A wonderful article published by the Wall Street Journal in 2012 describes some of the Armenian sacred sites. The article was authored by Dennis K. Berman.
Haghpat is one of the world’s greatest yet one of the least explored religious shrines. Millions of tourists every year gather to the routine splendor of Rome and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Armenia hosted under 100,000 visitors in 2009. This Caucasian country of three million doesn’t feel like a holy land, so its lacking number of tourists is understandable. In fact, a high percentage of tourists visiting Armenia are Armenians whose ancestors had been scattered around the world during and after WWI.
The cities of Armenia are filled with bleak industrial buildings. Hundreds of kilometers of barbed wire decorate its border with Turkey, and the relations with the neighboring Azerbaijan, which has claims on Armenian territories, remain shattered.
And still, this web of histories and enmity is what makes Armenia such an attractive place to pay a visit to, as Berman made sure together with his wife on a summer trip to Armenia. There, men roast giant pots of corn by the side of the road, and richly-dressed individuals share the street with farmers wearing Soviet-era suits. Magnificent blackened monasteries such as Geghard carved into a nearby mountain and Haghpat preside on the peaks of green valleys.
Berman and his wife were welcomed by fine airborne grit and oddly friendly border guards when entering Armenia via the country’s northeastern border with Georgia. Driven by a 48 years old former architect, who had to change careers because of lack of work, the spouses went through abandoned Soviet factories into a thick forest spread across a series of river valleys. That’s when they were met by the 10th-century Haghpat.
Haghpat doesn’t have to try as hard as the Vatican to inspire its visitors. Along with its sister monastery Sanahin, it forms a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is rarely visited on Armenia’s back roads. Only a wizened female caretaker was on the site of Sanahin. It should be remarked that down the hill stands a memorial to Artem Mikoyan, the creator of the Soviet MiG fighter jets.
Haghpat from the outside looks like a mixed castle whose owners have been keeping adding random wings and premises. Over 500 years after King Trdat III adopted Christianity as a state religion to make the Armenians the first Christian nation, a monk named Nishan founded Haghpat near the present-day town of Alaverdi. The main two-level sanctuary was begun in 967 and finished 24 years later. Over the following centuries, the descendants built belfries, scriptoria, mess halls, as well as refectories, finishing many of their walls with fine crosses.
The monks of Haghpat carried on a devotional, if not paranoid, communal existence. Over the course of their short lives, they fiercely protected the books and manuscripts of the monastery from the hands of invaders. The windows have been seemingly made narrow for defensive purposes, but now, they concentrate the power of sunlight when it beams through into the monastery.
Nishan turned out to have named the monastery more suitably than he could have imagined: “Haghpat” means “strong walls” in Armenian. The soot-stained walls of the monastery have survived sackings and earthquakes, atheist pedants and Muslim invaders, as if representing fortitude where little managed to survive. Having outlived the Cilicians, Egyptian Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, Kurds, and Turks, Haghpat inspires simply because it still stands.
The interior towering arches are covered with the blackness of soot, mold, and mere old dirt. Tweeting, birds often roam through the numerous rooms of the monastery. The occasional walls used to hold a series of religious frescos and paintings. Most of them have been scrubbed off by the Soviets, albeit a few colorful splashes are still visible from under the dirt. A set of flickering candles has also left its sooty tracks, as if materializing and displaying centuries of prayer that accumulated with each lighted candlewick.
The complex accommodates tombs and crypts laid down century after century as well. Most of them feature Armenian script, most probably describing the pious and glamorous of the day, while some depict only the most basic outline of the body of the deceased.
To pray at Haghpat means to offer gratitude for the time there, know that one day, our tombstones will be flooring, and appreciate how a rock arch had planted itself in the ground to not ever let go of the sky.