Van – Armenian Stronghold

Aghtamar - St. Khatch On an unusually clear day, with the province of Vasbouragan as our destination, we left the Ararat Plain. Images of Mt. Ararat, the Armenian national symbol affectionately known as Massis, lingered with us as we journeyed towards Van.

We arrived in the city of Van in late afternoon. Crossing the narrow street in front of the hotel, two of us walked into a small store, which had room for no more than five or six customers. There were pistachios, dried fruit, cigarettes, and fruit juice. After the usual confusion over prices, we settled on cranberry and apricot juice. Our thirst now quenched, we pondered whether to shop for rugs or go to Varak Monastery. My decision was easy: I wanted to go see Varak, where Khrimian Hayrig had lived and taught near the turn of the century.

The winding road to the monastery was little more than a path. Since the bus was unable to navigate the narrow road, we took a van, which easily reached its mountain destination. We were met by local Kurdish villagers whose homes were in the area immediately surrounding the vank.

Khrimian Hayrig had come here to awaken the silent Varakavank. Now, most of the several church buildings had only walls remaining; an exquisite khatchkar and other ornate carvings decorated the walls of the 17th century monastery. After a brief struggle, we climbed a collapsing wall to part of a roof, where one could view the inside of the churches and the surrounding village houses.

After climbing down, young and old of this small Kurdish settlement gathered to meet our curious group. Some of us bought slippers made by the villagers; a few pictures were taken, and the teenaged girls ran away giggling. A young boy was sick — his father asked us if we would take him to the city. The father and son joined us in the van, where on the way back the driver treated us to a Kurdish song of the fields, a plowing song. That night in the hotel, I was again entertained by music of the area; men from a nearby gathering were singing Kurdish folk songs.

Our first stop the next morning was the Old City of Van and its fortress. After stopping at one side of the fortress, we drove to the site of the Old City, the desolate area where the Vanetsi Armenians had fought in 1915. Two brave souls in our group had meanwhile walked the massive fortress; they now emerged, exhausted and covered with dirt. (Perhaps they were searching for the legendary Mher’s Door, where the giant Mher waits to free the land of Armenia from tyranny….)

As we traveled to Lake Van, I asked the location of the Rushdooni stronghold. Its direction was pointed out by the leader of our pilgrimage, Armen Aroyan. (My aunt had married a descendant of the famous Rushdooni family). The deep blue waters of Van now came into view. The lake stretched on for miles. We reached the spot where a boat would take us to Aghtamar Island and the well-known Sourp Khatch, the Church of the Holy Cross, built in the 10th century by the architect Manuel.

Once on the island, our group went directly inside the church and, facing the altar, sang the Hayr Mer. After being told the history of Aghtamar, and being shown the upper level balcony that King Gagik used during church services, we spread in all directions outside the sanctuary, taking pictures of the church, the beautiful wall carvings, and Lake Van. While traversing the island, I came across several khatchkars, standing alone amongst the trees and bushes. After listening to a Japanese tour guide (“Armenian” was the only word I understood), I sat alongside the ruins of the palace, eating green almonds and thinking of how this island paradise must have looked 1,000 years earlier….

As our boat left Aghtamar, a female member of our group swam the waters of Van. She had also trekked the entire Van fortress, and now, after leaving Lake Van, led us to Khorkom, the birthplace of the famous painter, Arshile Gorky (family name, Adoyan). This picturesque village, with tall mountains and Lake Van in the background, had the remnants of a small church, and a grove of poplars, where crows were nesting. This was our last stop in Vasbouragan….

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