Yerevan – Saturday Morning: Geghard & Garni

Saturday morning we all met at around 9:30, and negotiated with a taxi driver to take us first to the monastery of Geghard, then to the temple at Garni.  As we snaked up the mountains to the east of Yerevan, it began to snow quite heavily, the landscape covered by 20-30 cm of snow at higher altitudes.

The approach to Geghard

The approach to Geghard

geghard1a

Detail from the same picture

Slipping around the road quite a bit, but the driver seemed to be used to it, and manipulated the controls deftly enough to keep us on the road.  At one point, when the car was having trouble making it up a snowy incline,  he pulled over and deflated the tires just a bit, reversed to where the road was flat, and getting some momentum going we managed to make it up the hill.  Turning a corner one has this view of the monastery nestled in the crags in the cleft of the mountain.  The fog, the snow, the ruggedness of the mountains–it was beastly cold, but extremely beautiful, and we’d have the whole place to ourselves.

Plaque just outside the monastery

Plaque just outside the monastery

“Monastery of the Lance”….made me think of Klingsor again, brooding in his mountain castle on his revenge on Gurnemanz & co. while caressing his Holy Spear.

The main building

The main building

It really was pretty spectacular, isolated, deserted, snowy and shrouded in a dense fog. This external part, comprising perhaps two separate chambers, is the only part that’s not carved out of the rock of the mountain, and scattered about this main part are perhaps half a dozen (that we saw) individual monastic cells, again burrowed into the side of the cliff.

Inside the main church

Inside the main church

Inside the main part.  Relatively large open spaces, carved with all sorts of symbolic reliefs–crosses, animals, rough portraits–would open into each other through small portals, with circular holes cut into the apex of the dome above providing a ghostly light.  They also let in a gentle fall of snow that descended lazily in the cone of light the vent shed.  The whole place was impressive in a creepy kind of way: heavy, dark, with only a shaft of pale light descending from that single hole at the top illuminating the symbols laden with ancient meaning that covered the walls: inscrutable moon-faced creatures, elaborate crucifixes, organic designs, the evidence of the chisels still visible in the imperfect lines and symmetry. One thought of the lovely landscape outside, which must be particularly beautiful in summer, and then of the pious monks in their hair-shirts who would retire to the gloom and granite of their cells deep in the mountain-side to ruminate on the mysteries of Christianity.  The very remoteness of the monastery, as with most monasteries, indicates a withdrawal, and here it’s taken a step further in actually burrowing into the rock to withdraw even more, all in an atmosphere of perpetual twilight, a mysticism that struck me a somewhat creepy and redolent of renunciation and, indeed, perhaps a little fear.

Chapels carved out of the mountain

Chapels carved out of the mountain

One of the chapels.

Cold, cold, cold...

Cold, cold, cold...

Ben, Aleko, Elene

Ben, Aleko, Elene

Elene & Ben in a tunnel to one of the chapels

Elene & Ben in a tunnel to one of the chapels

Aleko, Ben, Elene

Aleko, Ben, Elene

The little space where Aleko, Ben, & Elene are standing is a sort of entry way, with a large door leading outside the monastery.  I climbed up into a little cell overlooking it and took this picture.

The hellenic temple at Garni

The hellenic temple at Garni

After having spent about an hour in Geghard, we climbed back into the taxi and drove down to the town of Garni, where this temple stands.  It had been destroyed ages ago, and relatively recently restored; much of it one could tell was new stone, inserted into spaces where the original pieces were either missing or too damaged to be used as building material.

The Temple

A lovely if slightly underwhelming structure.  An interesting contrast with the monastery: it was apparently built as part of the summer house of King Trdat I (rather than up in the mountains), and is much more engaging to look at from the outside than the inside; indeed, the inside is quite small and unadorned.  With its elegant proportions, rooted in mathematics and classical aesthetics, it seemed somehow proud in a robust, healthy way: a statement of achievement, created by a people comfortable in their place in the world, confident, honouring rationality and elegance of form.  I remember visiting the British Museum some years ago, and being struck by the contrast between the elegant sculpture of the Greeks and the scowling, ominous, forbidding monuments of ancient Persia.  The latter, as with the monastery, were somehow unsettlingly beguiling, seductive, speaking to a part of the self susceptible to mystery and the supernatural.  Crouching through the caves one felt a sort of uncanny–and unwholesome–exhilaration, like watching something die and wondering with indecent but irresistable fascination what might be happening to its soul. The temple, on the other hand, breathed life, seemed to express delight in ingenuity and beauty and the potential for human achievement.

Elene, Aleko, & Ben at Garni

Elene, Aleko, & Ben at Garni

Oddly, there were small loudspeakers perched on poles throughout the small park surrounding the temple that played New-Age easy-listening music for most of the time we were there: sentimental, melodramatic strings over a light rock n’ roll beat. An odd accompaniment to the monument.

Elene & Ben

Elene & Ben

Ben on the altar

Ben on the altar

Another interesting contrast.  Apparently the monastery is still operational; though we didn’t see any monks or priests while we were there (such hardy believers are harder to come by these days), a caretaker told us that services are still held in the warmer months.  On those occasions when I’ve visited old pagan sites, I get a thrill thinking about the rituals that used to take place there–sacrifices, invocations to an oracle, white-gowned priests or priestesses intoning by torchlight some prayer or other to Zeus, or Athena, or (as at Garnia) Helios in a haze of incense, as the faithful watched on with belief in their hearts.  The atmosphere is heavy with a sort of faded memory of firm belief in a discarded metaphysics–only the elegant shell remains: here a temple of perfect proportions, there a scuplture of man ideally realized.  One recalls the wild tales of Greek mythology, the adventures in Homer, that one read with a purely literary interest in school, and then realizes that in such places it was no mythology but reality–a living religion that people believed with as much fervor as today’s faithful.  I sense something similar in places of Christian worship: ornate structures dedicated to the supernatural, obscure rituals conducted by some elaborately garbed priest in an atmosphere of incense and grave sanctity, and perhaps above all the almost

Elene

Elene

palpable sense of belief, of faith–it’s as though the centuries of prayer and worship of the multitude of the faithful through the years permeated the soot-covered stone, and now radiate a sort of memory of this devotion back into the open space of the church.  With a difference: these structures are still in use; the stories of the Bible–the Creation, the Garden of Eden, The Flood, the Burning Bush, the oddities of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection–tales every bit as wonderful in their way as the convoluted myths of ancient Greece–are still earnestly affirmed today, the stones are still absorbing the devotion of the faithful.  It gives me a sort of thrill.

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