With three candles in her hand, 83-year-old Armenuhi Sargsyan hurries each Sunday to the village sanctuary named The Golden Cross. While kissing the centuries-old elms and the disarranged tombstones underneath, every time she mulls over the same question, “one kiss or two, which is right?”
Unsure of the answer to her question, Armenuhi kisses twice, just in case.
“Oh, Golden Cross, my face under your feet, bless your glistening face; keep my children under your nails. And may peace be with the land of Arstakh.” Finishing her prayer, Armenuhi lights a candle for the soldiers.
The village of Gishi is located in the Martuni region 40 km southeast of the capital, Stepanakert. Many people in Artsakh know the village due to the Golden Cross sanctuary and the many legends associated with it. According to one legend, the name of the sanctuary originates from a hunter named Khach (khach means cross in Armenian) who built the sanctuary’s main fountain.
Although very little is known about the hunter Khach, everyone in the village is sure he was from Gishi.
The sanctuary has undergone significant development in recent years. Before the war, the sanctuary only had one tree that burned down in the 1980s. Since then, a dozen new trees have been planted there. There is now a special place for lighting candles, two fountains and a table for animal sacrifices.
Crosses and icons only appeared here in the 1990s. During the Soviet era, few people lit candles or sacrificed animals. Only the bravest residents conducted ceremonies in secret in order to avoid public scrutiny.
Legends associated with the Golden Cross involve mysterious, unearthly punishments.
“It happened in the 1950s. Ashkhen and Nura were heading to the Golden Cross to sacrifice a rooster. Then the school headmaster, Mr. Javadyan, snatched the rooster before it was sacrificed and threw it away angrily. But they say the sanctuary’s saint punished him. I was little, I only heard that his face became deformed”, remembers Armenuhi.
Saints have their own unwritten laws and it is clear to Gishi residents that it is forbidden to take even a branch from the sanctuary. Those who didn’t believe in the power of the saints were punished. They say that the faces of those who break the saints’ unwritten laws become deformed. No other form of punishment is reported by the villagers.
However, there has been no evidence of such punishment in the 21st century.
The punishment of the Golden Cross and the behest of the Azeri mollah
Gishi residents and people from other places still come to the Golden Cross to seek relief from their pains and sorrows.
They say that some sick people used to sleep in the sanctuary.
“Those were the 1960s. Our fellow villager Tamara had a dream one night which told her to go and spend the night at the Golden Cross in order to be healed. Tamara did so with full faith in the power of the saint. At that time, Grigor, the secretary of the village council, was passing by the Golden Cross on horseback and saw Tamara lying under a tree,” recalls Armenuhi Sargsyan.
The villagers say that Grigor got angry, shamed the woman, took her bedding and threw it away.
The saint’s punishment came quickly. Grigor had barely got back on his horse when his face “turned backward”. They say it eventually returned to normal but one side of his mouth remained permanently crooked for the rest of his life.
63-year-old Eduard Grigoryan learned to worship the Golden Cross from his mother, Dernuts Zarvard. Zarvard came to Gishi from Spitakashen as a bride when she was 15. Everyone in the Boghaz quarter will testify that Zarvard was the saint’s devoted servant. In the 90’s, she even made candles for the Golden Cross at home.
“One time an Azeri couple came to offer a sacrifice. My mother explained to them how to conduct the ceremony and then served them some tea. It turned out that their mollah had advised them to perform the sacrifice in ‘an Armenian sanctuary’, so that God will grant them a child”, says Eduard.
The sacrifice worked. The couple had a baby and continued to visit Zarvard from time to time.
Tightly holding the feet of a rooster, 83-year-old grandmother Armenuhi calmly walks through the old elms. She must turn around three times, then slaughter the rooster and hang the feet and head of the rooster next to the sacrificial tree.
“I promised to sacrifice a rooster every year. I divide it into three portions and share them amongst my neighbors, so that the sacrifice is accepted”, explains grandmother Armenuhi.
Although animal sacrifices are not normally associated with Christianity, many crosses, icons and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Suppers of various sizes can be found next to the elms.
Father Minas Movsissyan from St. Hakob Church in Stepanakert disapproves of this practice, “Making sacrifices in some random place is not right. Hanging up the wings, feet or head of a rooster is a pagan tradition, all it does is pollute the environment.”
Patara. 7 sanctuaries, 7 brothers
In the riverside village of Patara in the region of Askeran, seven brothers are worshiped by the villagers in seven sanctuaries named after each of the brothers. In these sanctuaries, newborn children are blessed, curses are cured, illnesses are healed, and obstacles are overcome. They say that some villagers from Patara are blessed with miraculous talents: one is able heal illnesses and another is able to tell the future, but others have been denied gifts as a result of breaking the unwritten laws.
The villagers say that three of the seven brothers had white beards, two were middle-aged, one was a young man and the youngest was an adolescent.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, 7-year-old Narine found a 50-dram coin and used it to buy a loaf of freshly baked bread. She walked back home eating the bread along the way. Her mother Susanna was at first delighted that Narine, who wasn’t a great eater, ate the whole loaf of bread on her own. Then she got worried.
“As soon as she swallowed the last piece of bread, she ran a high fever, 40.2. She was so sick that she couldn’t speak, eat or drink. The doctors just shrugged their shoulders. They had no idea what it was”, – remembers Susanna.
The girl ran a fever for a whole week. Desperate, Susanna’s sister Gayane went to see a fortune teller, who told her to light candles at six of the seven sanctuaries of Patara and to sacrifice an animal in the seventh, by the ruins of an old church.
Susanna and Gayane circled the ruined church three times with roosters in their hands and then sacrificed them to the seven brothers.
“Barely had we returned from the church that my mother called and told me that Narine was much better. She got out of bed, started to run about and ate a plate of soup. For a whole week, the child was dying, the doctors had lost hope, but our sanctuary cured her. Shouldn’t I believe in this miracle?” recalls Susanna 20 years after the miracle.
The modern-day apostles
Senora Sargsyan was 14 when she felt weak and her speech became halting and twisted. After several hours, the started having unbearable pains. The doctors were unable to help. Ten days later, Haykanoush, Senora’s great grandmother, concluded that one of the seven brothers, Khravand, was to blame for the girl’s illness. They sought the help of a fortuneteller, and the fortuneteller directed them towards the Khravand Church.
The ruins of Khravand Church are located in the forests of Patara, surrounded by cross-stones dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Khravand was the eldest of the seven brothers, tall and handsome, with a white beard, but also the most brutal and cruel. Khravand has his own unwritten laws and demands special attention from the villagers.
65-year-old Senora had a problem with brother Khravand.
“We sacrificed a sheep. Seven families of my distant relatives ate a third of the meat. My father ordered me to leave the rest in the sanctuary for the poor. The others agreed, but afterwards, as soon as my health got worse, one of my relatives confessed that he had taken home two pieces of meat from the sanctuary,” says Senora who had spent a year in bed because of the illness.
The Ghochunts and Tklorats families are often punished by the Patara sanctuary. When someone gets ill, they sacrifice an animal and then talk to the seven brothers, asking them about the illness. Eventually the holy brothers take the curse away.
“Our fellow villager Svetlana Sargsyan was granted the ability to treat infertility and Pandi Sargsyan was granted with foresight. I might also receive a blessing,” says Senora Sargsyan.
It is not clear yet what ability might be granted to Senora. Instead, she was punished for taking something away from the Khravand sanctuary.
“Instead of a blessing, I experienced awful pain that occasionally bothers me till today. I was also ordered to visit Khravand several times a year, and if I delay the visit for some reason, the saint tortures me more”, adds Senora Sargsyan.
According to anthropologist Julia Antonyan, people are able to establish very close relationships with imagined sanctuaries through dreams and visions.
“Many people believe that connecting with the saints builds a link to a parallel reality, they talk to the saints, sometimes even argue, disagree and demand something from the saint in exchange for an animal sacrifice or another gift. In fact, this is the difference between institutional Christianity and folk religiousness”, explains Antonyan.
The worship of saints is a centuries-long tradition in Patara. Elderly people cannot say when exactly the miracles started to occur, but they are quite concerned about the skepticism of the new generation.
“The sanctuary was a gathering place for the villagers, we used to walk up there, sacrifice an animal, have fun, sing, dance and return to the village. And now, what does the sanctuary look like? It lies in ruins. It’s because people have lost their way”, says Senora.
She believes in God and in the sanctuaries.
“They are all brothers,” says Senora, “and we have offended them. And is why we have 18-year-olds dying, so many people suffering from cancer and other terrible things happening.”
According to Father Minas Movsisyan from Stepanakert’s St. Hakob Church, worshipping sanctuaries is an expression of faith in the ancestors.
“The old and new saints are alive for us and we always need their guidance. It does not matter whether the sanctuary is standing or not, the important thing is that prayer is addressed to the true God, not to a stone or a tree,” says Father Minas.
Ulubab: A tale about a missing village, a mystic bear and a miraculous stone
The Ulubab village in Askeran region does not exist anymore. The only things that remain are the name, the old cemetery, the St George church a little away from the cemetery and the much more famous Tsak Qar (“the pierced rock”, the rock with a hole in it). People come to visit it from Artsakh and even from Armenia and Russia.
Yura, a 78-year-old grandfather who moved from Ulubab to the nearby village of Khachen in the mid-1970s, is convinced that the rock is special. It can make miracles. It has helped many people including one of his daughters-in-law, Anoush.
Anoush Sargsyan, a mother of two, is a nurse at the Khachen village nursery. After getting married at the age of 21, she was unable to have children for three and a half years. And although she is a healthcare provider, she decided not to consult her medical colleagues but to follow the advice of her mother-in-law.
“I had heard a lot of stories about people who climbed through the hole in the Tsak Qar and were cured of infertility. I really believed in the power of the rock, and it helped me too,” says 39-year-old Anoush.
Anoush believes that the birth of her first child was due to the grace of the Tsak Qar.
Anthropologist Yulia Antonyan says that people never resort to supernatural forces to deal with diseases that are easily cured by modern medicine, but only if there is no treatment or uncertainty regarding the outcome of treatment.
There is a legend about Tsak Qar, which claims that during the construction of the St. George Church, a bear helped carry the heavy stones up the hill. They say that once the construction was over, the bear died. As a sign of gratitude, they buried the bear in the courtyard of the church and placed the Tsak Qar on top as a gravestone.
However, grandfather Yura thinks that the bear is a metaphor.
“The people of Ulubab were large and strong as bears. This where the story about the bear comes from,” assures Yura.
Yura’s wife Flora says that there is a ritual of climbing through the hole in the Tsak Qar.
“You must climb three times through the hole, holding a piece of rock close to your belly and saying “let people’s pains and worries disappear”. Then you must put the piece of rock on the Tsak Qar. As soon as your wish comes true, you must come to the St George church and offer a sacrifice”, says Flora.
As long as there are people like grandmother Flora maintaining local traditions, and people like Anoush who have been cured through miracles, the belief in the power of the sanctuaries and the number of pilgrims will grow, and, therefore, miracles will occur more frequently.
There are many similar sanctuaries in the villages of Artsakh. Supernatural and miraculous abilities are sometimes attributed to old trees. The trees are old enough that one can climb inside their hollow trunks, hang up a cross and an icon, and light a candle on the inside. There are such sanctuaries in Dashoushen, Jartar, Maghavuz and other places.
Every Sunday, elderly women hurry to these sacred sites, light candles and, like Armenuhi Sargsyan, pray for peace in Artsakh.