It was just another Saturday morning in the lives of our volunteers, and the bus stopped next to a medieval church in an old village located 43 kilometers northwest of Yerevan. Some waking up from an early morning ride, some still murmuring the songs from their bus ride fun, the volunteers gathered on the grounds of a cathedral and ruins of a palace. The guide pointed at the village Aruch and then at the cathedral standing still on the edge of the village.
Exploring the Cathedral and Palace of Aruch – Aruchavank
Built in the seventh century, the cathedral is known for its frescos and architecture. It is one of the largest domed hall cathedrals among Armenian churches. The volunteers were immediately mesmerized upon entering the church. The giant walls were leading one's eyes to the ceiling with a missing dome. Once the splendor of the church, the dome yielded its glory to the blue sky creating a captivating contrast with the reddish-pink shade of tuff rocks. Not preserved intact, the beautiful frescos mainly feature the Ascension of Jesus Christ and the twelve disciples. According to historians and the inscriptions found on the walls, the construction of the cathedral was commissioned by the Armenian governor of that era, Grigor Mamikonyan. He was a notable member of the Mamikonian aristocratic dynasty, a family that had a great influence on the military and political affairs of Armenia between the fourth and seventh centuries.
The volunteers left this mystical place and started wandering around the ruins of the palace that was once the residence of the Mamikonyan family. The palace consisted of two buildings, the large hall and the column hall. The surviving capitals were the only remnants reflecting the years Mamikonyans reigned and could tell you how magnificent the palace had been before. The guide also pointed at the ruins of a caravansary built in the 13th century. The roadside inn was on the connecting road between Ani and Dvin, the two Bagratuni capitals.
Meeting the Locals
The volunteers were not the only ones enjoying their time. The tatik (grandma), who had been watching the volunteers for a while, was relishing the presence of the youthful spirit in her village. Natalia from Brazil noticed her immediately and drew our photographer’s attention her way. Erfan from Iran pointed his camera lens her way and was excited to capture the genuine village life with tatik at the center of the picture. She mentioned how excited she got every time they had tourists in their village. After having a small talk with tatik, her son appeared with a gift for the photographer – a little wood box that he had carved himself. Connecting the diasporan volunteers to locals is one of the main goals of Birthright Armenia and its sister program AVC, hence interactions like this are treasured most during the excursions.
Visiting the Fortress
It was time to leave this medieval place and continue the journey to a fortress located on the outskirts of Dashtadem village in the Aragatsotn region. The fortress and the village are facing a field where everything is out of sight over the horizon and that is how the name Dashtadem, which is roughly translated as “in front of the field,” was given to them. As opposed to Armenian medieval fortresses, Dashtadem is neither located on the edge of a gorge nor on the peak of a mountain - a defensive strategy that made fortresses naturally inaccessible- but it breaks the skyline of a village by its high walls. The precise construction date is still unknown; some studies suggest that the fortress was built before the tenth century over an Ourartian fortress. This giant stronghold was used as a major defensive structure until the nineteenth century. Traces of the Armenian medieval era and the Muslim conquest of Armenia were noticeable in the inscriptions. The volunteers who were fascinated by the spectacular view of the field and the fortress had forgotten about the lunch that was waiting for them in the village and did not leave a spot unseen.
Lunch at a Villager’s Place
The villager’s house was right opposite the gates of the fortress. What a privilege to see a view like that every day! The family welcomed the volunteers in their garden where the melting snow and the buds on the trees were the bearers of impending spring.
Two rooms, about forty volunteers, and rows of tables with appetizing Armenian dishes on each. It was too tempting to wait for the first toast. Sevan Kabakian, the Country Director of Birthright Armenia was the first to make a toast. He welcomed everyone and told the volunteers a little about the mission that Birthright Armenia undertakes. Then, he ended his speech with a happy announcement: it was the host lady’s birthday on that day. Sudden excitement filled the village house and the Happy Birthday was sung in different languages. The lady of the house, who got so emotional and was barely able to speak a word, raised her glass and said, “Thank you!” as a gesture of contentment and gratitude.
Emotions flooded over everyone in the room and a few volunteers followed Sevan’s lead and gave memorable toasts. Sarin Hanneyan, a volunteer from the USA, raised her glass and first quoted a woman from one of her forums with Birthright Armenia on the fact that being an Armenian is a cause, and then she continued, “no matter the struggles in the past, present or future, because something always happens, I would never choose to be any other ‘azg’ (race), I would always choose to be an Armenian.”
Dishes were being passed from one side to the other and everyone was enjoying their meal when an ensemble called Veradardz Hamuyt stepped into the room in Armenian traditional costumes. They started to sing Armenian folk songs with the accompaniment of dhol and a few other Armenian musical instruments. While some were singing along in the spirit of patriotism and others processing the sensation that was ruling over the house, they left for the garden to learn and dance Armenian folk dances. Hand-to-hand or hand-on-shoulder, everyone was following their leaders. The garden was buzzing with Armenian dances: Papuri, Yarkhushta, Msho Kher and the list goes on.
Armenian dance moves and songs were the souvenirs they were going to take home, as well as memories of two medieval places and a family that overwhelmed them with their hospitality. Another excursion came to its end and it was time to say goodbye to these wonderful people.