Thank God for Davit, our 25-year-old driver, whom we met two days ago, who has become a friend to us. He confessed that he has never driven tourists outside Yerevan, so he warned us that he will not be able to tell us much historical details as a tour guide would. My response to him was, “No, worries, Davit. I am not looking for more information to absorb, I just want to see and be in the sacred places of my heritage and let them speak to me in their silence. My mind is full already, and this sabbatical is the time to just be open to the Presence. I just want to BE, SEE, EMPTY what needs to let go and FILL-UP with Peace, Wholeness, and Newness by visiting these ancient grounds… Do NOT worry, we are NOT looking for data to fill up our minds”. This is becoming a training session for him, and an experience of discovery for us, for me.
One important thing in Armenia, which is quite like Lebanon, but without the hustle and bustle, the humidity, and the hurry, is that Armenia’s rural roads are easy to get lost in. The highways have signs for villages to exit for, however, after the exit, one must know which way to go – signs are rare. So, this morning, we did get lost on farm roads that have no infrastructure. An experience of potholes and real farm life welcomed us. As we got lost, we were greeted by Armenian farmers smiling at us while picking fruits from low hanging tree branches; others gathering hay with ancient farming machinery; and others wondering what we are doing on these narrow streets of their village – I do not think we can call them streets at all – they are definitely the road less traveled by tourists. When we got out of these narrow pot-holed roads, Davit wanted to confirm if we were going in the right direction, so he slowed down, even more, to inquire with an elderly man walking with a young girl. He said, “Mrs. Takouhi, look there is a grandfather taking his granddaughter home from school”. As we got closer, the elderly man approached our car happily. Davit warned me, “He looks pretty drunk”. I replied, “At Noon?” he laughed. By this time, the man approached us and said by slurring his words, “You are looking for Saint Gevork Monastery, Aren’t You?” Davit replied, “Yes we are babig (grandpa)” – the stranger replied, “Of course you are, no one comes here unless they are lost” – even in his drunkenness he spoke the truth. As he was speaking, he leaned forward through the window on my side and the alcohol smell was present indeed. Davit asked again if we were on the right track and he confirmed by pointing to us a cross ahead of us that was vaguely visible through the trees and homes – he said, “There is the top of the church, just follow the cross and as you get closer it will lead you to your destination” – He was right!
Mughni, is a small, quiet village with a big heart. At the Saint Gevork Monastery, which was built to house some of the remains of Saint George who was known as the “Slayer of Dragons”, we were greeted by two groundskeepers – a man and a woman. The woman shared with us that they have no water for a day or two and she is worried about the garden. “The flowers will die soon,” she said, “and these grounds will look very sad”. The man, on the other hand, showed me the Khachkar (The Armenian Cross that is carved in a rock) that has traveled around the world, displayed in different museums and now resting on this monastery’s grounds. One can sense his pride and joy of having this world traveled cross being displayed in their village, in their church.
After visiting the interiors of the buildings and walking the beautiful grounds filled with simple, yet majestic, arches, doors, and domes, I saw a group of students who were listening to a historical presentation about this church. The presentation was by three students from the group. There were about 10-15 students with three teachers. I listened to them from afar and I got a little more info than I bargained for, and Davit’s worry about not having much historical information about this church was put to rest. After purchasing a few souvenirs from the church gift shop, it was time to get back on the road to go to our next destination. Suddenly, Davit showed up with a warm, freshly made “Ketah” a famous Armenian cookie/cake. The bakery was across the street from the church. Gary was not with us today, as his stomach was not in good shape and he just needed to rest. I wanted to stay with Gary, but he insisted that I do the tours as planned because we were only in Armenia for seven days.
We headed to our next stop for today, Saghmosavank, which translates to “monastery of the Psalms”, a 13th-century Armenian monastic complex located in the village of Saghmosavan. It is situated atop the precipitous gorge carved by the Kasagh river. As one person told me afterward, “This is the Grand Canyon of Armenia” and they are right. I had seen this beautiful spot from the plane and the valley was filled with clouds. Today there were no clouds in the valley and one can see the depth of this opening – it is not for the faint of heart.
Within the beautiful sanctuary, the sun was penetrating the cold stones and the candles were burning with the prayers of the faithful who have placed them there, the Presence was there, and the Peace was embracing me and all who enter this place, once again. The man who was running the gift shop encouraged me to go through the little door on the right-hand side of the altar to see the 4th Century Sanctuary – the original. I am glad I did. The place looked like a cave, as you had to bow your head to fit through the small door, yet full of Peace, Presence, and Wholeness. After a few minutes, I came back out to the main sanctuary to leave the place and the students that I had met at the previous monastery arrived here. I asked the teachers if I may tag along and listen to the presentation. They were thrilled to have a new audience member. I found out that these are 5th-9th graders, and this was part of their school curriculum – to learn about the churches by visiting them and having groups of 3 students do a presentation for each church they visit.
I pondered to myself, what a world of difference between Armenia and North America, where prayer and church has been replaced by hockey, soccer, swimming, martial arts, beauty contests, and many other activities for youth. In Armenia, maybe more in rural Armenia, not only they teach the history of these churches in schools, they bring the students to the sanctuaries where the students have no choice but to sense that tranquility of the place and experience the sacred spaces. I wondered if the North American world is so engulfed by consumerism, capitalism, and competitiveness that this also affects our school curriculums – I wonder!
We left this sacred space and went to Arapan, the town where an Armenian Alphabet Park was created. Each letter of the Armenian Alphabet is larger than life statue, which calls you out to be lost in a language, which has no swear or vulgar words at all (I am not making this up). What a beautiful place to visit on a beautiful sunny day. Besides the letter statues there were statues of Armenian historical figures, such as St. Gregory the Illuminator, who introduced Armenia to the One God and helped the fire-worshiping nation become Christian, which also helped Armenia to become the very first nation to proclaim Christianity, before Constantine. There were also other statues but most importantly, in this alphabet park, was the statue of Mesrop Mashtots, who was a priest, who is best known for inventing the Armenian Alphabet c. 405 AD. This park is truly an open-air museum and on top of the hill stands a 3-D cross which is the highest cross situated in Armenia. Every Holy Week, a pilgrimage takes place to this cross.
After this stop, Davit wanted to take me to Oshakan, but he was not sure how to get there, but he said, let me first take you to a winery that is being built/renovated and you will see how Armenia is being born again with the “new wine” of celebration. So, he asked around and we made our way to the winery, but when we were almost at the winery, he realized that the place we wanted to go, Oshakan was to the left of the highway and the winery was to the right. Yes, the construction is ongoing at the winery, but one can see the future castle-like building shaping up. The Winery is called, “Voske-vaz” which literally translates to “Gold-Run”. A great place to see and imagine what it will look like at the end of this construction work.
After confirming the direction to our last stop, we headed to Oshakan, which is best known for the Saint Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral which is the burial place of Saint Mesrop Mashtots, the priest who gifted the Armenian Nation with the alphabet. Once again, there were Armenian Alphabet statues in the backyard of the church with Saint Mesrop Mashtots’ statue in the center of the alphabets – they were not as large as the alphabet park we had visited earlier, but they were still a spectacular work to witness.
I entered the sanctuary and clicked the camera non-stop. One icon stopped me in my tracks and I got emotional and tears rolled down my cheeks instantaneously. No, it was not just the beauty of the sanctuary and the Presence that embraces you with Love, it was this icon/painting that stopped me in my tracks and took me back to my childhood where my Armenian History lessons and my family tree became alive in my mind and my heart moved more than I expected. Suddenly, I said to myself, “Yes, my father was named after this Armenian King Vramchabouh, in the icon, how can I forget the connection of Vramchabouh with Mesrop?” The three images of the icon were, Sourp (Saint) Sahag – the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church at that time; Sourp Mesrop (the priest who founded the Armenian Alphabets) and Vramchabouh (The King of Armenia) – the one my father was named after. A Moment never to forget. An experience that no tourist guide would have offered to me – in the silence of my mind, my heart spoke unexpected wonders of my own life, roots, and heritage. Connecting me to my father who has left this earth on December 13, 1984m but yet at this moment, he was present right here, right now.
On my way out, I stopped at the little gift shop table, which was situated by the main door of the sanctuary, and I purchased a few pieces. The lady, named Kohar, which translates to “Jewel” in English, was minding the gift shop and helped me purchase a few pieces. I had decided to purchase a few souvenirs at each church we visit, to help them with the upkeep of the buildings, as there are no entrance fees to experience these simple yet sacred spaces. I contained myself and I told Kohar that my father’s name was Vramchabouh and I am so glad that I came to this church to visit today. Her reply to me was, “Now I understand why you got emotional in front of that icon”. She was about 30 feet away from me and the icon, but she still sensed my emotions – What a testimony to the fact that we are all connected and sense each others’ emotions if we are attentive to the moment, we are found in.
What an emotional roller coaster ride September 27, 2018 has been, however it has been so worthwhile. Leaving Gary behind at the bed and breakfast was not easy, but I knew that God was with him and there was not much I can do by just staying with him – and he insisted that I go. Walking the grounds, we discovered new paths by getting lost and found our way by looking up to the distant cross to which the drunk grandfather pointed for us to follow. The different monasteries taught me that no matter how ancient our faith might be, there is always renewal, rejuvenation, and revitalization to those who take the time to BE. I saw many entry doors ornate in different designs, each appropriate for their own historical facts. Many people, young and old, were entering them in search of history and yet finding a reality of Peace that surpasses all understanding. This has been a day of Losing, Finding, Alphabets, History and Education; but most of all it has been a day to see many Khachkars, that are preserved in their original glory, traveled the world and made their way home; and yet many others that are broken, and cracked, in their brokenness they still represent wholeness of life and the message becomes clear – The God of the Past is the God of the Present and the Future and the Good News of Jesus Christ never dies – Life is possible even if our loved ones have departed from this physical world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Signing off…Thursday, September 27, 9:30 p.m. – Five-Dove Bed & Breakfast Davitashen, Armenia