Saturday, July 13, 2013

Armenia part 6 - Travel to ancient Armenia

Millennium upon millennium, the vol­canoes erupted lava. As it cooled it solid­ified and covered the earth with a shell of stone. Mountains, gorges, turbulent rivers, waterfalls, and lakes surrounded by grim, forbidding rocks, were the cradle of the Armenian people.

Stones, stones... A kingdom of stones! Life would seem impossible here. Yet people have been living here since time immemorial.

Travel to ancient Armenia!
Travel to ancient Armenia!
They built dwellings, fortresses and temples of stone. They planted and grew vines, trees and grain in stone. Stone accompanies the Armenian through life, it is linked with the whole history of Ar­menia. It is both the fortune and misfor­tune of the people.

On the outskirts of Goris. high up in the Zangezur mountains, the rocks have been shaped into fantastic statues by the sun, the rains and the winds. Legend has it that when Tamerlane approached these parts with his horsemen, he stopped in astonishment, taking these statues for a strange, invincible army. And the hitherto intrepid conqueror retreated from Goris.

Nature suggested the forms to the Armenian architects, and sketched the rough draft  which  they elaborated  in detail, developing an inimitable archi­tectural style. Look at the tapering rocks of Gegard and Goris, look at the perfectly flat tops of Lori, and look at the flowing contours of the Gegami mountains. Sure­ly it is from here that the modern Ar­menian architects acquired their perfec­tion of line and design, and their amazing sense of proportion and rhythm. Present-day architects are as skilled as their celebrated predecessors in blending their buildings with the landscape. They also have a way of combining the traditions of ancient architecture with the features of the modern age.

Armenia is one of the world’s most fascinating museums. There are more than four thousand unique stone monuments on its relatively small territory – crom­lechs and dolmens from the Bronze Age. Urartu fortresses and heathen temples, early – Christian churches, medieval mon­astery schools and castles crowning the mountain tops.

Rejas Films production presents a documentary film "My Armenia" in english

Solid walls built from smoothly hewn enormous basalt slabs rise on both sides of the Garni fortress gates. The walls run down to the edge of the precipice where the steep unscaleable cliffs take over the protection of the fortress from enemy invasion – Nature's own wise solution to the problem of defence.

This is how Muratsan, the Armenian classic, described the fortress centuries later:

"The scenery around ihe plateau, crowned with the fortress, was majestic and forbidding. Towering rocks, strangely shaped cliffs, frightening chasms, deep gorges, arrogantly crenellated, beautiful mountains stretched away to the horizon, in front of the fortress, a frothing stream hurtled down from a great height to Row into the Azat River. On the northern side, in addition to the semicircular walls and towers, the fortress was protected by the overhanging cliffs which merged with Mt. Geg in the distance From the east and the west it was well-defended by its walls and towers made from smooth­ly hewn basalt slabs, secured with lead and iron. On the southeastern hill, practi­cally on the boundary line of the fortress, loomed the sombre crenellated edifices of the royal palace, and also Trdat's magnificent summer palace whose porti­coes were supported by twenty-four tall Ionic columns. The statues and the high, carved vaults of the palace – creations of Roman art – were still intact..."

What will the traveller see today?

A spreading walnut tree casts its shad­ow on the ground, vines on the stones, late cucumbers are ripening on their neat beds, apricot trees have donned their vivid autumn finery, and through their crowns one can glimpse Ihe arm of a crane and hear the purring of a motor. What a peaceful scene to find in this fortress which had once been besieged by hordes of invaders!
But let us follow the sound of the purring motor, and see what is there.

Basalt capitals, friezes, broken cornices, pieces of pediments are lying on the ground. They are fragments of the Sun temple, built in the first century A. D. and destroyed  in   the  earthquake  of 1679. Each stone has been cleaned of the dust of centuries, and numbered. Now they will be laid in place, for restoration work on the ancient temple has begun.

The ruins of the Sun temple are so spellbinding that you cannot tear your fascinated gaze away. You stand there, enchanted and speechless, gazing at the remains of ravished beamy… The purring of the motor makes a discordant sound, crashing into the tranquillising silence of eternity.

Till stone steps lead to a basalt platform on which two broad slabs, with the carved figures of the Atlases, have survived. The majestic and forbidding view, described by Muratsan, opens from this platform. You fancy that you are standing on a sunlit peninsula, and that to the left, to the right, and in front of you there is an angry sea, ready to crash down on you. But the waves have become petrified, and the sea is motionless. Everything around you is swathed in shadow – the mountains, the forest not far away, the ravines, and the black ribbon of the Azat deep down in the abyss. Only the rocky peninsula with the ruins of the heathen temple is ablaze with the inextinguishable light of the sun.

Not far away from here, there is a monastery hidden from view in the mountains where the sunrays do not penetrate, and all is in shadow.

The road to this monastery runs through the valley of the Azat, meandering along the floor of the gorge past the chaotic conglomeration of basalt rocks, each of which is a masterpiece of sculpture. Their shapes are so clear-cut and elaborate that at moments you refuse to believe that Nature and not an artist has carved them. The rocks high up in front are shaped like a crenellated fortress wall, to the right you see the domes of ancient churches, and higher above – the figures of heraldic beasts and birds. What you still do not know is that inside these basalt rocks you will find man-made works of unique beauty.

The gorge grows narrower and the overhanging cliffs seem to weigh down upon you more ominously than before. It is a long time till sundown, but a brooding darkness settles over the gorge.

The Gegard Monastery is, in fact, an architectural complex created in the 12th-13th centuries. Katogike is the only church built in the usual way with outside walls and an outside dome. The other three have been hewn out of the basalt monoliths. What light there is comes through the small round apertures in the domes. It was from here that the masters began hacking out the rock, cutting into the basalt and removing the pieces through a narrow hole in the roof of the future church. Inside the monolith they carved out the domes, the vaults, the altars, the columns and the arches, adorning them    with    an    exquisitely    designed ornament.

These three churches, which are the size of ordinary churches, evoke a feeling of reverence for the engineering and ar­chitectural genius of their unknown creat­ors.

Before leaving this fabulous under­ground kingdom you will throw a coin into a deep bowl of spring water, glimmer­ing with countless coins dropped there by those who cаme before you, and make a wish that you might come here again some day.

Gegard is perhaps the only medieval structure in Armenia which suffered no damage at the hands of foreign invaders. The underground monastery, securely protected by the Gegami mountains, became an unassailable stronghold in times of trouble. Children and old people were hidden here from the enemy, as were also the precious manuscripts of Arme­nian scholars and poets. The under­ground passages, the outside walls of Katogike and the adjacent rocks are carved with innumerable crosses (khach-kars) of the most intricate design com­memorating the dead, dedicated to glo­rious events, or calling for the safely of innocent people.

Silently you come out into the open, to the noisy, boisterous river which had tossed enormous rocks on to the banks. You cannot trace its course, for it disap­pears at once among the mountains, and you have the feeling that there is nowhere for the river to go, it is the end of the trail, the end of the world. And it is here, at the end of the world, that people, vying the genius of Nature, had created these miraculous monuments.

The crosses, which one encounters everywhere in Armenia, are as unlike one another as the Armenian monasteries and churches. Each artist, while retaining the essential features of national archi­tecture, lent his work an inimitable indi­viduality. Zvartnols – the Church of Vig­ilance – is probably the only one that has a twin. It was built in the 7th century, and fell into ruins towards the end of the 10th. For centuries thereafter the ruins of the once magnificent three-tiered edi­fice lay buried in the ground, and were discovered and studied in 1903 by archi­tect Toros Toramanyan during excavation.

The ancient slabs of dark red tufa lie in the Ararat valley with the sun heating down upon them. The ornament on them has been perfectly preserved. It is the unique secular ornament seen on Arme­nian churches composed of vine leaves and pomegranates. There is also a bas-relief depicting a bearded man with a shovel in his hands – this is Ovanes, the chief architect of the church.

Zvartnots collapsed in the 10th cen­tury, and its twin – the Church of St. Gregory was born in the Nth on the banks of the Akhuryan in Ani, the capital of the Bagratide dynasty.

In Echmiadzin, just a few kilometres away from Zvartnots stands a very old Armenian cathedral built in 303 A. D. The church underwent several recon­structions, time and again it fell into ruins and was restored and renovated, but nevertheless it has retained its original features.

Also in Echmiadzin, you will find the churches of Ripsime, Gayaneh and Shogakat. According to legend, they were built in commemoration of these three virgin-martyrs who preached Christian­ity in Armenia at the end of the 3rd century.

Even a very brief description of all the churches and fortresses, built on Armenian soil would take a lot of space and time. All I shall say is that the craftsmen who built the stone churches, fortresses and palaces, themselves lived in hovels of which hardly a trace remains. Little did they dream that the time would come when their remote descendants would reverently cherish their creations and continue their traditions.

The history of Christianity in Armenia was the topic of a TV documentary that aired on National Geographic TV on December 12, 2010.

There have been many towns in Armenia. And many capitals too. But there has never been and never will be another town or another capital like Yerevan. The people have put their soul into it. their genius. After their interminable se­quence of misfortunes and trials, the people created Yerevan for the present and coming generations with faith in the security of the future. The city made more progress in the fifty Soviet years than in the foregoing twenty-seven centuries.

There is a stone which may be called the birth certificate of Yerevan. A mere twenty years ago. a basalt stone was found on Arin-Berd, a hill in the southeast­ern part of the modern city, bearing a cuneiform Urartu inscription, made in 782 В. С. announcing that: "By the majesty of God Khaldi, Argishii the son of Menua built this mighty fortress and called the city Erebuni..."

This makes Yerevan 2800 years old, and one of the oldest cities in the world!

Look down upon it from the height of the Kanaker plateau. The city is brilliantly sunlit. The snow-clad peak of Mt. Ararat seems to enhance this brilliance, unusual even for the south, acting like an enor­mous reflector. The air is so amazingly transparent that distant objects seem nearer, and the mountains appear molded against the bright blue sky, as though someone had shaded the contours. The city is pink, yellow, red, white, orange and silver. These are the basic colors, and then there are the countless, elusive shades of the tufa, basalt, granite and marble, raised from the bowels of the earth and turned into houses, schools, libraries, theatres, hospitals, museums, stadiums, bridges and factories.

Yerevan is probably the only city in the world where the facades of the houses are never painted. Nature itself has painted the stones as required with the help of the super-high temperatures of prehistoric volcanic activity.

There are houses in Yerevan built from the stone on which they stand. At the end of Lenin Prospekt, where once there rose a bare rock, there now stands the monumental building of Matenadaran – a depository of rare manuscripts and minia­tures. Matenadaran is built from silvery basalt, which also makes its foundation in which the basement rooms have been hacked out. The statues of great Armenian scholars, erected at the entrance of Matenadaran, are made of basalt.

The Academy of Sciences in Bareka-mutyun Prospekt is built from Byurakan tufa of a rare color – dark-red with an ashen shade and shot with black. The Byurakan Observatory on the Aragats spurs – the largest centre of astrophysics in our country – Is faced with the same stone. A better site for an observatory could hardly be found. The air is clean, dry and transparent – never a whiff of mist. There are many clear nights here, both in summer and winter. The horizon is all but infinite. It was here, in the Byura­kan Observatory, that Academician Vic­tor Ambartsumyan and his colleagues made the discoveries which caused a veri­table revolution in astronomy.

It has long been the favorite spot with painters too, for it affords a marvelous view of Mt. Ararat. Little wonder that one of Martiros Saryan's best pictures was painted here and called: "A View of Ml. Ararat from Byurakan."

But let us return to the city. The streets here are wide and straight, and the squares are generous in size. There are numerous parks and gardens, and trees arc planted along the streets. Spots of greenery are everywhere: even the nearby hills, which had once looked grim and lifeless, are now covered with a thick, wood.

Yerevan is famous for its magnificent monuments. In the centre of the city you will find one of the country's best memo­rials to Lenin. The figure is mounted on в granite pedestal adorned with exquisite carving. Not far away stands a pink granite monument to Stepan Shaumyan, a staunch Bolshevik and one of Lenin's comrades-in-arms In different parts of the city there are statues carved of stone or cast in bronze immortalizing Armenia's glorious sons – the revolutionary democ­rat Mikael Nalbandyan: the founder of the new Armenian literature, Khachatur Ahovyan: the classics of Armenian poetry, Ovanes Tumanyan and Avetik Isaakyan: the great poet Sayat-Nova, and the legendary hero David of Sasun.

There are numerous pools and foun­tains in the city. And there is a lovely spot on the southern outskirts of Yerevan where, framed in orchards, lies the Yere­van sea, generously fed by the blue waters: of Lake Sevan.

How to describe this beautiful city in words? All its colors keep changing in the play of light and shadow, as do the colors of the mountains, val­leys, forests and lakes everywhere in Armenia.

Let us come down from the Kanaker plateau and take a closer look at the streets, houses, memorials and fountains. None of the houses are alike. Nor are the streets and the squares. But they do not clash, for excellent taste prevails.  Traits of national classical architecture are present in practically all the buildings, and they are well attuned to the require­ments of modem construction. The new. many-storeyed houses form an ensemble with their older brothers, even though the latter look a bit squat sometimes.

National Armenian ornaments adorn the newly built schools, theatres and hos­pitals, and are also carved on stones in the parks. There are a great number of fountains sprouting cool spring water in the streets of Yerevan, and practically all of them are ornamented with a pattern depicting a vine, a pomegranate or a doc. There are also fountains which make pe­ople remember their countrymen who were killed in the war. The idea of building these memorial-fountains belongs to the old stone-masons who began to erect them on their own initiative in wartime to commemorate their fellow villagers. The idea was soon picked up and devel­oped on a large scale. Nowadays, you will find these unique memorials every­where – in towns, villages, highways and mountain passes.

Yerevan has a very formal look, and yet it is a very cozy sort of town. Every­thing, or almost everything, is done here in good taste, and this applies equally to the development of large new residential areas and small architectural forms. Street lamps run along the middle of the main thoroughfare down its entire length, which is both convenient and elegant. Tiny standard lamps, placed on the ground, very prettily illumine the trees and grass along the curbs. There are handsome benches at the bus and tramcar stops where people can sit and rest, hang­ing their shopping bags on the carved bar specially provided for the purpose. Paint­ed clay pitchers and large stylized vases are placed at intervals along the pavement tiles. The interior decoration of most of the cafes and restaurants is also extremely attractive.

Two mountains are seen to either side of Yerevan – the majestic biblical Ararat and the four peaked Aragats, once a fero­cious volcano. While Mt. Ararat is Ar­menia's symbol of beauty and the fertility of its valley, Mt. Aragats is an important economic potential, being the chief source of the republic's building material. The spurs of Aragats contain enormous re­serves of pink tufa. It is indeed an amazing rock - it is light and strong, it will not crumble when nails are hammered into it, and it can be sown into pieces. Being a porous rock, it absorbs moisture and never grows damp. It retains warmth and is soundproof. It can be melted down. And it is amazingly durable, Offhand, can you think  of any  other building material endowed with all these qualities.

Walls made from tufa will stand for millenniums. And if many of Armenia's ancient buildings do lie in ruins, you must not blame it on their old age but wholly on the destructive instinct of foreign invaders.

Artik, where the industrial extraction of pink tufa has been practised on a broad scale for several years now, sends off trainloads of this amazing rock to various parts of Armenia and to other republics of the Soviet Union. Pink tufa is the adornment of Yerevan and of Armenia's second largest City – Leninakan; it is used to build up the new industrial centre Kirovakan, the raining towns Kafan, Alaverdy, Kadjaran, and Dastakert where copper and molvbdenum are mined, the Arzni and Djermuk spas, and also the hotels and boarding houses on the shores of Lake Sevan –the largest and the most alpine lake in the world.

Tufa other than pink is also quarried. There is a quarry in Azizbekov where the felsitic tufa so closely resembles oakwood that it can be used for wall panels. In Kolageran it is a reddish mauve color with cream veins; in Noemberyan the felsite has a golden tint, and in Sevan it is the colour of a petrified turquoise sea. Apart from the varicolored tifas, Armenia is rich in basalt, marble, perlite. obsidian, pumice, and nephelite syenites.

There is an infinite variety of rock in Armenia and, competently treated, it has become a source of the republic's wealth, Rock means excellent building material, first-class concrete, heat insulators, pot­tery, marvelously clear crystal, semicon­ductors, and soft, silky yarn. Aluminium is smelted from the nephelite syenites of which there are huge deposits near Lake Sevan. The new mining and chemical combine in Razdan uses rock for its raw material.

Armenia - Tourist guide (The Sleeping Beauty) 

And here is how Armenia's poet Amo Sagian speaks of his native stones:

You stones of my true native land.
Armenia's living stones.
From castles, shrines on every hand.
From mountain sentinels on high.
You soar atoft into the sky
You plunge into the depths below
Through thunderstorms and gales that
Grey, venerable stones.
Stones over all this land of ours...
Who knows from what high castle
From what stern monastery walls
Your groaning blocks were torn?
I sing your song once more, for all
My verses from your bowels were born.
Stones, doomed to bitter sufferings,
Worn out with evil wanderings.
Stones, broken up so many times,
Reduced to ash so many times,
And saved again (how many times!),
Armenia's sacred stones.
From stone it was that I emerged.
Stone was the living force that surged
Within me. Since primordial lime.
In stone I've woven fancies free,
In stone I've fashioned filigree
Of silken texture fine.

In the last fifty years a miracle of transformation has been performed in Armenia by the people who, after long centuries of struggle for the right to live and work in freedom, had at last become the masters of their country's fortunes. The new generation of Armenians only know from books and from the stories of the very old people how poor their land was in the past, what sufferings fell to the lot of their ancestors, how frightening was the genocide perpetrated by the rulers of the Osmanian Empire against Ar­menians, and how the survivors dispersed all over the world.

The Armenian people were on the verge of extinction, but they refused to be beaten. They found the inner strength and the will for a revival of their nation, and in the new social conditions achieved tremendous results in their material and spiritual prosperity. Armenians who had scattered all over the world began to re­turn to their native land, reborn after the Great October Revolution, to start a new and better life.

After visiting Soviet Armenia, Rock­well Kent, the famous American painter and writer, once said that he saw more miracles in Armenia than anywhere else in the world. He called it a blessed land, a cradle of talents and great achievements, a small country that had produced monu­ments and personalities that could be the adornment and pride of the entire world.                                       

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