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 September 12, 2003 




Life in the Monuments of Death: A visit to the cemetery village, Noraduz



Children such as Varduhi find the village cemetary a prime playground.

Arevshat Sargsyan becomes very inspired and enthusiastic when he sees visitors to his village.

Despite he is lame in the right leg he quickly jumps up from the big chair-shaped stone where he usually basks in the sun and welcomes guests by saying: "I can be your guide, I can answer all your questions."

The old man knows that all the guests who come to his village usually have a lot of questions and he is the one who knows most of the answers.

The village where Sargsyan lives could be like hundreds of others in Armenia. But it is not.

Welcome to Noraduz, a village made famous by death.

From the hill on the way to the village Noraduz, 90 km north of Yerevan along Lake Sevan's west road, one's attention is immediately attracted with the exceptional panorama behind the village.

The impressive array of early khachkcars, (crosses engraved in stones) of the huge cemetery made the village a unique spot for tourists, archaeologists and historians

The cemetery of Noraduz is one of the oldest in Armenia and some khachkars date as far as 996. There is also a small church of St. Astvatsatsin built in the ninth century.

Arevshat Sargsyan has become the graveyard tour guide.

The ancient tombs spread on the huge field in seven hectares scorched by parching Sevan heat impress visitors by their intricate design, quantity and variety. In all there are about 700 ancient stone crosses in the cemetery, and each of them has a unique ornament and a different story.

Khachkars are engraved on most of the tombs. But on the most ancient tombs are seen the symbols of the moving sun, or the Jewish Star of David.

Other tombs have an Egyptian look, forming small pyramids of stone.

"The most of the stones are so old that no one source tells how they appear here," Arevshat Sargsyan says.

"Probably it was Armenians who traveled abroad and saw different cultures and traditions and upon their return brought with them the cultural symbols of other nations."

Sargsyan is an unofficial guide of the cemetery. The 68-year-old man is a watchman of the cemetery. He has spent more than 20 years looking after the tombs, investigating each piece of stone and studying literature on khachkars. Tourists pay him two to three dollars and Sargsyan tells them the history of the cemetery. For Sargsyan, the disabled pensioner, the fee is a chance to survive. But as he says, he does not charge a fee, but enjoys communicating with people.

He knows the story of almost each of the 1,000 or so khachkars and tombstones here and he told them so many times that his burnt face engraved with pinches itself resembles a khachkar.

Almost all the khachkars look on the east and the tops of the stones bend as if they bow. The word among villagers is that the khachkars are to welcome Jesus Christ who will come from the east.

The pictures on some monuments describe the farmers' life, illustrating farmers cultivating land.

A separate group of khachkars are called "all saviors". People attribute to them the ability to cure illness or to protect from natural disasters, as flood or drought. Some khachkars are believed to protect even from the unrequited life.

The most popular are the tombstones which help people to get rid of fearfulness. Sargsyan says that people who are afraid come from all parts of Armenia to the miraculous stones.

Legend has it that khachkars were dressed to appear as soldiers and scared off Timurlane the Conquerer.

"The man who lies here died from lightning. No one knows why his grave acquired curing abilities. But the cure works. Each month at least one family appears in the village," Sargsyan says. "Most of them brought their children who were frightened of darkness, bad dreams, or dead people."

Alik Mkhiyan from Noraduz was frightened at night by dogs. The 12-year-old boy says that now he is afraid of nothing. Moreover he liked the process to conjure away and time to time come to the stone to repeat the ritual. Just in case, as he says.

"If you want to get rid of fear you have to take with you a glassy bottle of water and seven small stones. Then you have to go around the grave for seven times and each time to throw one stone. After that you have to pour water into the grave's small cavity, then drink it and wash your hands and face."

The final and the most important faze of the ritual is to break the bottle on the stone.

The village of Noraduz includes about 1,500 households. Most of the people earn money by fishing Sevan's white fish. Others grow potatoes and other vegetables. The smell of smoking fish is everywhere in the village, because on hot summer days it is hard to keep the fresh fish and deliver it to Yerevan.

The cemetery is seen from many homes. But most people here don't mind their panorama of graves. It seems that the villagers here have a different attitude to the dead than elsewhere in Armenia.

Children play games among the tombs.

For 10-year-old Varduhi the cemetery is a perfect place for playing hide and seek. She wonders why other people may think that the cemetery is not an appropriate place for children.

"We come here each day in evening after six o'clock, when the sun is not burning," the girl says.

"We're not afraid to play here. People who lie here are dead. Why should we be afraid of dead people? Besides many tombs here are magic and will protect us in case of danger."

Welcome to Noraduz, a village made famous by death.

There is a new cemetery near the old one. The generation of Noraduz continued the tradition of their ancestors and all new tombstones made of rose tuff or basalt are khachkars.

Most of the new tombstones are stately and the price of such khachkars ranges from $3,000 to $ 10, 000.There are many sculptures near the tombs, mostly women and the young.

Hovik Kostanyan is the hereditary khachkar maker. He says that together with his father and brother they made about 400 khackhars.

One khachkar with a simple ornament of geometrical figures takes about a month to make. One piece of basalt of medium size costs $100-$200. After the carving the basalt's value is $600-$1000.

"I learned the handicraft from my father," Kostanyan says. "I hope my son will continue our family tradition and will be a khachkar maker."

The residents of Noraduz are proud that their village is an interesting sightseeing destination for tourists. Among the guests of the village were President Robert Kocharyan and Russia's ex-president Boris Yeltsin. Villagers say the VIP guests were very impressed by Noraduz's ancient stones.

The residents are also very proud of the village legend. According to the legend the gravestones once protected the village from foreign invaders. During the campaign of Timurlane the Conqueror, villagers put helmets on the top of the khachkars and lean swords against them. From a distance the khachkars looked like armed soldiers and Timurlane's army retreated from the imposing foe.

Whether the legend is fiction or truth, people of Noraduz believe that the khachkars are their cultural heritage and bring them luck. Maybe that is why the Noraduz residents are so hospitable and cheerful. Their village is known for its cemetery, but each day they prefer to enjoy life instead of thinking of death.

The watchman Sargsyan says in summer days he does not go home at night, but sleeps in the cemetery. He hopes when he dies the villagers will put a khachkar on his grave. But meanwhile he says, "I have still many stories to tell."


 


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