Mystical Armenia
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|September/October 2021
A meeting place of ancient empires, the South Caucasus country was the world’s first to officially adopt Christianity in AD301. George Kipouros explores its spiritual landmarks
George Kipouros
“You’re actually standing on the 1,000-year-old tombstone of an Armenian royal,” smiled Sira, my all-knowing Armenian history guide. Was I so careless not to see it? Looking down I realised the entire floor of the narthex was actually made up of tombstones – yet I was inside the Katoghike Church of Sanahin Monastery. “You don’t need to worry – that is exactly how they’d like it. They wanted to beburied here so people would step on them when coming to church,” reassured Sira.

This was a metaphorical way for future generations of Armenians to remember their ancestors’ lives and achievements. It is part of the uniqueness of Armenian churches, which are frequently credited as forming the first national style in Christian architecture, dating back to the fourth century AD.

Sanahin Monastery was my first stop on a journey up and down the country, exploring a little-visited nation still bound together by ecclesiastical tradition and symbolism. I was to discover that even for the ultra-modern Yerevanian youth, Armenian identity was closely informed by the heritage of their church. Armenians call their country Hayastan after the legendary patriarch Hayk, a great-great-grandson of Noah, who defeated the Babylonian king Bel in 2492BC and established his nation in the Ararat region.

Less than a 20-minute bumpy drive from Sanahin was Haghpat, the other UNESCO World Heritage monastic site in the Lori region. Haghpat was cool, dark and solemn, without any iconography but dotted with the ubiquitous khachkars, the uniquely Armenian cross-stones with intricate engravings. I would see khachkars everywhere; not just in monasteries and ancient cemeteries but as a lasting symbol of identity that continues to be revered by Armenians worldwide. “Khachkars are erected in honour of victory, national holidays or martyrs,” explained Sira, while showing me the many ornate designs that are used.

Geghard Monastery, an hour from downtown Yerevan, has what is probably the finest example of an ancient khachkar, carved in 1213 by masters Timot and Mkhitar. Yet it was the awe-inspiring location that stole the show for me at Geghard: the monastery is surrounded by towering cliffs at the entrance of the Azat Valley.

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