Nestled between mountains in the small nation of Armenia, Lake Sevan is a picturesque water body that is home to several historical churches and legends. KALPANA SUNDER explores the quaint locale that makes for a good holiday retreat.
Teal…aquamarine, sky blue, lapis lazuli, emerald, azure or turquoise? I think of the different shades of blue as I sit on the grassy slope dotted with white wildflowers, in an almost meditative trance. I am looking at a stunning canvas of rust-coloured monasteries silhouetted against crisp blue skies and the most picturesque lake that I have seen, tucked into a mountain basin with volcanic mountains, towering on the other side. I am at Lake Sevan, 60 km from Yerevan, the capital of pint-sized Armenia. Maxim Gorky once said that the lake was “like a piece of the sky that had descended to the earth among the mountains”.
Lake Sevan at 6,200 feet is a high altitude lake, and is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the South Caucasus. Originally, the lake was famous for its picturesque island, widely described in the literary works of Armenian authors, but, unfortunately, after human intervention in the early 20th century, which drained the waters of the lake, it turned into a peninsula.
Legend has it...
I just dip my toe in the waters to find that Lake Sevan’s waters are icy cold! “We call it the ‘Armenian Sea”, says my guide Tatevik, because in this landlocked country, this is one of the three great lakes that provide relief. “Most people head to its shores to spend summer vacations and have barbecues on the beaches,” says Tatevik. History whispers from every corner of the lake.
One of the most popular legends about Lake Sevan and Sevanavank Monastery is that during a battle between Armenians and the Arabs, King Ashot Erkat was on the island. His soldiers were too few in comparison with the Arab army. The King spoke to one of his wise fishermen and asked for advice.
The fisherman advised the King to attack the Arabs early in the morning when the sun just starts to rise. The king followed his advice and as the sun was behind the Armenian forces, it blinded the Arabs. The Armenians managed to win the battle, after which the lake was full of Arab soldiers. Because of the dead bodies and their uniforms, the lake looked black and hence the name Sevan. Others say that the black tuff volcanic stone with which the churches are built gave it the name Sevan.
Today, high up on the hill, overlooking the lake are the remains of ancient monasteries and churches. We climb up to Sevanavank Monastery along a long flight of steps which takes you to the top of the peninsula’s hill, which has commanding views of the lake.
I see an ethereal shroud of cloud hanging over the peak of the mountains and evaporating at the lake’s edge. Students in royal blue uniforms from the Theological Academy run by the Apostolic church nearby, descend the stairs, talking to each other and texting on phones. Souvenir booths sell water-colour paintings of the lake and handmade jewellery. A craftsman entices me with an angel carved out of volcanic tuff stone. Young Iranian tourists take selfies; they come to Armenia to party and let their hair down, without the restrictions of their homeland.
Finally, out of breath, we reach the ruins of the Sevanavank Monastery which used to be a huge monastic complex. Today, only two churches remain — the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Church of the Holy Mother of God. It was Queen Mariam, wife of Vasak of Syunik, who built the churches in 874, and they have recently been restored. In the 19th century, the monastery was a place to reform disobedient monks, giving them a strict regime, where no women were allowed. They say that the monks stayed in the monastery for months, surviving on a diet of water and bread only.
I love the simple architecture of both the rough hewn churches that stand deserted like forlorn sentinels of this ancient lake; they are in the form of a cross with octagonal towers.
Abandoned during the Soviet period, and badly damaged in an earthquake, the monastery was not revived until the 1990s, and is still undergoing reconstruction. Many of their fine wooden capitals are now in the Museum of History in Yerevan and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Armenian families with children pose in front of the churches and crumbling stone walls covered with colourful lichen. I sit on a bench, from where I get a panoramic sweep of the whole peninsula, and the lake shining in an iridescent shade of blue.
In the Church of Holy Apostles, the showstopper is the wooden door with intricate carvings, which dates back to the 15th century. The bigger Church of the Holy Mother of God was used to preserve the most important gifts to the monastery, including manuscripts, printed books, jewellery and crosses. As I enter the church’s dark interiors, beams of sunlight shine through the narrow windows, offering the only hint of warmth in the dungeon-like temperatures. Tatevik shows us the church’s greatest treasure — Four Evangelists, the Three Kings, Adam and Eve and, most fascinating of all, Christ with his hair braided in Mongol style. She explains that as it was at that time that Genghis Khan’s men were sweeping through Asia destroying all in their path, this was incorporated in the design so that they would not destroy it!
The compound of the Church of the Holy Mother of God is filled with khachkars or cross stones. The word ‘khachkar’ is formed by two Armenian roots: khach (cross) and kar (stone). The khachkar resembles other forms of Christian art, like the Celtic High Cross.
We walk to the end of the path lined with fir trees, overlooking the eastern shore of the lake. I see the ruins of the oldest church in the complex which was said to be founded in the third century! On the far side of the hill is the president’s vacation home. As I drive back to Yerevan, my mind is full of images of soldiers in battle, monks in deep contemplation, and a lake that shines bright, in the most radiant blue.
How to get there
Fly to Yerevan by Air Arabia from Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai via Sharjah.
From Yerevan, drive down to Lake Sevan ( 60 km).
What to do
Visit the Republic Square, the Cascades, the Vernissage Flea Market, the Matenadaran Library, and the Armenian Genocide Museum.
Take day trips to the Gerghard and Garni temples, visit Lake Sevan and the ski resort of Tsaghkadzor.
Eat: Lake Sevan is famous for its fish, especially trout. Taste barbecued fish at one of the many fish restaurants dotting the shores of the lake.
Buy: Dried fruits, preserves, jams and juices, local brandy and wine, traditional dolls, ‘khachkars’ or cross stones, paintings.