Visiting the ancient churches and monasteries of Armenia didn’t make me believe in magic. But it didn’t keep me from wishing.
At Haghpat Monastery, visitors walk over tombstones in the floor to take away the sins of the dead. Wet, green turf grows onto the sides of the building, which dates back to the 10th century. The place is replete with medieval imagination — not long ago people saw a hawk flying near Haghpat, high above the trees with parchment in its claws. It led them to a cave where they found a medieval text that is now at the Matenadaran, the national manuscript library in Yerevan. One church at Haghpat is made up of chambers and an entry room, called a gavit. According to legend, a bard once fell in love with the king’s sister. Since he knew they could never be, he became a monk, and used to sing in the centuries-old gavit songs of broken-hearted love. I sang one of my own in there after everyone had moved on, amazed at how each note filled the room.
Outside of one of the churches, a narrow stone ledge runs the length of the building above the wet grass. Traverse the lip of stone from one end to the other without falling off, and you are granted a wish. Foreigners and locals pointed out handholds for me as I went from one end to the other, nervous because of the audience. Though the final few feet had me concerned, I made it all of the way across.
At Sanahin Monastery, plants grow on the outside of the buildings and there they have a small church with double altars. It is the only one of its kind in Armenia, and built with two altars because the man who designed it lost two sons to the barbarians. Between the Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Tamerlane, and the Ottomans, an invasion was never very far away during the Middle Ages.
On a small hill above Khor Virap, visitors tie a piece of cloth to the dry bushes to make a wish come true. I had bought a thin strip cut from an old T-shirt with me and tied it next to a hundred other sun-bleached strips of cloth. I saw a man with a giant white mustache sacrifice a chicken at Khor Virap, near the Turkish border. It is part of a pagan ritual that survives; the sacrificing of a lamb and a rooster to give to the poor. The church authorities allow them to do it at Echmiadzin, the Armenian Vatican, as long as they circle the church three times. Inside Khor Virap, I descended into the dungeon where St. Gregory spent thirteen years. Guards dropped snakes and scorpions in on him down chutes along the sides. The chutes are still there, and so is a cross carved into the rock, they say by his own hand. In 301, St. Gregory convinced the king to convert the Armenians to Christianity.
On the way to Noravank, we passed the dirt wall at Yeraskh, put up on one side of the road so that Azerbaijani snipers couldn’t hit traffic passing by the Naxcivan enclave. The wall runs for miles. I was assured that no one has opened fire in quite some time, but I didn’t like the long gaps where they haven’t finished building it yet. After all of this time, it is like Armenia is still under siege.
Noravank monastery is in a dry, red and tan canyon. The two churches, Karapet and Astvatsatsin, were built in 1227 and 1339. They are made from stone quarried miles away and brought there piece by piece. Inside Karapet is a carving of a man on horseback slaying a lion, and there are Persian influences in the style. Outside, on the ground is a tombstone carved as a lion, made in 1300 when lion tombstones had a brief fluorescence. Astvatsatsin has carvings of Mary, the baby Jesus, and God, all with almond eyes, so that if the Mongols came they wouldn’t destroy the church.
It seems to have worked.
Near the two churches is a false well that is actually a secret escape passage for times of invasion. It used to go through the side of the mountain, but has been blocked to keep tourists out. Now you can go only into the first chamber. Throw a coin down 20 feet into the hole, and climb down the ladder and back again and your wish comes true. My Armenian change bounced off the aluminum ladder with a clang and I followed it down into the dark. It wasn’t quite as far down as the dungeon at Khor Virap, but they must have moved some serious rock to make it. The sky was a bright circle above, like the oculus at the Pantheon. When I came back out into the daylight I made a wish, my third in two days.