As I mentioned previously, we booked a private tour for two days via Envoy Hostel. Our guide Arpine suggested the itinerary, which included even more places than we absolutely wanted to see, so we approved her plan. The only place we wanted, but didn’t get, was the abandoned city of Agdam in Nagorno-Karabakh. Our guide promised to look into it, but the final answer was that it is not allowed to go there and if you get caught, you’ll be stuck in Nagorno-Karabakh and deal with the local authorities. I don’t think that this is a huge issue for tourists except the time wasted, but for the Armenian guide it might have more unpleasant consequences. According to some sources online the best way to get to Agdam is to talk to local taxi drivers and negotiate directly with them whether they would be willing to take you to Agdam and how much that would cost.
Our trip began by stopping in the monastery of Khor Virap, which has a nice view of the Mount Ararat. The mountain itself is currently located on the Turkish territory, but it is a big part of Armenian identity and you can see the name e.g. in restaurant names, architecture, and in coat-of-arms.
The history of Khor Virap extends to years 200-300 AD, but the current building is much younger (the works began in 1669). The place is famous for Gregory the Illuminator, who is the patron saint and first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, being imprisoned and forgotten for 12 years in a cave located on the territory of the monastery of Khor Virap. The story goes that he survived despite having no food or water and after twelve years the ruling king admitted that Gregory the Illuminator’s god must exist and converted to Christianity thus making Armenia the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
Near Khor Virap there were men, who sold doves. After we wondered about this, our guide explained that you’re supposed to wish for something at the top of the mountain in Khor Virap and release the dove, who would fly to Mount Ararat and thus your wish would become true. In real life the doves are taught to fly back to their owners and be sold again.
The weather was wonderful and you could see Mount Ararat really well. During the trip we heard many jokes about Armenians and their neighbors and one of the joke was that there are really no clouds around Mount Ararat, but the Turks have a cloud machine and they use it so the Armenians couldn’t have a good view of the mountain. 😉 The relationship between Armenia and Turkey is not good, but the jokes weren’t told with malicious intent and the guide just used them to make the stories more memorable.
There was quite an extensive cemetery next to the monastery. It turns out that in Armenia there are very few cremations and you are never supposed to bury new people on top of old graves. There was an effort to change the custom because at some point the entire country is one big cemetery, but it was widely opposed.
We also decided to climb down a small opening into the underground cave, which was supposedly the same cave where Gregory the Illuminator spent 12 years imprisoned in. The ladder, which led to the cave was rather steep, but once we’re here, we’re going to climb. The travel guide warned us that you should bring a flashlight with you, but apparently there has been some progress in the couple of years since the book was written and there was an artificial lighting in the cave.
After Khor Virap we continued to a monastery called Noravank, which apparently is a very popular place among visitors and it was also the favorite monastery of our guide. What was great about Armenia is that you could drive pretty much to every sight and there was no need to climb the steep mountains. Very neat especially when it’s really hot. 🙂
The region is mountainous and the rocks and the ground are colored red because of the large amounts of iron in the soil.
We arrived around 11 a.m. and at that time there were very few people at Noravank, but when we were leaving the number of people increased significantly. During summer the place is suffocatingly hot, but now in April the weather was good and not to hot even for us northerners.
There was also a local priest, who came to talk to us. When hearing that we were from Finland he said that he served in a small Finnish town called Luostari (=Monastery) during the Soviet times and found the period very significant in his life, because he ended up being a priest in a real monastery.
Another interesting thing was that there were graves in front of every church entrance. Walking over graves is permitted and actually desired. According to our guide walking over graves is believed to take away sins of both the dead and the living.
Inside the churches there were always a lot of carvings done in stone. Some of them are crosses in memory of dead people and some are texts, which tell about the historical events, which took place in that church. The churches are also shaped in a specific way. Most of churches are cross-shaped, but some churches have first a lobby of sorts and only from there you enter the church hall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen churches like this before.
Another very special detail in this monastery was the church stairs, which can be seen in the photo above. They led to the church hall and they are only 30cm wide and there are no railing, so climbing them was pretty exciting. Climbing up was quite ok, but the way down was something different altogether. The guy in front of us ran down the stairs as a mountain goat while I was climbing them down butt first and s-l-o-w-l-y as this way i could use both my hands and feet to climb down. 🙂
One more detail. The doors of churches and monasteries were built very small on purpose so that people entering them would bow before stepping in. When you’re exiting the church you’re also supposed to stop, turn our face to the church, cross yourself, and then back out the door. This ritual is for never turning your back on God. Nobody looks at you disapprovingly if you don’t follow the ritual though.