies they conned the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev into sanctioning the Yerevan metro. Under Moscow’s diktat, cities had to have a population of a million to qualify for an underground. Yerevan was half that size, but the Armenians contrived a big traffic jam to persuade the old goat otherwise.
In the History Museum another guide launched into what was to become a familiar chorus. Standing beside a map of “historical Armenia”, she pointed to the lands the nation had lost, first to the Ottomans and Persians and then to Russia. “This country is one tenth the size it used to be,” she said resignedly, before moving to a Bronze Age leather shoe, the world’s oldest.
More significant was a fifth-century Bible, whose illuminated pages shone as fresh as wet paint. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. That was in 301, almost within touching distance of the crucifixion.
To this day the true glories of Armenia are spiritual. I visited 10 monasteries and churches in three days, the earliest dating from the fourth century. The newest was the least typical, not least because it had seats. In the Orthodox Church worshippers normally stand. Yerevan’s cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator also has more windows than older churches. Consecrated in 2001 to celebrate 1,700 years of Christianity, it feels more auditorium than cathedral. Relics of St Gregory, who converted the country, are kept beneath an imported Baroque panoply.
We drove south from Yerevan through a valley of scruffy agriculture; a shepherd chivvied his sheep down the road; watchtowers staked out the frontier with Turkey. At the monastery of Khor Virap there should have been a view of Mount Ararat across the border, but it was cloaked in cloud.
The site’s attraction now is the rock pit, down a 27-step ladder, where St Gregory was imprisoned for 13 years in 288. Outside, boys were taking money to release doves, aka homing pigeons. Another Armenian ruse.
West of the capital, at Echmiadzin, Mass was being sung in the cathedral. Nine priests, two in black hoods, glided before the high altar to a mystical choreography. Their gutsy plainsong swirled around the domes. A woman approached me and spoke in Armenian. Apparently I was being ticked off for crossing my hands behind my back.
Echmiadzin has been at the heart of Armenia’s religion since the fourth century. In elaborate silver-gilt cases in the cathedral museum, there are claimed to be not only splinters from Noah’s Ark and the True Cross but the heavy iron head of the spear that stabbed Christ at Calvary.
The thrill of Armenia’s churches comes not so much from their ancient masonry or antiquities but from their energy as fervent power plants, steeped in the certainties and rituals of the faith they have kept for more than 1,000 years. At Geghard monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site, two churches have been cut into rock. A monk billowed in, enveloped in a cloud of incense and irritation. He swung his rattling censer with the urgency of one fumigating the place against a dangerous outbreak of doubt.
This article continues into Georgia, the rest is about Georgia: