It's just dawn, the sky remains blue and the sun shines radiantly as it has every day since we crossed the border into southern Georgia, passing through eccentric and industrial city of Alaverdi.
A large icy puddle resists the entrance, in the shadow created by the mountain above. We crossed the arched portico and advanced through the stone atrium, suspicious of any betrayal of the old reddish floor.
Out of the shadows, we discover the magnificence and elegance of the monastery, carved into the yellowish slope by the already long Caucasus Autumn.
The gentle caresses of the great star and the immediate vision of several khachkars embedded in the rock, we are urged to remain outside and enjoy those incredible memorials, as characteristic of Armenia's Christian medieval art as are its abundant secular monasteries.
Geghard Monastery, a Dazzling Shrine of Armenian Christianity
Finally, we enter the Geghard, one of the most revered for its antiquity and historical significance.
Despite the near-dawn hour, when we pushed open the door, we shed light on the gloomy sacristy and noticed that some of the faithful were already lighting small candles among the family of columns and, with their faces flushed with the flames of promises, they whispered their prayers in intimate communion with themselves. and with DEUS.
We proceed into the interior of Avazan, a chamber carved out of an ancient cave with a spring already used as a pagan place of worship before the spread of Christianity.
And we go up to Jhamatum, another upper section that contains the graves of ancient Armenian princes.
A hole in a nook allows us to peek at Avazan below. We discovered it and occupied it for some time, until we noticed that another visitor was stalking us from the entrance. We would have to cross with him again and find in him a surprising familiarity.
His name was Fernando, he was Portuguese and had been traveling around the world for a long time. We met him again on our return to Tbilisi.
We continued to explore Geghard, afterwards, the elevated chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the founder of the monastery and main mentor of the early Christian faith of the Armenians. Geghard means spear.
The monastery received its name after the apostle Judas Thaddaeus allegedly brought to the place where it was erected, the spear with which the Roman centurion Longinus wounded Jesus during the crucifixion.
Illuminator Gregory, the Patron Saint of the Nation Who Brought Christianity to Armenia
Originally, it was founded on the site of a sacred fountain by St. Gregory the Illuminator, today the patron saint of Armenia and mentor of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Gregory (Gregor Lousavorich) was born in 257 CE, believed to be the son of Anak the Parthum, an Armenian prince who was sentenced to death for the murder of King Khosrov II. Gregory himself narrowly escaped execution thanks to the help of his tutors.
He was taken by them to Cappadocia (present-day heart of Turkey) so that he could be educated as a devout Christian, safe from persecutors. Gregory took the teachings seriously. He also married Miriam, a devout Christian and the daughter of a Christian Armenian prince of Cappadocia.
They had several children, but at a certain point Gregory chose to follow a monastic life. He returned to Armenia with the hope of redeeming his father's crime through the Christian evangelization of Armenia.
At that time, reigned Tiridates III (Trdat or Drtat in Armenian) the son of King Khosrov II. Afraid that Gregory was the son of his father's murderer, Tiridates III ordered his imprisonment for twelve years in a moat situated on a plain near the foot of Mount Ararat.
After some time, Tiridates fell in love with Rhipsime, a Christian nun who had taken refuge from the persecution of Christians unleashed by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in Armenia. When Rhipsime refused, he executed her and all the other refugee women.
After this event – and it is said that also due to the treachery of the Roman Emperor Diocletian who invaded part of the western provinces of Greater Armenia – he went mad and adapted the behavior of a wild boar. Tiridates' sister had a recurring view that only the prisoner Gregory could cure the king.
Almost dying, Gregory found himself rescued from the ditch, free and with the arduous mission of restoring the sanity of Tiridates. I would come to fulfill it. Tiridates soon regretted the atrocities he had committed. Both he and his court and army converted to Christianity.
Khor Virap, Another Inescapable Armenian Christian Monastery
The moat in which Gregory was imprisoned later welcomed the monastery of Khor Virap in his honor.
Enthusiastic about continuing on the path of the Illuminator's life, we visited it one of the following days, with a new incursion from Yerevan.
We traveled south towards the river Arax which made the frigid atmosphere humid.
The Border with Hated Turkey and Mount Ararat which was once Armenian
Arax establishes the border with Turkey, full of barbed wire and mines and one of the most troubled on the face of the Earth due to the events of 1915-23 that the Armenians call Armenian genocide with about 1.5 million victims at the hands of the Ottomans , while the Turks argue that the number is much lower and was due to the mere hardships of the First World War and times that followed.
In the last kilometers of the route, we came closer to Mount Ararat before our eyes. At a certain point, the hill rises in the extension of vines parched by the cold.
Khor Virap, we find it on a rocky rise only in appearance, at the base of the great Ararat where, despite the controversy surrounding the matter, most Armenians believe that Noah's Ark was immobilized after the Flood and that it should do, even today, part of his nation's territory.
Cristina Kyureghian, the guide who accompanies us, also describes one of the curious diplomatic tantrums between Armenians and Turks: “they know that the Turks had the nerve to demand that we remove Mount Ararat from our flag. They say it doesn't belong to us.
Our representatives replied that, in that case, they should never have included the moon in theirs.”
Discovering Khor Virap in the Company of a Russian Entourage
We won the last ramp to the monastery. We ended up entering at the same time as an Armenian Orthodox priest received by the workers and other religious with due pomp.
A group of Russians and some other visitors from different places explore the interior of the complex.
It is with the Russians that we share the chapel at Gevorg, before descending into the bleak pit 6m deep and 4.4m in diameter where Gregory survived for thirteen years only because a merciful woman in that area threw him some food every day.
Returning to the surface, we survey the rest of the complex and climb a small rise near the monastery. From here, we admire Mount Ararat and the vast Orthodox cemetery that stretches down an opposite slope to the long straight road that leads to the monastery.
Tiridates III, the Monarch who Officialized State Christianity in Armenia
From time to time, we notice and follow with old eyes Ladas that travel slowly towards us. Before long, we take the same road and leave Khor Virap behind.
Tiridates III, this one, embarked on a path of faith with no return to Armenia. He accepted that Gregory would baptize him, the members of the court and many members of the upper class. Recognized, in 301 AD, the king also granted Gregory the right to convert all subjects.
At the same time, it has long been accepted by historians that it made Armenia the first nation to have Christianity as an official state religion.
Although this fact has been covered with controversy, namely due to the possibility that the monarch of the kingdom of Odessa did so in 218 AD
The Monumental Armenian Apostolic Ceremony in Echmiadzin Cathedral
It is already in Echmiadzin that we understand better the unquestionable respect that Armenians have for this decision of this former king and for the devotion of their long-standing patron saint, the first leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
It's Sunday. The day dawns once more radiantly. Yerevan is resting from his usual work turmoil. Thus, we traveled much faster than we expected to the great cathedral, in time for the mass that was about to take place.
More and more faithful flock to the cathedral's main door, erected by Gregory's order between 301 and 303 on the site of a pagan temple. Today, considered the oldest in the world.
They are men and women of all ages and, ironic as it may seem, even teenage soldiers in the camouflage and war uniforms that, even in more recent times, Armenia has been forced to wear.
In the grand and oppressive interior of the sanctuary, they light red candles and give themselves to successive prayers.
The small flames of faith warm their faces and the diagonal streaks of light filtered through the stained glass windows at the top of the church. They add some mysticism to the already arcane atmosphere.
Armenian Apostolic Mass has little to do with those we were used to.
It takes place in different sections of the cathedral.
The choir produces powerful melodies from a wing. The chief priests, clad in resplendent red or gold robes, vocalize or echo the mass with slow and repeated rites and rituals involving scepters, crucifixes, religious books, other sacred artifacts.
The expected bank sequences do not take place. Most believers stand and move from one side of the cruciform space to the other in a conviviality that proves as religious as it is social and informal.
This harmony is gently broken when the Catholicos The present day of Armenia is present in the cathedral in its usual black hooded costume covered with a purple robe and circulates among the believers who seek the blessing of its blessing.
We recognize his supreme office and focus our attention on him. We follow the commotion generated until the door of the cathedral where dozens of other faithful are already anxiously awaiting the leader of their church.
O Catholicos, salutes and blesses them. Without expecting it, that voluminous character with a rosy face and a very white beard finds the photographic apparatus that, instead of a simple crucifix, we have hung around our necks strange.
Even so, he ends up blessing us even before disappearing, at the head of a retinue of priests, in Echmiadzin's secluded rooms.