On the way back to Yerevan I stopped at Saghmosavank (“Monastery of Psalms”) another Armenian sight close to a spectacular gorge, this time the Kasakh Gorge. The monastery has a large gavit to the west of the Zion church. A gavit serves as a narthex, mausoleum and assembly room for the church, but at Saghmosavank the gavit was built after both the Zion church and the smaller Mother of God Church.
I’d been told two Apostles brought Christianity to Armenia, namely St Bartholomew and St Thaddeus (or Jude). This seemed like a lot of apostles for one small country, and only left 10 for the rest of the known world. However, it may explain why Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity, traditionally in the year 301. The church is sometimes referred to as the Armenian Orthodox Church or Gregorian Church. The latter is not preferred by the church itself, as it views the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as its founders. St. Gregory the Illuminator is regarded as merely the first official governor of the church.
Anyway, at Saghmosavank, a priest from the Armenian Church had just conducted a service and I took the opportunity to ask two questions translated by a guide: The first question was “Why did two apostles travel to Armenia when everywhere else just received one?” When the priest heard the question in Armenian he smiled and gave a short reply, translated as “God willed it.” This was also his answer to my second question, which was “Why was Armenia the first country to adopt Christianity?” I suppose God had willed it that I was able to ask those two questions on this day, but his replies were still not very satisfying.
From the Park of Letters the road to Amberd is not in great condition and it’s just as well there’s not much traffic around as drivers have to avoid large potholes and large cracks in the tarmac every few hundred yards. Amberd Fortress is one of those old places where visitors can climb all over the ruins without their being any warnings, in any language. The walls are mainly, but not all, in good condition and I enjoyed scrambling along one wall to a corner tower where I enjoyed tremendous views towards the mountains along a river gorge. If you suffer from vertigo though, don’t attempt this route as there’s a long drop on all sides.
The present Amberd fortress dates from the 12th Century although there had been a stronghold at this site 500 years prior to this date. The fortress withstood the Mongols invaders in 1236, but was eventually abandoned in 1408. The church beneath the fortress, referred to as either the Vahramashen Church or Amberd Church, dates from 1026 and is worth a visit to see the umbrella-shaped cupola and the views the church enjoys.
In 2005, the Armenian alphabet celebrated its 1600th birthday. In commemoration, 39 large, carved Armenian letters were placed near the final resting place of the man who created the alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots. The place is known as the Park Of Letters and can’t be missed by anyone who is travelling towards Amberd Fortress.
When Mashtots began working on the Armenian alphabet, there was a lot of pressure on him, because the newly Christian kingdom needed a Bible in its own language. Elegantly planned, Mashtots laid out the structure of the alphabet around the religion. He made the first letter A, which was the first letter in the word Astvats, or God, and the last letter K’, which began the word K’ristos, Christ. He then added the intervening 34 letters and his system has been used ever since, aside from the addition of 3 more letters.
The Armenian architect, J. Torosyan, created the stone carvings of all 39 letters and set them against the backdrop of modern Armenia’s highest mountain, Mt. Aragats. The letters and statue of Mashtots pay tribute to this complex and unique language, a source of pride for Armenia.
In 2005, the Armenian alphabet celebrated its 1600th birthday. In commemoration, 39 large, carved Armenian letters were placed near the final resting place of the man who created the alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots. The place is known as the Park Of Letters and can’t be missed by anyone who is travelling towards Amberd Fortress. Please see the above image – this story and many others are covered in this book: Travels through History – Armenia and the UK
I headed to the Treasury to see some of the less palatable objects associated with religion, namely reliquaries containing the body parts of the apostles, Thaddeus, Peter, and Andrew. These parts are called relics and are venerated by people who visit Echmiadsin, but I have always found it hard to believe these relics can be ‘original’. As far as I am aware, St Peter never came near Armenia, as he was busy in Rome, so how did part of his arm make it here without the rest of him? St Andrew did visit Georgia on his apostolic quest to convert the peoples of Russia, but it’s hard to believe he left an important part of him behind for the Armenians to worship. However, after Andrew was crucified in Patras in Greece, there seems to have been quite a trade in his skeleton, so it’s possible a finger or toe made it to Echmiadzin.
There’s one original manuscript at the Matenadaran whose story, if it had taken place in another country, would have been made into a blockbuster film. The Homilies of Mush is the largest, surviving Armenian manuscript and was created between 1200 – 1202. This manuscript is associated with the Holy Apostles Monastery of Mush (now in eastern Turkey).
The Homilies of Mush was rescued during the Genocide in 1915 by two women, who split the 28kg parchment in two, and vowed to reunite the two parts in eastern Armenia. One woman reached Echmiadzin and gave her section to the church there. Sadly, the other woman died, but not before burying her half in the grounds of Erzurum monastery, also in eastern Turkey. Miraculously, this half was found by a Russian soldier who took it to Tbilisi from where it was reunited with the other half in Armenia in the 1920s. If the Homilies of Mush wasn’t priceless before 1915, it certainly is now. When I read this story, I could just imagine who would play the lead roles in the film.
The main church at this site was built around 650. It had three storeys and seems to have had 32 equal sides, quite a feat of engineering in itself. The whole of the cathedral precinct was destroyed in 930 by an earthquake and gradually became hidden under centuries of soil until it was re-discovered around a hundred years ago.
What remains now is an semi-circle of pillars and a vast floor along with hundreds of massive stones from the three-storeyed church. The ruins are evocative of a time earlier than the church dates from, as the pillars look as though they belong to a temple rather than a church. The problem at Zvartnots is that the architectural experts can’t agree on what the church really looked like when it was standing between 650 and 930. Some of these experts even believe the scale model in the nearby museum is inaccurate. As that’s the case, I think it’s best to leave Zvartnots as it is, in ruins, and allow visitors to use their own imagination to reconstruct the church.