CHAPTER 1: NORAVANK
The sound of beautiful prayer rippled around the ancient Armenian monastery of Noravank. The soulful singing relaxed some of the anxiety of worshippers that had come to celebrate Easter in this clandestine way, away from prying eyes. A pleasant waxy smell of slowly burning candles mingled with the slightly musty odour.
From the centuries that’d passed in this special place, thought Taguhi Amatuni.
Taguhi, a 17 year old green eyed Armenian girl, noticed the large bronze candle holders standing on either side of the altar. They seemed to complement the myriad of thin candles flickering in the tray at the rear, which people had lit when entering this holy place.
These items must have been hidden here somewhere, she thought.
She hadn’t seen them being carried by the group on their journey to the normally deserted Noravank Monastery.
Eva Avakian had complained most of the way from Arpa. The village was only seven kilometres down the valley, but Taguhi’s neighbour was a rather plump woman who had wheezed from the first step of the 90 minute journey. She had short black hair that sat on her shoulders and seemed to have a constant scowl on her face, perhaps because she had lost her husband Grigor back in 1918 at the end of the World War. Like most villagers, she’d endured a hard agrarian life. Despite Eva’s seemingly constant attention on everyone else’s lives and sharp comments, Taguhi admired her. She thought that Eva had a lot of courage coming this far for her faith, despite her obvious discomfort.
The mountains: the glorious mountains of Armenia. Not as jagged and tall as some of the world’s highest peaks, but green and protecting near Arpa, providing a sanctuary for generations of Armenians. Watching the golden eagle soaring imperiously overhead in a vivid blue sky – one of the symbols of Armenia, and smelling fresh green grass was a delight to Taguhi as she had strolled to Noravank, barely noticing the time it had taken or the gradual uphill gradient. She was definitely an outdoors sort of person.
In 1930, fear was the unspoken force that dominated everyday lives here. It was hard to describe the feeling of obsequious helplessness that no one talked about. After being part of Armenian culture for nearly two thousand years, in the early 1920s Communism had forced people to practice their Christian faith under a veil of secrecy.
The shadow of Soviet suspicion could be seen on people’s faces, and truth was often concealed within everyday speech. Taguhi had learnt early as a child to be careful with her words from her mother Lilit’s reaction when she’d innocently said something adverse to the expectations of Communism. Everyone wondered if their neighbour might report a misdeed, like attending a church service. It was an existence of hidden stress, but it was their norm.
Even the two dozen villagers from Arpa were worried, despite Noravank being remote. Not Eva though. Ironically even though she was known as the village gossip, she would never allow that trait to threaten her faith. So she joined the others who’d decided to come for Easter, under the pretence of preparing a field for crops collectively on the way to Noravank.
Taguhi’s mother Lilit was standing next to her left. Lilit was quite petite, compared to her daughter’s statuesque figure. An oval, kind face revealed her personality. She wore a family heirloom – a silver chain and locket around her neck, and a dark blue scarf with gold embroidery that covered her black, medium-length hair. The scarf accented her plain, dark ankle-length dress.
An accomplished seamstress, Lilit had been able to make the attire she and Taguhi wore. It helped to save their scant resources. Taguhi was dressed in her favourite white frock that she had changed into from the farming clothes she’d travelled in. The dress was a simple garment carefully crafted by her expert mother that came past her knees, with ruffled shoulders and beautiful red embroidery.
Taguhi and her mother both shared the classical, attractive looks of Armenian women: dark hair, full lips, prominent noses and a lightly tanned Mediterranean complexion. It was a result of the mixing of peoples that had crossed these ancient lands over millennia. They had come from the Persian Empire in modern-day Iran, the Greeks that followed Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, Turkic people that spread across the central Asian mountains and steppes, and more recently, Russians from the north.
In the monastery were people from Arpa that Taguhi had known well all her life – everyone, that was, except for the priest’s assistant and the priest, the Qahana. The assistant was also young; in his mid-twenties, she thought. She couldn’t help noticing that the clean-shaven priest’s assistant was quite tall – at least 15cm taller than her, and handsome with expressive eyes. He had the unmistakable look of an Armenian man, with thick bushy dark hair and eyebrows. The young man had an angular face with a large hook nose, as if a boxer had broken it in a fight one day – not a likely scenario for someone aspiring to be a priest!
The object of Taguhi’s attention was assisting the stout, white-bearded and bald Qahana, who had organised the special Easter service for those bold enough to defy the authorities. Taguhi didn’t know the Qahana’s name, as he’d come from the capital Yerevan recently to escape persecution. The mountains meant freedom in many ways. He wore a long black robe and a cross on a heavy chain, and it bobbled about as he beckoned everyone to their places.
The interior of Noravank’s partly destroyed Surb Karapet Church was really quite small. As she looked around, Taguhi noticed the old etchings in the solid stone walls. The light was streaming through the shattered cupola above. Dust everywhere! The song of prayer from the singers at the entrance that had echoed around the church slowly subsided into the background.
Noravank was known as one of the most beautiful monasteries in Armenia, even broken. Its stone walls had been hewn from the mountains that surrounded it, with a classic Armenian Orthodox cupola of conical design, topped by a prominent cross. It was only 800 years old, compared to the 6,000 year old archaeological site Taguhi had been studying – a cave about two kilometres upstream from the Arpa village. She knew that people of Arpa had been growing wine for a long time, and was determined to uncover ancient secrets there.
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