COMPETITION: LITERALLY LOST 72
Sunday 11 April 1999
awoke soon after dawn, on the sofa of Tatev's clerk of works. For the first time I could trace a gully scoured down the inside of my throat. When I swallowed, a stream of saliva scorched down it. This spirit- soaked journey was taking its toll. How did they cope with such drinking? They must have caught it from the Russians, the world's heaviest drinkers. Maybe that's the only real legacy of the old Tsarist empire: vodka - a cosh to the masses, more enduring than Marxist-Leninism and, so it's proved, more exportable.
I did the only thing I could and accepted a large glass from a home-still for breakfast. It soothed the scar and numbed my aching limbs. I said goodbye to the clerk of works and headed through his garden to the monastery.
Around each of the houses, every inch of space was planted with something edible. There were rows of sprouting potato and cabbage plants and gauntlets of hazel poles waiting for the beans; almond trees and walnut trees hovered over them, between cherry and apple trees. The soil itself was black and sticky, peeled back from the seed-trenches like asphalt. This black soil and its properties are honoured in the name of Karabagh - a Farsi-Turkic compound meaning 'Black garden'. It has made these mountain villages into little Edens, and some of its fecundity has rubbed off on to the villagers themselves, helping to swell their high spirits.
The spirit of Tatev's monastery was more measured. At its centre was the church of Peter and Paul, built at the end of the ninth century. It had the usual genius of form and proportion - the grey flanks of its drum curving with elephantine grace, the threads of its interlacing perfectly spun. I climbed some stone steps and followed the upper walkway out to a grassy rooftop. Dozens of khachkars paraded in the undergrowth; others leaned against each other by the walls, stacked like gifts at the feet of some fabulous potentate. At the edge of the rooftop, the monastery fell away into space. The whole place had been built straight up from the cliff.
I imagined the first monks here, choosing the site. Here they had water and the sound of water from the falls; they had distant mountains - not so much mountains as peaks; there were rocks and bands of rocks, cliffs, outcrops, pinnacles and crags, and where there were no rocks there were scrub trees and wide shelves of high grass and the scars of red poppies. This was -----, the essential ------; it did my hangover no end of good.
At the foot of the cliffs, perhaps seven, eight hundred feet below, amidst the jumble of rocks, I could make out the rectangular compound of another church. Walking down there, on an old path that swung back and forth across the steep slope, it became gradually hotter and more humid, the grass grew higher and the flowers brighter and even more exotic. The air thickened and filled with fat, drowsy bees, and dancing fritillaries flitted among them. Dragon flies hovered over the brooks like airborne crosses. Jays screeched from the elder bushes. The purring of the cicadas became a clamour. Tiny frogs hopped away at my approach, splashing into mossy pools. At one point a metre or so of yellow-green snake flashed across the path, as surprised at my footfalls as I was by its legless wriggling. A few old khachkars were propped up to back on to the gorge, and snails crawled around their weathered fretwork. I took off my coat and carried on.
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