Silk Road of Armenia: Akhtala Monastery
It was 7:30 in the morning when I opened my eyes. The room was dark. My consciousness tried to identify the place I was at. The alcohol consumed during the last night’s dinner at Mher’s house, whose family offered as a shelter for the first night of our hitchhiking trip along the Silk Road of Armenia, had its negative impact. I slowly regained my memory; we were in the village of Berdavan. By 8:00 AM everyone was up. Mher’s older son was getting ready for the school, his mom was busy preparing his breakfast, little Aren was running around asking for his part of the attention, as for me and Emée, we didn’t interfere much in their morning routine. When the children left, we were offered a breakfast with herbal tea. Then we left: with all the goodbyes, handshakes, smiles and hugs.
“My idea for today,” I spoke to Emée as soon as we were on the street, “is to go….”
“Hello! Good morning! Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”
We looked up. The old woman on the balcony of the house we were passing by didn’t let me finish my sentence. I was about to tell Emée of the plans for the second day of our trip, which was as pretentious as to visit the monasteries of Akhtala, Haghpat, Sanahin, Odzun and by the end of the day arrive in the village of Dsegh in the Lori province of Armenia.
Morning coffee is an important ritual among many Armenians, a socializing activity. I looked at the woman, then at Emée, and back at the woman. I remembered what a traveler friend of mine from Iran said once to me: “When people invite me over to their place while I am on the Road, I always accept it, for that’s what the Road is offering to you”. We accepted the invitation. “Just for 5 minutes,” I said to Emée. I knew it was a lie.
Her name was Nelly. Born in the city of Stepanavan, she married a man from Berdavan, and the village became her new home. Something told me that the man smiling from an old yellowish photograph placed on the sideboard in the corner of their guest room was her late husband. While we drank our coffee she spoke of her life; of her late father who would always invite strangers over to their place, and that now she was doing the same; of her son who works in the military police; of her daughter-in-law who slept in the next room with their newborn child.
About 40 minutes later we were back on the road again. Two short rides took us to the town of Akhtala situated on the slopes of Lalvar mountain. We were here to visit the fortress and the monastery of Akhtala built in the late 10th century. We decided to walk the road from the town up to the fortress. Built on a cliff, the fortress is surrounded by canyons from three sides, providing magnificent views of the surrounding landscapes.
Emée was well ahead of me, she was hurrying to the entrance of the complex, while I was trying to get a better shot of the town and the area. When I reached her, she pointed at the big lock on the gates: “It’s closed.” It wasn’t; the lock was hanging on the gate, creating an illusion. We pushed the gate and entered the monastery. In front of us was the main structure of the compound – the St. Astvatsatsin church.
Located about 180km north of Yerevan, the Akhtala monastery and fortress is often skipped by travelers who visit the region for the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries. Frankly speaking, I myself, though I passed by the town of Akhtala many times on my way to Georgia and back, I never actually visited the monastery, and our hitchhiking trip along the Silk Road of Armenia was a good excuse to finally make up for this lack.
The St. Astvatsatsin church of the monastery is famous for its frescoes, depicting scenes from both Old and New Testaments, saints, the Holy Virgin with Child, the Communion, the apostles Peter, John and Paul, as well as the evangelists Matthew and Luke and other Christian saints. Unfortunately, the church was locked and we couldn’t go in to see the murals, so we went the explore the other structures of the complex: the 13th c. three-story tower, built into the fortress walls; the ruins of the cells; the remains of a 13th-century single nave church.