| T'rdat Church
On the road to Bjini,7 kilometers north of Tzaghkadzor roundabout
T’rdat Church. Closely following the river with the vaulted hills on the left, and a large expanse of grassland on the right, you will spot a metal bridge with a canopy of trees on the other side the river. This is the pathway to T’rdat, which can only be accessed by a long and rigorous climb up the side of the hill. In the winter you can spot T’rdat on the crest of one of the hills. In the summertime the trained eye can just barely make out the roof of the church over the treetops about a kilometer away.
T’rdat was built in the 7th C and it shows the design and richness of royal patronage. I was the cathedral for the entire region when it was first built, and is considered a minor pilgrimage stop. Due to its location, overlooking the Marmarik river valley and the North Eastward path to Lake Sevan, I wondered whether it was built on a pagan temple, like so many churches are. No one could tell me. There seemed to be not much to point to this location over any other of the hills and mountains surrounding the valley, so I continue to wonder. As I walked into the ruined wall enclosures, surrounded by the sweet smell of pine trees and the lush green of grass still thriving in the upper elevation, I also began to think about ley lines, those underlying pulses of energy that supposedly crisscross the world. Ley line specialists have been mapping them for most of this century, and have found intersecting points at major churches and temples around the world. I cannot say I believe or disbelieve much of anything in this world, (ahmen eench henaravor eh ), but there was a gentle pulse of energy about this stone building, whether it was its classical refinement, the perfect proportions of the stone, or the setting among piney woods. It exhilarated as it also subdued. I can not be wonder that some earlier goddess was worshipped here.
It has been a partial ruin since Ottoman times, though the sanctuary is still used by the prayerful, who light candles in front of paper prints of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I noticed groups of women circling the church, following a path worn into the ground at the base of the walls. They were praying for help or for some gift from God, and as they pray, they circle the church 7 times. I could no explanation for why it was 7 times, but the number seven is important to many mystical beliefs.
There were also many strips of cloth or torn clothing tied to a bush at the corner of the church building. When I first came to Armenia, my secular friends told me it was for good luck, a superstition from the pagan past. I later heard that the strips are offered up to God in as a prayer for something good to happen to the owner of the clothing. So it is a wish tree, but it also looks like a burning bush, especially when it is covered with these strips of cloth. Another explanation says the strips--which should belong to the person making the wish if it has any hope of reaching God-- is a symbol of the sacrifice which the supplicant says he is willing to give in order for God to give something in return; a symbol of the clothes off his back, the protection against the elements and buffets of the cruel world. It is handed from the story of Abraham, who was willing to give his own bloodline to God. And before that, from the pagan worshipers who were willing to tear bits of themselves in symbolic form and sacrifice it to the gods.
The marriage of pagan ritual and Christianity is very much alive in Armenia. We saw young boys carrying a rooster by its claws in the same circular path as the women. It was sacrificed behind the church, the blood of the animal offered up to God for thanks. In a rural area, the sacrifice of a basic source of sustenance is not lost on the people. There is some debate about this practice, and I spoke with a clergyman at Khovirab who said that the churches do not permit sacrifices to be done within the confines of the church. But they do perform a ritual blessing of the sacrificial animal. The supplicant brings the animal (sheep is preferred) with a corner of one of its ears cut, and some salt to the priest, who stands at the doorway to the church to prevent further entrance. The priest blesses the animal and the salt. He then inserts some of the salt into the mouth of the creature while blessing it. The animal is then slaughtered away from the church grounds (either at a special location built for this by the church or at the supplicant’s home), and the meat is boiled with some of the blessed salt. It is then distributed to seven families or people. These could be friends, neighbors, or strangers, but many feel at least one of the seven should be poor.
I have never watched the full sacrifice, just the blessing and the salt. I was told the salt is symbol of the bitterness of man’s sins, and a reminder to repent. I also heard it has two other denotations: one comes from a quote in the bible when Christ said “I am the salt and the light of the world.” The other refers to a Jewish custom of throwing bad or old salt on the ground, and travelers picking it up on the soles of their feet. Hence, both the salvation of mankind and the bitterness of sins in the symbol. People who cannot afford a sheep will bring chickens or birds. Outside many working churches are people selling doves, pigeons, chickens, roosters and sheep, all destined for sacrifice. The saddest blessing I saw was for a white dove. It struck me more than bloody, it seemed a difficult symbol to reconcile the killing of the symbol of Christ’s love with what was preached.
“We want our flock to come to the Lord without these pagan rituals,” the priest at Khorvirab told me. “But the ritual is very old and reminds people of their past. The best we can do is stop it at the church doors, and bless the animals before they are killed.”
There were no clergyman at T’rdat, as it has long been in ruin. As you walk up the twisting path from the highway to the church, you hike up a path that follows at a 60 degree angle for more than a kilometer. At the top you round a bend and can see first the remains of a massive stone wall that at one time enclosed the area. The church is very large and unique for not following the Armenian design for churches so many others do (that is, a cross form with stone vaulted tower at the center). It is beautifully carved in what I would call an “Armenian Classical” design, combining Greek and Roman architectural patterns with carvings rich with florid designs and pagan sun crests. Gargoyle heads and an eagle are carved out from the archway above the door. A more recent carving of a lamb rests on the ground by the entrance. The roof has collapsed in places, the stone roof tiles that fitted together so tightly they held back inclement weather have either slid off, or been taken away long ago. Most like the latter, since the stone work from that time was so skilled it must have tempted invading tribes to use it for their own palaces. A wrought iron cross, bedecked with strips of cloth, sits forlornly where a greater monument to Christianity must have been. What remains are jagged stones on the roof vaulting where smooth stone tiles have been ripped away. As I entered the sanctuary, I saw that except for one spot in the vaulted ceiling above the alter space, the interior stonework is in very good condition.
Candles glowed in the semi-darkness, as women, men and children pressed them into sand boxes before the paper pictures. Some played among the stone steps and uneven flagstones while others hummed or chanted prayers. Outside we walked to the back of the church, and I saw on the bottom of a hill a large oblong stone, rounded at the top, and flat on one side, obviously toppled from its place along the wall of the church. On the surface was an etching of a warrior. The carving was unlike any I have seen except among those on display under the side portico to the Matenadaran, a few fish-like gods carved in stone, as well as a warrior like this, drawn as if on the face of a cave, a reminder of a time back to Galilee and the apostle fishermen. Somehow it struck me as even pre-Christian. My friend thought it might be a contemporary recreation of early Christian stones found in other areas of Armenia, but I preferred to think it had tumbled out of the wall of the church which was built from the stones of a temple, and it showed us the history within.