“The Turkish cloud making machine is at work again,” says Ashren, our guide, “this always happens when we visit.”
Our bus rushes past the Armenian monastery of Khor Virap. We continue beyond into the dusty, disused path leading towards the Arax River and the closed Turkish border. I can make out Mount Ararat through the clouds and catch glimpses of snow at the summit. Is it really the resting place of Noah’s Ark? I wonder.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“It’s a surprise,” says Ashren our guide, “You’ll see.”
The monastery recedes behind us. It sits on a small outcrop, built up out of brown stones that form a complex of conical topped churches that are sharpened up into a point.
Khor Virap is best viewed up the road, when Mount Ararat and its lower peak, known affectionately as “Little Ararat”, frame the backdrop of the monastery. However, today, the blue sky is tainted by a group of clouds that gather over the summit of the Biblical mountain.
“Khor Virap is where Armenia became Christian,” says Ashren, “It was the world’s first Christian country. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned here.”
Imprisoned is one word for it; Saint Gregory was thrown into a claustrophobic pit full of snakes and scorpions, only to be released thirteen years later. If his survival wasn’t enough to convince the Armenian court of his power, his ability to cure the king’s madness was another.
We stop by the fence, and I glimpse the river, watchtowers and the Turkish farmlands beyond the Armenian border.
“This is the closest to Mount Ararat we can get,” says Ashren as we get off the mini-bus. “It was a part of Armenia once. It’s a holy place for the Armenians even today. Come on, follow me.”
The red bits of earth crumble under my feet and the sounds of lone birds and the wind rustling the dried green undergrowth punctuate the silence. The dust blows up into the air and I taste the clay particles as they stick to the roof of my mouth.
The top of the bank overlooks a dirt patch scattered with weeds and rectangular formations made out of eroded mud bricks.
“This is ancient Artashat,” she says, “This was founded by King Artashes I in 180 BC. Armenia’s ancient capital until the Persian Kings destroyed it.”
I stand at the ruins of ancient Artashat looking up from abandoned mud brick houses towards Mount Ararat. I feel small. I might be an outsider looking into Armenia’s history, but here, it comes together, from the legend of Noah’s ark to the origins of Armenian Christianity. The poignant memories of Armenia’s history with Turkey is also hinted at by the tall, barbed wired fence marking the closed border.
Mount Ararat now sits different country and surrounded by Turkish clouds, but it still watches over Armenia.