Advantages The beautifully carved stones in the "Alphabet Garden" and the church frescoes.
Disadvantages No information provided on site. Independent travellers will find it hard to get to.
|Is it worth visiting?|
During my childhood, my parents went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that I grew up with an understanding and appreciation of my Armenian heritage. Having moved us from London to New York so we could be part of the well established 300,000 strong community there, they ensured we spoke Armenian at home, taught us to read and write our unique language, and sent us to Saturday school at the local Armenian Orthodox Church. As a people, there are two things that have kept us distinct from our Caucasian neighbours, faith and language. These are the twin bedrocks on which our culture is based, and the genesis of both is inextricably intertwined. Armenia became the first nation to declare Christianity as a state religion in the early 4th century. Our greatest saint, Gregory the Illuminator, was instrumental in converting the (then pagan) King Tiridates to the new faith. However, the Armenians lacked their own alphabet and script, meaning that the Gospel had to be written and recorded in the most prevalent regional languages of the time – Greek, Persian and Syriac – none of which were really suitable for capturing the complex sounds of the Armenian language.
When he died in 440AD, he was buried in a village called Oshagan. A modest chapel was built over his grave, but nothing remains of it. On my recent trip to Armenia, a friend of my sister – an affable chap called Andranik - offered to take me on a road trip to the region north and west of Yerevan called Aragatsotn – named for Mt Aragats, the highest in Armenia. I had specifically wanted to visit the monastery of Saghmosavank and the Fortress of Amberd, but my host insisted we divert to Oshagan to visit the burial place of St Mesrob. I hadn’t realised it was in the area, so readily agreed.
The area around the church itself has been much improved since Armenia’s independence in 1991. It now boasts properly paved walkways and relatively well tended gardens with the church at its centre. The undoubted highlight in the courtyard is the “alphabet garden”, a set of 38 stone sculptures modelled on traditional Armenian “khatchkars” (literally cross-stones) each of which represents a different letter of the Armenian alphabet. The stones – a relatively modern addition - are exquisitely carved with religious and cultural designs related to the letter they are contained within. However, without an appreciation of the sounds represented by the alphabet and the meaning of the words visually represented in the carvings, much of the context is lost on the foreign visitor. That said, the stones are lovely works of art in their own right. They stand in an orchard of apricot trees, and when I visited in late June, the golden orange fruits were heavy, ripe and irresistible. My hands were soon covered with sticky apricot nectar as I sampled the native Prunus Armeniaca while hunting for the stones with my initials. Unfortunately, and perhaps, inexplicably given their obvious attraction, the area around the stones was thick with weeds and overgrown grass, needing serious maintenance. As a country relatively new to the concept of tourism, Armenia’s main sights remain curiously under-developed, but while some may consider this something of an inconvenience, from a selfish perspective, it’s more of a blessing.
On the right hand side of the altar is a small passage leading to St Mesrob’s tomb, above which is painted another impressive fresco. In stark contrast to this splash of colour, a tall grey slab of stone, inscribed with the Armenian alphabet stands sentry alongside the narrow entrance to teh tomb itself, as if by now, a reminder was still needed of who, exactly, you were visiting. A short set of steps take you down into the mausoleum, which is lit by a single light bulb encased in an intricate wire mesh, casting dappled shadows over the walls. The white marble tomb, which, when I visited was covered in long-stemmed flowers - some fresh - some clearly worse for wear - lay along the far wall, with a simple inscription bearing the Saint’s name, and his dates of birth and death. The room is quite small, with a low ceiling, comfortably accommodating no more than three or four people. On one side is an intricately carved, traditional khatchkar - the details of which were difficult to make out in the dim lighting. Onn the other side is a stone with an inscription dating back to when the church was built in 1875. After a few moments of reflection, I placed a few Dram (local currency) in the red velvet covered collection box and made my way out.
Recommended – but only as part of a wider itinerary, and if you don’t have a guide, do some light background reading first to get the most of your visit.© Hishyeness 2010
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