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Financial Times: A pagan spirit in the land of Noah

Find below the whole article by John Westbrooke appeared in the Financial Times.

Outside, the Armenian spring has slipped back into cold, dull winter. Inside
Ejmiatsin cathedral, though, everything is warm and bright.

Priests robed in scarlet and gold chant the liturgy; the choir of women in
white headscarves and men in uniform add their voices, joined by murmuring from
the congregation and the tolling of bells, all resonating from ancient stone
walls; gold-painted patterns on the domes and arches glitter in the light of
candles; incense swirls in the shafts of light from high windows.

It seems lush and mysterious, especially to a non-Armenian speaker. Religious
students in long grey coats gather together; celibates in peaked black hoods
stand at the front; priests move in and out of sight behind an icon, and
occasionally a curtain is drawn across to hide them and the altar completely,
reinforcing the theatricality of the service.

This has been going on for a long time. Ejmiatsin is very old indeed, perhaps
the oldest Christian church in the world. Armenia converted to the new religion
in 301, well before Rome – well before anyone – and Ejmiatsin is its mother
church, its Holy See.

The details are lost in legend. One says that a Christian virgin named
Hripsime fled here to avoid the amorous attentions of Diocletian, the Roman
emperor, only to attract those of pagan King Trdates. When she refused him too,
he had her killed, and God turned him into a wild boar as punishment. He was
restored by St Gregory, also a Christian, and in gratitude converted his
country.

Gregory, now given the title The Illuminator, was told by Christ in a dream
where to build a cathedral, on the site of a pagan altar. Its cruciform shape,
under a dome, formed the template for later Orthodox basilicas. Ejmiatsin has
been much altered over the centuries, but it still has some of Gregory’s
original stonework.

You can see its descendants all over Armenia and into Georgia and Turkey,
though they can be hard to get to. Monasteries in particular are perched on
remote hills and escarpments; they look from a distance like little boxes, as
high as they are long, topped with a circular drum and conical roof.

Several of them are within reach of Yerevan, the capital, including one near
Ejmiatsin where St Hripsime now lies. This is handy for weekend breaks, as you
can put together a selection of day-trips from the city. You have to come back
to Yerevan each night, because there is nowhere much else to stay, but it does
not have enough charm itself to keep you more than a day or two.

It is a Soviet city of broad avenues, not winding oriental alleyways.
Republic Square, at its heart, was built for military parades, and is flanked by
some elegantly curving buildings in pink tufa stone, but much of the city is
built of drab grey basalt and enlivened only by petrol stations with bright
lights and colourful plastic.

There is a busy weekend market on an open park called Vernissage, where you
can buy anything from microscopes to videos, and a cavernous indoor food market
where stallholders invited us to try fresh strawberries and delicious pastes of
fruit and nut.

We went to surrounding hilltops for some panoramas: try the ugly tower
commemorating 50 years of communism, or the memorial to the victims of the 1915
genocide in which Turks killed 1.5m Armenians. Joining the crowd there on
Remembrance Day, April 24, we shuffled forward for two hours to lay flowers by
an eternal flame.

From both of these points you can see out over the plains to snowy mountains,
Ararat and Aragats Larr. Ararat was said to be the landing place of Noah, from
whom all Armenians trace their descent, and is the country’s national symbol. To
their continuing dismay, it was given to Turkey last century.

We drove out into the countryside to see the sights more closely – not fast,
because Armenia’s roads are poor. The government has little money for such
projects. Fortunately, numerous foundations set up by wealthy Armenians abroad
have funded infrastructural repairs, including a big programme of church
refurbishment to mark 1,700 years of Christianity.

Dense fog left Haghartsin monastery almost invisible high in the hills: the
chapels were dim and bare inside, and we could see nothing of what is said to be
a spectacular setting. We were luckier with Noravank, tucked away in a deep
gorge, and Khor Virap, a 12th century part-monastery, part-castle south of
Yerevan.

On this hilltop Noah gave thanks for his deliverance and Gregory the
Illuminator was held in a snake pit for 13 years before he cured the king. You
can climb into the pit (was Gregory really there – who knows?), or take in the
view from the walls, looking out over a village where storks nest on chimneys,
to fields awash with cherry blossom.

Eastwards is Geghard monastery, constructed to house the lance-head said to
have pierced Christ’s side (it is now in the treasury at Ejmiatsin, along with
ecclesiastical vestments, silver ornaments, a couple of footballs and the keys
to Los Angeles). This is an exceptional piece of work, built back into a cliff
face from the 7th century, and far more elaborately than, say, Petra in Jordan.
Domes, pillars and wall decorations have all been hacked out of living rock.

It is notable for its khachkars, stone slabs with intricate crosses
carved on them; some are free-standing, others incorporated into exterior walls.
They testify to the depth of religious sentiment in Armenia, a country racially
and doctrinally homogeneous for centuries.

Then again. . . at the gate, men keep pigeons in cages. Passers-by are
invited to buy them and set them free, as an act of Christian charity, but also
as what seems a rather pagan sort of good-luck offering (they’re homing pigeons,
so the vendors get lucky too).

As we looked at them, a woman walked by, carrying a headless chicken by its
legs. She had had it slaughtered outside the church and blessed by a priest, to
add weight to her prayers. There was no "rather pagan" about this; plain old
animal sacrifice, and it goes on all the time. Even after 1,700 years, there are
places Gregory hasn’t quite managed to illuminate.

ARMENIA FACTFILE

John Westbrooke was a guest of Sunvil, which can tailor weekend (or
longer) breaks to Armenia. Four nights’ B&B with daily excursions and driver
cost from about £1,160. Tel: Sunvil Discovery Europe on 020-8758 4722 or visit

www.sunvil.co.uk

British Airways flies from London to Yerevan via Tbilisi three times a
week; tel: 0845-773 3377 or see

www.britishairways.com

NB: almost all of Yerevan’s museums are closed until autumn for
renovation.

Guidebooks: Lonely Planet’s Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan, £12.99/$19.99;
Edge of Time by Matthew Karanian and Robert Kurkjian, Stone Garden Publications,
$19.95.

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