Amazing Armenia 19 September-3 October, 2012 (This tour is no longer available)
Quite a long time ago, I walked among the bewitching, hallowed ruins of Ani, longing to cross the ravine eastward into her founding land of Armenia. This long-held memory and yearned-for visit finally came to pass this autumn with a Ramblers Worldwide Holidays group who were eager to hike, ready to explore, and open to participating in the culture of Armenia. And we did it. We did it all. And we knew that it was good.
But for me, oddly, sometimes – during a sunlit luncheon under the giant arms of a walnut tree; a skyward view out of an upper window at a pear tree the height of a giant fir; a sighting of a hill-striding caravanserai on a winding mountain road – a pleasant moment would be momentarily broken.
A wafting in the air seemed to gently prompt a recurring reflection: is this Armenia as beguiling and wondrous as I had once imagined, viewing her distantly from the monumental ghost city of Ani? What was it that I had sensed about my experience of Armenia that was waiting to be fulfilled?
But I could not find the answer in vast sheep-filled plains, nor in elaborately decorated ancient manuscripts; neither in medieval-like banquets of food-filled platters, nor in sumptuous hotels in rarefied settings; nor could I hear it in the wind that coaxed and chatted and screamed from the topsides of mountains and passes.
And still, these intrusive melancholic promptings persisted and became stronger when I was in the stark, bitter-sweet setting of Noratus cemetery. There, on an open plain is to be found an ancient field studded with Armenian khachkars, huge commemorative cross stones, bearing and proudly wearing carved crosses and multiple motifs of flowers, animals, fruits and birds.
Although these mirrors of identities reaching back in time displayed inscriptions through which the stones tried to speak to me, I felt more their solitude, their isolation, enveloped in a moored, static beauty. I still did not understand.
On my last day in Yerevan, I searched for the Stonecutter’s Workshop indicated in a travel guide. And I found it, in a narrow side street surrounded by soon-to-be-demolished old houses. The workspace was small and crowded along its perimeter with huge stones in various stages of creation. In response to my greeting and request for entry, a young man readily agreed; he introduced me first to The Master, the designer of the surrounding gigantic contemporary khatchkars, and the head of the Workshop, and then to two other working artisans.
In the centre area one stonecutter was marking measurements for the design on the surface of a stone; towards the back area, another was looking carefully at a picture of an Afghanistan stele and preparing drawings for copying it; the young man was answering questions; The Master was observing.
I was watching the stonecutters working at their thousand year old art. I was aware that I stood in a particular time and place, participating in a sphere of creation through which craftsmen transform silent stones into living symbols of the now and the future, of the transient and the permanent, of sacredness and devotion.
It was, for me, the scintillating, awe filled moment in which I discovered what I had searched for in my journey, the heart of the matter. I understood the meaning behind my yearnings through the rich power of a tradition which links the past and the present with the future, which artfully writes in stone the spiritual expression of the Armenian people –breathing hope and eternal life into the records of prosaic lives and mundane events.
And I hold this bewitching, hallowed memory of the katchkars of Armenia, treasured, and ‘clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful…’