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Discovering the Forgotten Holy Land

By Dennis K. Berman

 Overlooked Armenia is home to a complex culture and some of the world’s greatest religious shrines. The Armenian man let loose a single musical note. It ricocheted between the 1,000-year-old stone walls of Haghpat Monastery, echoes transforming his warm, lonely voice into a full symphony.
ROCKS OF AGES | The Monastery of Haghpat

 The Armenian man let loose a single musical note. It ricocheted between the 1,000-year-old stone walls of Haghpat Monastery, echoes transforming his warm, lonely voice into a full symphony.
If time has a sound, it sounds like Haghpat, one of the world’s greatest religious shrines—and also one of the least explored.
Every year, millions of tourists flock to the predictable splendors of Rome and Jerusalem, filling the Vatican and the Old City. Armenia, meanwhile, hosted fewer than 100,000 visitors in 2009. It’s understandable: On first impression, this country of three million on the Caucasus does not feel like a holy land.
Armenia’s cities are filled with grim industrial buildings. Hundreds of miles of barbed wire separate it from Turkey, from whom it is still awaiting an apology for a 1915 genocide. Relations with neighboring Azerbaijan, which claims territory within Armenia, remain fractured. The bulk of Armenian tourists are, in fact, Armenians, who scattered after World War I and through later years of economic decay.
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Getty Images Ancient archways at Haghpat
Yet it is this tangle of histories and enmity that makes Armenia such a compelling place to visit, as my wife and I learned when we spent a week there last summer. Men roast giant pots of corn by the roadside; Armani-clad hustlers share streets with farmers wearing thick, Soviet-era suits. And magnificent, soot-stained monasteries like Haghpat and Geghard, which was carved into the side of a mountain, still preside atop green valleys.
Perhaps fittingly, a fine airborne grit—and surprisingly friendly gun-toting guards—welcomed us to Armenia’s northeastern border crossing with Georgia. We were driven by a 48-year-old former architect who said he changed careers because there is no work to be had designing new buildings. Old structures—abandoned Soviet factories—still loom over the landscape.
But soon enough, crumbling concrete gave way to thick forest, spread across a series of river valleys. The occasional ox cart appeared on the uneven roads, slowing our progress. At a roadside restaurant, a few dollars bought a lunch of fresh lamb, eggplant and hearth-baked bread.
The bucolic, shambolic setting only made the 10th-century Haghpat, in the northeastern corner of Armenia, feel all the more remarkable.
With its gilded and vaulted spaces, the Vatican implores its visitors to be inspired. Haghpat doesn’t have to try so hard. It and sister monastery Sanahin, which form a Unesco World Heritage site, are little visited on Armenia’s back roads. At Sanahin, only a wizened female caretaker was on site. (And down the hill was a memorial to Artem Mikoyan, father of the Soviet MiG, complete with a fighter jet.)
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Tim E. White/Alamy
Vendors outside Geghard monastery
From the outside, Haghpat looks like a jumbled castle whose owners keep randomly adding on wings and storerooms. About 500 years after King Tiridates III made Christianity his nation’s official religion, a monk named Nishan set upon a hillside near the modern-day town of Alaverdi to build Haghpat. The main two-story sanctuary was begun in 967 and was finished 24 years later. In the centuries that followed, descendants built scriptoria and belfries, refectories and mess halls, chiseling many of their walls with fine crosses.
Haghpat’s monks formed a devotional, if paranoid, communal existence. Their lives were short. Books and manuscripts were fiercely protected. Invaders were so frequent that the windows were designed as narrow slits, which today seem to concentrate the power of the sunlight that beams through them.
Nishan named the place more suitably than he may have imagined—”Haghpat” means “strong walls” in Armenia’s curled 36-letter alphabet. The blackened stone walls have survived earthquakes and sackings, Muslim invaders and atheist pedants, and convey fortitude where little has managed to endure. In a country full of monasteries, Haghpat, which outlasted the Cilicians, Egyptian Mameluks, Kurds, Turks, Mongols, Ottomans, Persians and Russians, particularly inspires simply because it is still here.
Getting There: Russian airline Aeroflot flies to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, from Moscow, but visa requirements mean it can be easier to take Lot Polish Airlines from Warsaw.
Where to Stay: Avan Villa Yerevan Hotel, atop a hill just outside the city center, is a welcome respite from the capital’s hot, dusty streets (from about $96 per night, tufenkianheritage.com). Options diminish near Haghpat; consider staying in well-groomed Dilijan, about two hours away.
Where to Eat: Mercedes Benzes line up outside Dolmama’s, one of Yerevan’s finest restaurants. Try the eggplant rolls with walnut and cream (dolmama.am).
Inside, towering arches are caked with a patina of soot, mold and plain old dirt. Birds roam throughout the many rooms, their tweets echoing among the stones. The sparse walls once held a series of religious murals and paintings. Most were scrubbed off by the Soviets, though a few splashes of red and blue peek through the grime.
There are also tracks of soot from a set of flickering candles. It’s as if you can see the centuries of invisible prayer that accumulated with each lighted wick, making the ethereal into the tangible.
As we explored the complex, we trod on tombs and crypts laid down century by century. Most feature the ancient Armenian script, surely describing the pious and glamorous of the day. Some are simpler, depicting only the most basic outline of an adult’s body—or a child’s.
To pray at Haghpat is to offer thanks for our short time here; to know that our tombstones will one day be flooring; and to respect how a rock arch can plant itself in the ground and not let go of the sky.
Write to Dennis K. Berman at dennis.berman@wsj.com
Corrections & Amplifications
King Tiridates III made Christianity the official religion of Armenia in 301. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Vartan Mamikonian as having made the change in 451.

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