In my several trips to Armenia and Artsakh I have been to many churches and monasteries , and have seen all shapes and sizes, old and new, and have been eternally fascinated by the history and religious devotion locked in their walls. The writings in Armenian code which have told about the heritage of the buildings, the symbols, and carvings which gave an insight into the stories that led to their construction, and the sad tales of princes and princesses, of love lost, and lives regained. I have lost count as to how many I’ve been to, and I probably will never be able to do justice to the information that I have received during each of the visits. Whilst the facts and details may be forgotten, the sense of the Armenian culture, and the nature of the religious practices, and an attachment to what it meant, has built up in my mind, layer by layer. Each time I visit a new one, it opens up another corner of my understanding – like learning a new word in a complex language.
My guide, translator, “fixer” and friend during all of these times has been Gayane who has taken me from being someone with a simple touristic view of Armenian lands, to one where I have an increasing engagement with the culture, the people, and the spirit of Armenia. There are a number of key moments in my visits which have brought me closer to that spirit, and one of those was during my trip in May 2011.
We were staying at the house of Saro in Shushi, as had become the pleasant tradition for all of my times in Artsakh. Gayane was always prepared with different ideas and on this day suggested that we go to the Dadivank monastery. What did I think? Why not, I said? I always trusted her suggestions and was sure that it would be interesting. In the capable hands of Hrach, the driver, we made our way to Stepanakert to buy some food for the journey, and then on the road, north, in the direction of Gandzasar.
I had been to Gandzasar a year earlier, and we had been fortunate to be the only people there and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the surroundings, the beautiful scenery, and the fascination with the idea that relics of St John the Baptist were contained inside. On this occasion we didn’t follow the road to the monastery , we turned off just as we entered the Martakert region, and sped off down a road that became increasingly more bumpy. Although by this time we had been on the road for some time, Gayane turned round to tell me that we would be driving for another four hours before we got to Dadivank!
We passed through many villages with many bemused Karabakhi faces watching us as we bounced along the worn out roads, periodically scraping the underside of the car, hoping that the exhaust pipe would never be a victim to the pointed rocks. Fortunately there were a number of places on the route which would very helpfully repair cars that had suffered with the difficult terrain. The road came to an abrupt junction as we faced the expanse of the Sarsang reservoir, and we turned left to skirt its barren shores, the road battling for survival with nature. At some points we were unsure whether the road was going to disappear altogether, with the water trying to overpower man’s unsightly creation.
The landscape become more and more spectacular. It had a sense of being both untouched, as well as being abandoned. We saw a number of houses that clearly had not been occupied since the war, just left to rot, through time.
Years ago a tank had pulled up on the side of the road, without fuel, without men, without any further use, rusting away. A sign of peace taking over from war. The mountains, the fields, the trees, were blossoming with so much green and life that it felt as though we were the first people to travel there. Our journey, which was a trial for the car, and for Hrach, continued for several more hours. I was clutching on to the car door handle to keep myself steady, staring out of the window, at the unfolding tapestry outside. The hours passed by quickly as I was transfixed by the beauty.
The first road sign finally appeared for Dadivank, and we began to make our last ascent into the mountains, slowly inching our way up the track, searching for the final destination. One last turn, and there, nestled in the side of the mountain, buried in nature was the monastery of Dadivank. We felt as though we had been travelling for a very long time, endured a difficult journey and had finally reached Paradise.
It felt as though we had made a trip back in time, we had driven to the very early days of Christianity. The original monastery was founded by St Dadi, who was a disciple of St Thaddeus, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and one of the patron saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church. This was the perfect place for a monastery, for quiet contemplation, and to be able to respect the sanctity and historical significance of this place to the Christian faith. In a way we had travelled into a paradisiacal wilderness, stripped of modern conveniences, at the mercy of the weather, and at God’s will.
As I wandered through the different parts of the building, looking at the walls, staring at the windows thinking of the times gone past, seeing the uncovered grave of St Dadi, a man who was close to Jesus, I could not help but be touched by the moment.
The time came when we had to return back to Shushi. On the way we found the most beautiful field of poppies, the sun was shining, the air was clear, and we had good food. The beauty of the nature drew us to it, with the smell of the flowers, and the sense of joy of the experience of being to Dadivank, was intoxicating.
My first sight of Mt Ararat a few years earlier had been an emotional moment because of its significance, and this was the same. I felt that I had found and experienced something special, but I could not quite understand what. It had made it a little clearer to me about what it means to be Armenian, and from that point on my personal connection with the Armenian people and lands was sealed.