Khor Virap. The name refers to the famous monastery in Armenia that is the number one pilgrimage site in the country. But the name has a deeper, hidden meaning. The church stands on a low hillock, built over a deep vault carved out of solid rock. Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned within this pit for 13 years, surviving on food that local women smuggled in to him. The name Khor Virap is a reference to that grisly prison. It comes from the Armenian “virap nerk’in,” literally meaning “deep dungeon.”
It seemed incongruous to me that this most holy site would be named after a place of suffering, rather than for the Saint who was responsible for Armenia being declared the world’s first Christian country. But its name is not the only thing about Khor Virap that I found jarring. The hillock upon which it perches rises up suddenly from the Ararat Plain, surrounded by mile after mile of vineyards. A mere eight miles away, snow-capped Mount Ararat provides a stunning backdrop for the monastery.
Christians revere Mount Ararat as the resting place of Noah’s Ark; it too is considered a major pilgrimage site. Yet, no Armenians can visit Mount Ararat. It is located just over the border with Turkey, which is a sworn enemy of Armenia. I couldn’t help thinking that the incongruous nature of the site is the message. Perhaps it is a place meant to foster deeper contemplation about why there is so much war and hatred in this world.