We left Kutaisi at the lovely hour of 7:00 a.m. We had to leave early because we were going to make a stop in Mtskheta just outside Tbilisi to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral before driving to the Georgia-Armenia border for my pickup at 1:00 p.m. In fact, we left so early, the sun was just coming up.
Anyway, we made the journey back to the eastern part of Georgia, through the mountains and back to the farmlands outside Tbilisi in about 2 ½ hours reaching Mtskheta just after 10:30 a.m.
Now the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is important for many reasons, but the primary reason is that it is believed to house Christ’s robe beneath a square pillar in the central portion of the church. It is alleged that a Jew from Mtskheta was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion, bought the robe from a Roman soldier and then brought the robe back to Mtskheta. The robe was buried with his sister, but over the years people forgot where it was buried. Later, a cedar tree grew from the grave. The tree was order chopped down in order to make columns to build the church. However, the one wooden column designed to stand in the center of the church could not be raised from the ground. St. Nino prayed all night and the column allegedly moved of its own to the robe’s burial site. The column is said to have worked many miracles.
The wooden church built in the 4th century was replaced in the 5th century. The present stone church was constructed between 1010 and 1029. In addition to Christ’s robe, the Church houses the remains of many Georgian monarchs and a 14th century replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Katiya and I wandered around the church taking in the beautiful architecture with the amazing domed ceiling, the lovely Georgian arches and the remains of brilliant frescos that were still partially visible on the stone walls. I stopped to look at the copy of the church that sits in Jerusalem before we finally took in the large platform that is said to cover Christ’s robe. And no, it does not appear that anyone in recent memory has verified if the robe is buried there.
After the church visit, Jakob and Katiya drove me to the Sadakhlo/Bagratashen border crossing into Armenia. It was very sad saying goodbye to my lovely companions for the past ten days. Jakob had been a tremendous driver and Katiya a simply superb guide. After helping take my luggage to passport control, we took a couple pictures, hugged and waved goodbye. Absolutely wonderful people in a wonderful country.
Once through the Georgian passport control, I made the “lovely” hike with my luggage down a long road, across a bridge, up a hill and past a guard house (in the searing 30 plus celsius heat) to finally reach the Armenian border entry point. The guard who examined my passport wanted to know where I was staying and after telling him three times, I finally pulled out my reservation printout and that still wasn’t good enough for him. He then wanted to know a telephone number for the hotel. Good grief! Use your damn computer buddy. However, before I could said anything, another guy came over took one look at the reservation and the name of the hotel (which is one of the best in Yerevan) and said two words to the guy and motioned to him resulting in my passport being stamped and a “welcome to Armenia”. Sheesh. I didn’t have that much trouble in Turkmenistan.
Anyway, I walked out of passport control towards the gate and immediately saw my guide, Diane, and my driver, waiting for me on the other side of the fence. A few minutes later and I was ensconced in a very comfortable air conditioned car heading south to Yerevan. Thank goodness. By now I was overheated from the long walk while hauling all of my luggage. I was very happy to know this was the last “walking” border crossing. All borders for the rest of the trip will be crossed by air or without luggage.
The first order of the day in Armenia was to stop for lunch. Thank goodness because I had left the guesthouse in Kutaisi before breakfast was served and the roadside stop we made in the morning did not have much in the way of breakfast food. It was definitely time to eat.
Diane called ahead and ordered lunch so that when we arrived at the lovely little restaurant, the table was already covered in salads, bread (lots of bread), cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and Armenian yogurt. And if that wasn’t enough, I was served a delicious vegetable soup and barbecue beef and potatoes. I was definitely not going to leave hungry.
Now one of the best parts of the meal was the lights out tomato sauce that was served with the potatoes and beef. Diane said it was like a ketchup, but I can assure you there is no ketchup in North America that tastes anything like this. The sauce was spicy, but not overly spicy, and left this lingering tang in my mouth. It was the perfect complement to the beef and potatoes. I liked it so much, I complemented the owner on the sauce. She seemed quite delighted with my complement, in fact so much so that she filled an empty water bottle to the top with the sauce. I plan to save it and bring it home with me. It is an absolute food work of art!
Anyway, after lunch, we made two stops before heading to Yerevan. The first stop was to Monastery of Haghpat, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There were a number of churches at the site, with the largest and oldest being the Cathedral of Surb Nishan, which was completed in 991. Now the structure of Armenian churches are far different than Georgian churches. First, the church had a massive entry area where people could worship, as well as a large inner main church. Second, there were no arches in the church, but instead huge pillars supporting the domed ceiling. Finally, while this church had frescos, it is not common for Armenian churches to be decorated with paintings because they believe the painting detract from the purpose of the church.
Diane and I wandered around the church and also took in the small domed Church of St. Gregory, the belltower, an auditorium with amazing acoustics, and a scriptorium, which had holes in floor for hiding scrolls during times of invasion. We also saw a number of khackhars (stone crosses) from the 11th to 13th centuries, including one of only sixteen khackhars in the country to feature Christ, the “Amenaprkich” (All-Savior) khachkar which has existed since 1273.
Now the views from Haghpat were magnificent. The monastery sits part way up a mountain above the Debed River so I could see all the way down into the valley and over to the little village homes that dotted the hillside. Certainly a lovely way to start my tour of Armenia.
We then drove a few kilometers down the road and up a hill to the little village of Sanahin to visit the Sanahin Monastery, also a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Sanahin apparently meant “older than that one”, which is likely a reference to the neighboring Haghpat.) And, in fact, Sanahin, is older with the main church having been constructed in 966 A.D. The complex included three churches, a mausoleum, bell tower, academic building and some other smaller buildings.
We wandered around the smaller “noble church”, that was used primarily by the King and Queen while the less than noble people stayed outside in a large covered, enclosed courtyard area that also served as a gravesite. We then walked to the adjacent main church, the Church of the Redeemer. This church at one time had frescos, and if you looked really hard you could make out some of the shapes and colours. This church was similar in style to the church at Haghpat with large pillars and an enormous dome. This church also had an large entryway, which was filled with graves.
I ended up walking around the entire complex taking a few pictures before we walked back to the car. On the walk back, a lady gave us some cherry tomatoes after we admired her garden and as full as I was from lunch, I thoroughly enjoyed the lovely gift.
We finally hit the road just before 5:00 p.m. for our three plus hour drive to Yerevan. The drive took us through mostly mountainous country past some small little villages as the sun began to set. Once darkness set in, I had to fight the fatigue factor, but fortunately we made a bathroom stop at an awesome little store where they had every baked product under the sun and a fellow making bread in a large tandoori oven like structure (similar to what I saw in Georgia). However, I have to say that I liked this bread more than the bread I tried in the Kakheti region. This was light and airy and not nearly so heavy. Delish.
After the quick break, we continued the drive to Yerevan and reached the downtown area by just after 8:00 p.m. Once we pushed through traffic, we finally made it to my hotel just before 8:30 p.m. Fortunately, we were not going to start my tour of Yerevan until 10:00 a.m. tomorrow so I was going to be able to get a good night’s sleep. It had been a long, long day.