24 August 2008, 16:49
1639 |

The pit

We are heading to the monastery Khor Virap to descend into the same pit used for those condemned to death, in which the first Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Gregory the Illuminator, spent thirteen years. As a matter of fact, it turned out that it was not the only underground dungeon around here used at the turn of the new millenium.

Subjective deviation from history
A chatty grandma appropriately named Mariam, seated comfortably at her usual place by the entrance to the monastery, eagerly volunteered to tell us the story of Khor Virap.
– You don’t know it, so listen. Under our church there is a huge hole. You should go down there. The stairs are shaky, but don’t be afraid, it won’t collapse. I’ve never seen anyone fall in, ever. In olden times they put the criminals in that hole. It was a kind of a punishment. King Tiridat, God forgive his soul, put Gregory the Illuminator there. The man spent thirteen years in it. He died and was buried there too. Oh, wait… Maybe I am confusing something here… Or was it Tiridat who was buried in it… Ah, what’s the difference…
A very significant component unwittingly fell out of this free interpretation of history – Armenia became the first state that accepted Christianity, particularly because Gregory the Illuminator did not die in that hole.

Correcting mistakes
Fortunately the 5th century historian Aghatangelos, as opposed to the grandma, described the events that took place in Khor Virap in his work The Life and Story of Saint Gregory. The Armenian King Tiridat, learning about Gregory’s Christian faith, ordered to “take him with the shackles on his feet, arms, and around his neck to Ararat region; to put him into a very deep hole in the citadel of the city of Artashat, and leave him there to die.” But a pious widow “by God’s will” fed him, bringing one flat bread daily for thirteen years. “And…he survived by the will of his God. All others, who were thrown there from time to time, died, because of the foul-smelling, choking, poisonous, filthy, snake-ridden, unbearable place.” It was dug for the criminals and for the execution of those condemned to death from all over Armenia.
Eventually, the head commander of Ote came to get Gregory. He was sent by Tiridat’s sister – she saw a vision that the gravely ill Tiridat could be saved only by Gregory. That is exactly what happened. Cured, Tiridat the Great found faith in God and his Son, Jesus. The King’s entire clan was baptized, and Christianity was accepted as the state religion of Armenia. Gregory the Illuminator became the first Armenian Catholicos.

Code of conscience
I enter the monastery and can’t believe my ears – I hear a voice of a muezzin calling Muslims to a prayer. I look for the cross on the Surb Mariam Astvatsatsin (Saint Mary’s) Church, located in the center of the monastery complex. I stand, quietly observing. The vendor of the church candles provides an answer to my silent question.
– Don’t be scared. It’s not here. It’s on the other side of Araks. Do you see the minaret?
Yes, it’s a border and this river doesn’t only separate two countries.
Khor Virap of the twenty-first century is both a spiritual and tourist center. The best proof is a bright “Souvenirs” sign attached to the arched entrance to one of the cells. Handmade paintings of Jesus, the Holy Mother of God, Saints, and some local handcrafts are sold here. And because it’s a Holy place, anyone wanting to buy something has to look for the storekeeper for a long time. Obviously, it doesn’t cross his mind that anyone might steal something from the shop. In fact, not being able to wait any longer, people sometimes leave their money on the counter, take what they want to buy, and leave.
A small chapel – Church Sourb Grigor (Saint Gregory Church) – continues further along the monastery wall. It was built in the second half of the fifth century by Catholicos Nerses the Third, Taetsi. The pits are on both corners of it. The prior of the monastery, Father Narek, tells how Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in the deepest one of those. Its depth is six and a half meters – since his crime was considered particularly heavy. The other was for less significant crimes, such as a refusal to worship the pagan gods and disobedience to orders of the King of the Greater Armenia.
The narrow passageway leads us to the pit, which became an amphitheatre, where an act of tragedy about the struggle between the criminal code and the code of honor took place once. It would be more appropriate to say “code of conscience”.

Underground
The steep stairs are indeed shaky, and for a second it gets a little creepy. But soon the ground is under my feet. In fact, it is over my head as well. The semicircles of the blackened walls are above me, and on the right from the stairs there is a small altar with a black khachkar (cross stone). It must be this one that grandma Mariam took for someone’s grave. The silence is interrupted by scared voices of those who didn’t dare to come down here. But soon, in the opening one can see the sneakers, then jeans, and the owner of the jeans himself.
“Get down here, get down,” he shouts, “it’s not scary at all! Come on! It's not like you are going to be here for thirteen years, just for a couple of minutes. Hey, you!”
It is probably for this kind of visitor, overly active and noisy, that there is a sign on the wall, “Do not write on the walls, please. Do not attach candles to the walls. Please, keep quiet.” But, as always, these signs are rarely read. The active visitor in jeans is not an exception, he immediately climbs on the altar – how else to spend his restless energy in such a restricted space! Not everyone can study, some have to experience things for themselves.
I subconsciously look for snakes on the floor. Aghatangelos wrote about some serpents. Grandma Mariam’s story coincided with the historian’s data, “We have countless number of snakes. And black scorpions. The red ones – it’s nothing! If they sting – it will just hurt for couple of days and that’s all. But the black ones – they need to be respected.” No, it's better to go back to the light of day.

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