21 September 2009

Village Life + Mass in the Armenian Apostolic Church

Last week, the Olsons invited us to join them for a weekend in Stepanavan to celebrate a nephew's 1st birthday and baptism. Jarred declined, but Nathan and I were game, so on Saturday they came by in the Niva to pick us up. The drive up to the Lori region was pleasant, although it was definitely colder than when we made the trip with Maria back in June.

Another Niva in front of us as we drive over and through the green mountains of Lori.

A very pretty road lined with tall trees.

Looking across the gorge of the Dzoraget River towards Lori Berd, low clouds loom over the distant hills.

We stayed just outside of the town with Hasmik's family, in the house where she grew up. They have a charming home where they raise small livestock and grow apples, pears, plums, grapes, and a wide variety of vegetables. Upon our arrival, we were treated to a delicious lunch of Armenian summer salad (tomatoes and cucumbers with herbs), lentils with rice, mashed potatoes, fried zucchini, lavash, and freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Hasmik wanted to show me around town, but just as we finished eating, it began pouring rain, and it didn't stop for the rest of the weekend! Yet we all had plenty to keep us occupied indoors: Hasmik, her sisters, and their mom Laura worked tirelessly in the kitchen preparing meals, including the feast for the birthday/baptism party which was to take place on Sunday; Josh and the rest of the men in the family had the responsibility of cleaning and sorting the meat from the pigs that had been slaughtered the day before; and Nathan and I entertained baby Ari (Josh and Hasmik's son), who is now 6 months old, as well as 2 year-old Laurik and 1 year-old Argishtik, Hasmik's niece and nephew.

Josh flame-grills some vegetables for dinner.

Argishtik, Ari, and Nathan: three little boys in a closet full of toys!

Nathan had been too excited to nap that day, so he and I went to bed right at 9:00. It got very cold at night, but thanks to all the down-filled bedding, we stayed warm and cozy.

Time for bed, little one.

In the morning, we awoke to a crowing rooster and a bustling household. Hasmik was assisting her mom in the kitchen. The sisters were beginning the long and elaborate table-setting process. Hasmik's brother was bringing in enough chairs and long bench seats for the dining room. And Josh was building a fire five times the size of the one from Saturday night so he could begin barbecuing all the meat for the party as soon as we got back from church.

Place settings for 32.

3 hours later, the tables are finally ready to receive hungry guests.

At noon we all rushed out the door and scrambled into our cars as quickly as possible, singing "Get Me to the Church on Time!" - ok, so only I was singing. A few moments later, we were parking in front of Surp Nashan, Stepanavan's main church. Although it doesn't possess an impressive history like so many churches and other structures in Armenia, the place still had an air of ancient adoration. As we entered the richly carved wooden doors, our senses were nearly overwhelmed with sights, sounds, and smells that were vaguely familiar, yet completely different from the American Catholic mass I know.

A mature willow tree stands guard at the gates of Surp Nashan, the main church in town.

First of all, we were completely bathed in smoke from the copious amounts of incense and the many candles burning throughout the church. Secondly, the majority of the women had their hair covered with scarves, not just one or two old-fashioned ladies (if that) like what I'm used to seeing in the States, and of course, absolutely no one was wearing shorts and t-shirts. The priest wore highly ornamental garb, and sang/chanted practically the entire service. As he prepared the Eucharist, an altar boy drew a red curtain, presumably to preserve the mystery of transubstantiation. Once the curtain was opened again, the congregation sang "Alleluia," and everyone lined up to kiss a large Bible before receiving a piece of the Eucharist on the back of their right hand. As people exited the church, they crossed themselves and walked out the door backwards so as not to turn their backs on the altar. The two most devout followers (who also appeared to be the most elderly members of the community) didn't leave without also kissing the paintings, the doors, and the church walls. The weight of wisdom and experience these tiny old women carried with them, and their level of devotion to their faith was awe-inspiring...as Josh put it, "What their eyes must have seen!"

The rituals of baptism, which followed the mass, seemed less strange to me, although honestly, I missed a lot of it because Nathan didn't want to sit in the church any longer, and I ended up bringing him outside so he could run and play in the flower garden.

Nathan tells me excitedly that there is "a man" on the door. I explain that a man with wings is called an angel.

Splashing in a puddle.

At the end of the ceremony, everyone piled back into their cars and headed back to the Ghazaryan family home to celebrate. The cooking fire was lit,

children led the dancing,

and at last, the feasting - and the toasting - commenced!

I can't even begin to describe how much food there was. I've mentioned before how Armenians will stack up the plates when there's no more room on the table...well, by the time they brought in the khorovats (barbecued meats), there were already so many plates stacked on top of one another that the only place to put the dish was to balance it on top of the fruit bowl!

And no, we can't just clear away a few things to make room...the more, the merrier!

With that, our wonderful - albeit brief - weekend in Stepanavan came to a conclusion. Many thanks to the Olsons and the Ghazaryan family for their kindness and hospitality. The party continued into the evening, but Nathan and I returned to Yerevan on a route taxi, a scheduled taxi service that works by reservation and brings customers door-to-door from one region to another. It's a great way for people without their own transportation to visit with friends and relatives in other cities, all for a flat rate of 2,500 dram (less than U.S. $6.75) per passenger.


I'm almost finished uploading all our August and September photos to Photobucket; I'll update the photo links on this blog when I'm done. As for July, I don't know what I'm going to do because combined with the photos from Maria's and my mom's cameras, I have over 1,000 photos from our trip to the States, and I don't know how much I want to upload them all! I think I already shared all the best ones in my post about our trip, so maybe I'll just select a few to put in a Photobucket album in case anyone wants to see more.

For more information and photographs of Stepanavan, click here.


Minay said...

So interesting and rich in tradition. You are a wonderful story-teller, Angela, and your posts are exciting to read. Looks like you all had a good time, sorry Jarred wasn't with you. I was only a little nervous about you and Nathan in the taxi alone on a long journey--well, that's what moms do..worry a bit. Especially love the video of the kids dancing, and Galen loved the sneaking of the knife part.
Love xoxox

Anonymous said...

interesting post. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you hear that some chinese hacker had hacked twitter yesterday again.

Jarred, Angela, and Nathan said...

Thanks for commenting. How'd you find my blog and what is your interest in Armenia?

I'll be happy to approve your request to follow me on Twitter if you tell me your username (I get too many suspicious follower requests) in advance - just reply here.