Everything that was said about Ararat was true: all the clichés which used to make me smile turned out to be correct.
For a couple of days, I tried to resist Ararat. But I would see the contours of the mountain everywhere – they would loom at the end of the city blocks, filling the empty space of the sky between Stalinist buildings.
I was watching the same outlines more prominently against the orange sunset. However, in the very greatness of the mountain, there was something intrusive and ambitious. And therefore, I transferred my admiration to its more modest but more perfect in outlines neighbor, to the cone of Small Ararat.
But one early morning, standing on the steps of Matenadaran over Yerevan, I saw the mountain in all its splendor for the first time. She was great. She towered over the swarming urban anthill.
She towered over the banal, erased pictures of the diaspora. She appeared incredibly, unnaturally tall. Although I was forty miles from it, I had the feeling that it would take only one step for me to be able to freely roam its fold-covered slopes.
In the early morning light, the snowy peak shone like a crown. I could no longer ignore her presence. In less than a week, she completely possessed me, forcing me to furtively look back at her, look for her at the west-facing ends of streets, and grieve when her outline was hidden from view.
Like all Armenians, I too now felt a passion for this mountain. Osip Mandelstam, having lived in Armenia for several months, has also begun to feel the specific attractiveness of Ararat’s proximity.
“I developed a sixth sense in myself – its name is ‘Ararat’. A feeling of attachment to the mountain. Now, wherever fate brings me, this feeling will live in me and will stay with me forever.”
In the souls of Armenians, the second place after love for Ararat, for Masis, belongs to the passion for their native language. “This is a nation,” wrote Mandelstam, “that admires the keys to their native language, even when they are not going to use them to open the door of its treasury.”
Matenadaran is the altar of this cult. Located on the upper slopes of Yerevan from where Ararat is fully visible, it serves as a repository of ten thousand manuscripts and hundreds of thousands of historical documents. Seated at the entrance is Mesrop Mashtots, the man who invented the Armenian regiment of letters with thirty-six warriors.
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Mesrop alphabet. Armenians and their alphabet are inseparable – one could not exist without the other. There are legends about this unity.
From 1915, a story has come down to us about women who, before their death, wrote the letters of the Armenian alphabet on the sand of Deir ez-Zor so that children would not forget their outlines.
The damaged manuscripts of the Armenian Middle Ages would be buried like knights, with all due honors.
The Book of Sermons from Mush, a huge thirteenth-century manuscript of six hundred calfskins, was taken out of Turkey in 1915 by two women fleeing from captivity. It was too heavy for them, forcing them to split it in two.
It is said that at the dawn of the Soviet era, the Bolsheviks turned to a famous philologist. They wanted him to rework the alphabet and thereby speed up the assimilation of Armenians. He refused to do that.
The Bolsheviks tied him up and burned his face with cigarettes, but he stood his ground. Then, they turned to another philologist and began to torture him too. In the end, this man gave up.
Years later, he fell ill and became mute. He wrote to the first philologist, requesting a visit from him. When the first philologist appeared, he found his old colleague at the deathbed. He was handed a note. “Please,” he begged, “forgive me …”
“I forgive you,” said the first philologist, “but that means nothing. Soon, you will be in another world. What will you say when you meet Saint Mesrop face to face?”
French philologist Antoine Millet admired the Mesrop alphabet, calling it a masterpiece, while Margaret Mead suggested choosing Armenian as the language of international communication, considering it the most suitable for this role of all the languages of the world.
Behind the Matenadaran, in the thickness of the mountain, a tunnel is laid that leads to a nuclear bunker. The entire library can be moved there in a matter of hours, and this fact serves as another bitter reminder that the Word will outlive the people.
Is the heart of Armenia here? Perhaps it is. If the Armenian language is the blood driven by the impulses of this heart to the distant corners of the diaspora, then Matenadaran must indeed be the heart.
Perhaps the heart of Armenia is Ararat? The inviolable Ararat? The Ararat stolen by the Turks? The Ararat to which the demon Yazatas chained Artamazd? Artamazd will one day free himself from the shackles and save Armenia…
Or perhaps Etchmiadzin is the heart? “The Light of the Lord, descended to earth,” the throne of the Catholicos of All Armenians, the greatest shrine where every Armenian comes to light a candle, the place where myrrh is consecrated for the baptism of every Armenian child?
It is here that the split self-consciousness of the Armenian nation merges with its symbol, Armenian Christianity. Not once during the Soviet years did the Catholicos and his vardapets renounce the Eucharist, just like in the previous sixteen centuries.
Under the arches of the central apse, there is a gilded dome, a little lower – a host of saints, and even lower – the velvet cover of the altar. This is an unshakable and unchanging shrine for the Armenians scattered all over the world, their Kaaba.
But in the depths of the earth, under the altar, older than everything above, older than the absolute majority of places of worship in the world, here, in the very center of Armenia, there once was a temple of fire.
The heart of Armenia is Christian, but its core is spontaneous, pagan, and it has survived.
P.S. A fragment of a human bone accidentally found by the author during a trip to Turkey prompted him to cross twelve borders in search of an answer to the following question – what kind of people are Armenians and how do they manage, like a Phoenix, to resurge from fire and ash?
Excerpt from “The Crossing Place: a journey among the Armenians” by English writer and traveler Philip Marsden