As Tamerlane’s army approached the village of Noratus, the army stopped in its tracks. From a distance, the villagers had miraculously gathered together an impressive army, standing firmly in a disciplined line. Seeing the villagers armed with helmets and swords, Tamerlane retreated. Except the army never existed, instead it was simply the numerous khachkars, the Armenian cross stones, dressed up in military garb. Or so local legend says anyway.
Close to Lake Sevan in Armenia, Noratus is home to the largest collection of impressive khachkars in the Republic of Armenia. The intricately carved cross stones accent the landscape in a military-like fashion, so when our guide tells us about the trick the villagers pulled on Tamerlane, it’s easy to visualise it. Even driving in from afar the cemetery is impressive.
When we stepped out of the car, local pedlars, old ladies and children, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere from behind the tombstones, following us around selling knitted goods – gloves, hats and scarves. It’s about 40ºC, and the last thing I want is to buy is a wooly scarf.
Armenian khachkars themselves are a work of art in their own right. Each grave tells a story about the person buried there. All of the khachkars are engraved with Armenian crosses resembling the tree of life. Some sport their crosses on top of rosettes or solar discs, and sometimes include botanical motifs like elaborate depictions of leaves, grapes or pomegranates interlaced in the design. Khachkars are a core part of Medieval Armenian art, worn down by the weather and coloured by a rusty coloured moss that grew on all of the stones.
While khachkars are commonly used in graveyards, and in the oldest part of Noratus there are over 800, Armenian gravestones actually come in various other forms. Cradle stones, for example, low stones shaped like a cradle, appropriately, are a common grave type. These rectangular blocks depict a story, sometimes even showing how the person lived and died. In Noratus, even the khachkars carry a personalised accent on the other side of the cross stone, but it’s the cradle stones that really tell a story. These go into detail about the person, detailing their occupation, hobbies and even their station in life. A glance at the pictorial clues on the cradle stone gives you an idea about who that person was: farmers are depicted with ploughs, musicians with instruments and so on.
A wander through the cemetery is not just about history, but about history of Armenian art as well. The graves here date between the 9th-17th centuries – a period that spans almost a millennia. Some stones are worn down into the ground, whose carvings are hard to decipher, whereas others are sharp as a good lens. What’s interesting is the artistic styles and forms that evolving over time, from more primitive carvings to those that are elaborate and intricate.
The beauty of this cemetery lies in the mix of a orderliness and scattered chaos. Some khachkars lie proudly raised on platforms, while others are grouped into families in a straight, gathered line. The story of the village remains alive among these stones which gaze out over the old chapel to the rolling hills behind, soothed by the wind rushing in for the deep blue Sevan Lake that lies peacefully nearby.
Noratus and Lake Sevan are about an hour’s drive outside of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and make a perfect day trip. It’s easy to combine a visit to Lake Sevan’s other sights, like the famous Sevanavank, the island inlet housing a medieval monastery, and the rock-carved Geghard Monastery in the gorge nearby or the reconstructed Roman temple in Garni. Even if you don’t make it to Noratus, on any visit to Armenia you will come across the mysterious khachkars at any ancient site.