An Armenian khachkar is an outdoor stele carved from stone and in 2010 UNESCO added them to their Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Although we’d seen them individually or in small groups, we visited Noratus where a field of 900 dates back to the 10th century and it is now the largest collection of khachkars following the destruction of a collection in Azerbaijan in 2005.
From a distance, the khachkars resemble soldiers, and folklore tells of how in the 14th century, villagers placed helmets on top of the khachkars and leaned swords against them to combat the threat of invasion by Tamerlane’s army.
At the entrance a couple of elderly ladies sold souvenirs including thick, multi-coloured knitted socks draped rather irreverently over an ancient khachkar. A large, faded poster of Charles Aznavour adorned the side of their small shop and they either adored his music or his philanthropy: he was instrumental in the rebuilding of Gyumri after a devastating earthquake in 1988.
Each khachkar is unique and acts as memorial stone and focal point for worship, and we could see how stones often reflected the deceased’s occupation with one etched with a plough and two bulls whilst another had two sisters sewing.
The older stones were simpler as the tools used to create them were not as advanced.
One Khachkar was surrounded by broken glass which we assumed was due to vandalism. However, we were told the legend of a 19th century monk, who when he reached the age of 90, asked his brother monks to bury him alive in his cell in the grounds of the graveyard. His last words were:
“I do not fear death. I would like you to not be afraid also. Never fear anything, but God alone. Let anyone who has fear come to me. Pour water at the burial stone, drink the water, wash your face, chest, arms, and legs. Then break the vessel that contained the water. Fear will then abandon you.”
To this day people make the trip to follow out his orders, but instead of drinking water they drink beer and then smash the bottle.
This is a huge site spread over seven hectares and it would have been easy to spend much longer than we did meandering through the rows and photographing what is a truly stunning site.