The Depths of Tatev
Diving into the depths of the Spiritual Center of Armenia
18TH CENTURY SYUNIK
A deep gorge carves through the earth with the winding Vorotan River far below. Vertical cliffs and volcanic plateaus mark a segment of Syunik that is highly protected and vital to the advancements of Armenian culture. In the town of Halidzor, with expansive views of the surrounding region and only six kilometers as the crow flies from Tatev, though a two-day trek, a watchtower stands. Past agonies of defeat by the Seljuks and Tamerlane are still fresh in mind. It is of vital importance to protect the monastic complex of Tatev.
A guard notices a glint of shimmer off in the distance, but he brushes it off. An hour later, it comes into closer view again, this time with knowledge of an enemy army. The bells of the watchtower ring in a deafening tone. Three kilometers to the southwest, the watchtower of Harsnadzor responds with an equally deafening ring of the bell. In a matter of minutes, the monastery of Tatev is alerted. The Persians are coming, and time is of essence to protect the Armenian treasures residing in Tatev.
21ST CENTURY SYUNIK
Our relic of a taxi winds back and forth through the Vorotan Gorge, with the numerous rough patches and swerves making us feel dizzy. Our two kids are surprisingly peaceful in the back, resting the entire 40 minute journey from Goris to Tatev. Several options can be had to make this journey, such as a two-day trek through the numerous cave towns that dot the canyon to taking the world’s longest aerial tramway from Halidzor to Tatev, a 15-minute soar. We take the third option by road. We are eager to explore Tatev in what has become the gem of Syunik Province.
Reading its history is sobering, though, as it’s numerous takeovers (including the Persians for a couple centuries) and it’s toppling from the 1932 earthquake sent the monastery tumbling down. But it has been rebuilt. We pass the central watchtower which beckons a period of impending attack, and I imagine the guards long ago standing watch week after week to protect their culture. Nothing much has changed over the centuries unfortunately, as the border regions of Armenia are currently experience a similar feeling. The news seem to constantly report of new attacks by Azerbaijan, threatening the peaceful lives of the Armenians who have lived in this mountainous region for millennia.
But if there is anything to know about Armenian culture, it is their resilience to rebound time after time, uniting to be stronger after each instance.
Our taxi takes a right turn into the village of Tatev and the asphalt road immediately turns to dirt. Thankfully, we only have 400 meters to go. We are dropped off at a simple village house with a beautiful rose garden and chickens clambering about. We knock on the door and out comes our cheerful host, displaying a level of Armenian warm hospitality that we have found to be a staple of their culture. Want a simple example? In the afternoon following my son's nap, we were both out wandering the garden, admiring the views and flowers when the lady of the house asked if I wanted coffee or tea. I responded I would love coffee and Mary would enjoy tea. She delivered on the warm libations, two cups of coffee in fact and a large pot of fresh rose tea with three cups. Also presented to us were homemade muffins and cookies, fresh raspberry and apricot jam, a bowl of berries and a handful of candies and chocolates. It took us by surprise, and the lady with her big smile, who couldn’t even speak a word of English, communicated love to us strangers more than simple words could convey.
For three nights we will make ourselves at home here, exploring the region and diving into the depths of what makes Tatev so special.
Wandering the stone halls and corridors of the Tatev Monastery was surreal. By this point, we have visited countless medieval monasteries, each delivering a peace that is hard to describe. Exploring Tatev, however, was on a different level. The detail in the carvings, the reverence in the worshippers, and the viewpoints towards the Vorotan Gorge made it evident why this remote corner of Syunik is now its most visited. But I can’t help but wonder it has always been so. The thousands of monks who kept their solitary lives in these halls likely engaged little to none with the outside world. Instead they devoted their lives to their creator and enhancing their culture they were born into.
Their devotion is inspiring.
In the evening we walked along the high incline road towards a vantage point to the monastery. The views that place Tatev on many itineraries is afforded here, where the monastery precariously sits on the vertical, semi-circular rock face. As we hiked down, new vantage points opened up of the medieval complex, revealing new portions. We both agree that it is a world wonder of human craftsmanship, up there with the likes of Ellora Caves or Monte Alban. I almost feel proud of Armenian culture that they are able to create such work of art from over a thousand years ago and able to beautifully reconstruct it after each of its downfalls.
- Explore more of Tatev Monastery here
THE DEPTHS OF THE GORGE
The morning ushered in a new day, one where we plan on descending to the depths of the Vorotan Gorge. The morning was dark and dreary, with rain clouds above threatening a downpour. However, the skies partially opened as the morning unfolded, with the rain never materializing throughout the day. It made great weather for hiking, and a hike it was down nearly 2,000 feet from the monastery to the river far below.
The windy road maneuvered along the steep terrain, though still a high decline. Zion is already showing signs of wear so I begin carrying him on my shoulders, with Joy River strapped on my chest. I have to remind myself that he is only three years old, and carrying the loads of both children is really the only way we can complete this trek without meltdowns, or even worse.
But it is worth it.
The views are stunning as we make our way to a deep canyon cutting across us, with a sketchy bridge to cross no less. We pass the village of Tanszatap, where we were only greeted with a couple of braying donkeys and some lazy cows. Past the village we hugged the side of the cliff as the trail climbed further down until we reached the river at bottom of the gorge. Our water was nearly empty and our legs were tired (except Joy River, who already took two naps on the way down). We trudged to the ruined walls of a complex on the bank of the Voratan, curious of its story.
We opened the cast iron door to find ourselves in the center of the Great Hermitage of Tatev. Once home to 700 devotees in the 17th and 18th centuries, it now lies nearly abandoned and forgotten. We, however, feel we have entered the Garden of Eden. A flowing spring sits in the center courtyard with endless cold water, sheltered by a large berry tree abundantly full of the juiciest delicacies. We made a mess of ourselves as we indulged in the berries, suddenly forgetful of how tired we were. Peeking around the “abandoned” hermitage I find evidence that some, at least one, still lives as a hermit and continues the ancient tradition. Freshly picked cucumbers are in a pot by the spring. A small and well-tended garden lies in the center of the complex. Stacks of wood, some boots and cloths, and an assortment of cooking utensils lie next to a door locked from the inside. Although we never saw him, we felt his presence.
- Read more about the Hermitage of Tatev here
Well-rested, we set off to complete the final stretch to the highway far below Tatev, and a popular spot to experience a natural wonder of the region. The Voratan River flows through a narrow crevice until reaching a cave underneath the road. What water and rock has created over the years is a stunning travertine cave with pools of natural springs. It is a surprising and pleasant ending point to the long descent down the gorge, but it is also representative of Armenia in general. Abundance comes to mind when I think of the nation, from endless fruit trees to flowing springs of pure water throughout the country.
This nation, though experiencing too many tragedies over history, is still blessed by abundance.
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