Interpretations as varied as nature itself.

24 Apr

Chabrias, toujours préoccupé du juste culte à offrir aux dieux, s’inquiétait du progrès de sectes de ce genre [chrétien] dans la populace des grandes villes; il s’effrayait pour nos vieilles religions qui n’imposent à l’homme le joug d’aucun dogme, se prêtent à des interprétations aussi variées que la nature elle-même, et laissent les coeurs austères s’inventer s’ils le veulent une morale plus haute, sans astreindre les masses à des préceptes trop stricts pour ne pas engendrer aussitôt la contrainte et l’hypocrisie.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Mémoires d’Hadrien.

(Courtesy of Anat Meruk.)

Old time religion.

22 Apr

No matter how many churches you’ve visited, when you get to Armenia the realization settles: so this is what a church is supposed to be.

No side chapels, no side altars. No signs of private patronage. No parcelling. This is no Catholic church.

Katoghike Church, Yerevan

No frescoes or tapestries; the walls are bare. No iconostasis, no mosaics. This is no Orthodox church.


There is an image, but it is on the one altar. The reduction of image-stimulation is directly compensated for by long and incense-laden ritual. Masses last 2 hours. Forget reading, you sing. But this doesn’t mean it is more “rigorous.” The atmosphere is porous, accepting. People come in and out continually during mass.

St. Hripsime

The chancel is a stage. It really is. It is raised, and it is reached by steps on either side. The curtain is drawn back and mass is sung. If there is no curtain, it is not a functioning church.


The churches are often on a centralized plan, meaning that they are about as long as they are wide. This is something one sees rarely in the Christian west but often in Byzantine lands. (They were doing it earlier and more consistently in Armenia, however.) But here there are no quincunx plans, with central dome and subsidiary domes, and in general the effect is less rounded and low than in Byzantine churches.

St. Hripsime

Armenian churches are fortresses, with high walls and high, pointed cupolas. Byzantine churches are glowing and sumptuous castles. Armenian churches are flinty, as if chiseled out of living stone. Their beauty is their solidity. They are made to withstand marauders, and earthquakes.

St. Hripsime

Marmashen is near the town of Gyumri, which was completely leveled by an earthquake in 1988. Here, some stones were nudged out of position, as you can see in the photo below. (You will notice that inside two of the arches the walls actually bevel inwards. Apparently that is a critical stabilizer against earthquake. You can see those features in St. Hripsime in the photo above as well. What look like niches are in fact negative wedges.)


The churches are very consistent and yet full of individual architectural ingenuity. Noravank puts the narthex underneath, rather than in front, of the main church. The stairs are scary to climb up (and especially to climb down!), but for the time you are up there you are in a perfect church, aloft amidst mountains and sky.


Ararat appearing and disappearing.

22 Apr

I have always been very excited by mountains, and especially mountains in the immediate proximity of cities. I lived in Santiago, Chile until the age of 5, and though I have very few memories of it, something of the drama of the Andes rising up incredibly next to the city must have stayed with me. Mountains, especially near cities, seem to me animate, protecting beings. Sometimes, when a bank of clouds fills the sky above the horizon, I imagine that they are very high mountains looming impossibly close and I think, wouldn’t that be so exciting? It’s the best I can do in New York.

So I was happy when I landed in Yerevan, Armenia, and looked out my airplane window to see Ararat–so handsomely formed, so starkly set out, the Fuji of the West. I knew it was not far from Yerevan but had no idea that it rose up near the city like a presiding deity. But, almost as if to preserve its virtue, or to protect us from over-exposure to its power, or simply because such staggering things shouldn’t be too readily available, Ararat is most often shrouded in mist, its outlines only faintly visible.  What is barely discernible to the naked eye  becomes almost completely illegible in a photo. Here are some efforts I made. I swear it is there, in the middle of each shot.

Here it is peaking above the rooftops, from my hotel window. Armenians call it Masis. (That is “little Masis” to the left.) This was the clearest day I had, as it turns out.

Here it is from the steps of the National Library.

Here it is, from the Genocide Memorial, just outside the city.

Here it is behind the monastery of Khor Vrap, steps from the Turkish border.

I visited some amazing churches, but perhaps the most incredible of all, Zvartnots, is in ruins. It now looks like an Armenian Stonehenge, and its ring of colums is beautifully centered on Ararat. Take my word for it, it is right in the middle here, rising to the level of the column capitals!

And here, again take my word for it, it is towering high above the whole structure. (Click to enlarge, you’ll see.)

Locals say it is clearly set against a limpid sky only about 60 days out of the year.

Its appearing and disappearing quality, its Verschwindlichkeit, reminds one that when the waters receded after the great flood, it was the first land mass to appear. Or, more rationally, the fact that it is usually shrouded in a sea of mist may be what has compelled belief that this must be where Noah’s ark struck land.

On a more contemporary note, Ararat embodies what the Armenians lost to Turkey in the early part of the 20th century. They always say “our mountain” even though it is now, inconveniently, across the border. Always powerfully present, occasionally starkly visible, usually hovering at the threshold of invisibility, it is a fitting enough figure for memory itself.

Mongols or Turks?

18 Apr

The road was long and bumpy but then, oh my, you come over a ridge and see this, the 10th/11th-century monastery church of Marmashen, close to the border with Turkey. Despite continual invasions, the Armenians would not stop building gorgeous churches with big, beautiful cupolas, magnets for marauding armies, but they found ways to hide them in the landscape. I know in this photo it looks pretty widely visible, but if you are on any of the roads around here (and they are on the path of the ancient routes), this church never shows up on the horizon.

It is actually a cluster of three churches, or, now, three and a half.

They weren’t entirely safe from marauders, of course. You have to imagine trembling monks in the upper chambers of the main church and taunting soldiers below, figuring out how to get to them. At some point in the 12th or 13th centuries probably, one invader walked between two of the churches, looking for a way into the main one. He decided he would make his own ladder up to the window by hacking footholes in the wall, or so my guide said.

(My exchange with the guide.)

Guide: You can see how the Turk cut into wall so that he could climb up and kill the monks.

Me: Are you sure it was a Turk?

Guide: Yes.

Me. But there really is no way to know, is there? It could have been a Mongol.

Guide: It was not a Mongol.

Me: If it was done in the 12th century, I agree, it was probably a Seljuk Turk. If it was done in the 13th, it would have been a Mongol. But there’s no way to know when it was done.

Guide: It was a Turk.

Me: Why are you so sure?

Guide: Because the priest says so, and he knows better than you or me.

Me: Do you think maybe the priest doesn’t like Turks?

Guide: Well, don’t worry, we don’t like Mongols either.

(I later found out that the beautiful inscription in old Armenian into which these holes were hacked records the restoration of the monastery in 1225, so the hacking was done sometime after that. The Mongols strike again!)

When it comes to making holy oil, the Armenians don’t fool around.

17 Apr

All these ingredients go into it, but the proportions are a secret. If you click on the pics you can see what the stuff is.

What elephants look and sound like when they forage freely in the wild.

16 Apr

After a while, the elephants lost patience. They gathered, 6 of them, in a flat area closer to us, and then made as if to charge. When your guide takes off running for his life it is a good idea to follow his example.


Click on picture to enlarge.

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, India.

Joy in the Sri Meenakshi temple, Madurai.

14 Apr

There is no better instance in the world, I think, of a living “pagan” religion. Hinduism has over 3 million (million!) gods. The works of sculpture found in the older temples are occasionally very ancient–even as old as the 7th century. They are of astounding quality. And yet they are being used. Devotees douse the gods in butter and oil and ashes, priests envelop them in the thick smoke of incense, and they are periodically dressed and redressed. Flowers and candles are placed in the hands of the gods. Here is a patient but enlivened figure in the temple at Tirunelveli.

Every evening in the Sri Meenakshi temple at Madurai, a Shiva statue is carried in state and inducted into the nuptial chamber of Meenakshi, who awaits him in her shrine. Music blares all around. After the statue is carried over some lotus flowers that have been consecrated with holy water, devotees rush to touch the wet ground trodden on by the god. (I didn’t photograph or video-record that ritual; I just wanted to experience it.)

I consider it a signature of pantheistic religions that they are open. Open to new gods, clearly, and also open to new comers. In extreme contrast to the experience of mosques, whose main space is closed to women and where non-muslims tread only under special permission, the Indian temple is open to all. There is no missionary zeal, no furrowed brow asking, “Are you in or are you out?” For someone in this world, you are already in whether you know it or not. You are smiled at, wreathed, daubed on the forehead. There is a general smiling quality that is palpable. People are there to make the gods happy and are happy themselves. Periodically, there are musical outbursts, little very noisy bands of players passing through the halls. People are involved in the proceedings, but they also just hang out in the temples, en famille. I felt pure joy inside each temple complex I visited.

The bigger temples are fronted by a bazaar of shops where you can buy things to offer to the gods. This is the best mall I’ve ever seen.

(Click on any image to see more glorious detail.)

The image I will take away with me (I didn’t photograph it) is from the Alagarh temple outside Madurai. A brahmin priest came to cense and throw perfumed water on a group of gods, while music blared, drums quickened, and cymbals clashed behind him. He was pampering them, making them happy. It was a ritual act, but it had nothing of the quality of ritual that I know from my own background or from any other religious setting I know. It was as if he was playing with very lovable children, children he worships. It was clear there was a moment of communication. The gods were being lovely and demanding and and the priest was responding with infinite indulgence, throwing his head back, his eyes closed, his mouth near laughter, as if to say, “Oh, you adorables, you know I’ll give you everything you want!”