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.