Addicted to Ararat

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Noah’s Ark – 14th c. stained glass window at the church of St Paul’s at Brandenburg an der Havel (Image: http://vidimus.org)

“1 And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;

2 The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;

3 And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.

4 And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.

5 And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen.

6 And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made” (Genesis 8)

The Biblical story of Noah and the flood is a story of destruction and renewal, a story of perseverance and hope, a story of finding home after a hard journey. Mount Ararat, where the ark supposedly landed after the deluge, is revered in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But much more so it is the holy place for Armenians – both living in the land of pomegranate and scattered around the world – who consider themselves the descendants of Noah through the ancestry of the legendary founder of the nation, Hayk. Ararat features prominently on Armenia’s coat of arms and towers above its capital Yerevan. But as close as it may seem, it is in a different country, which makes it a heart outside of the body of sorts.

Mount Ararat above Yerevan

Mount Ararat, or Masis (Մասիս) as it is known in Armenian, is inexplicably magnetic. Standing at over 5,000 meters tall, Greater Ararat seems to guard and protect its smaller brother, Lesser Ararat, the second peak over 3,000 meters in elevation and connected to the main summit by an ancient lava plateau. This two-peak extinguished volcano straddles the border area between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran that today is so full of political tension and deep-rooted disputes ready to erupt. But to Noah’s eyes looking down from Mt. Ararat on the vast plains below must have been the calmest and most peaceful sight after months of staring into turbulent waters. I wonder if that is also how the view from Ararat seemed back in 1829 when Armenian writer Khachatur Abovian guided Karlsruhe-born scientist and explorer Friedrich Parrot to the summit. The two, with several other companions, reached the top for the first time in modern history. It was only a year after the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), a deluge of another kind, with enemy armies advancing and ebbing in a fight over the spoils of South Caucasus. The war was victorious for Russia and the Erivan Khanate came under its control as a result. But these recent political and military struggles on the plains below must have seemed distant and somewhat unreal from Ararat’s peak.

The mountain and the plain

In his book Journey to Ararat Parrot writes about the moment when they finally ascended to the top:

“Formed of eternal ice, without rock or stone to interrupt its continuity, it was the austere, silvery head of Old Ararat. Toward the east, this summit extended more uniformly than elsewhere, and in this direction it was connected by means of a flattish depression, covered in like manner in perpetual ice, with a second and somewhat lower summit, distant apparently from that on which I stood above half a mile, but in reality only 397 yards. (…) From the summit I had a very extensive prospect, in which, however, owing to the great distances, only the chief masses could be plainly distinguished. The valley of the Araxes was covered in its whole length by a grayish cloud of vapour, through which Erivan and Sardarabad [today Armavir] appeared only as dark spots no bigger than my hand. (…) One thing surprised me not a little, and that was to see a large portion of Lake Gokchai [Sevan], its surface of beautiful dark blue glimmering distinctly in the northeast.”

Lake Sevan

“There were six of us on the summit, namely, besides myself, Khachatur Abovian, deacon in Echmiadzin, son of an Armenian residing in Kanakir, near Erivan; Alexei Sdrovenko, of the 41st Yager regiment; Matvei Chalpanof, of the same regiment; Ovannes Aviassian, a native of Arguri; and Murat Pogossian, of the same place. The deacon, though only twenty years of age, and accustomed to quiet monastic life, never from an instant shrank from the exertions called for by the undertaking, and showed throughout abundant proofs of his spirit and steadiness, as well as the enthusiasm that animated him for the success of the enterprise. His devout zeal, which excited him in Echmiadzin to follow us, led him also in safety, notwithstanding the manifold hindrance of his monastic costume, consisting of three long and full robes, over the rugged heaps of shattered rocks, and the precipitous glaciers of Ararat; made him, when on the summit, give all his attention to [erecting] the cross, without thinking of rest, and from this spot, so dear to him, to carry down to the monastery a large piece of ice, the water from which he kept in a bottle as peculiarly holy.”

Ararat remains “peculiarly holy” to Armenians today. Unlike Abovian, however, they are not exactly free to follow the footsteps of his spiritual pilgrimage to the top, given that the border between Armenia and Turkey remains closed and no formal diplomatic relations are in place.

Greater and Lesser Ararat with the Turkish-Armenian border fence in the foreground

Sitting right on the Armenian side of the border is magnificent Khor Virap, once a royal prison where king Tiridates III sequestered Grigor Lusavorich, or Saint Gregory the Illuminator, for 13 years back in the 3rd century. Lusavorich is the patron saint of Armenia and was the first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church after Tiridates finally changed his mind and converted to Christianity when St. Gregory was able to cure him from a mysterious disease. And so in 301 AD Armenia became the first country in the world officially declared Christian. Today a modest St. Gevorg Chapel hides the pit where Grigor Lusavorich was imprisoned. The Chapel is set apart from 17th century St. Astvatsatsin Church, both surrounded by a large courtyard and fortress-like monastery walls.

St. Astvatsatsin Church

But to an Ararat addict like me the most intriguing thing about Khor Virap is simply incredible view of the mountain, first on the approach still miles away, and then from the very walls of the monastery.

Fairytale-like view of Khor Virap and Mt. Ararat

Ararat above St. Gevorg Chapel

Now let’s add some music to complete the mood: Tebi Yerkir (Towards the Homeland) by Armenian American Sonya Varoujian from a great album I found by chance at The Club (40 Tumanyan Street), a gem of Yerevan restaurant-cum-marketplace and a cozy live music venue. I wish I could hear Sonya there one day singing this beautiful song in Armenian:

The question is ages old: to whom do we belong?
Scattered on foreign shores
I came to know you belatedly.
But my heart has always been with you
I would dream of your shores
And to finally come home
I felt a certain peace

Towards the homeland
Is the only path
Towards the homeland
Towards Mount Ararat

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