BY HOVSEP DAGDIGIAN
ZORAVAN — About 20 km (12 miles) north of Yerevan center is the town of Zoravan. On a hill on the outskirts of the town is the Dovri archaeological site, dating to the Bronze Age and the Urartian era. On this hill can be seen segments of stone walls from the bronze/iron age fortifications. On one side of the hill is a 19th century church.
My driver and I emerged from the Dovri site to look for Zoravank, a 7th century church complex. Despite asking a number of the local inhabitants for directions, no one seemed to be aware of Zoravank. About to give up, and heading back towards Yerevan, we spotted a structure atop a hill in back of a large cemetery. We asked the attendant at the nearby gas station what was on top of the hill. He replied “Ghargharavank”. The dirt road alongside the cemetery, though not very steep, was quite bad, with a number of deep, mud-filled potholes. I suggested to the driver that we stop and I would walk the rest of the way, but my driver wanted to continue. As we approached the hilltop it became evident from photos I’d seen that this was Zoravank, the site we were searching for!
The church, now in partial ruins, was built by Prince Grigor Mamikonian between 661 and 685 AD. Although appearing to be round, the church is actually hexagonal. Some stabilization of the church structure was done during the Soviet era, with reinforcing steel bars (rebar) protruding from the top of the church walls. As far as I know no restorations have been done since then. A hundred yards beyond the church are the remains of a funerary chapel. Around the church are remnants of khachkars and tombstones. A nicely cut inscription remains on the church wall. Finely cut stones scattered nearby indicate there was much more to Zoravank than currently remains.
The Mamikonians were Armenia’s “sparabeds”, the hereditary chiefs of Armenia’s military forces. Most notable among them was Vartan Mamikonian, who led the revolt against the Persians in defense of Armenian Christianity. Vartan died heroically in the battle of Avarayr in 451 AD, but his nephew Vahan Mamikonian (Kayl Vahan – “Wolf” Vahan) continued to lead the struggle for the preservation of Armenian Christianity. Though still part of the Persian Empire, the Treaty of Nuvarsag in 484 AD guaranteed Armenia’s religious freedom.
As I descended from the hill towards our car there appeared two young men in their teens tending sheep near a stream. They were curious about my interest in Zoravank and asked if I was writing a book, where I was from, etc. They asked if I knew the origin of the name “Ghargharavank”. I didn’t. So they related the following story. As I did not completely understand all that they said, I recorded their comments on a small voice recorder and, on the way back, my taxi driver explained the story more thoroughly to me.
The villagers were preparing for a holiday and were cooking large vats of harissa (a thick pasty meat stew which requires a lot of cooking). When the villagers were away from the harissa which was still cooking (probably overnight), snakes arrived and poisoned the harissa. The blackbirds (“gharghar” or “ghargar” in Armenian or in the village dialect) saw the evil actions of the snakes and dove into the harissa. In the morning the villagers returned and saw the disgusting sight of dead blackbirds in the harissa. They dumped the harissa on the ground. Dogs then came, ate the harissa, and died. The villagers realized that the blackbirds (ghargharner) saved their lives. Thereafter the monastery was called “ghargharavank”.