Monday, July 13, 2009

Letter 28: Healing at Chiqi Vanq

Tuesday, June-09-09
There was an article by Jeffrey Kluger in the Feb 23 issue of Time Magazine this winter about how faith can heal, entitled “The Biology of Belief”. He concludes the article by saying: “Doctors, patients and pastors battling disease already know that help comes in a whole lot of forms. It is the result, not the source, that counts the most.” The article by Kruger is followed by examples of different healing practices and pilgrimage spots around the world, the most famous of which seems to be Notre Dame de Lourdes in France.

Armenia is quickly becoming a pilgrimage tourism destination. As the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, Armenia has a huge collection of monasteries and chapels scattered all over the mountainous landscape where monks and saints have lived and prayed, and, after their death, were credited with miracles. Armenia is also the closest Christian country to the Holy Land, and consequently Armenians have had easier access to Holy Christian relics than any other nation around the world. It is therefore no wonder that most monasteries and chapels in Armenia boast to have Christian relics hidden in them. While many of these relics were taken out of Armenia to Christian Europe (or ‘saved’) by Armenian clergymen in the Middle Ages after the Muslim conquest(s), many have remained buried in the foundations of these chapels until today, are still the object of veneration and are credited with even more miracles.

Interestingly, many of these monasteries and chapels are located on previously pagan holy spots and temples. In fact, the Armenian Christian Church has adopted and “Christianized” many formerly pagan festivals and holidays. The culture and beliefs in the healing powers associated with these sites is therefore well entrenched in Armenia. For example, you will find in the little chapel of St Phokas, near Noravanq (15 kilometres from our house), the basin of a sacred spring in which some miraculous healing oils seep from the relics of the Saint, according to the 13th century writings of Bishop Stepanos Orbelyan. Orbelyan wrote “Here surprising things used to occur. All kinds of pains, whose cure by man was impossible, such as leprosy and long-infected and gangrenous wounds, were cured when people came here, bathed with the water and anointed with the oil. But in cases where the wounds were fatal, (the patient) expired immediately.”

Hayki, our former-“shepherd” neighbour, had taken us to St Phokas when the Nabatians and Pascovichs visited in 2004 but I had never witnessed a true sacrifice and miraculous healing before, such as the one I witnessed at Chiqi Vanq. Chiq means skin disease (psoriasis). I found out at the last minute from one friend, Ruzan, that she was going with her family to Chiqi Vanq, a small chapel past Vayq, near Herher village. I had heard about the specialty of this “Vanq” for curing skin diseases. I asked Ruzan why they were going, she answered: just like that, for a picnic. I had wanted to go to Chiqi Vanq to check it out, so I asked if I could come too, and on the spur of the moment, she said yes. So off I went with her on the marshutka to Malichka, a large village 10 kms away from Yeghegnadzor, to her mother’s house where the rest of the family had gathered (Her mother, daughter, sister, nephew, her sister’s mother-in-law “Rosa Dadik” and two friends of her nephew). I noticed Ruzan’s 20-year-old nephew had a bandage near his wrist. He said he had strained it working. Soon Ishkhan showed-up with his little blue fourgon (van) and we all piled-up in. They insisted I sit in the front with Ishkhan, so eight adults were stuffed in the closed back and were warned not to make any noise if we were stopped by a policeman. Soon after we took off, they realized they had forgotten the most important guest on this trip, the rooster. We returned and soon Anoushik and Souren came-back with a captured rooster in a bag.

See the full series of the pilgrimage photos by clicking:

It wasn’t long after we passed Vayq (the second largest city in Vayots Dzor) that we turned left to get on the road to Herher. We went past the Herher dam and drove along the lake. Soon Ishkhan pointed to a spot in the mountains. It was Chiqi Vanq, our destination.

The overloaded fourgon could not make it up the mountain, so we got off and walked the last mile. It was gorgeous to climb the mountain and look at the green valley below. We ran into a horseman returning from the mountain. We soon had to climb the goat path to Chiqi Vanq. The nicely polished stones were visible, but many stones from the roof and siding had been ripped-away by the violent storms that sometimes occur on the top of mountains. On the way, we noticed the little pieces of cloth tied to tree branches by pilgrims to the site. As soon as we arrived, Rosa Dadik proceeded to examine the chapel, where she obviously had been before. She pulled out a bag which turned out to be full of home-made candles that she distributed to each of us. We each lit our pair of candles in the small niches on the side of the altar. The altar was full of little mementos left by previous pilgrims, usually handkerchiefs. Rosa Dadik then went into a mild emotional trance/prayer, chanting ‘cure my grandson’ with tears in her eyes. Then she called Souren into the chapel and proceeded to feel all parts of his body in some kind of a ritual, repeating the same prayer.

When we backed out (an archaic custom which is supposed to show respect to the altar), the Մատաղ Matagh (sacrifice rooster) was waiting, seemingly aware of his destiny. Rosa Dadik took charge. She took out the knife, sharpened it quickly on the bare rocks and handed it to Souren’s young friend, who had this incredulously funny smile on his face. He proceeded to slaughter the rooster and, in a minute, Rosa Dadik had her finger in the fresh blood-soaked earth and marked Souren’s forehead with a cross, again repeating the same prayer. She did the same thing to all those present. Then they walked around the chapel a few times. The whole “ceremony” was completed in a matter of minutes but I thoroughly enjoyed the serenity of the place and the stupendous view. We could see the snowy mountain peaks around, the extinct volcano, and the Herher dam reservoir. I was sorry to leave the place, but it was late evening already, and we still had to cook and eat the sacrifice.

So we returned to the car and chose a spot under an oak tree. On the way back we each gathered whatever dead wood we could find to light a fire. In a matter of minutes, we were boiling water in a pot for the bokhi some had also gathered on the way down. Bokhi is a wild mountain green vegetable that Armenians love to eat – it tastes a bit bitter, but is supposed to cure many stomach ills. After the bokhi had boiled, it was the turn of the yet unplucked bird. The two dadiks had dipped the deceased rooster in the boiling water and unceremoniously proceeded to pluck, clean and cut it into pieces which ended up in the pot with new boiling water and salt.

You are not supposed to cover the pot when boiling a ‘Մատաղ – Matagh’, perhaps to let the smell spread so that all hungry people can join in the feast. So it took longer than usual to get this broth to a strong boil, before they could add the rice. In the meanwhile visitors from the mountain kept trickling down, and each received a small something to eat, for which they said “dzer Mataghu entounvats lini” (may your sacrifice be accepted) . We all took turns to feed the fire to get the water boiling; at one point, the pot was partly covered (would this void the cure?). Souren asked: So do I now stop all medicine I took before? To which they all answered with no hesitation: yes! Souren’s mum recounted that she had done a similar (sacrifice) at Chiqi Vanq when she was younger, and by the time she had arrived home, she had been cured.

By the time the rooster was declared boiled enough, the picnic meal had been spread: Lavash bread, panir (unripened/salted white cheese), kanachi (green herbs), tomatoes and cucumbers. Each was handed a small deep tin dish with the broth and a piece of chewy rooster. It was good. Then the oghi came out and everyone made toasts wishing Souren a speedy cure and wishing all good health.

It was almost dark when we finished eating and while some were packing, the others danced under the volcano to varied tunes from the fourgon’s sound-system.
I was back home around 11 o’clock, happy to have witnessed an age old Armenian tradition in a spontaneous way, and to have documented it with photos.

The last I heard, Souren is feeling much better and looking for a job in Yerevan. He had already stopped itching by the time he got home.

© All rights reserved. This letter can be reproduced with full acknowledgements.
© Tous droits réservés. La reproduction de ce texte est permise avec reconnaissance complete.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Letter 27: Armenian Կոնյաք (Konyak)

Եղեգնաձոր (Yeghegnadzor) Friday, May-22-2009
Dear Raffi:

What you say makes sense and I remember hearing many aspects of that story, but it will need digging-up.

 From: Raffi

Subject: cognac
To: Received: Monday, May 18, 2009, 8:41 AM

parev kerri
ouremen hima Amsterdam em, yev Ararat cognaki
marketingi vra g'ashxadimgor. ansial shapat, camille
g'essergor vor francatsinere porcecin 'cognac'
par arkilel ararati vra, yev verchavorutiunin, tsouic devin
vor...des moines armeniens ont apporte la recette du cognac
en France
d'ailleurs tu te soviens, en 2005 nous sommes alle
à la vallee d'armeniac.

alors tu peux me confirmer cette histoire? ou si tu as
un article la dessus...merci


Let us start from the Bible, Noah (3900 B.C. to 2900 B.C.) got drunk from the wine grown near where the Arch landed (probably the Ararat plain or the Areni area near our house). I don’t know any Frenchman who can boast having made wine at that time in France. Now do you think Noah would have gotten drunk on simple wine. He had probably met my neighbour Zorro who had him taste some of his ‘oghi’. But we can’t prove this at this time! However the symbolism of this Biblical story is clear in everyone’s mind: Armenia is the land where God gave man (through Noah) a second chance! Any oghi or Կոնյաք (Konyak) produced here has, aside from its’ special sun-baked aroma and fruity flavours, the distinction of being from the ‘land where God gave man a second chance’!

Now we all know that the Romans did partake in wine making and drinking. The King of Armenia was taken in chains to Rome when he refused to give them all his wines and specially his recipe for making oghi. There is a slight possibility, that this is when the Romans (and the French) learned to make distilled wine, but we have no historical proof they learned their lesson well. According to historian Boris Piotrovski, in the mid-5th century, after the Romans had appeased the Armenians, Rome was regularly supplied with barrels of ‘distilled grape wine’ bearing the seal of Dvin (which is located just beyond the Gegham mountain range, looking from our living room window towards Ararat). If it takes me an hour to get to Dvin by car today, how long do you think those barrels of distilled grape wine took to reach Rome? There you have it: The Romans were drinking “Hnatsatz oghi” without knowing it. In our town, hardly anyone has the means to drink “Hnatsatz oghi” for they drink fresh, all the oghi they produce long before it starts getting old. When they run-out of their own home-made oghi, they come to me to borrow money to go and buy some cheap Russian vodka until the new season, when they make the new delicious oghi again.

You will remember no doubt what the last known ‘Olympic Champion’ of antiquity, Vartakades (Arshakuni), Prince of Armenia, said in an Irish pub after winning the boxing contest in 369 A.D. He said: ‘Let’s drink to this’ and then they all sang: ‘խմենք ընկերներ, բաժակները լի, թող Հայոց գինին մեզ անուշ լինի’. (a popular Armenian wine drinking song). After the գինի (wine) they went on to the oghi and the ‘bachanales’ and then showed-up for 10 o’clock Mass, drunk!… So you can understand why the Olympic Games, which were held for more than 1100 years, were abolished in 393AD by Roman Emperor Theodosius, who considered them to be pagan and why we, Roman Catholics, have to fast from midnight on if we want to have Holy Communion.

When the Eastern Roman Empire was created and the Byzantine Empire took over, several of the Byzantine Emperors were Armenians (search for instance Emperor “Leo the Armenian”). The Byzantines raised armies from all parts of the empire, but never kept the ‘armed’ legions from a given ethnic group on their national soil, so there is no temptation to claim ‘armed’ independence. For instance, we all know that the Romanians are the result of the mixture of Roman (Italian) soldiers who were part of the Roman Legion that Byzantium stationed in that part of the world, away from Italy. They intermarried with the local Slavic tribes and barbarians and formed the Romanian language (close to Italian). The same was true with the Armenian Legion during the Byzantine Empire. They were not stationed in Armenia. They were stationed in Italy (precisely in the Veneto, in Ravenna and Rimini - where Rimini got its name from being called “citta degli Armeni”). It is well known that in the 6th century, under the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (the builder of Hajia Sophia), it is precisely the Armenian Legion that liberated Rome after it had been plundered by the Ostrogoths. … I remember reading it in a book called “From Ararat to San Lazzaro” published by the Armenian Mekhitarist monks in the Island of San Lazzaro in Venice. The Armenian Legion was under the leadership of General Nerces (sometimes written ‘Narses’, Narcissus). It went on to appease the Spaniards afterwards going through southern France (Gaul) and taught them a few tricks in the process, but probably not how to make oghi (yet).

Now in the early medieval period, after the Muslim conquest of southern Armenia (700 AD- 800AD) there were many schisms/heresies and sects that originated in the Anatolian/Armenian part of the Byzantine Empire. Please check the “Paulicians” if you have good access to the internet. I am sure Wikipedia has something on them. Now these guys were Armenians, and were persecuted by Byzantine emperors. They were a Gnostic and quasi Manichaean Christian group which flourished between 650 and 872. Some of their sects fought against the worship of icons, and therefore were given protection against persecution in areas of Armenia conquered by Arab-Muslims. Other sects moved west and ended-up in southern France, in the Languedoc.

You can look-up the ‘Cathars’ and the ‘Croisade des Albigeois’ which was a crusade called for by Pope Innocent II to eliminate these ‘Manichean’ preachers and their followers who had been welcomed by liberal-thinking southern French Princes of Languedoc because they made such good oghi (these “non-Parisian” French could not pronounce the ‘gh’ sound – like the ‘r’ in ‘Paris’ - and ‘oghi’ became known as “eau-d’vie”). Incidentally the Cathars (cat-arse) never called themselves by that name, it is a name given to them by the Dominican monks who led the theological fight against them, for they accused them of ‘devil worship’ and of ‘kissing the arse of black cats on their altars during Holy Mass’ (which is totally untrue), but since all we had as a written record about them was what those Dominicans had recorded during their ‘inquisition’ trials of these poor Armenian preachers before they burned them alive together with all their bibles, oghi making secrets and religious books, the name and stories stuck. It wasn’t until after WW II that an ancient bible written in old Languedoc French was discovered in the destroyed Jewish ghetto of Warshava and it was found to be the only surviving book of those so-called ‘Cathars’. This is how we now know what kind of pseudo-Christian religion these sects practiced.

I suspect that it is at that time that some of these monks started making oghi in oak barrels to keep it from the inquisition and found that it tasted smoother, and that this monk Armenak gave his name to Armagnac. It is at that time also that Saint Pey d’Armens was founded (see photo).

Now I do not have direct evidence of that, for I have not had time to visit any of the Languedoc archives in Toulouse, but you may have such an opportunity.

On the other hand, a Germano-Russo Canadian friend of mine sent me a description of an episode during which an Armenian bishop, carrying relics and other precious items, was separated from his treasures by the perfidy of the Counts of Sayn, in Westphalia, at some time in the 12th century. (For details, see the “endnote”). Below is the photo of the shrine where the relics are still kept near Bonn (unfortunately there is no oghi there now, they drank it all).

Now this poor Armenian Bishop was fleeing the Seljuk black-sheep bashibouzouk conquest, and I don’t really know whether he came in the same migration wave as Armenak of Armagnac fame, or if Armenak came earlier from General Nercess time.

It is undeniable that Armenians have entered French lives and culture at several times in history. Everyone in France knows the story of the “Masque de fer” where one version of the legend has the secret prisoner as an Armenian bishop or prince who cured the ‘Dauphin’ from dysentery with ‘madsoun’ (the name Armenians have always used for their special and delicious ‘yogurt’) … How about d’Artanyan and the Three Musketeers? Do you remember their first names? (Arthos, Portos and Aramis). Are these French names or are they more likely to be Artin, Poghos and Aram? And I am sure your mother told you the story of ‘Artin partir à Paris’… How about (former) President Jacques Chirac: Did his ancestors come all the way here and founded the ‘Region of Shirak’ (Շիրակ Մարզ) in northern Armenia or is it the other way around?

The fact is that when the French Cognac producers took the Armenian Konyak producers to court for calling their ‘hnatsads oghi’ Konyak (Կոնյաք), they lost. And you can notice that in Armenia and in Russia, Armenian Konyak still has labels legally calling it Konyak. I understand several historic arguments were made in court by the Armenian side, some around the same kind of anecdotes I reported here, and some of more recent history: as you said, Armenians (Nercess Tairyants) called their oak-matured “hnatsads oghi” Կոնյաք and exported it to Russia (1877) as such, much before the name was copyrighted or the copyright laws were created! Armenian Կոնյաք was even awarded the “Grand Prix” (in a blind tasting degustation) by the jury at the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris, under the brand name “Shustov Cognac” (after Nikolai Leontevich Shustov, who had bought the Yerevan oghi factory from Tairyants a year earlier).

I hope this helps you.

Համբույրներ (Bisous)


p.s. This story is copyrighted. If you, your other uncle or Pernod-Ricard dare to infringe on this copyright and use any of this text, you won’t fare as easily in court as the Armenyan Կոնյաք (Konyak) producers did ;-)

Antoine S. Terjanian
Went there to drink oghi
to read all my letters from Armenia, open

© All rights reserved. This letter can be reproduced with full acknowledgements.
© Tous droits réservés. La reproduction de ce texte est permise avec reconnaissance complète.
 The following material is derived from “Sayn’sche Chronik” by Alexander Graf von Hachenburg (Published by Ludwig Röhrscheid, Bonn, 1929). This book traces the history of the Counts of Sayn in Westphalia. It describes an incident with an Armenian bishop at the time of Heinrich II, Count of Sayn. The following abridged extract and its informal translation were provided by my friend Leo Sayn-Wittgenstein:

Heinrich I is mentioned in documents dated 1139, 1140, 1149, and 1152. He died near the turn of the century and was succeeded by his son, Heinrich II, who is mentioned in documents from 1180, 1197, and 1201. He founded the Premonstratensian abbey at Sayn in 1201 and the abbey of St. Maximin in Cologne. His wife was Countess Agnes of Nassau. She died in 1202 and was buried in the crypt in Sayn, where her husband, who had built the fortress of Blankenburg in 1184, was buried in 1205.

Heirich’s brother Bruno was Probst (Prevost/ Provost) in Bonn and later Archbishop of Cologne. He died on the Sayn fortress of Blankenburg on the Sieg in 1208 and is buried in the crypt of the Dome in Cologne. Two years before his death (1205) Bruno presented the abbey with the relic of the arm of the holy apostle Simon. It is still there, preserved and worshipped in a beautiful shrine of the period.

This is how Bruno acquired the treasure: an Armenian bishop came from the Orient to worship at the shrine of the Three Wise Men in Cologne. Travel was dangerous , because it was the time of the war between the kings Philipp and Otto. (Philipp of Swabia, son of Barbarossa, and Otto of Brunswick, nephew of Richard I of England. LSW).

Just past Bonn, at Wesseling, the defenceless traveller encountered a roaming band. He realized the danger, but was more concerned about his treasure than his life. He had the treasure buried in the church yard in Wesseling and continued to Cologne, expecting to recover it on his return. Several locals, however, observed him, dug up the treasure, and brought it to Probst Bruno in Bonn. The Probst recognized its value and appropriated it.

In the meantime, the bishop continued his journey and was attacked by robbers. He carried nothing of value and was, therefore, badly mistreated. His wounds had not yet healed when he started his return from Cologne. At Wesseling he found the place where he had buried his treasure, but the pit was empty! Unconsolable and sick, he stopped in Bonn to recover. Probst Bruno visited him, took him in, and cared for him until he recovered. The Armenian then told Bruno about the unhappy fate of his treasure. Bruno said nothing!

When the bishop was ready to return to the Orient he asked Bruno how he could show his appreciation for the reception and care he had received. Bruno thanked him and asked that he be allowed to keep the relic as a souvenir, if he should happen to come into its posession. After some hesitation, and with a heavy heart, the Armenian agreed and left, richly supplied by Bruno with horses, clothing and money. Bruno sent the relic to the fortress of Blankenburg, to his brothers Heinrich II and Eberhard. Later, the arm and the shrine were brought to the abbey at Sayn.

Seal of Heinrich II

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Letter 26: We’re in March, don’t leave us alone!

Letter 26: We’re in March, don’t leave us alone!
Saturday, March-07-2009 to April-02-09
Here again, hanging on the steep slopes of our mountains,
In the middle of our gardens devastated by the elements provoked by climate change,
We do what the unemployed do, what prisoners do,
We cultivate hope!

We’re a young country with a long history, but have become less smart.
The IMF and the WB still let us borrow and mortgage our children’s future!

Here, on the steps to our house, where the smoke rises
From last fall’s leftover leaves and the street garbage
We can’t breathe. I say, better not to be able to breathe from that than from the smoke of the guns….

But spring is in the air, our apricots have blossomed before the cherries and I hear the buzz of the bees who come from far (Vardkes has left his beehives elsewhere this year). The local black-flies are out, they bother everybody else for 10 days, but they don’t seem to like Canadian-Armenian blood.

Everyone talks of the “Jknazham” (The Economic Crisis) and wants to know how it affects us in Canada). Some people have lost their home. Others who lived beyond their means, those who borrowed money for consumer goods rather than investment will sell their car, their furniture.

Ararat is still there, shining from our window. We can always count on him, whether we see him or not.

Our living room is without its beautiful wooden floor. It was infected by wood borers and I had asked Vardkes to take it away and burn it last winter, but I had left him with the new wood to prepare for installation upon my arrival. He broke his arm in an accident and he now walks around, frustrated, in pain, unemployed, not from lack of work, no insurance except his family.

Had the policeman, who used his club to beat-up peaceful opposition demonstrators a year ago, in March, contemplated his victims’ faces and reflected upon what he was doing, he may have remembered the faces of his grand-parents during the “Metsn Yeghern”, he may have set aside the might of the club, the might of the gun.
This is not the way to build a country!

Alone, we are alone up to our elbows, but for the rainbows that visit us every once and then;
We know we have brothers and sisters beyond these rainbows.
Good brothers and sisters. They love us.
They look at us and rain Manna on us from time to time; then they say:
Why can’t they solve their …. But can’t finish their sentence, for they don’t know what hit us.
Don’t leave us alone! Don’t leave us !

Antoine S. Terjanian
Went there to attract rainbows
to read all my letters from Armenia, open