The Silky Way Adventure
Slices of Armenia
Chapter 10 – Men of God
Previous chapter: Collection
Out of the fog came a man who offered to drive us straight to Tatev. He was a taxi driver and Artyom couldn’t make out if he planned to make us pay for the ride or not. We politely declined and started walking along the road. We were happily letting the strange atmosphere get to us. Pearls of humidity regularly formed on our bags, hair, eyebrows and in my companion’s beard. There was no one to be seen or heard around. The fog was absorbing all sounds anyway. We had no idea how far away Tatev could have been. But we were at least walking towards it – that much we knew. A first car drove past and honked. The second one stopped. It was the taxi driver again, offering to take us again. This time we agreed.
The ride lasted for a few dozens kilometres up a road curling up the side of the mountain until its top. Walking up would have taken us two days. Artyom learned from our driver that he owned a guest house in Tatev, and that we were invited to stay there – but once again, whether we had to pay for it or not remained unclear. It was now obvious, though, that the taxi ride would be for free. Once in the house, we got the answer we needed: yes we could stay, but not for free. And the price that was asked was not insignificant, especially for us. Arguing that we wanted to visit the monastery first and needed to think about the offer, we walked away without the least intention of coming back.
On the way to the monastery we met a little old grandma on her doorstep. She tried to send us to the guest house we had just left. It seemed the whole village was united as far as tourists were concerned. We were eager to get to the monastery. It was luckily not too far away, just a hundred meters after the end of the Tatev cable-car, the longest in Europe. If you ask Artyom, he would tell you that it’s just a five kilometre-long ride of pure anxiety above beautiful gorges and ravines. A few weeks before, there had been an incident. The line had been struck by thunder and stopped working. All the passengers had to be evacuated with the help of harnesses and ropes. Definitely not a piece of news that could encourage my journalist friend to go on another cable-car trip.
As we were reaching the gate of the monastery, a group of five came out of it wearing rather gloomy faces. “They look like they just buried someone” I thought to myself. Without a word, several of them approached us and handed us fruits. Then, after briefly rummaging through the boot of the car, they came back to us with some more: bread, a tomato and some cheese. And we learned that they had indeed just buried someone… They wanted to invite us to go back with them, but the car was full and they lived far away. They asked if we intended to stay overnight in the monastery, which sounded to us like a good sign. Maybe it was indeed possible for travellers to stay there? We finally entered the holy walls.
The thick walls were revealing themselves only slowly, step after step, in the immovable fog. We had a hard time orientating ourselves. On our right, a source was singing softly. We climbed up a few steps to a little fountain protected by a patio and decided to leave our bags and my guitar by the water, so that we could explore the place with ease.
Church in the fog – Photo by Artyom
The massive form of the main church was on our left. On the other side of the yard, faint through the fog shone a yellow light. We walked past a big oak flanked with a few banks and got to a narrow steamed-up window. A thin black silhouette was busy behind it. We readily knocked at the big wooden door we found on the right of the window. A women with a kind smile hurried us inside and got out the cups for the tea. She also disposed on the table some jam, bread and a few boiled potatoes. Artyom was already busy explaining who we were and what our journey had been like. He also asked if we could possibly spend the night here. Ophelie, as the cook was called, answered that she would have to contact Father Mikhail, who was at the head of the monastery, to seek his authorisation. If he agreed, we would probably have to spend the night under the tent again. However, she couldn’t get through to the priest, so we would have to wait. We chatted a while with Ophelie, who spoke a little French and was happy to practice. We were soon joined by Father Arutyun. He was probably the only monk to be living in a monastery in Armenia. Everyone was very kind and the mood was extremely nice and benevolent, a deep care for the next human being emanated from both of them. Ophelie had me try a very strange thing, some sort of big black and rough olive. The taste was sort of sweet but slightly sour and the name funny: enkuis or popok. And it turned out to be actually… a nut! To make popok, the nuts are gathered when they are still green then peeled and left to macerate in some syrup until they have become that interesting new item for which my taste buds required some adaptation time.
Plate of popok – Photo by Artyom
As we were quietly chatting, someone knocked on the door. Three big fellows were standing there and asked if this was “a sort of coffee place where you could get food”. They had seen our backpacks, the light and Ophelie in the kitchen and somehow had figured that Armenian monasteries, in the middle of November when tourists are more than scarce, were offering some sort of food joint. We answered that there wasn’t such a thing, but Ophelie nonetheless invited them in for a cup of tea, arguing that it was freezing outside.
The atmosphere completely changed the minute they entered. The three guys seemed utterly out of place in the long narrow room and the table had suddenly become too small to accommodate the six of us. They were from Italy, Germany and Brazil. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with them but they were talking a tiny bit too loud and they had known each other too shortly for it to work out. They had met in a youth hostel in Yerevan two days before and had decided to share a taxi to go to Tatev and back. Their driver was waiting outside. An awkward little troupe. I was wondering what was off… Then it struck me. They were tourists, not travellers! I started wondering: had I ever been like them? I was feeling so far away from their world, from their travel style. The way they looked at everything was so foreign to me.
I conversed with them in English while Artyom kept talking Armenian with Ophelie and the priest. The story of my hitchhiking trip started in Austria impressed them – but I knew it was quite common, all the travellers I had met in Georgia had been hitchhikers. The German guy looked interested and curious, more open-minded than the others, and was displaying most of the reservation the context demanded. Unlike the other two, he seemed to have some common sense and to be respectful of foreign traditions. The Brazilian guy looked like he had just fallen out of the nest, or off another planet. He was very young, maybe twenty and I had a feeling he was for the very first time out of his own country. He said, while playing with the jam in front of him, that they had recently met one Japanese guy, and then two Koreans who had crossed Asia on their bikes. He stopped for a short while, thinking about both means of transportations, then declared that according to him, the hitchhikers were surely the most insane ones. But the Italian guy startled us even more. He asked “because he was sampling at home”, what were the big names of Armenian instrumental music. But no singing please, because he had heard Armenian singing before and he surely didn’t like it, no offence intended. His question was as precise as a web search would have been, so Artyom gave him the same names he would have found on the web: Komitas and Sayat Nova. The priest was quite amused and helpful and played some religious music on his phone for him to enjoy, and to give an example of Armenian religious music. The Italian suddenly became very emotional. He had been explaining, a few minutes before, how he wasn’t religious at all despite his visiting the church every Sunday as a child and how he wasn’t interested in all that stuff. But right now, he was asking with watery eyes if we could stop the music, because it reminded him of his church days and childhood emotions were rushing back to his consciousness.
His rather uncanny reaction left everyone feeling uncomfortable and set them on their way. As soon as they had been gone, the atmosphere lightened again. Following Father Mikhail’s phone call, we followed Father Arutyun to a stone building just outside the monastery. It used to be an oil-press and was now a museum. We could sleep inside, Father Mikhail had said. It was better than the tent and Father Arutyun even showed us to a shed from which we retrieved two camp beds and some extra blankets. This night would be luxurious again!
Once the bedding had been arranged, we got back to Ophelie in her tiny kitchen quarters. She had finished preparing dinner and we only had to wait for Father Mikhail to come back. In the meantime, Ophelie, who had very well understood my curiosity for new types of food, took upon her to show me the main ingredient of the soup we were about to have, something called aveluk. It was like… a sort of grass. A dry wreathe of grass, smelling like hay, I had never seen anything alike before – as human food. The preparation of the soup was long and complicated, Ophelie said. She had gotten the recipe from her mother, who herself had learned from her grand-mother, etc. The soup contained, as well as aveluk, lentils, barley gruel, garlic and onion and some spices.
Father Mikhail finally came. We greeted him and went to sit at the far end of the table. We silently waited for the food. He had his head in his hands and his eyes closed. We didn’t dare to move an eyelash, or to talk. All clad in black, big and strong and wearing a thick long black beard, Father Mikhail was quite intimidating. After a while, he apologized in a very soft voice for not being more talkative. He had been down in the valley all day to visit some parishioners in their villages and had had to drive back in a fog even thicker as the one we had been through. He was exhausted. Once the food had been served, we all stood up and Father Mikhail blessed our meal. The soup was incredibly delicious and nutritious. Straight from heaven, this aveluk! We also took delight in a salad of grated beetroot and carrots and a mix of bulghur and mushrooms. There were also potatoes in their skin. Ophelie asked if we also ate the potatoes’ skin in France. I said yes, sometimes, and we call it “a potato in a field’s dress”. This last line forced a smile even out of the over-tired Father Mikhail. We ate the rest of the food in total silence. As soon as they had finished eating and after a last prayer, Father Mikhail and Father Arutyun left the table and the room. They were already late to the evening’s service, to which we had been invited.
The bell rang shortly thereafter. We entered the church and it didn’t seem to be that cold inside at first. The very high and dark walls were mostly barren. Feeling rather shy, we stayed by the door until Father Mikhail, laughing, invited us to come over near the stone railing. We would thus be standing on a carpet and would feel the cold a bit less. Behind the railing were two rows of chairs. On either side, two lecterns with a little lamp above them. Near the one on the left, a richly embroidered material was lying on a stand. It was, as we would discover later, a big cape that Father Mikhail threw over his shoulders. The nave contained a half-round rostrum on which another stand stood. On it were two sets of tall candles, only one of which was lit, and a little sun-shaped metallic object. Behind it, two icons. The rostrum could be hidden from view by means of a huge red velvet curtain, maybe seven or eight meters high, that was for now drawn on the right side of the nave.
Father Mikhail had almost entirely disappeared under a long black robe with a pointy hood. The other priest was wearing a light blue robe with beige yokes on the sleeves and at the bottom. On his upper back was another beige yoke with a big golden cross embroidered on it. Thrown across his left shoulder, a long and narrow embroidered scarf was always slipping down. Both priests were going from one lectern to the other. Sometimes they were at the same time in front of the rostrum, sometimes they would go in turns. Litany after litany, the mass went on and I couldn’t understand any of it. We were the only ones in the church. Ophelie came a little while later, a black coat on her shoulders. She prostrated thrice in front of a cross hidden in the shadows on my left then kissed it. She spent most of her time doing the same in the chapel on our right. Some saint was overlooking its door.
The aveluk soup miraculously kept us warm for about an hour. But in our haste, upon hearing the bell ringing, we had forgotten to take our coats. The last half hour of service was more than cold. We felt rather stupid every time Ophelie and the priests were prostrating themselves. We kept standing awkwardly, not sure what to do. But we diligently did all of the cross signings. It took me a while though to realise that I was doing the signing wrong. In Bulgaria, I had been taught that the orthodox signing ends up on the heart. But in the Armenian cult, it’s up, down, left, right then your hand flat on your chest. Father Mikhail’s final “Amen”, loud and strong, sounded like aliberation to everyone. We could finally get our coats and went straight to bed.
Next chapter : It’s the Road!