Notes From Hairenik

I’m making this post a week too late but better than never I suppose. Along with four others I visited Haghpat and Akhtala monasteries located north of Alaverdi in the Lori region. Our goal was to donate an old laptop computer to Archimandrite Artak Tigranyan, who is a celibate priest and the Abbot of Haghpat. He was the staff bearer and thus the right-hand man of Catholicos Karekin I. Father Tigranyan is perhaps the only priest who I have taken seriously as being genuine and sincere. He is an excellent conversationalist as well as lecturer, as he was able to capture the attention of 40 visitors for a full hour sitting in the shade of an elm tree. Yet he did not once in his conversations dwell on the sublime magnitude of God. Instead he offered his opinions, which I agreed with, about religious practices, such as the Armenian sacrifice (“madagh” as it is called in Armenian), or the shedding of blood from a lamb or rooster, having really no significance with the Christian faith as it is wholly a pagan rite, despite the fact that it is often performed by a priest in honor or dedication to an personal event viewed as being miraculous by a family. He also emphasized the meaning of the church as a holy place which must be respected and understood, as Armenians raised during the Soviet era are generally clueless about Christianity. Last year Father Tigranyan was assigned to one of the most remote working churches in the entire country, so you can make your own determination about what the current Catholicos is thinking.

Haghpat was incidentally the home of troubadour Sayat Nova several hundred years ago when he himself served as a celibate priest there.

When Hamlet and I first met Father Tigranyan last fall there he expressed the need for a computer to write letters and use the Internet, as he is cut off from virtual intellectual stimuli for weeks at a time. Lucky for him, he has a car and can come to Yerevan whenever necessary, which I am guessing is not very often anyway. An obnoxious woman with an inflated ego offered some sort of gift to the church and to celebrate the occasion she also financed a barbeque lunch for the priest and the grounds’ caretakers. Father Tigranyan asked us to stay to share bread with everyone present, then an hour later we moved on to Akhtala.

Only last year did I learn of the existence of Akhtala monastery, another holy site perched high upon a secluded hill about a four kilometer drive from the main road. The architecture is unique standing apart from the other churches you can find anywhere in Armenia, with the characteristic, wide, round stone steeples. Akhtala is a stoic, grand church with two gigantic crosses embossed on the northern and southern sides. Apparently it was surrounded by high stone protective walls, which have for the most part crumbled save for the main gate. What we found inside were frescos pained everywhere, which were either completely intact or faded in areas that were damp, such as the corners. The paintings were fantastic, something that I have only seen in the monastery in Meghri, the architecture of which also bears resemblance to Akhtala. The church is locked with a chain and padlock since it is not functioning, but a few minutes after arriving some kids came by to open the doors.

The surrounding area is full of copper and mining continues there as it has for decades. One of the kids gave my wife a few pyrite stones that he found nearby, so the hills are chock full of minerals. There is a new initiative now to engage in exploratory mining nearby the church, which would cause severe ecological damage to the surroundings. The drive is led by Former Minister of Nature Protection Vardan Ayvazyan, who happens to own several gold mines but under the names of family members, and who is essentially a son of a bitch to put it bluntly. He was also willing to devastate Shikahogh forest in the southern part of Syunik two years ago in order to construct a new access road for truckers driving in tons of imports crap from Iran, and the timber would most definitely have been sold probably to European countries, the profits of which going into his pocket as well as that of the Minster of Transport. But that plan was scrapped after overwhelming outcry from Armenian NGOs and foreign organizations. There is more information as well as a petition that can be signed against the new initiative here.

Photos by Christian Garbis

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
I am Iranian, but I have always admired the ancient Christian traditions of the Caucasus, particulary those of Armenia and Georgia. Your churches are beautiful and so are your monasteries. I will be honest though, I would not be able to tell apart an Armenian church from a Georgian one, since both share a similar architecture, for example those cone-shaped domes, etc.
Western Christianity seems (Protestantism/Catholicism) so dry compared to that of the East, which has a rich Liturgy, history, and ancient monastic tradition.