I’ve been here before. Few years ago we visited the village with Emee during our Silk Road trip. I’ve noticed the ruins while observing the Debed canyon standing on the edge of a cliff. But we decided not to go down. I don’t remember why. According to the scripture found on the facade, the church was consecrated in 1256 by the Abbot of the Haghpat monastery, father Hamazasp.
Back in the old days, it was a rather large monastic complex that consisted of several buildings, including the main church, the vicarage, the dwelling areas, and other structures of which very little survived up to this day. Built in the years of 1241-1256 the main church was rectangular in its shape, with a domed hall.
We wander around the ruins, take photographs, explore the carvings. The nearby cows rest under the warm sun observing us. Half an hour later we walk back to the village and head north-east, crossing the fields and bypassing the cemetery. From our hosts at Patvakan B&B, Hrant and Rima, we learned about the ruins of another monastery, the Bardzrakash Saint Grigor. Neither of us ever heard of it before.
Following the muddy road we walk about 2 km until we reach the rusty sign, greeting a villager who shows us the direction to go and a weirdo cat hunting mice in the fields along the way. A narrow path leads us down into the forest. Dry leaves rustle underfoot. Not long after we notice the monastery behind the trees.
Built throughout the 10th-13th centuries, this monastic complex was named after the first patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Saint Gregory the Illuminator who baptised Armenia in 301 CE. The remains of the monastery include the Church of St. Gregory – a vaulted hall type of church built in the 10th century, the three-nave basilica of Sourb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) built in 1221 by the son of Prince Sargis Mamikonyan, Marzpan, its narthex with carved reliefs (1247), the Chapel of Sourb Harutyun (Holy Ressurection) built in 1234 by Hovhannes Vardapet (vardaped is a well-educated archimandrite who holds a Doctorate of Theology) and his brother, and the Mamikonians’ (an aristocratic Armenian dynasty) cemetery.
There’s a strange feeling that arises within me every time I visit ruins of monasteries and churches that are spread around the mountains of Armenia. I wouldn’t call it sadness. Nor emptiness. I don’t know really. On the one hand, I witness the disappearing cultural and spiritual heritage of my nation. But on the other hand, it only proves that nothing lasts forever under the sun and all things must pass in the end. What fate did the monks who lived and worshiped God here centuries ago face? What was the life of those people who came here to pray like? What will remain of the ruins centuries later? And where will our own souls wander ? Truly, we are strangers passing by. Walking around the remains of the monastery, I try to picture myself the daily routine of the Bardzrakash St. Grigor monastery, once a spiritual and educational centre. It must have been a tranquil life here in the forest back in the old days.
We abandon the idea of going back to Dsegh. In the village we were told there’s a path from the monastery to the main road connecting Yerevan and the city of Alaverdi. After few attempts to locate the path, we give up and start descending through the thick forest. Even if we fail to find the way to the road, we can always reach the Marts river and following its current walk out of the gorge.
But after some time we come across a rusty water pipe. We walk to the west and soon find ourselves in a small roadside village of few old and half-destroyed homes. “Let’s rest here and have some food,” Nane suggests. We are on top of a hill that provides a magnificent view over the gorge and the village. Few dogs and sheep examine us from a distance while we drink tea and eat.
(to be continued)