At Home in Alaverdi

Razmik Hagopian and Family In Armenia, no one is a stranger. Everyone you meet seems like a brother, a cousin, a sister, or a close friend. Last year, while visiting Haghbat Monastery, I met the Shahnazarian family — Henzel, his wife, Laura, daughter Mariam, and cousin Servine. We exchanged addresses, and continued our correspondence until my return this year to Alaverdi.

Alaverdi is a town of 30,000 people, located in the high mountains of northern Armenia, in the district of Lori. It is surrounded by several villages, including Sanahin, Haghbat, Odzun, and Shnogh, the home village of the Shahnazarian family.

As we drove the streets of Alaverdi, I noticed that Henzel was waving at nearly everyone we met. “I know everyone here,” he said. “Even those I don’t know personally, I’ve seen many times.” Once, while shopping at a large outdoor market, a man asked Henzel why he wasn’t at work. “Andranik, my brother from America, is staying with us. How can I go to work?”

Friends and relatives were constantly visiting the Shahnazarians. Stories were told, food was served, and nardi (backgammon) was played. The vibrant Hosanna, a neighbor and close friend of the Shahnazarians, visited several times every day with stories of the neighborhood. One night, while relaxing after dinner, a tall, beautiful girl named Lianna appeared at the door. She lives with her family, just upstairs from the Shahnazarians. After some conversation, the music was turned up and we all danced. I asked Henzel if the music was too loud for the neighbors in the building. “They’re happy,” he said. “They know we have a guest from America.”

Razmik Hagopian, Sculptor
On the outskirts of Alaverdi, close to the Debet River, a monument honors those from the area who gave their lives for the liberation of Karabagh. At night, lights at its base illuminate the edifice against the nearby mountains. The monument was created by sculptor Razmik Hagopian, a resident of Alaverdi and a neighbor of Henzel Shahnazarian.

Soon after my arrival in the Shahnazarian household, neighbors began stopping by to welcome me to their town. During my first evening there, I met Razmik. I immediately liked this man, whose warmth and ready smile were those of a true artist, a man of the earth.

One morning, before leaving for Odzun Monastery, I went downstairs to where Razmik lived with his wife and family. His wife led me to where he was working. With a paint brush still in his hand, he showed me a room full of paintings and various small items carved from wood. Covering an entire wall is a painting of Haghbat Monastery, including the St. Nshan Church, the Chapel of St. Mary, the building of Hamazasp, and the bell tower looming in the background. I asked how he painted such an accurate picture from memory. Razmik laughed, and told me he knew the monastery so well, he could paint it in his sleep.

Razmik’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandson had arrived. After being served coffee and chocolates, I photographed this charming family, and said goodbye.

Haghbat Monastery
Returning to Haghbat Monastery had great meaning for me. It is a profoundly beautiful place, framed by a natural setting, high on a plateau in the mountains of Lori. I knew that Haghbat, along with nearby Sanahin Monastery, was an important spiritual and cultural center during the reign of the Zakarian and Kiurikian princes, eight hundred years earlier. Also, Sayat Nova, the great ashough of the eighteenth century, had lived in Haghbat after he became a monk. Now, I returned to Haghbat, to revisit the place I had met Henzel Shahnazarian and his family one year ago.

After greeting the caretaker, we walked into the St. Nshan Church, and through another door into the library. The library is built into a small hill, covered by the earth to protect it from the cold winter climate of this area. Next to the gavit (forecourt) and St. Nshan Church is the large building of Hamazasp, built when Hamazasp was the abbot of Haghbat in the thirteenth century. I was drawn to the bell tower, both because of its beauty, and because of the sudden cloudburst which pounded the earth. I climbed high in the three-story building and saw the dome of St. Nshan and the Chapel of St. Mary. Carved high on the wall, just beneath the dome of St. Nshan, is a small model of the church, held by princes Smbat and Gourgen Bagratuni.

Just above the village of Haghbat, near a covered fountain, is the Hermitage of the Virgin. It is a small chapel with three exquisite khatchkars next to the door. From here, looking over the cemetery, one can see the several domes of Haghbat, set against the mountains and canyon beyond the monastery.

Odzun Ardvi, Odzun Monasteries
Near a village of the same name is the monastery of Ardvi. It is an ancient structure, dating from the eighth century. The round, domed bell tower stands separately from the main church of St. Hovhannes. I climbed up a steep hill to the cemetery, hoping to capture a view of the monastery and nearby poplar trees. The light-colored church appeared to be growing out of the rocky landscape.

Along a hillside of rock is a unique formation shaped like a snake. In the middle of the snake is the otzi bord, a spot where water flows from the rocky mountain. We walked across a dry creek bed to the spring.

“The water has healing powers,” Henzel said. Mariam and Servine took off their shoes, and washed their feet in the water. We washed our hands in the water, and enjoyed a lunch of tomatoes, melons, cheese, and bread.

We left the hilly region of Ardvi, with the large basilica of Odzun as our next destination. High in the mountains of Lori, I was surprised to be driving through such a large area of flat ground. As we approached Odzun village, we saw the church, its tall dome looming against the distant mountains.

In front of the church, two khatchkars were elevated on carved stone slabs. A colonnade of six arches stands to the side of the church. I walked to the commemorative monument to the left, and photographed Mariam and Servine as they ran up the steep steps to the tall, curved openings in the monument. The dark stones of the monastery blended perfectly with their surroundings, set against the mountains and clouds over Odzun.

Inside the walls surrounding Odzun, a group of men were playing nardi. “Here, have some bread and try our oghi,” one of the men said. “It’s salori oghi” (made from plums). I tasted the delicious oghi and joined these villagers of Odzun in several games of nardi….

Nearby, close to a gorge, is the mostly collapsed church of St. Nshan. We walked to the edge of the ravine, looking down the rocky cliff to the Debet River. Part way down the mountain, close to several trees and what appeared to be caves, I saw a dome and part of a church, the remainder of the church built into the rock. “It is Horomayr Vank,” Henzel said, adding that there was an underground passage from beneath the river to the monastery. “The passage has collapsed,” Henzel said. “If you want to see Horomayr, you’ll have to go from here.” He laughed. “I can run to it….”

In Shnogh Village Shnogh Village
Late one afternoon, while driving north of Alaverdi in the region of Akhtala, we arrived in Shnogh village. “It’s my family’s home village,” Henzel said. “My father was born here. My brother lives here with his wife and two children.”

In front of a small store, Henzel’s brother and several villagers were attempting to revive a stalled Niva. Three young boys were kicking a rubber ball. As I raised my camera for a picture, one of the boys jumped into the others’ arms, and all three fell down, laughing as they hit the ground.

A long driveway leads to his brother’s large, two-story house. “This is my brother’s wife,” Henzel said. “She is from Azerbaijan. She escaped from the massacres in Kirovabad.” We walked into the forest, where apple and pear trees were scattered amongst a grove of poplars. As we walked, I saw tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers that had been planted amongst the trees.

We came to a fast-flowing stream. “Just down this stream is my father’s house,” Henzel said. “On the other side of that mountain is Haghbat Monastery. Next year, we can walk there. But we’ll have to be careful — there are bears in the mountains.”

Near the house, corn was drying in a large brick oven. A long, curved board was laying in the oven, used to take out bread after baking. Next to the oven, turkeys ran into their pen for the night.

We ate bread still hot from the oven. Henzel’s brother poured us each a glass of oghi. “It is made with the pears from our garden,” he said. “I hope you enjoy it. If you want to, you can stay overnight. There is room for everyone.”

Last Impressions
Near the end of my stay in Alaverdi, I joked with Henzel about which had been my favorite place in Alaverdi. Haghbat Monastery? Of course. Odzun? That too. And what about Shnogh village? On my last day, the answer was obvious — it was the home of the Shahnazarians, and the people who lived in their apartment building.

It was time to leave for Yerevan. I looked up at the apartment building, and saw several of Henzel’s neighbors standing at their windows. I waved and shouted good-byes to everyone — Hosanna, Lianna, the family of Razmik Hagopian, and the many others I had met during the past several days. I knew I would miss the hospitality of Henzel and Laura Shahnazarian, the delightful Mariam and Servine, and the Armenians of Alaverdi.

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