Arriving in Armenia, we were welcomed by our guide Anna, setting off to Haghpat Monastery, one of the largest in Armenia, located at an altitude of 2,500 metres. Built between the 10th and 13th centuries, the medieval Armenian architecture is classed as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
Haghpat played an important role as a religious, spiritual, educational, cultural, and scientific centre. As we’d arrived in the late afternoon, with a chill in the air, it was an eerie feeling climbing up rough cobblestones and over grassy knolls within the medieval walls to explore four churches, the library, the bell tower and a tomb, most now in semi darkness. The library was the most intriguing - from outside it’s just a grassy hill, topped with a tiled roof.
Inside the walls lined with niches, where manuscripts were stored. In the centre work tables would have been placed for the monks to meticulously create religious manuscripts. Holes in the floor contained clay pots.
The valuable manuscripts were highly sort after and during attacks, the monks removed the manuscripts and hid them, filling the pots with food - a diversionary tactic.
The site is also filled with khachkars. A khachkar or Armenian cross-stone is a carved, memorial stele bearing a cross, often with rosettes and botanical motifs - a characteristic of medieval Christian Armenian art - we saw lots of them during our travels in Armenia. Any hill or building and even street corners.
In Azerbaijan we came across lots or cats, in Georgia lots of dogs and in Armenia, lots of khachkars!
The churches are very different to those in Georgia. In Armenia the entrance to the church (known as a gavit or narthex) is larger than the actual church and only baptised Orthodox Armenians can enter the church itself during mass. The floor of the narthex is usually covered with tomb stones. I was brought up not to step on tombs, but here the idea is that you’d remember the person buried underneath by walking on their tomb stone, taking your prayers for them, into the church.
Mount Ararat, the possible resting place of Noah’s Ark, rises 20kms away in Turkey. It’s fertile valley stretches well into Armenia, rich with vegetables, apples and stone fruits, especially apricots - in fact it’s their national fruit and one of the colours on the Armenian flag.
We loved the food in Armenia - too late for apricots, but juicy peaches, apples, plums and delicious vegetables - potatoes, peas and spinach - often served with walnuts, another national favourite. We tried walnut jam, walnut liqueur - all delicious. Armenia is known for its fine brandy, which is the base of some liqueurs.
Our tour took us to Lake Sevan – known as the Emerald of Armenia - the 2nd largest alpine freshwater lake in the world, located at 6200 ft above sea level and the biggest in Caucasus. The Sevanavank Monastery overlooks the lake, a prominent example of medieval Armenian architecture.
Naturally Armenia was on the Great Silk road and at that time a caravanserai was located about every 30kms, the distance merchants with their camels managed each day. Only Selim Caravanserai built in 1332 survives today and inscriptions in Armenian and Arabic, indicate this was an important stop.
Often merchants stayed for weeks or months trading wares, news and knowledge, often even learning a new language. A single journey could take years but just one was lucrative enough to set him up for the rest of his life.
The interior cool and dark, a few mice scurried about. The centre used by the merchants and to the left stalls for animals. At the end, a few rooms occupied by the owner or manager. As we quietly explored, I’m sure we could hear the tales of those long-ago traders.
Outside the guardian of the site had a stall with homemade hooch and souvenirs. He treated a few of us to a taste of pomegranate liquor - it packed a punch but was surprisingly good.
We wound up mountains along bumpy roads to visit Noravank Monastery, which flourished as a spiritual, educational, and cultural centre in Syunik province.
The complex consists of two chapels and three churches. The most influential the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the 14th century, which belongs a group of two-tiered three-stage churches, widespread in medieval Armenia.
Designed by well-known medieval architect and sculptor Momik – the architecture incredible at the time. Plenty of ancient khachkars carved by him too, as well as stone carvings, cross-stones, sculptures and bas-reliefs - some of the finest in Armenia.
In this area, remains of the oldest winery were found - from 6,000 years ago. Still not as old as the earliest wine, which is claimed by Georgia - but then it’s all about semantics! Naturally we visited a local winery set in a picturesque gorge with a waterfall.
It’s also here the oldest leather shoe was found in a nearby cave, said to be 5,500 years old, which we saw in the History Museum a few days later.
Tomorrow we continue exploring Armenia.