01 February 2012

Tatev Monastery

Where the snout of the Arabian Tectonic Plate jams up against the Eurasian Plate a jagged line of peaks, earthquakes and raw rock has formed. Along this same division - between the mass of middle Eurasia and the confusion of forces below - religions have clashed too. For centuries, this has been a fault line of two types.
Built amongst the crags and cliffs of the Lower Caucasus, Tatev Monastery perfectly encapsulates the upheaval of beliefs and earth. Built as a fortress monastery during the waning days of the first millennium and the first upward push of Islam, Tatev's location is its identity.
This morning we were excited about two things: the monastery and the aerial tramway that would bring us there. We knew next to nothing about Tatev, except that it was beautifully situated. The tramway is supposed to be the longest in the world.
Well, the tram was closed for the day, but that turned out to be a good thing. The long, steep succession of hairpin turns that brought us across the abyss was just as thrilling. It also gave us a chance to stop and marvel at where we were.
Up close, Tatev isn't spectacular. There are some interesting details - carved doors and walls, a few remnants of frescoes - but too much time has passed since the glory days of the monastery for much else to remain. The main church was constructed between 985 and 996 AD, and the institution that surrounded the structure reached its height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
A community of some one thousand scholar monks and several hundred laymen grew around Tatev, and the university that was founded there became among the most important in the region, but that is part of the distant past. Today, it's only a tourist attraction.
The original religious buildings on the site probably dated to the seventh century, not long after Armenia was converted to Christianity. The present complex, though, was built as more of a fortress than anything. The Princes of Syunik wanted to create a haven for the treasures of their kingdom, and were less concerned about the prestige of a prominent church center.
As difficult to reach as Tatev is, and as well fortified as it was, the compound was sacked at least five times in its history - first by the Seljuk Turks, later by Tamerlane and the Timurids, finally by a succession of Persian Shahs. Despite christianity's strong hold in Armenia, there was very little support for the princes. The Caucasus remained a borderland.
Worse, maybe, than the Islamic incursions of the past is a threat that's endured into the present. The last significant damage the monastery suffered occurred in 1931, when a massive earthquake rattled the region. The dome required a lot of repair and a three-tiered belltower was so completely destroyed that it was never rebuilt.
It had snowed in the night, and the road was difficult. We found a place almost completely deserted - a few Russian speakers wandered with us, a man with a set of keys walked around importantly, the snow in the parking lot was almost unmarked by tires.
A much-posted sign enumerated the rules of the main church; there were many. In addition to the normal Orthodox rules (a woman's heads must be covered, a man's heads bare, no athletic clothing, no smoking or loud talk) we were also told not to put our hands in our pockets and that "attractive clothing" was prohibited. Also, that there was a specific way to pray inside, and that other forms of prayer wouldn't be tolerated.
There wasn't much to see. Tatev has been somewhat modernized, and feels much like any Armenian cross-dome church, with new, marble floors and tacky, red velvet drapings.
Outside, we were happier. The place, especially in the snow, has an overwhelming feeling of solitude.
It's unfortunate that the tramway has been installed, and that the government has more grand plans for tourist development. The best and most important thing about Tatev is its inaccessibility and loneliness. The buildings themselves aren't extraordinary. Catching a glimpse from a far cliff is magical.
As we ground our rental car's gears, half-sliding down the road from the monastery, we felt happier about having reached the place than having seen the place. We talked about that being the greatness of Tatev - how that feeling applied to the construction of the monastery, too. In the wilds, at the literal boundary between cultures and continents, high up in the still trembling mountains, it seems almost impossible that there is anything built at all.

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