Over the weekend I made my third pilgrimage to Meghri, the gorgeous Armenian town bordering Iran, this time with my adventure-seeking father-in-law Levon who has been itching to get out of Yerevan for several months. The last time he left was for his birthday party in Aghveran in late June. If he leaves the city once during the year he considers himself a fortunate man. It was his time on Saturday morning.
Anush’s first cousin Nairi came along to visit one of his army buddies who lived in Kapan, which is the fourth largest city in Armenia and is the administrative center of the Syunik region, with Meghri only an hour’s drive south. Both of them actually served in the Meghri/Agarak army base, so he knows the area well.
We followed the same path to Meghri that I traveled along last year with Sergey
. Since it is on the way, there was the obligatory stop at Zorats Karer, otherwise know as Karakhunge or the “Armenian Stonehenge,” arguably the most ancient site of civilization in the entire country of Armenia. Every time I visit there I behold new perspectives of the same rock formations. They never cease to fascinate.
By the following afternoon, the magnificent mountains of upper Syunik, on a small fraction of which you can surmise in this underexposed photo, were complete white with new, pristine snow. I would have stopped to take photos on the return journey but I was racing against the light and wanted to make it as far into Vayats Dzor as possible before sundown.
After what seemed to have been about 10 stops to eat, drink and relieve ourselves we made it to Meghri just after 6:00 pm. I made arrangements to stay at the Haer B&B run by Misha Azadyan and his wife Marietta. Their hospitality and accommodations were just as comfortable as they were a year ago -- great food, a very comfortable bed, invigorating shower -- nothing changed. The couple by far operates the best guesthouse I have ever stayed in anywhere in Armenia. I’ve never been made more at home than I have at their hearth.
For dinner, they fed us some wonderful cabbage dolma (a.k.a., sarma) with a few salads, yoghurt, delicious marinated red peppers, and excellent locally produced cheese. Then there was the homemade grape vodka, the honey color of which was produced by the inner membranes of walnuts that are dropped into the batch during the aging process. It was very smooth with a sweet, nutty finish, as would be expected. Levon, being a certified chatterbox, engaged Misha (a piano teacher by profession) in conversations that became increasingly unfocused with the more vodka we drank. Naturally, there were unlimited amounts of pomegranates, persimmons and quince from their orchard to devour for desert.
After we settled in, while the meal was being prepared, we decided to go for a walk around town -- it was just after 7:00 pm. That strange tropical Meghri air hit us, and it was slightly humid. There was a light breeze blowing, and I didn’t feel a chill whatsoever, having left my fleece jacket behind in the car. The temperature was perfect, it couldn’t have been less than 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit.
The weather rarely reaches below zero during the winter months in Meghri, and the appearance of snow is an extraordinary event. Strange as it may seem, there is still no natural gas in town for its inhabitants, despite the new Iranian-Armenian gas pipeline. You would think that in the process a gas line would have been provided for them and the residents of Agarak, which is a bigger town and is virtually on the border. No such logic applies. Instead, residents rely on burning wood or turning on inefficient electric heaters to keep warm. For cooking, they use gas-filled tanks.
|Misha, left, and Levon|
Despite that the temperature did indeed drop to about 40-45 degrees, Levon insisted that he sleep on a metal bed perched on the patio, which serves as a futon (shown above). Misha told me that Levon was the second guest who requested to sleep outside. The first was someone traveling with an American delegation last year. “He was pleading with me to let him sleep here,” he told me. “What am I supposed to say to someone pleading?” He couldn’t refuse Levon, either. In the morning he congratulated Levon with a hot cup of coffee set beside him as soon as he was about to rise.
The next morning we roamed through Old Meghri, which is on the other side of the Meghri River and the highway, which run parallel to one another. We made our way to the church at the top of the community there, following a path that cut in between the back yards and driveways of the small, odd-shaped brick homes. Virtually all the buildings there are centuries old located below the church, which is perched above them all.
Which brings me to the church. I have been told conflicting stories about this sacred site since my first visit in 2005. Back then, I understood that it was a Catholic church for some reason. I can’t remember if I interpreted it to be because of the basilica architectural design or whether the information given to me was incorrect. I was also told that it was 300 years old. Both are falsehoods.
St. John the Baptist Church, which I erroneously named St. Astvatsatsin in my last year’s post and have since corrected, is indeed Armenian Apostolic. The church is commonly misidentified today as St. Sarkis Church, its history having been allegedly rewritten by Soviet-era historians. Even a new information sign at the base of the path leading to the church inaccurately refers to it as St. Sarkis.
Meghri’s St. John the Baptist Church dates from the 6th century according to the records kept at the Holy See of Ejmiadzin, and it was built in the style of a basilica; therefore, it does not resemble the design that is more commonly associated with the architectural scheme of Armenian churches, with the high central dome, cross-shaped apse and so forth. As I have documented before on this blog, the entire walls and ceiling of the church’s interior are covered in frescoes, which were painted in the first half of the 17th century by the Hovnantyans. The frescoes depict the entire story of the Holy Bible, and they are in superb condition, despite having been painted over by the fanatic, atheist Bolsheviks just after they took power.
From 1989 to 1991 the frescoes were painstakingly restored after it was discovered that the paint – which from what I understand had some kind of clay-like base -- could be removed with minimal damage. The community basically repossessed the church (it had essentially become a barn) as the Soviet Union was beginning to crumble and set out to work bringing it back into shape, with the blessing (not the financial support) of Holy Ejmiadzin. The restoration efforts were funded by Armenian donors living in Russia. Even the KGB, or what was left of it, gave its sign of approval.
St. John the Baptist Church has been visited by the Catholicos of All Armenians twice in the last two decades -- once by Vasken I in the early 1990s, after the restoration was completed and another time by the current spiritual leader, Karekin II. Services are usually held every Sunday, unless the priest is called away to perform a marriage ceremony or a Christening at another church close by. Unfortunately for me, I have not been present for a service there, and before Sunday’s meeting with the courteous caretaker Lucine Zarkarian -- whose husband Habet Khachikian essentially commanded the restoration efforts -- I had no idea they were even given regularly. Khachikian follows a long tradition of artists. Their house, which is overwhelmed with artwork, is located directly below the church compound’s retaining wall.
Another interesting tidbit of information is that there was a drop-out floor in the middle of the church’s interior revealing a secret passage that led to the Meghri River at the bottom of the hill. It wasn’t discovered until the restoration efforts were underway. The entrance to the passage was sealed off when they realized that part of it had collapsed over time.
We returned by traveling the route through the Shikahogh Forest, which is perhaps the most scenic road I have traveled in Armenia. At the top of the mountain range we had to cross, less than an inch of snow was already on the ground, which made for some slightly slippery driving conditions. But that disappeared the further down we drove. It should go without saying that the Shikahogh landscape is remarkable in autumn.
I told Levon as we were returning to Yerevan that I need to leave the city as often as possible so I can remember what Armenia is really all about. He sat beside me speechless, smoking and staring into the snow-covered forested slopes.
Photos © Christian Garbis
Labels: Armenian Churches, Food and Drink, Nature, Personal Experiences, Photography