That day, the alarm clock woke us up very early: we wanted to be in time to see Khor Virap Monastery with sunrise. As soon as we crossed the Tukh Manuk mountain pass under an impeccably blue sky, we saw a huge, snow-capped mountain ahead of us - Mount Ararat. I had hoped we could see it, and the weather would be nice; now that it rose high above us, it seemed to be almost within reach and had an overpowering effect on us. We reached a roundabout at Yeraskhavan; wanting to see what a closed border looked like, we took a left turn, with an early bird who was taking care of his garden glancing at us with a puzzled look; soon enough, a barrier across the road made clear that Armenian territory ended here, and the Azeri enclave of Nakhchivan was on the other side of the barrier. A nervous soldier started to walk towards us, when I made a swift U-turn and headed back north. After a while, we had to do another U-turn on the highway, in order to reach the village of Khor Virap. A short drive through the fields where we saw people run and bike, and where farmers were working their land, we were driving directly towards the high white mountain ahead of us - Ararat, the master of the landscape here. Around a corner, we now saw the contours of a church: Khor Virap. The bright light of the early morning sun was reflected on the snow of Ararat, while the dome and roof of the church, a little higher up on a rocky cliff, seemed darker than they really were; the result was that we saw the contours of the monastery floating in a sea of light.
We passed the parking lot, and drove up because the barrier was open. We anyway thought that the monastery would not be open for another couple of hours, and had never planned to actually go inside. To our surprise, the big wooden door was opened, so we entered, and found three kids playing in the courtyard. Their running, yelling and shouting made the otherwise solemn place lively at this early hour, and we walked around the Astvatsatsin, or Mother of God, church. Where the light of the sun was falling on the wall, it made the reliefs stand out clearly. I saw a ladder, and could not resist climbing it; from the ledge, the church below now looked different: instead of being dwarfed by the Ararat mountain, it now towered above the surrounding flat lands below. We continued to the other side of the courtyard, to the St Gevorg Chapel where the Armenian hero Saint Gregory the Illuminator was once held underground by king Tiridates III. Inside, the bright morning sunlight only scarcely entered the building through small holes, and when our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, we could discern decorations on the walls. I descended through a hole in the ground; below, I arrived in a surprisingly big cell, which looked simple, without frills. High up near the ceiling was a small window, through which a little light entered - but there was no view at all, let alone one of the Ararat. According to history, Saint Gregory the Illuminator was kept prisoner here for 13 years; sharing the cell with a bunch of snakes, and only kept alive by a Christian woman in the village who secretly gave him bread through the window above. His story is important for Armenia: initially a teacher of King Tiridates III who did not like his religious stance, he was put in prison on this same spot, until the king needed him, released him, was forgiven by Saint Gregory, and ended up being baptized by Gregory, turning Armenia into the first Christian nation in the world in 301.
When we got out, an old man chased the kids away from the roof where I had just climbed: they had followed my example where they shouldn't have. We sat on the wall surrounding the complex. Below us, not more than a hundred metres away, was a high fence with a track on both sides where we saw guards patrolling: the border with Turkey. After the legendary stories of Gregory the Illuminator surviving snakes in a deep pit, the reality: the Ararat, looming high above us, is firmly on Turkish territory; we could see farmers working their land just over the fence. Once again, the strangeness and seemingly haphazardness of borders struck us. We now took time to let the sun that was shining freely envelope us - its warmth was intense, especially considering the time of day. The old man we had seen before now opened the door of the Astvatsatsin church - which surprised us, because officially, it was not supposed to open before 9am. We entered with an Armenian family who lit several candles, at once adding atmosphere to the 17th century church. Originally, the Nerses chapel was built in the 5th century at Khor Virap, which actually means "deep well". It is still one of the foremost places for pilgrims to go to in Armenia, and once was the seat of the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Orthodox church. We got out of the Astvatsatsin, or Holy Mother of God, church, and noticed the sun had gained strength. Right next to the church, we found some richly decorated tombstones, unfortunately not knowing who they belonged to. It was time to be on our way back to Yerevan; this was the very last day of our visit to Armenia. We had parked right at Khor Virap monastery, and when we drove down, I realized the barrier that had been open before, was now closed - fortunately, someone quickly came to open it, and we were out. So much did we like the view of the holy mountain of Ararat with the monastery in the foreground, that we stopped again to enjoy it.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Khor Virap Monastery (Armenia). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Khor Virap Monastery.
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