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A Wedding in the Deep Pit

In Armenia, a traditional wedding in an ancient monastery underscores centuries of heritage and culture.

High above the clouds, at an elevation of more than 16,000 feet, an often snow-capped, extinct volcano symbolizes the resilience of the Armenian people. Mount Ararat, also called Massis, marks the point where the frontiers of Turkey, Iran and Armenia converge, where Europe confronts Asia. It is a sacred peak, for the Armenians believe that here Noah’s ark rests and humanity regenerated after the Deluge.

This sacred site will also play an integral role in the wedding day of Aram and Herminé, native Armenians from the nearby villages of Massis and Mkhtchian, respectively.

Forbidden to climb or visit Mount Ararat – the sacred peak lies in Turkey – native Armenians and pilgrims alike must be content with viewing the majestic mountain from afar. One popular viewing spot, perched on a small hill some 900 feet from the barbed wire of the Turkish border, is the Monastery of Khor Virap, which means “the deep pit.” Located inside the monastery are two churches: one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other to St. Gregory the Illuminator.

Thirty miles south of Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, the Monastery of Khor Virap attracts hundreds of visitors and pilgrims each weekend, not only for its historical views but also for the dungeon inside St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. This is where the Illuminator, Father of the Armenian Church, was imprisoned by King Tiridate III in 287. Gregory was the son of Anak, a Parthian noble, who assassinated Tiridate’s father; in revenge, Tiridate imprisoned Gregory in a pit, 23 feet deep, where he stayed for 13 years.

Finally, in 301 a disease-stricken Tiridate released the prisoner. In return, St. Gregory cured Tiridate and converted the king to Christianity.

It is Saturday, 24 June, the anniversary of the release of St. Gregory the Illuminator from the pit. Pilgrims gather under the blazing sun; some have come a long way to celebrate this day. After visiting the narrow pit and the two churches, lighting candles and praying, pilgrims spread tablecloths on the ground and picnic for a short while before reboarding their buses.

Aram and Herminé have chosen to be married on this symbolic day. According to Armenian tradition, the family of the groom, together with traditional Armenian musicians who play instruments such as the dohol (drum), duduk (a flute-like instrument) and zourna (similar to an oboe) must go to the groom’s godfather’s house and fetch the groom.

While the musicians play, a group of women comprising a few family members and friends of the bride and groom dance while holding over their heads a tray full of sweets and candies. The wedding gown, which is kept at the house of Arshak, the bride’s godfather, is placed in a box and carried out of the house, high above the dancing women’s heads. The groom’s mother must present a sword to the best friend of her son, called azab bashi – literally, “the bachelor.” Then the sword is decorated with ribbons, fruit and sweets; the azab bashi will stand next to the bridegroom during the ceremony and hold the sword, a symbol of protection.

Arshak and other family members set out for the house of the bridegroom, where they decorate the wedding car by placing ribbons or a doll on the car’s hood. They drink and dance and, while holding the trays full of pastries, candies, and the wedding gown, move toward the bride’s house.

A few female family members or friends take the bride to a nearby house and help her dress. It is up to the bride’s godmother to inform the family that the bride is ready. Then, while musicians play, the bride emerges and joins the groom. Together with their immediate family members they head toward Khor Virap for the ceremony.

At the bottom of the staircase leading to the church, the couple is welcomed by a pahlavan, a traditional Armenian performer.

Unlike those held in the Armenian churches of the diaspora, the church ceremony here is short and rather simple. The church has no pews so guests stand behind the couple until the end of the ceremony.

“Getting married in Khor Virap and facing Massis, especially on the day when St. Gregory the Illuminator was released from the pit, means a great deal to us,” says a beaming Aram. “It is our way of paying respect to our forefathers. All that symbolizes Armenia and is important for our nation is concentrated here in Khor Virap.”

Before moving on, Aram and Herminé stand in the churchyard for photos. The majestic Massis looms behind them; its peak still shows some snow.

“This is something we could have never done during the Soviet regime. In those days, as soon as you took a photo of the mountain the frontier guards would arrive within a minute and confiscate your film. That was a terrible feeling – to look at the mountain, which is so dear to all Armenians, and never be able to take a photo of it,” Aram recalls.

After the ceremony, the newlyweds and their guests drive to the groom’s house, all of them honking their car horns along they way. Once again, the musicians play and some dance right in front of the house. As soon as the couple steps out of the car, Anoush, the groom’s mother, decorates the couple’s shoulders with the thin Armenian lavash bread as a sign of prosperity. And, once again, the women dance around the couple.

Siranoush, the groom’s godmother, arrives with two plates and places them at the threshold. The couple must walk over the plates and then break them, symbolizing the breaking of the “old” house and a welcoming of the new life that will begin. According to Armenian tradition, the couple must live with the groom’s family at his parent’s house.

The party moves on to the wedding feast, which takes place in a rented hall in the nearby city of Artashat. The guests sit at two long tables while the newlyweds sit with their godparents at a separate table at the far end of the hall facing the guests. The tables are already garnished with dozens of appetizers, basterma and soujoukh (Armenian dried sausages), salads and pickles, among other dishes.

Andranik, the bride’s uncle, has been designated as the tamada, or the toastmaster. The role of the tamada is very important during all festivities, he conducts the different stages of the feast, makes toasts and invites guests to dance.

Andranik’s first task is to gather family members to give their gifts (usually jewelry), which are presented to the couple while dancing past them. Within minutes, the bride is covered with gold necklaces, rings and bracelets.

Shortly after, a few men and women dance into the hall carrying skewers of barbecued meat. Dinner is served! More than a dozen plates of barbecued meat arrive and guests are invited to eat. Every few minutes, the tamada, with Armenian cognac in hand, stands to make a toast, first to the new couple and then to their respective families. Then he invites the guests to stand and drink to the memory of victims of the war in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a toast now never forgotten in Armenian festivities.

The partying continues late into the night with dancing, singing and the drinking of toasts. Every few hours a new dish arrives on the tables, such as etchmiatzine keftés (large meatballs), followed by dolmas (stuffed vine leaves) and roasted chickens.

Toward the end of the feast, Andranik invites Aram and Herminé to dance together. This announces the end of the celebration and the guests, after again congratulating the couple, filter out of the wedding hall.

According to Armenian tradition, the bride must sleep next to her sister or her best friend on the night of her wedding. It is only on the following evening that the marriage may be consummated.

The question of a woman’s chastity is much observed and respected in Armenia. On Monday morning Anoush is busily placing red apples – a sign of the bride’s chastity – pastries, sweets and Armenian cognac together in a basket; then the groom’s immediate family visits the bride’s family. At the bride’s family home the men and women sit in separate rooms and eat and drink the basket’s contents.

Marriage traditions in Armenia have preserved many old Christian and even pre-Christian traditions no longer practiced by the Armenian diaspora. It is the practice of these ancient traditions that fosters the spirit of Armenia’s people.

Armineh Johannes is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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