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A Wedding in the Deep Pit

With Mount Ararat looming in the background, a modern wedding follows ancient Armenian traditions.

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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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.

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Tags: Armenia