Akhtala: Armenia's Hidden Gem
On the drive to Akhtala, I was lulled to sleep by Armenia’s landscape of green slopes, villages, and abandoned Soviet factories that had begun to feel like a second home to me. When the car stopped and I opened my eyes, I found that I had woken up in a treasure trove of history. I got of the car, and looked up at the stone fortress gate that must have once stood proud as a tall watchtower, but now looked back at me like a lopsided shadow of its former glory, tired from centuries of protecting the town from Romans, Turks, Mongols, and scores of other invaders.
We entered through the gate’s arched door, into a courtyard full of long grasses, wildflowers, and mulberry trees. The first treasure along our path was a copper statue of two wedding rings, a monument to Akhtala’s long history of copper mining. Hayk explained to us how it was inspired by a local legend that tells the story of a time in the second century BC, when the Armenian King Artashes came to visit the town’s copper foundry. One of the masters saw a beautiful ring on the king’s finger, and copied it in copper. The king was delighted by the master’s skill, and gave the ring to him. Akhtala’s copper is one of its many treasures, admired by not only Armenians, but people from all over the world. It has been used in artworks from the Four Horses statue on St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, to the Statue of Liberty itself.
After the copper rings, a dirt path stretches through the courtyard, leading us past ruined buildings and ancient cross stones, to the town’s famous Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) church. Hayk tells us that it used to be a pagan temple until it was destroyed in the fourth century AD, when Armenia converted to Christianity. It was reborn, however, in the 10th century, when locals built the huge, cross-shaped stone building that still stands today. The building is decorated with a stone cross on each of its four sides, but it’s outside only hints at the beauty within.
When I enter the church, my eyes are met with an amazing display of vibrantly colored frescoes that still remain from when they were painted in the tenth century. The wall in front of me is painted a sky-blue, and decorated with portraits of the twelve apostles and other holy men, as well as a biblical scene above the window that lets natural light into the building. At the very top, where the wall turns into a dome, there is a painting of the holy family, but their faces are gone, destroyed by a cannonball in 1386, when the Mongols attacked the village.
The church almost saved the villagers as they hid in the secret passages inside its walls, but just as the invaders were about to finish inspecting the inside of the church, a baby cried and betrayed their whereabouts. The Mongols wheeled a cannon in, and shot a cannonball right through the face of the Virgin Mary, but it came out through the center of the cross on the back of the building without damaging any other part of the church, which the locals believe to be a miracle.
I went back out into the courtyard to look at the cross stones while Anahit took photographs in the church, but when I came back into the building, I was once again amazed by the paintings that weathered the storms of time, invasions, and countless changes, still retaining their vibrancy and beauty. As I looked at the paintings again and again, I tried to save the details in my mind’s eye, and remember the awe that I felt on that day. And when I left, though I could never remember everything, I was grateful to have experienced one of Armenia’s many hidden gems.