Drizzly day in a land of monasteries
07/03/2012 - 07/03/2012 65 °F
Well, not really - I wasn't in a truck and today's sightseeing had nothing to do with space. Maybe a bit about eternity, but I'm getting ahead of myself. You know how a song gets associated with a place, once you hear it there? Well, Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" will forever take me back to the gorgeous Debed Canyon and a misty day in Armenia.
After arriving in Armenia the day before, I changed my sightseeing plans ever so slightly. I still wanted to see the UNESCO World Heritage monasteries tucked away in the steep-walled, forested Debed Canyon. However, in light of the day's forecast for rain and the blisters on my feet from my 11-hour hike back and forth from Tmogvi to Vardzia, Georgia, I decided to hire a car and driver. My wonderful bed & breakfast that I was staying at in Vanadzor, Armenia, offered to take me to four of the monasteries for an all day trip. The cost was less than $40, so with the urging of my feet, I accepted.
So, where does "Space Trucking'" come in? Well, my driver was the husband of Maghay Bed & Breakfast's owner, the music lover Ashot. On the drive into the canyon we listened to a steady diet of 60's to 80's soul, but he cranked out the heavy metal rock on the way back. I'll forever remember both of us jamming to "Space Truckin'" as we wound our way along the damp, twisting road, passing slow-moving trucks and splashing through the puddles that accumulated on the rutted, potholed road.
We began our sightseeing at Akhtala Monastery - an off-the-beaten track choice of mine that surprised the B&B owners. When we arrived, we were the only visitors so far that day. In fact, we had to hunt down the local priest to unlock the church so I could see what I came for. Akhtala Monastery is famous for its frescoes - those Byzantine style paintings on the walls and ceilings of many churches in the East. The priest was a fellow history buff, too. We had a wonderful conversation about artistic styles, the significance of the figures depicted, and even why the colors were so vibrant after almost 1,000 years. The priest spoke excellent English and I think he appreciated someone with my passion for history, not the run-of-the-mill "take a picture of me in front of this" tourist! I enjoyed my visit for a number of reasons. Number one, of course, was how amazing the place was. Number two, my driver did not try to play tour guide or hurry me along. He let me take as much time as I liked and wander the sites at my leisure. And of course, number three was the connection with someone from another culture who was on my wavelength. As I left, he shook my hand, blessed me, and said I would always be welcome.
Next up was the stunning medieval masterpiece of Haghpat Monastery. The drizzle set in as we arrived, but it was a light one and actually added to the mood of the abandoned monastery which was once a center of Armenia's church. Wandering the complex of stone buildings was like stepping into another time. You could almost hear monks chanting as you paced, alone, through soaring chapels and examined intricate carvings. I would have to say Haghpat was my favorite, even though I will always have a special place in my memory for Akhtala's welcome. There were numerous buildings to explore, each different than the last. And if you tired of looking at damp, gray stone, you only had to spin around, and enjoy the panorama of a monastery set on a soaring hilltop. You could put yourself in the sandals of the monks, peacefully overlooking the world spread out beneath them. I watched wisps of gray cloud float up the hillsides on all sides. To me, it was J.R.R. Tolkein's Misty Mountains set in the world of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose." Although I have never felt the calling to be a monk, it is places like Haghpat that make you understand the spiritual reward of that life.
From Haghpat, we drove to Sanahin. Compared to Haghpat's sprawling complex of medieval buildings, Sanahin seemed small and cramped. The most noticeable thing about the monastery is the graveyard stretching up the hill slope above it. The elaborate tombstones range from modern to medieval, it being a special honor to be buried in this 1,000-year-old monastery. In fact, as you pace through the buildings, you are often walking on tombstones. Royalty, churchmen, nobles and saints are laid to rest beneath the floor of many of the chapels. Sanahin also is green with encroaching moss and vegetation, where Haghpat seems more stark and gray.
Our final stop was the village church in Odzun, set atop a towering plateau. As we snaked our way upwards, I looked down and saw the Debed river which looked like a tiny ribbon beneath us. It was a shock to reach the top and see flat fields stretching away for miles. I'd expected some eagle's nest of rock, but instead found countryside that looked for the world like any other village you'd find on the plains of Ohio. This was no ordinary village church, though. It was begun in the 7th century - more than 1,500 years ago! It's stone has a pinkish color, and it has huge soaring arches and vaulted interior. The walls are bare except for an occasional carving and one much more modern fresco. Huge stone sarcophagi (caskets) surround the church grounds outside. Strangely, for the oldest of the four, it had a much more modern and airy feel to it.
On the drive back to Vanadzor, the drizzle finally opened up into a downpour. I realized as dramatic as the sights were today, they would have been stunning under blue skies and sun. Nevertheless, the fact that the rain held off until my sightseeing was done felt like a blessing. I was reminded of the priest in Akhtala and his gentle blessing at the end of my visit. I was as thankful that the rain had held off as I' had been for his welcome. I know as we age our memories grow misty, but I'll always remember my day of "space truckin'" through Debed Canyon.