by Lily Michaelides
As published in Volume 10, NO 1, March 13
It has not one, but many faces, perhaps under my nose, that are not even visible at first glance. It is not easy to describe Yerevan in just a few words. Any attempt to describe it, leads to sacrilege. I must be careful. This place, inhabited since ancient times, is sacred. I cross the parks and the squares with the musical fountains. During the evenings, the shadows of the colorful projections through the jets in the swan lake, create pagan shapes on the walls of the building of Democracy Square. Almost all the facades of the new buildings have the colors of tofu, a pink porous volcanic rock, “marble from our mountains” the locals say. An ancient city, whose contemporary construction storm has swept its historic core. I walk along the wide avenues. Beside me, the breaths of hundreds of people. I will have to unfold the secrets of their language looking at the manuscripts of Madenataran, to sharpen my thinking in the sharp lyrics of Sevak Barouir “let there be light”, to sit in the twilight of the churches under their domes that are filled with music and requests, to turn my gaze to the west, waiting with dedication to see clearly the entire mountain, sit above the head of the city like a crown.
Hrazdan divides Yerevan with a canyon. It used to be picturesque years ago but now buildings have sprouted on its banks. The sheds at bus stops have the shape of a fish. The sculptured statues have something despotic in their appearance.
That morning I met Davit and his group. They open up to me when I start talking to them, but I soon realize that the loss of their country was a loss of life. The stories from the mythology of the mountains and the fairy tales of Toumanian, unite their generations for years, helping them survive and walk into the future, because the language outlives them and they want to preserve it. That’s why they say the heart of Armenia beats in Mandenataran, because that’s where the Armenian language is preserved.
The bus stopped at a flat place beside the draft hunts of the vendors. We climbed the hill. The Sevanavank monastery looked deserted and dozens of hatzskars were placed one next to the other, abandoned to God’s mercy. I sat on the stone border at the edge of the hill and I looked away. Sevan Lake spreads like an enormous rotunda with the hills surrounding it like cloisters and the sky as its dome. The air brought its breath on my face. Everything was in the place destined for them. Streets squeezed amidst the trees, the quiet scenery at the end of autumn, the destiny of the people that live in this part of the lake. The morning whispered verses in the Armenian poplars, the plane trees, the green hills, playing among them, ending in the sharp domes of the monastery. There was something mystical in the hills that spread around the lake and faded in the mist of the horizon. For Maxim Gorki “the lake was a part of the sky that was inserted between the mountains”. Its waters unmovable and transparent, had a washed out metallic blue color. The people that live here for years, have a special bond to the lake and the authentic objects around them. Once, their life was like a fish in land. Now they are free to breathe, free to fish the “fine ishan”, boosting their dignity.
I surrender to the aura of the place, I feel anxious, I want to learn, listening the people themselves and not the tourist and historic guides. The camera lens interrupts my contemplation… A picture taken from above, focuses on the depth of the frozen waters. “I want to dive into the waters, to feel the pebbles grind beneath my feet, to feel the bites of the fish, to moist my thought even for just a while”, I am thinking, but, “What is the use of experience, when the result is a nightmare?”
Geghard Ayrivank Monastery
Birds fly circularly around the height of the dome. Their fluttering accompanies the psalms of the aerial voice of Gohar, making the flames of the candles uneasy. We stand in the twilight. A hint of light falls through the tall plain windows. The thick walls have turned black from the flames of the candles and their smell is wet and intense, in contrast to the soft voice of Davit who explains to us the symbols of the monastery. “Geghard means the “lance” or the spear that charted the side of Christ when he was crucified. Ayrivank means “the monastery of the cave”. The Geghard Ayrivank is rooted among high rocky mountains in natural caves and claims “the true spear”…The monk St Gregory has carved the most ancient church of the monastery. He went inside the huge rock starting from the dome and he continued for years until he completed its inside, to open the entrance and get out…. Two of the caves-churches were rebuilt in 1263, along with the tomb of the Proshian Princes family. Their coat of arms is carved on the hill: two chained lions and an eagle with half open wings, and in his nails there is a calf. The lions symbolize strength and the eagle symbolizes protection…” The curves of the Armenian handwriting unite us with the serenity of the monastery.
I stepped out on the stone-paved yard. The large rock that fell during a wedding ceremony is stuck on earth. I fondle the surface with my hands, to feel its power, the weight of its years, its recklessness to fall hopelessly among the people but also its thoughtfulness not to injure anyone. Next door, on the wall of the main church, the chatskar, the ancient crossed rock; green vegetation emerging from its slits. This glorifying rock looks symmetrical from a distance, but when I approach it it’s not. The sense of proportion prevails to keep us on the way of the world, as the Medieval Armenians would say.
I found myself following the human stream into the sodden paths that lead to the caves. The requests were hung by the hundreds on the trees, giving the sense of a celebration. From up there the mountains seemed possessed by their own vitality. I elicit one last look, before the withdrawal of the light. The landscape is not at all coincidental. There is a contemplative silence among the hilltops, the steep ridges and the grassy plains. Only the wind swipes the high mountains and crosses freely through the buildings of the monastery, carrying with him the divine presence…
I descended the stone stairs one by one, carrying with me all the things I have seen and heard. A heavy load. Difficult to classify among the living images imprinted upon my eyes during these last few days. The echo of the mountains covered my thoughts; even the call of the people behind the stalls, that are standing outside the monastery, spreading their goods. Stacks of sweet sujukh, sour lavash, bread with khachapuri cheese, the plain puri, walnuts, dry berries, local drinks, all homemade.
The way back has a sense of an ending, just like the ending of the monks who carved the rocks. Above us a dark sky and down below the low lights of a neighboring village, like stains.Translated by Maria Charilaou Photos by Lily Michaelides