Monastery of Tatev, Armenia / Photo: Nane Khachatryan
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We arrive in the village of Tatev on a foggy November evening, to visit one of Armenia’s most popular tourist destinations – the 9th-century Monastery of Tatev. The monastery is our next stop along the Silk Road of Armenia. Failing to find a shelter for the night in the village, we walk to the monastery in a drizzle, and as we reach the gates, few people walk out, and upon seeing us, they give us some fruits. They get to their car, and while me and Emée, my travel companion from France, are trying to decide what to do, they come back and give us bread, cheese and a tomato. “Are you going to stay overnight in the monastery?” they ask. We don’t know for sure. As they drive away, we enter the monastery gates and find ourselves in the yard.
Fortification walls of Tatev monastery / Photo: Arty Om
It is said that the name “Tatev” comes from Eustateus, a disciple of St. Thaddeus the Apostle, who along with Bartholomew the Apostle brought Christianity to Armenia. The monastery of Tatev was built on a basalt plateau in place of a pagan tabernacle. Following the adoption of Christianity as Armenia’s state religion in 301 AD, the tabernacle was replaced with a church. But the growth of the monastery began in 9th century after it became the seat of the bishop of Syunik, and by 11th century, Tatev hosted around one thousand monks. Later, the monastery hosted on the most important medieval universities of Armenia – the University of Tatev.
The inner yard of the monastery is empty, no one seems to be around. On our right is a water spring. We drink some fresh water, and leave our backpacks here to wander around. At the other end of the monastery we see a yellow light shining dimly through the fog. Hoping to find someone there, we cross the yard, and behind the window glass we see a silhouette of a woman. We knock the door. She is surprised to see visitors. “Please, come in, you must be cold. I just prepared some rose hip tea, it’ll warm you up,” she says and invites us in.
Sts. Paul and Peter church of Tatev monastery / Photo: Arty Om
Herself from Yeghegnadzor, Ophelia comes to Tatev from time to time and prepares food for the monks. As we sit down by the table in the refectory, Ophelia checks the shelves for jam and other food for us, meanwhile I briefly introduce ourselves and tell her the story of our journey, asking in the end if we could camp somewhere around. Ophelia says that we need the abbot’s permission for staying in the monastery. “Father Mikael is on the way from Goris to Tatev now, he teaches at the schools in the villages around Goris during the day. His phone is out of coverage now, so let’s wait,” says Ophelia.
A young parish clerk named Harutyun joins us soon, and we continue our conversation. While Emée and Ophelia, who speaks a little French, discuss the recipes of the dishes she cooks, me and Harutyun talk about the state of Christianity in modern Armenia, and discuss the interaction between the villagers of Tatev and the monastery.
Suddenly, we hear someone knocking on the door. As Ophelia opens the door, we see three tourists from Germany, Italy and Brazil, who ask if this is a restaurant for tourists, because they saw the pots through the kitchen window. We say it’s not. Ophelia invites them in, and they join our conversation. “I’m not religious at all, but when I hear Armenian religious music, it makes me cry. The music reminds me of the days I used to go to church every Sunday,” shares his feelings the traveler from Italy. Since their taxi is waiting for them outside the monastery, they soon leave us.
Dinner at the refectory of Tatev monastery / Photo: Emérentine Soulcié
Meanwhile, Ophelia receives news from the abbot. Instead of camping outside in the rain, he suggests us to spend the night in a little stone building behind the monastery walls that used to be the oil press of the monastery back in the old days, and was now a museum. Harutyun helps us to move our backpacks to the oil press, and also gets us camp-beds and extra sleeping bags and blankets. Not long after, father Mikael arrives. He is tired and exhausted. He sits silently by the table, his eyes are closed, and he says nothing. When the food is served, he blesses the meal, and we then take our dinner: a delicious soup with aveluk (wild sorrel), a bulgur porridge with mushrooms, a red beet and carrots salad, and boiled potatoes. We enjoy our food in silence, and when the dinner is over, father Mikael and Harutyun leave us and begin the preparations for the evening service. We help Ophelia to wash the dishes, then drink tea.
The bell tower of Tatev monastery / Photo: Arty Om
Upon hearing the bells ringing and calling everyone for the mass, we go to the Saints Paul and Peter Church. Built between 895 and 906 AD, it is the oldest remaining construction within the complex and the largest church of Tatev. Father Mikael and Harutyun, dressed in robes, begin the service. It lasts an hour and a half, during which we stand on a carpet in front of the altar, following every movement of the abbot and the parish clerk. Abbot sounds very tired, and his final “Amen” brings relief to all of us. We wish them good night, and then slowly walk to the oil press.
We lock the door, turn off the lights and go to our beds. It takes me some time before I fall asleep, thinking of father Aspet – the abbot of the Haghpat monastery, whom we met earlier on our journey and who perhaps had just finished the evening ceremony, too, and is about to go to sleep. Did anyone attend his service in Haghpat? Or was he all alone by himself…
The monastery of Tatev, Armenia / Photo: Arty Om
We wake up with the first rings of the church bells of Tatev monastery. The night spent at the oil press of the monastery was rather warm, and even though the camp-bed was short and my feet couldn’t fit normally, my sleep was good. We pack and leave the building. Nothing has changed from the evening. It’s still raining. There is still fog all around. Since Father Mikael and Harutyun are busy with the morning service, we walk to the refectory to say goodbye to Ophelia. She invites us in for a cup of tea, and gives us apples and walnuts for the road. “Your faith is strong,” says Ophelia to me, when we are about to leave. Not quite knowing what to answer I smile, and we slowly walk away, turning back from time to time to look at the monastery walls disappearing in the fog.