23 March 2013, 15:54
1837 |

Inhaling

He comes out of the mountain, rather immerses in the mountain, deep inside of it. Into its womb. He is the Mountain. His first name is Ayrivank: monastery in a cave. Further ahead, there is Geghard with the legend of the “spear.” The story tells that the Apostle Thaddeus brought the spear of Longinus to the monastery. This was the very spear that pierced Jesus on the cross. The spear is in Echmiadzin now, but the memory of it is here eternally.

First stop – at the Arch of Charents. To step on the layer of snowflakes sparkling in the dazzling sunlight is a true blasphemy, but we must go. Standing under the arch, one can spend hours watching Ararat, which does not appear to rise up from the ground but is landing down from the sky. Blades of white light on transparent blue. Today the mountain appears happy and generous. And the body completely dissolves in the sea of sun, losing its ability to reserve emotions which fly up to its majestic summit.

 

***

The waters of the Azat River bank froze, shaping a waterfall monument. She was caught off guard before she could let her diva tranquility appear in front of the cameras. Suddenly, what had been hidden behind the flirty murmur of the waters was revealed. It was obvious how the stones of this canyon were smoothed. Here is the turn to Geghard. My eyes are mesmerized by the domes and how the snow melts over them in a straight and absolute symmetry, on the body of the sloppily falling mountain. This isn’t on the top, but in the arms and on the chest.

 

***

Stepping through the gate, I realize how long I have not been here. How I have deprived myself! Once, many centuries ago, there was just a spring here in the cave. The water had healing qualities. Pilgrims came to this place – at first only the pagans, later Christians. The women came more often because it was said that the waters of the spring healed infertility. It was at this very spot that Gregory the Illuminator founded a monastery in the fourth century.

 

***

The walls of Geghard preserve the name of just one of the creators of this underground masterpiece, architect Galdzag. However, history, which follows its own mysterious ways, has handed down to us the name of Herostratus of Geghard – the Vice Regent of the Arabian caliph in Armenia, Nasr. In 923, he burned the monastery down to ashes. Nothing was left from that first structure except the eyewitness accounts of the historians. The word has outlasted the rocks.

 

***

The monastery that we see today was built starting in the 12th century. Initially in 1177, St. Gregory the Illuminator Chapel was constructed. But later it remained outside the monastery walls and continued a life of its own. Next, the main church, Katoghike, was built. You step into these walls cautiously, each step echoing off the walls. The fine acoustics makes you sing, not loudly or shouting or anything like that. So I too, could not resist the temptation to sing a couple of notes. Fortunately, my singing did not disturb anyone’s sensitive ears – I was alone in the church. Next, you have to turn left, to Avazan Church, (which is translated as pond or pool). The creek is gently gurgling. My knees are pulled down to the ground and my lips kiss the icy water. The live and viviparous water.

 

***

I am climbing up the stairs at the speed of my shortness of breath. There is a door in the rocks. On the walls of the corridor is a gallery of cross- stones. More precisely, cross-rocks. These are not separate stones, but crosses carved right into the rocks. I am going further underneath the arch. My conscience tries to maintain my perception of space. The horseshoe-shaped altar is in harmony with the arch of the front wall. The transition creates the visual effect of upward movement. I cling to superficial thoughts, but they inevitably sink further into the depths. These walls are not lined up but inserted into the inner shell of the cave. It’s essentially a sculpture. This was all that was left when the unnecessary parts were removed, bit by bit, by the handful. The creator of these bás-reliefs could not afford to make a single mistake. He could not replace or undo if something went wrong; instead he had to be precise from his very first attempt. Day after day and year after year, the carver moved on firmly without timidity, without doubt. Almost all of these underground masterpieces were built after the monastery was purchased by the clan of the Proshyan Princes. A huge bás-relief with lions chained to the massive head of a bull was their coat of arms. Like a huge seal, it manifests their pride on the monastery wall.

 

***

There are many independent chapels where several services can be conducted simultaneously. They are the reason why the place was once called the Monastery of Seven Churches or the Monastery of Forty Altars. Why so? According to one practical theory, wealthy parishioners wanted to have the temple as their permanent place of worship and were willing to pay for it. How many more Geghards yet need to be built, how many more crosses erected on the domes to overcome human pride? At least they should not let them build monuments in the temple, not even as magnificent as this one.

 

***

My fingers reach for the wall, as if trying to feel the line of destiny, united with many finger prints left at different times by other fingers. Creators, curators, the sufferers. Perhaps, there is some sort of vital need to be close to them. To feel close to the architect Galdzak, the brothers Zachare and Ivane who built the main Katoghike Church in 1215, the Prince Prosh, who rests at one of the chapels of the cave. I want to relate to the Armenian historian Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi who lived in one of these cave cells in the 12th century. He was the head of not only the graduate school of Ayrivank, but took care of all the religious and cultural centers of his time, including the famous Gladzor in Tanahat. And the thousands and thousands of people who were praying and praising the Lord like me.

 

***

In his Lessons of Armenia, Russian author Andrei Bitov wrote that the man who created Geghard challenged God. You think? I wonder: what am I doing right now, am I afraid to use someone else’s ideas, or to express my own thoughts? I feel shy to name what was erected in honor of, but created in spite of…what should I call it? There is something very disturbing happening inside me, as if I am about to understand something that was not meant to be understood. Perhaps something I have been born for.

***

I throw a look over my shoulder. The look of a thief that took from the monastery everything there was and carried it with him – a bit frightened with the loot, uncertain what to do with it. Yet Geghard stands on its white pedestal. Not on the top, but on the chest. On an inhale. And only those who are seeking it, will be able to find it.

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