Friday, September 28, we had an unexpected schedule change suggestion by Davit, our driver. Our original plan was to go visit the town of Etchmiadzin, an area close to Yerevan, given the fact we needed to come back for an evening event at the Opera House. You see, after we had booked our flight to Armenia, we found out that the Armenian Missionary Association of America was celebrating their Centennial in Armenia the same week we would be here; so, this was one of the events we had been offered to attend and we gladly accepted it. Davit suggested that we can visit Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery instead and promised that we will be able to get back “home” on time to get ready for our evening commitment.
Our sightseeing began at Garni Temple, which is the only standing Greco-Roman colonnaded building in Armenia. It is the only iconic building structure, I believe, that still stands from the days of pre-Christian Armenia. Like no other place we have visited, this place was full of tourists, German, Japanese, Russian, and many more – I was astounded to hear all these different languages around us. The huge tour buses were parked on the narrow street that leads to the entry gate of Garni Temple, and Davit’s small Nissan was barely able to go through, but he did it. Unlike any other place, we had to pay an entrance fee here, that was nominal ($1,000 Dram, which is equivalent to $2.00 U.S.).
From the very first moment of entry a visitor can see the remnants of Greco-Roman stones and Armenian crosses etched on rocks (Khachkar), whole or broken pieces that represent a mixed religious depiction of the life of Armenia past and present. These stones were placed at the edge of the walkways as if they were trying to tell a story without words. The grounds are well manicured and colourful flowers and wild plants make this place vibrant and inviting. Gary and I did not attempt to climb the steps to the ancient temple, as they are steep – we did not want to risk any knee injuries with all the walking one must do visiting Armenia. As I was contemplating on the vastness of this temple and the surroundings, Davit brought to my attention that there is a river down below us in the gorge, and the water comes from a small spring within the heart of the Geghard Monastery, which was next on our agenda.
After we got out of the gates of Garni Temple, a woman behind a kiosk got my attention. I went to purchase a few items from her and found out that all the items she was selling, such as table runners, necklaces and art work, were all made by local women. She shared with me how she is helping women establish businesses and become entrepreneurs by sharing their beautiful art work with the world.
It is interesting how we get attracted to things that are dear to our hearts, without any physical signs around us – something called me to that kiosk. Her passion to help women touched my heart so much, that I asked her name, so that I do not forget her. I also shared with her that I am the very first Armenian woman ordained minister within the United Church of Canada (possibly all of Canada), and I was so glad to meet her. With congratulations and encouraging words for the work she is doing, as I was about to leave, she asked if she can give me a hug, as she felt empowered by this meet and greet. Her name is – Anahid. This meeting truly confirmed how our stories make a difference more than we imagine and gives us the power to go on no matter what obstacles we face – God’s Grace is sufficient for all of us, even if the world stands up against us.
We continued our touristic excursions and went on to Geghard Monastery, which is one of the places I always wanted to visit. The story goes that a young brother and sister built the original church as a cave in this mountain in the 4th Century, and later a whole monastery complex was built because of these two young individuals. Talk about commitment, courage and dedication to this “new” religion that Armenia was introduced to – Christianity.
There are so many towering cliffs around Geghard and the climb to the complex is steep but at the foot of the Monastery, at the parking lot, there are many vendors selling, Armenian Keteh (Cake), dried fruits and many different types of carved woods – as if these vendors are holding the mountain in place. Gary decided to find a seat under a tree and wait for us, as Davit and I walked up on the cobblestone walk way and climbed the hike to the entrance of the monastery complex. Davit made sure that we go find that water springing from the rock which forms the river at the gorge of Garni Temple and fill our empty water bottles, just like many visitors were doing. What a sight! It is a small, yet constant spring of water from the rock and on a hot summer day it is refreshing and rejuvenating. One would not imagine how this little spring turns into a brook, then makes its way down to the valley as a river and gives life wherever it passes through. Isn’t that our life’s mission? Just like the late Mother Theresa has said, “Do small things with Great Love”. I heard people say to one another, “This water has healing power”. Living Water at its best!
While we were there, we witnessed the end of a wedding ceremony, the beginning of another one and the arrival of a big family for a baptism at the parking lot, below. Our driver told us that weddings and baptisms are many at this special church – one must book almost two years in advance. Gary and I are still wondering how these women walked up and down that cobblestone walk with their high heels.
After this meaningful and beautiful sightseeing, we wanted to have some lunch, so we went back to Garni Temple, because there is a restaurant right next to it outside the gates, that allows patrons to enjoy good food along with the scenery of the temple and the surroundings right from the table. After we finished our satisfying meal, we asked one of the ladies, who bakes all the lavash bread for the restaurant in the courtyard, to show us the process – she did it gladly. We had a huge, warm, delicious, paper-thin fresh bread to eat afterwards – talk about excess – thank God I was putting in 10-15,000 steps a day on my step counter. All this fresh food is dangerous to pack on without walking so many steps.
Davit was right, we arrived home with enough time to get ready and go to my cousin’s house to go to the Opera House. What a joy it was to see my cousin and her beautiful family. Time was short but having her and her husband join us to the AMAA Centennial Event was a gift.
There were Armenian Evangelical leaders from all over the world at this event. The program was a total surprise to me, as it was a beautiful ballet presentation from the beginning of time of creation from Genesis, through to the Armenian Genocide and the most recent independence of this small but courageous nation, intermittent with videos of the work of the AMAA in the world, and offering gratitude to God. It was a gift to have this evening with my cousin and her husband and ended up becoming a quasi double date. After the event we walked to Derian Restaurant, where my cousin treated us to an excellent Syrian-Armenian dinner.
Saturday, September 29, our plan was to go to the town of Etchmiadzin, where the Cathedral of the Catholicos of All the Armenians is found, along with Khor Virap, which literally translates to “deep dungeon”. The complex grounds of Etchmiadzin Cathedral was beautiful, even though the main church sanctuary was under construction, but that did not interfere with the beauty and character of each building. As much as this is the “head” of the Armenian Apostolic Church, I’d rather go visit the little churches that I had seen in the villages – something about those churches in the “wilderness” became more of a minimal place for me, personally, than these hierarchical, patriarchal displays. Outside on the sidewalk, a dead tree was turned into a beautiful art work. We spent enough time looking at it closely that we realized it is the story of The Fall from Genesis. When we take the time to look at things closely we do see between the lines.
On our way to Khor Virap, Davit suggested that we stop at Sourp (Saint) Heripsime church, as it was on our way. At first, I was not too keen about it, because of time restrictions. I was to be back at the B & B to meet a group of ladies who meet twice a week for a time of encouragement and strength in the name of Jesus. Davit promised that we will make it back on time. At the end of the day, stopping at this small church was only fitting. First, Heripsime was my paternal aunt’s name, whom I have never met. She had died of some medical complication before I was born. Second, historically Heripsime is the name of the young woman who became a martyr for Christianity, and the reason why Armenia became the very first nation to have declared Christianity. She was a follower of Christ and refused to marry King Dertad the Third; so, the King had her killed and threw her Christian leader, Saint Gregory the Illuminator down in the Deep Dungeon (Khor Virap), where we were headed. After her death the king became a werewolf of sort and the only thing that saved him and brought him back to sanity was by bringing Saint Gregory from the dungeon, after 13 years, which was revealed to the king’s sister in a dream and the king adhered to this. Saint Gregory ended up becoming the king’s religious mentor, and Armenia became the first country in the world to be declared a Christian Nation.
What a story to be reminded of, the very next day after the AMAA event, where I was wearing a clerical shirt and one lay person came to me and said, “I am so glad you are here, and you are wearing your clerical shirt. Let these church leaders be reminded that women can also serve God in this capacity”. Here we were, being reminded of one woman and after another who had changed the entire course of a nation.
After we visited the church of Saint Heripsime, we continued to Khor Virap. This is not only the place where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was thrown in the pit of darkness, but it is also a place where Mount Ararat can be clearly seen on a sunny day – Today was a Sunny Day! We were about 8-10 kilometers from the border of Turkey. One side of Mount Ararat is facing Armenia and the other is Turkey.
Here was another hike to the top of the hill with rugged steps to get to the monastery complex, not only to visit the churches, but also to see Mount Ararat and enter the building where the dark dungeon is located. Once again, we let Gary sit under a tree’s shade and wait for us, like a shepherd waiting for our return. Many people were going down to the dungeon, but I did not attempt it, as I saw people half my size having a hard time to get out of that little opening… I thought to myself, I have seen enough dark days during the war in Lebanon, I did not need to go into a dungeon to experience such darkness again.
As much as Davit told us on our first day touring together that he has never driven people outside Yerevan for touristic sightseeing, yesterday and today it felt like our days were planned with such precision and meticulousness that I am awe struck – starting at Garni Temple, a place that stands with remnants of a pre-Christian Armenia, to today’s Saint Heripsime’s church and Khor Virap, the two who led Armenia to Christianity. The work of the women of the past and the women of today, like Anahid, the business owner at the gates of Garni Temple, and the women I met at the B & B this afternoon, were only a glimpse on how God works through everyone.
Beloved, truly, I tell you, every single day I am amazed when I see the big picture that comes together beyond my own imagination or doing. I think the lesson I keep on being reminded of is that when we do our best, God will take care of the rest. At the end of the day, this life is NOT about us, it is about God calling us, equipping us and LIVING in us and through us. May this be evident to you always. Amen.
Signing off… Saturday, September 29, 2018, 10:40 p.m. – Five-Dove Bed & Breakfast Davitashen, Armenia