Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Khachkars of Noratus

After chilling in Martuni for another day after the party, Eloise and I headed for a village called Noratus, near the city of Gavar, where on a hill just lakeside of the village there is a great expanse of standing khachkars, the striking and beautifully carved “cross stones” that date from medieval times. The old women who sit among the stones approached us with their many-colored handmade socks, then once we had taken pictures and bought a little dried fruit returned to sitting and drawing the wool into yarn by hand.
Liana and Arman
A young girl in a red jacket appeared and offered to show us the stones. She guided us around to the classic khachkar with blooming cross, dove wings below, hanging pomegranates above, and showed us depictions on another stone a wedding with the laid table, parents, jugs of wine, and on another shepherds with their animals.
On the back of this stone is a snake emerging from a fish’s mouth. The children didn’t know what the image meant, but they said that it was the oldest stone in Noratus. When asked where they learned all these symbols and stories, they said that Samvel, a very old man of the village, had taught them.
The size of the khachkars was amazing, and they stood as much as three feet high on base stones. One can imagine the whole village coming together at the time of death and raising the beautiful stone into its place. Even today in Armenia a funeral draws half the village, all of whom probably have some connection to the deceased, walking in a huge mob up the road to the cemetary.
When we had wandered for hours among the ancient stones, we passed through them and realized that this cemetary was vast. Outside the estimated 900 ancient stones that sit or lie in that field, there are areas totaling two or three times that full of newer plots. Most modern Armenian gravestones have a picture of the deceased, done in hundreds of tiny indentations on the stone, below the cross. Most stones are in a fenced-off family plot, often with a stone table and benches where the family comes once in a while to picnic. Looking at all the faces in the graveyard was a little jarring at first for me, but I got used to it. People visit regularly, bring flowers and the whole family. The gerizmanots (cemetary) is a living place, and a beautiful one.

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