Foggy Recollections of an Armenian Village
I’m wearing every last bit of clothing I packed, and yet, the dampness seeps through, chilling me to the bone. But the Wings of Tatev will be worth it, I tell myself.
Completed a decade ago, the Wings of Tatev holds the title of longest non-stop dual track cable car in the world and connects its host station in Halidzor with the difficult to reach Tatev Monastery nearly six kilometres away.
Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity and the monastery at Tatev was founded as a modest church in the 4th century. By 1000 AD, the monastery had become a key political, economic and educational centre in the region. A few hundred years later, a university was founded at the site, where students studied architecture, literature, philosophy, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and theology—subjects familiar to any modern university student. Today, it’s a UNESCO heritage site.
We climb into a glass encased cable car, but soon realize the incredible views we’d anticipated are obscured by the same fog that’s left us shivering. Even at a height of 320 metres, we see a wall of grey instead of the majestic mountain peaks we’d hoped for. As we peer into the abyss, a recording in Armenian, Russian and English continues on its loop; to the right is the Devil's bridge, on the left ….
The fog does not dissipate and continues to complicate our journey as we arrive at Tatev village—we can see nothing that’s not in front of our faces. Google tells us that the Tatev Monastery is a mere fifty metres away, but we can’t see it and our chances of finding our guesthouse a whole two kilometres away seem slim.
But, as is often the case in Armenia, a helpful stranger comes to our aid and connects us to our guesthouse. A car emerges from the mist and we throw our packs into the trunk. Ten minutes later we’re drinking tea and snacking on fruit and pastry as our host family introduces themselves, including a ninety-year-old grandmother.
The warmth is short lived, however, as we discover our room has no heat. But it does have plenty of blankets, and we wrap ourselves in them as we plan our afternoon of exploring the tiny village that has sustained the Tatev Monastery for more than a millennia.
Clear skies greet us as we wind our way through the muddy streets of Tatev village a few hours later; sheep, cows, and chickens are the only traffic we find. Many tourists visit the monastery, but few spend time in Tatev village, which is a shame because it offers a unique view of rural Armenian life. People here are motivated to share their heritage and we're soon waved into a 17th century church for a mass that’s just beginning, bringing the congregation up to six.
The scant number of worshippers is a sign of the times—young people are leaving the village in search of work in droves. A 2011 census put the village’s population at 865, down from a population of 1,042 in 2001. Many house here are locked-up or abandoned.
Moving onto the monastery proper, we enter St. Gregory's Church. Soft candlelight and the intense perfume of incense transports us back to Medieval times as a priest in a black hood and cape offers blessings to a long line of visitors.
As we take a seat to admire the ancient architecture an elderly woman runs towards us. Have we done something wrong, I ask myself silently. We thought we’d covered our bases—no revealing clothing, my head is covered and Noel’s is not, what could the problem be? She gestures for us to uncross our legs, but we can’t figure out why until we Google it later. Turns out it’s considered inappropriate to get too comfortable in some churches. Who knew?
Uncrossing our legs, we head out to investigate the engineering marvel that is the Gavazan Column. Build to honour the Holy Trinity around the year 900 AD, the tower has a pivoting base that allows it to tilt in advance of seismic events and warn of impending earthquakes.
With so much to see, time has slipped away from us. We still want to climb above the monastery in time for sunset and head for a signposted trail. It’s steep hike, but the views of the ancient site, perched vertiginously on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River is worth it. But what goes up for sunset must come down in the dark.
“Shouldn't the trail be heading back soon?” my husband asks, now shouting above the ominous sound of rushing water. We’ve chosen the wrong path back—we’re heading to the bottom of the gorge, not back to the village.
We continue on with no idea where we are going to end up. Soon we come to a rustic and generally unsafe looking bridge, but rather than slog our way back uphill we gingerly make our way across only to find another hill on the other side. Finally, we see a house in the distance.
It’s a village, but not the one we’re looking for.
Two dozen old stone houses make up the settlement. Take away the satellite dishes and it could be centuries ago. Not a soul is in sight and chickens wander undisturbed on the cobblestone streets. Spotting a water hose coming from the mountain we enjoy a cool drink and weigh our options. It's then we see a small sign tacked to a tree: Tatev 5 kms
We should have brought a flashlight.
It’s then that the sound of an engine breaks the stillness and jolts us back to the 21st century. Sticking out our thumbs we're ushered into the back seat by a middle-aged man and his son. Knowing a few words of English the young man is very interested in where we’re from and what we think of Armenia. When they drop us off in Tatev they refuse any payment and tell us to let them know if we need anything else.
And when we return to our unheated guesthouse, we have all the warmth we need..