An Eccentric Outpost of Christianity

The road north from Stepanakert became steadily stonier as it wound up the hills. The woods grew thicker. Every few miles there was a reminder on the roadside of the war in Nagorny Karabakh: a burnt truck or the blackened carcass of a tank. My driver warned that the surrounding forests, turning to vivid autumn colors, were still full of mines.


Just as I was beginning to despair, I spotted it: a huddle of pink cones and semicircles folded into the trees. In the best tradition of Armenian monasteries, Dadi Vank is situated in a spot that is both spectacularly beautiful and highly strategic. Halfway up a hillside, it commands views over the oak and beech woods of western Karabakh and the fast-running Tartar River below. In all of this great vista, there is no other habitation in sight.


I felt it could still be 1216, the year after the Magna Carta was signed in England and when Dadi Vank was founded. Back then, Armenia was emerging from a long succession of invasions, and wealthy local princes were winning autonomy for their various mountain regions. In some ways, Nagorny Karabakh -- populated mostly by Armenians but located inside Azerbaijan -- is still stuck in that era, fighting a conflict of religion, survival, identity and land. Most people have forgotten that the war between Armenian Karabakh and Azerbaijan was the Soviet Union's first ethnic conflict; even fewer know that the region is an eccentric outpost of Christendom, studded with beautiful medieval churches.


An ongoing restoration of the churches reflects a new confidence among the Karabakhi Armenians, who, barely noticed by the outside world, have created a heavily armed statelet with defensible borders. A new asphalt road under construction through the so-called Lachin Corridor is linking Karabakh to Armenia proper in the west. The $11 million project is being financed mostly by Armenian Americans. Armenians from Moscow and the United States have also been giving money to rebuild the churches. By restoring the crumbling fabric of the remote domes and walls, the Karabakhis are propping up their claim to the land around them.


Arman Mnatskanyan, a young blue-jeaned restorer from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, had spent the summer working up at Dadi Vank, excavating and researching its buildings, using a team of local diggers for the spadework. The serenity of the place had reinforced a natural gentleness in him. He took me on a tour of the ruins. Candles were burning in the church. "The main aim is not so much to restore the walls as to restore the spirit," he said.


The monastery is dilapidated, but the church and two chapels are structurally sound. Armenian masons are famous for their work in stone and for being the first to solve the problem of putting a stone dome on a square support that can bear its weight. Dadi Vank's central dome -- with tufts of vegetation growing out of it -- is limestone but acquired an unusual warm glow after its sixteen sides were painted pink. Carved figures of princes stand along the outside wall of the main church. They are the sons of Arzakhatun, who founded the monastery. With their long beards and tunics girdled round the waist, the figures resemble medieval Oriental potentates. The model of the church they built floats up above their hands.


The monastery was a compact living organism with a church, assembly hall, burial ground, refectory, library, bakery and wine press all within one small area. Its leader was both the secular and spiritual head, creating a simple chain of command that helped the community defend itself against invasions. This was the society of the meliks, the Armenian princes who ran their own lands but paid a nominal tribute to Persian or Ottoman overlords.


Mnatsakanyan and his team have literally been turning over layers of history. They discovered a complete Armenian khachkar, a medieval carved cross-stone. On this day, they had dug up Turkish and Russian ammunition cartridges and a piece of another khachkhar. The finds reveal the complex history of Karabakh, ruled by Armenian, Ottoman, tsarist and communist masters.


Armenian scholars didn't come here in Soviet times because Dadi Vank is not even technically inside Nagorny Karabakh. It is a few hundred meters over the border, in the Kelbajar region of Azerbaijan.


This was surely another malign piece of Stalinist planning, which has bedeviled the whole Karabakh issue. The drawing of the borders in 1921 created an enclave of land, mostly populated by Armenians, inside Azerbaijan, leaving both communities vulnerable to any large geopolitical shifts. Once the Soviet empire began to come apart, confrontation was almost inevitable.


The conflict, currently frozen by a long-term cease-fire, will be 10 years old in February. As soon as political protest was permissible in Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, in 1988, the Karabakhi Armenians started lobbying to secede from Azerbaijan. Over three years, the dispute gradually escalated into a war. The conflict was resolved only on the battlefield with a bloody redrawing of the borders and a mass expulsion of people. Some 30,000 Armenians and Azeris died. In May 1994, the Karabakhis, the losing side for the first phase of the conflict, came back to win the war. Heavily aided by Armenia proper, they captured such a vast swath of Azerbaijani territory outside their original mountain republic, that it was no longer an enclave. Under the Russian-brokered cease-fire, Nagorny Karabakh now has a corridor of land through to Armenia and defensible borders all around.


Azerbaijan insists that all conquered lands must be restored and Karabakh returned under its control with only a high level of autonomy. It is a small dispute with big repercussions. Some 600,000 Azeri refugees, mainly from the plains east of Karabakh, are still homeless from the fighting. Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey jointly block all trade with Armenia and keep their borders with it closed. The Armenians have lost their chance to partake in Azerbaijan's new oil wealth from the Caspian Sea, but thus far they are not budging in their refusal to give up the land and the churches they say are sacred.


The most famous church of all, Gandzasar, has acquired a mythical status in Karabakh. It is situated in another spectacular position, as if suspended in space above the green plain far below. Gandzasar was constructed two years after Dadi Vank was finished and may be the work of the same craftsmen. The carving on the exterior of its dome is an exquisite and beautifully preserved phantasmagoria of Biblical personages, bishops and princes and peacocks and lions. A Moscow-based Karabakhi, now a newspaper proprietor, is pouring money into restoration work.


Gandzasar's strategic position proved vital in 1992 when Azeris camped on the opposite hill attacked. The story has become a legend in the retelling. "We were not afraid because it's our land," said Artur Agaronyan, a solider-turned-deacon sitting on the churchyard wall. "They had machine guns, and we only had rifles." The Armenians broke the siege, Gandzasar was saved and its spiritual status enhanced. Today there are clumps of candles aflame inside, and it is Karabakh's main cathedral and center of pilgrimage.


I heard more war stories from another warrior-priest, Father Grikor, who used to be in charge of Gandzasar. Now he takes services in Shusha, the old capital of Karabakh in the hills. Shusha is still nine-tenths in ruins from the day in 1992 when the Armenians took it. Fearing an Azerbaijani counterattack, they burned the city rather than surrender it intact. The Azeris never came and the Armenians were left to tend the rubble. Even here, religion comes first in their priorities: The only building being restored is the church of Gazanchetsots, Armenia's largest church and Grikor's new place of worship.


Grikor is lanky with a black straggly beard, still looking more like the Yerevan violinist he used to be than a swarthy man from the hills. When he learned that Leonid, my driver, had fought under the same commander as he had, Grikor brought out some tutovka, the stinging Armenian mulberry vodka, and sweet Karabakhi grapes. We started drinking toasts in memory of their dead friend. Karabakhis roll their eyes to heaven before drinking, as though looking up to the dead.


Grikor told us how he had been on the front line with the fighters as they pressed toward Shusha in May 1992. There was a deadlock. Archbishop Parkev, the spiritual father of the Karabakhis, was down in Stepanakert and praying for a victory. Suddenly Grikor had a revelation that Shusha could not fall while the antichrist was still standing in the main square. They pulled Lenin off his plinth in Stepanakert and Shusha fell.


Such victories and fighting talk still captivate Armenians. Public opinion remains solidly behind Karabakh, and the Armenians are prepared to endure economic hardship sooner than make concessions on Karabakh's status. When Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan publicly suggested in September for the first time that the status quo on Karabakh was hurting Armenia, and that it was time to be more flexible, he was denounced on all sides.


I asked Parkev what role the church played in Karabakh. An imposing man with a black, bushy beard, the archbishop resembles a Byzantine fresco of Christ, severe or gentle depending in what light you see him. He was more thoughtful than Grikor and even has a Ph.D. in Russian literature.


Parkev described the repression of the church in Karabakh as "total." Exactly 112 churches and 18 monasteries were closed in 1930 and many priests were shot. People used to go up into the mountains to say their prayers away from the Soviet authorities. Now people have forgotten the prayers and only the very old remember the monasteries. But luckily they have inspiration all around them in stone. Reviving the church and seceding from Azerbaijan were essentially one and the same.


Christianity and Armenia -- the first nation to convert to the new creed in 301 -- were one and the same, Parkev said. He quoted Mesrop Mashtots, the monk who devised the Armenian alphabet, as saying that it was impossible to be an Armenian and not a Christian. Parkev said he knows Armenians who have not been baptized but consider themselves Christians.


The sinister side to this religious revival comes in the way their former Muslim neighbors are erased from the record of history. As time goes by, the memory that this was once an ethnically mixed territory recedes. Archbishop Parkev's tone instantly hardened when I mentioned my view that the Azeris should come back to Shusha. "Why?" he asked. "How should I feel when Chadaklu is in their hands?" referring to his home village, now under Azerbaijani occupation.


Armenian historians have begun denying that there were ever any Muslims here at all. That is a relatively easy trick because most of them were shepherds, who left no trace behind them. The Azeris insist that most of the Armenians were 19th-century immigrants. But in fact the rather grotesque demographic debate about who was the majority population in the 19th century may have a solution that pleases neither side: Quite probably there were more Muslims in Karabakh in the summer, when the shepherds brought their sheep up to higher pastures, and more Armenians in the winter.


Shusha today is a city of ghosts. There was a thriving Azeri community here in the 19th century with many famous musicians and poets. The Azeris built two elegant blue-tiled mosques in Shusha, the only Muslim monuments in Karabakh. Both are half-ruined from the war; the minaret of one was decapitated by shell fire. Parkev overreaches himself when he asserts that they are Persian. "We say to the Persians, 'Come and restore them.' We don't say that to the Azeris," he said with a laugh. (The Armenians have always gotten along with Persia and now have good relations with Iran.) Armenian architectural historian Shagen Mkrtchyan attributes the mosque ruins to Azeri architects who borrowed local Armenian elements.


In much of the talk in Karabakh there is a note of disappointment with the Christian West for having failed to support them. Armenians are deeply suspicious of the West's involvement with Baku and investment in Caspian Sea oil. It is a topic the new Karabakhi president, Arkady Gukasyan, elected in September, dwelled on in an interview. Baku, he said, was trying to get Karabakh back "through the hands of others," by which he meant the United States.


International mediators were trying to bully Karabakh into concessions, he said, with the promise of very little in return. "Today Azerbaijan and Karabakh are divided by a front line. That's a fact. We have no kind of relationship with Azerbaijan. ...We don't need Azerbaijan. We don't want any relations with Azerbaijan," he said. "It's Azerbaijan which wants a relationship with us, and we are ready to make a compromise on that. We are ready to have a relationship with Azerbaijan, but that does not mean that we are ready to submit to Azerbaijan because submitting to Azerbaijan can lead to the destruction of Karabakh."


What that means is that the Karabakhis regard their occupied territories as a bargaining chip that they will return only if they get concessions from Azerbaijan that include security guarantees that they can defend themselves, full self-government and control of the Lachin Corridor to Armenia. A tough list of demands, but otherwise they see no reason for backing down. Gukasyan chided Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan for his public impatience with Karabakh, saying that this was "misdirected criticism."


By local standards, Gukasyan is a moderate. He is less powerful than the 32-year-old head of the army, Samvel Babayan, a former garage mechanic. In a newspaper interview in September, Babayan said that maybe a final round of fighting was needed to break the deadlock and "dot the i's" in the conflict as to who was top dog. Babayan sounded impatient with all of the endless negotiation. If only they could sort it out on the battlefield, it would be a matter, he said in verbless Russian, of "either we -- them, or they -- us."


Father Grikor feels the same way. For him, the crusading rhetoric and bloodcurdling talk and the heartfelt attachment to the land and churches are two sides of the same ancient coin. Most Armenian tales turn on a history of defeat and genocide, of how Armenia, now tiny and landlocked, was once huge and stretched to three seas. A strange thing has happened in Karabakh. For the first time in centuries, they are the winning side. As the vodka took hold, the priest became eloquent about how the Armenian conquests would go on until more ancient lands had been recaptured. He dreams of the day when the Azeri cities of Kirovobad and Ganja and Turkey's Lake Van might be Armenian again, as they were hundreds of years ago.


"In Kirovabad, we will open the Church of St. Gregory, and then we will bathe in Lake Van," he said. "The bishop and I have an agreement that on Van he will take the first service and I the second."


It was the stuff of a new and powerful Armenian myth.