torsdag 13. oktober 2011

Beauty written in stone - Yerevan's khachkars

The khachkar maker Varaz in his simple studio in central Yerevan.


In Armenia's capital Yerevan, the most beautiful things may be found in worn-down, forgotten backstreets.

On map, it looked like a nice idea. To head for the street lined by park on the Lonely Planet map, just a few blocks south, before crossing from the west side to the east of central Yerevan.

In reality the street wasn't so pretty. Just out of asphalt, out of shops - out of luck it seemed - and devoid of any greenery. We trod on nevertheless. Yerevan doesn't seem to be a dangerous city, and besides, it was still broad daylight. Therefore, we could see nothing wrong in walking on the sunny side of a shady street.

That turned out to be pure luck.

At first I only saw a man climb a ladder leading up against a wall. When I looked more carefully - finding his climbing a bit weird - I discovered the fascinating truth:

The tools of the khachkar trade.

The man, Varaz, was making one of Armenia's most famous pieces of art, a khachkar, merely gaining a few extra meters to get an overview of what he was doing. 

Thus, he was a living example of an old and proud history. At least since 9th century kharchkars - carved memorial stones (the word means 'cross stone') - have been made by the Armenians, mainly for salvation of the soul but also to commemorate military victories or the completion of a bridge, a church etc.

- It takes me about two months to make one, he explained, pausing from his work when he noted our interest. He even invited me into the canvas "shed" to study more of his kharchkars - patting on one of them to persuade me stand on it for new photo opportunities. 

The kharchars would be placed in churches, Varaz told before pointing at one of them.

- That one is going to Canada.

"It must be an Armenian church called Kanahda or something," I thought. But then I checked his master Varazdat Hambardzumyan's homepage, where I learned that his seals of God - as he calls them - have been exported to both the US, Denmark, The United Arab Emirates, and Canada.

Next day, we went to the World Heritage monastery Geghard, where some gorgeous examples of Armenia's 40,000 surviving kharchkars can be found - as well as a fantastic monastery, situated deep inside a gorge and partly carved into the cliff.
Inside Geghard monastery outside of Yerevan.

There, standing before two elaborately carved kharchkars, each with a cross flanked by complex patterns of leaves and grapes, Hyur Service's guide Sona informs me of an interesting fact:

No matter how skillful the master, he will always leave in at least one mistake so that the carvings are not symmetrical.

- Because only God can make something perfect, she explains.

So maybe that is what Varaz was doing up on that ladder. Not checking that he was carving right, but rather the opposite: Making sure something would be wrong.

(This blog post owes several facts to Armenia, The Bradt Travel Guide- a guidebook that is hopeless on practical information (just as this blog) but strong on insight. For practical help, look no further than Lonely Planet's book Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan- published in 2008 but still useful.)

Some of the khachkars outside - or actually, on top of - Geghard.