Where Eagles Play
Almost immediately after my journey to Historic Armenia in 1996, I began planning a trip to Armenia and Karabagh. I had touched the roots of my grandparents, walked the steps of their youth in old Armenia. Now, it was time to return to Armenia, to see as much as I could of the Armenian homeland. I missed Armenia and Armenians: the booming voices, the round-eyed, beautiful children and, especially, the incredible hospitality. And there were the monasteries, hidden in distant mountains and on top of gorges, where time has stood still….
As we drove through the picturesque resort town of Dilijan, my mind had already reached Haghardzin, a dream-like monastery nestled in the lush, heavily forested Pambak Mountains. The driver stopped in the usual place, where the road becomes too narrow to maneuver. As we walked the road to the monastery, I remembered my first visit to Haghardzin in 1982. It was late October, and an early snowfall had blanketed the area. As I stumbled and slipped along the icy road, Deacon Stepan Garabedian of Holy Echmiadzin, went gliding by on the ice, laughing as he reached the monastery. Stepan is now director of CASP, the Children of Armenia Scholarship Program.
On both sides of the road, khatchkars appeared, close to chapels and amongst the trees and bushes. Just below our approaching path lay the monastery. The grayish-cast churches seemed to be welcoming their new visitors.
I walked to the courtyard of the monastery. Elevated on a carved stone slab, next to the side entrance of the large St. Asdvadzadzin Church, was an exquisite 12th century khatchkar. Straight ahead, an ancient tree faced the monastery; a khatchkar stood under a branch split by lightning. To the right were the smaller churches, St. Stepanos and St. Krikor. Next to the bell tower (zhamatun) of the St. Krikor Church, touching a wooded area, were the remains of the burial chapel of Kings Smbat and Gagik Bagratuni.
I climbed a crumbling wall of one of the church buildings. From the highest point, I was able to capture a view of the three domes rising above Haghardzin.
The autumn colors were stunning. I canvassed the meadows below the monastery. A small river ran close to where animals were grazing. Thick, dark clouds were descending, enveloping the mountains in a mist; Haghardzin seemed separated from the world.
In this setting, it was easy to understand how Khachadour Daronetsi, abbot of Haghardzin in the late 12th century, was able to compose the haunting Khorhurt Khorin of the Armenian Apostolic liturgy.
I remembered being told during a 1986 visit here that the name Haghardzin was derived from khagh ardziv, meaning “where eagles play.”
Sanahin and Haghbat Monasteries
Another day, and a journey to the northern Armenian monasteries of Sanahin and Haghbat. In all, arrangements were made to see seven monasteries that day. To my delight, one was Saghmosavank, a favorite from my 1982 trip to Armenia. Saghmosavank is an idyllic place, built close to a gorge overlooking the Kasakh River. We were also able to see nearby Hovannavank, Asdvadzungal, and the 17th century St. Kevork of Mughni.
In the region of Lori, we drove through Vanadzor (formerly Kirovakan) and finally Alaverdi, reaching the area of our destination.
Sanahin Monastery, situated amidst a mountainous village of the same name, is a large complex. Its church buildings, still mostly intact, stretch up a hill beyond an adjoining cemetery. A khatchkar leaned against a small church building, far from the main churches. From this point, I could see the main cathedral, set alone against the distant mountains.
A woman caretaker asked us to accompany her, to tell us the history of Sanahin. I declined; I wanted to investigate a small round church that was set apart from the larger churches. But my “no” was not accepted, and the woman’s stern glance left no choice in the matter.
As we entered the main church, I looked out an arched opening, where three khatchkars stood against the bright sun. Carved high on the wall were two figures holding a small model of the church. Inside, as the woman spoke of the Bagratid kings who built Sanahin and of the famous school of music here, I walked to the front of the church. Rising above the stone steps was the altar, large enough for a gospel and no more. The walls were blackened from centuries of incense and burning candles. Our footsteps and voices echoed throughout the church.
We sat on a part of the wall surrounding the compound. From there, through a grove of tall trees, we caught our last glimpse of Sanahin.
High in the mountains of northern Armenia, we soon arrived at Haghbat. Entering the gate, I walked past the main complex, directly to the soaring bell tower. The bell tower is on a small hill, separate from the churches and chapels. A khatchkar stands next to the entrance, and a look inside reveals steps leading high into the three-story building. From here, I looked down the grassy slope toward the churches and nearby mountains.
Leaning against the walls of the compound, facing the churches and the bell tower, I was ready to take what I thought would be the perfect picture. But then a family appeared on the scene, and the young girls began waving at me from high inside the bell tower. I waved back. Their father inquired, “Ashkhadoom ek, gam hiur ek?” meaning, “Are you working, or a visitor?” I answered that I was a visitor — all the while holding my camera in place. As they went inside for a church service, I snapped the picture.
I then investigated each of the churches and chapels of Haghbat. In the bell tower, I climbed to where the girls had waved at me. I continued higher, toward the actual bell towers, until the steps became too narrow and the stone floor too distant.
I walked down the small hill, alongside St. Nshan Church. Just beneath the dome, along the east side of the church, is a relief of Kings Smbat and Gourgen Bagratuni holding a small model of the church. Entering the large gavit (forecourt) of St. Nshan, I noticed gravestones covering the floor. I later learned from a priest that the gavit was built over the funeral building of the Kiurikians, a famous ruling family of the area. I entered the church and lit candles; a priest was performing a memorial service for the family from Alaverdi.
We had hoped to visit the nearby monastery of Odzun, but darkness intervened.
We drove off in a light rain towards Yerevan.
Near Spitak, we stopped in the village of Gegharod to pick up a daughter of one of our drivers. What started out as a simple cup of coffee became, as often happens in Armenia, a complete dinner.
As it turned out, William Saroyan, my grandmother’s first cousin, had been there almost 20 years earlier. I asked about his visit. Apparently, in his usual haste, he ate only a dish of madzoon and was on his way.
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