Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Load Of Old Vank

Armenia's landscape of mountains deeply gouged by fast-flowing streams probably played a major role when ancient Armenians decided on, what seems to have been, their favourite pastime: building vanks (monasteries) in dramatically inaccessible positions (like Tatev Vank, pictured below). As one travels through the country the pattern seems apparent, with countless monasteries and churches clinging to cliffsides and hilltops and tucked away in unlikely gorges. My favourite so far would have to be Geghard, some 30km from Yerevan, which used to house the spear that allegedly pierced Jesus whilst he was on the cross. It's not my favourite because of its location or architecture (though both are suitably noteworthy), but instead it fascinates me as the main matagh (animal sacrifice) site in the country. People bring animals, mostly sheep and chickens, to be ritually slaughtered by adepts wearing crowns of flowers by the nearby thicketed stream. All this to the accompaniment of music and tom-toms. On the weekend I visited there was a real festive atmosphere with families setting up tables, cooking khoravats (barbecues) and children playing ball games and splashing in the stream. It seems funny to me that these people who take such pride in their Christian heritage, and especially in the fact that they were the first nation to adopt Christianity, have such blatantly pagan customs and rituals (although, to be fair, many of the practices that we believe to be specific to one religion or another often have their roots in older, pagan beliefs that they replaced). But whatever the origin, any excuse for a party is fine by me.

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