08 February 2012

Honoring the Dead, Keeping an Artform Alive

Khachkars, especially stone ones, are found all over Armenia. They are oblong, carved slabs that commemorate the dead - and they are also exquisite works of art. We've seen over a thousand or them, 900 of which were in the Noraduz cemetery. From encountering our first ones in Southern Armenia to seeing the insane collection of them in that cemetery, our awe never wavered. No two khachkars are alike. The earliest ones date back to the 9th century, though the art form (and number produced) really hit its peak between the 12th and 14th centuries.
Today, there are still khachkar makers in Armenia. Walking through downtown Yerevan, we spotted one craftsman's studio. He was hard at work, but welcomed us into his tarp-tent to take a few photos. Most likely, he was fulfilling the order of a family who wanted to honor a family member in a truly special way. Of course, on a grander level, he was keeping an Armenia art form alive.
A large amount of Armenian khachkars, some of the oldest in existence, wound up in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey when modern borders were drawn. Animosity led to a great number of these being destroyed, sometimes by a country's government and sometimes by anti-Armenia vandals. The largest collection is now on western coast of Lake Sevan. We traveled to the fabled "field of khachkars" and were amazed to find that the 900 piece collection wasn't out in some valley with sky all around it. It was right there off the main street of Noraduz, after the bakery and the minimarket. It was the town's cemetery.
A large group of newer graves were sidled right up next to the historic stones. A different type of engraved art adorned the marble slabs. Portraits of the deceased were masterfully etched onto the tombstones. Some vertical "khachkar-shaped" ones were full, life sized portraits. It was just amazing to me to think about how many day trips from Yerevan, how many tourists like us, make the trip to this small town to see the truly awesome field of khachkars. And, as a result, how many visitors the town's recently deceased wind up getting.
Nine hundred. Nine hundred intricately carved completely unique pieces of Christian Medieval Armenian art. Upright, knocked down, leaning to one side or another, covered in lichen. They were adorned, as is tradition, with crosses and rosettes, vines, grapes and flowers. Khachkars as far as the eye could see in one direction and the workaday town below in the other, it was an incredible moment of connection with the country. It's not too often that you get to experience a cultural and historic landmark without being somewhat removed from a country's real, present every day life. What better place to feel that connection with time than a cemetery?
There's something about seeing a cemetery in the distance, a series of upward dashes on a blindingly white snow covered landscape. Out the window of our rental car, we spotted this graveyard. We don't know what the stones look like, how old they are, what village they belong to. Looking at this photo closely, there appears to be a line of footprints leading up the hill toward the site. Maybe the visitor was still there adding to the mini skyline with their shadow.

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