One look at a cloudless Ararat confirmed our itinerary today: we were off to the spiritual birthplace of modern Armenia, the ancient city of Artashes founded in 180 BC, now known as the monastery of Khor Virap. Legend has it that Hannibal himself founded this city while fleeing his Roman conquerers.
Situated right on the border with Turkey in pristine apricot growing territory, Khor Virap was the site where Armenia’s patron saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years in a cellar. After healing Tiridates III, the pagan king converted to Christianity and became the first to declare it a national faith in 301. To get there, we drove 45 min south of Yerevan past various Russian military outposts (why wouldn’t Armenians defend their own border?) and defunct factory towns built by the Soviets. The complex seen today was re-built, like many ancient sites, after massive earthquake in the 17th century. At night, you can see the lights of American “listening posts” on the slopes of Ararat. In the daytime, the nearby Turkish minarets remind you of the cultural divide. Alasdair gets involved in some repair work. He’s fascinated that grown men also like digging in the dirt. One man gets creative with his moustache for a bit of extra photo income with tourists: The sanctuary doorway is just as intricately carved as one of the many khachkars. Almost every church we’ve set foot in has a dome that is supported by pendentives, a technique first invented my Justinian’s architects in the Hagia Sophia. Armenia Christians traditionally baptize their children after 40 days, and is the first time the extended family sees them. There were two baptisms in the couple hours that we visited Khor Virap. Even recently built churches in Armenia have intricately carved stonework you would expect from medieval craftsmen. Jane and Alasdair enter the chapel and cellar where St. Gregory was imprisoned. A ladder with 40 rungs leads to the bottom of the cellar, where a large picture of Gregory and his trials fills the small space with its bright colours. Next to the chapel, our taxi driver Ashot shows us the monastery bread oven, where lavash flat bread is slapped against the walls. Jane was expecting to “climb the mountain”. I can’t say this pilgrimage was very contemplative. Ashot helps us out with the kids. Another way to make money off unsuspecting tourists is to hand their kids doves and charge them for “letting them go”. Alasdair holds a pigeon: