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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Religious Sites and Sacrifice in Armenia

The lamb's stomach landed on the ground with a thud. Artur Antonyan kicked it aside and set his knife to the small intestine, the heart and the lungs, dumping them in a bucket as he cleaned out the inside of the animal hanging from a tree on the shores of Lake Sevan.

Then his nephew Emil picked up the lungs, trimmed off the top of the trachea, put his mouth around it, took a deep breath and blew. And sure enough, as his face became redder and redder, the lungs inflated like two enormous white balloons. "I hope that amused you, because I really don't like doing it very much," he said, letting the air out again and wiping the blood from his face.

Indeed, it amused me very much, and while unexpected, it seemed the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the Armenian countryside.

Tourism in Armenia is making a slow but certain recovery after a long and painful hiatus. The country is still under a trade and energy blockade from Azerbaijan and Turkey following the six-year war over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, but it is nonetheless open and welcoming. Visitors can take advantage of hotels and tourist services in the capital of Yerevan -- and then escape the vibrant but dusty city to the breathtaking beauty of the countryside.

Lake Sevan is the first stop on any trip outside the city. Seventy kilometers from Yerevan, it has an idyllic quality that transcends the slightly derelict towns and villages around it. Surrounded by bare, sandy mountains, it boasts clean air and no more than 20 cloudy days per year. On a calm day, the lake is the ultimate in tranquility, glass-clear and completely still with barely a rowboat to ruffle its smoothness.

When I went in late September, the swimming season was just coming to an end and the beach that had crawled with bronzing bodies a few weeks earlier was virtually deserted except for the`large group of revelers sacrificing a lamb in honor of their friend Armen, who had just returned from a gruelling trip to Russia.

"Armen went to Russia earlier this year because like everyone else he couldn't get any work here," said his friend Herikniz. "He was dealing in cars there and something terrible happened, although none of us know exactly what. So we told him we'd kill a lamb for him so that it doesn't happen again."

Killing the lamb was one thing, preparing it was another. Plans to take the animal to a nearby monastery to have its ear slit had been thwarted by the cloister's transformation into a secondary school, and the salt still had to be blessed at the local church. While we waited, Armen's brother made a cross from its blood on Armen's chest and forehead, then placed the meat in a huge cauldron over an open fire. Here it was boiled in nothing but water and salt since the ritual specified that all other ingredients -- tomatoes, potatoes and peppers -- must be cooked separately.

While waiting for lunch, we decided to visit the monastery that squats atop a nearby hill. Originally venerated as a pagan temple, the site was destroyed by St. Grigory the Illuminator, and replaced with the church of Holy Baptism shortly after he brought Christianity to the country in 301. Four centuries later it was destroyed by Arab invaders and today some crumbling stones and the beginnings of a poorly timed attempt to rebuild it in 1939 are all that is left of it.

But next to the ruins, the Surb Arakelots and Surb Astvatsatsin churches remain in all their glory, built at the end of the ninth century, locals say, by a visionary and a princess. The visionary was Mashtot Yegivardetsi, a hermit who lived across the lake and one night had a dream in which the 12 apostles were crossing Sevan in a ray of light, and heading straight for a new church on the island. It was up to Yegivardetsi to build the church, but as hermits are wont to do, he lacked the funds. Enter the princess, Mariam, who fortunately had the same vision and decided to fund the project. Together they built the two churches.

Today, both churches look fairly impenetrable. They are small and solid, made of slabs of weatherbeaten stone, and for some reason I assumed they were no longer in action, until a waft of incense and the deep sounds of men singing plainsong chants emerged through the walls.

Inside, about 50 people stood in prayer in a brick room sparsely decorated with pictures of saints and the Virgin and Child. Standing at the front of the church in navy-blue tunics with gold buttons, 10 seminarians sang a seventh-century chant written by Sahajk Dzoraporetsi, Catholikos of all Armenia.

The music was as austere and simple as the church itself and when it ended the choir filed out -- backwards so as not to show disrespect.

Shortly after the music ended, Armen's friends brought salt for the priest to bless then carried it down to the beach to prepare the lamb. The women laid out plates and glasses in a long row on a cloth underneath the trees, and the feast began.

Hours later, when the party finally drew to a close, we headed north to the mountains of Dilizhan. Green and lush, the whole area abounded with apple, pear and plum trees. The only soul in sight was a lone cowherd with his flock.

Driving back down to the valley we briefly entered a village of Old Believers, who seemed to have more in common with 18th-century Russia than 20th-century Armenia. Pale-skinned men with long beards and women with long skirts and head scarves shuffled their cows along dirt roads as their children played in the courtyards.

Besides the area surrounding Lake Sevan, there are a number of other beguiling day trips in easy reach of Yerevan. Just outside the capital is Echmiadzin, the historic center of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenia's capital from the second to the fourth century. Today it is the site of Armenia's most important cathedral and the residence of the church's leader, who is known as the Supreme Catholikos.

Built on the site of a pagan shrine, the remains of which can still be seen in the basement, the cathedral of St. Grigory the Illuminator is believed to have been built in 303 by the saint himself, on the spot where he saw a vision of Christ descending to earth.

Echmiadzin has the atmosphere of a polished and beautifully restored university campus. For something more simple and magical, the nearby church of Hripsime has much to recommend it. The church is a treasure of secret backrooms, one of which contains the tomb of Hripsime, whose death indirectly led to the coming of Christianity in Armenia. One backroom features dozens of Hachkars, Armenian crosses chiselled onto stones, leaning against the walls.

Just outside of Echmiadzin are the enigmatic ruins of the church of Zvardnots, built in 641-61 and allegedly one of the most beautiful buildings of its time. Destroyed by an earthquake in the 10th century, all that is left of it is a semicircle of columns, with huge boulders around the edges. Perched on a low plateau, next to an abandoned shed, Zvardnots looks out over a dusty urban settlement and seems removed from any specific time or place.

Southwest of Yerevan, amid dramatic mountain vistas, is the first- century temple at Garni, dedicated to the Roman god Mithras and built by Armenian leader Trdat I in the first century. Idyllically positioned just above the Azat river, the temple complex has been restored and the most interesting parts are the ruins of a seventh- to-ninth-century church, a palace and a third-century banya complete with mosaic. The rest however, has been excessively restored and has a slightly sterile quality to it. While Garni may not be worth an excursion in itself, the landscape is stunning and the temple is conveniently located nine kilometers from one of the country's most mystical sites.

Carved entirely from the mountain, the Geghard monastery is not just a spectacular feat of workmanship but an eerie maze of surprises. As you enter the monastery walls it seems like an ordinary fortress, with a small 13th-century church jutting out. But as you pass the hachkars and move on to the main hall, all conventional images of churches disappear, leaving you in a vast dark space with little more than an iron chandelier as decoration.As your eyes get used to the darkness you spot a small door to the left of the entrance, where there is another room, not unlike the first but even bigger and even darker. In one corner, a staircase leads up -- through the ceiling into nowhere. A labyrinth of rooms reaches out into the mountain. During my visit, deep, sonorous singing seemed to suddenly resonate from the rock, yet all the rooms were empty. Only afterwards did I discover a second entrance to the church, leading to a huge, empty room, which must have been the source of the singing.

Gerghard's origins are as mysterious as its atmosphere. Its name means spear, because it is here that the spearhead believed to have pierced Christ's side is once thought to have been kept. Today the site is still full of wonder-working features, from a spring of holy water to the wishing trees covered in strips of cloth representing prayers.

Eating and Drinking

First and foremost, of course, is Armenian cognac, which is widely available and delicious. Make sure to try Armenian shashlyk, which is known kholovats, the lavash bread and smoked basturma meat.

Sevan is famous for its Ishkhan trout -- once part of the tribute Armenia paid to its conquerors. The name means prince because of the crown-like spots on its head, and it is said to taste better if cooked in lake water. Meals will cost between $1 and $10.

Where to stay, getting around

Yerevan is the only part of Armenia with established hotels for tourists. Although private houses have rationed electricity in winter and almost no hot water, international hotels have no such problems. The Hotel Armenia is the most practically located. Single rooms are about $100 per night. Tel: (3742) 568-834.

The Hotel Dvin, tel. (3472) 536-343, is less central than the Hotel Armenia but slightly cheaper at $70 for a single room for one night. It is not a paragon of charm, but it is clean and has a breakfast buffet. The Yerebuni hotel, which is also centrally located, is cheaper and includes a business center. Single rooms are $37, doubles are $53. Tel: (3472) 563-947, (3472) 564-993

To take day trips outside Yerevan, most hotels can organize car rentals with drivers for between $50 and $100 per day.

Package tours as well as cultural excursions and hiking trips can be arranged by Via Armenia, one of the first alternatives to Intourist. Tel: (3472) 537-098 or (3472) 523-467.

Most people speak good Russian, with less resentment than in many other parts of the former Soviet Union. Other foreign languages are unlikely to get you very far.

Getting there

Potential visitors from outside the former Soviet Union require a visa, which can be obtained at the Armenian Embassy at 2 Armyansky Pereulok. Tel: 924-1269

Armenian airlines (tel: 259-5731) flies to Yerevan daily from Vnukovo airport. Flying time is about 2 1/2 hours and a return trip costs 1,665,000 rubles ($306) for foreigners or 1,115,000 rubles for citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States.