Two rides took us to the city of Ijevan from Dilijan where we spent the night, and another ride from Ijevan to the Achajur turn. Heavy grey clouds stretched above us, and up on the mountain top we could see the fog embracing the forests and fields. We crossed to the other end of the village with local musicians who were headed to a wedding party. They dropped us off on the road expressing their regrets for not being able to drive us all the way to the monastery since they were already late from the party. We thanked them warmly and walked up along the road.
The fog was getting thicker from time to time, and we couldn’t see much around us. There were very few cars passing by, and all of them were full. We knew we had plenty of time, and none of us wanted to rush, so we kept walking and looking for photography inspirations.
“There are shortcuts to get to the monastery, but it’s foggy today, easy to get lost if you don’t know the routes here. And besides, there are wild animals,” said one shepherd from whom we asked for directions. While we were digesting what we’ve just heard, he walked away, hurrying his donkey down the road. “Yes, of course, there are bears here. But I don’t think they like the meat of you people from the city,” joked one of the two guys who eventually picked us up and drove us to the Makaravank monastery, though they weren’t particularly heading there.
The only historical record about Makaravank monastery is preserved in works of Kirakos of Gandzak. According to him, the wife of Haterk’s Prince Ishkhan tied a curtain for the monastery together with her daughter. The legend goes that a certain craftsman named Makar built the monastery together with his son. As the walls were growing higher, Makar was spending nights on the walls of the monastery, while his son was preparing the stones for him. One day he noticed that the stones and the patterns carved into them now looked different. When Makar found out that his son passed away, he committed suicide jumping off the church’s top. The villagers buried him under the walls of the monastery and named it after the craftsman – Makaravank (monastery of Makar).
“Here, take this sacrifice,” greeted us the abbot of the monastery, offering the meat of a sacrificed animal. “Thank you. May the sacrifice be accepted. But we can’t take it,” we said. He was somewhat confused, so we hurried to add that we don’t eat meat at all. It may sound surprising, but yes, animal sacrifice is still a common practice among Christian Armenians. We heard a loud music from the rest area in front of the main gates of the monastic complex. I realized that people who made the sacrifice were now having a party. The abbot sent the guard, a 50-year-old man, to calm them down.
I exchanged few words with the abbot, and then we went to explore the monastic complex that was revealing itself from the fog. Makaravank’s oldest church was built of large pieces of red tufa stone during the 10th-11th centuries. The 1198 AD Saint Astvatsatsin church belongs to the type of the four-apse centric round monuments and was built by the monastery’s first abbot Hovhannes I in memory of his parents and brothers. The reliefs on the walls of the church depict a stork and a snake, and two beasts locked in a fight.
The main church of Makaravank monastery was built in 1205 AD. The complex also consists of the gavit built in 1224 AD, the main gates, the small chapel, the cemetery, the walls, and the building that covers the water spring as well as some other small structures. The overall impression from the monastery was somewhat melancholic, and looking back and thinking about it now, I can say that partly the reason was the weather. But there was something else in the vibes around that I couldn’t explain then, and nor can I do now.
By the time we finished a full circle around the monastery other visitors arrived in the monastery, which also meant a ride down to the main road back to Dilijan for us. We left the monastery and decided to walk along the muddy road until the cars drive back. After about 500 meters we heard something strange that sounded like a huge animal heavily breathing. “Is that a bear?” asked Nane. I didn’t know, but because it was so close to the road, I thought it wasn’t. “No, most likely just a horse,” I replied. “A horse? What the hell is a horse doing here in the forest. It’s bear. We should go back!” I insisted on continuing our way. But then the huge thing started moving in our direction. Well, at least, that’s what it sounded like.
“OK, let’s go back to the monastery,” said I, and we hurried back. The creature seemed to be following us for some time. Back at home, when I described the sound to a hunter friend of mine, he assured me that is was a bear. I wasn’t really convinced, though. But in any case, that made a wonderful ending to our to trip to Makaravank monastery. Eventually, we got picked up by a group of young people, who drove us down to the Dijijan-Noyemberyan junction, from where we then hitchhiked back to Yerevan.
More than a year ago, when I was visiting the monastery of Goshavank with a group of friends I had a chance to exchange few words with one the ladies selling candles and postcards there. It was from her that I first heard of the monastery of Makaravank – and the images she showed me on the postcards were impressive. But ever since I didn’t come back to the region, and that’s why we decided to dedicate the second day of our 2-day trip to Tavush Province of Armenia to the 10th-13th century Makaravank monastery located about 6 km west of the village of Achajur, on the slopes of Paytatap mountain.