Armenia: Noratus Cemetery

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Noratus Cemetery is a heavenly place for any thanatologist!

The site is huge and presents an impressive overview of Armenia grave culture from the 9th century onward, and the stories that go with it. Gravestones in Armenia were initially rectangular flat stones laying on the ground. In the early Medieval period (5th-7th cc) they became upright with pointed tops. At the same time, “cradle stones” developed. These low stones have rounded or pointed tops running the length of the stone. Flat stones mainly depicted human shapes; cradle stones can include richer cravings for the interned: their occupation, hobbies, station in life. It is easy to detect the person’s life role: farmers are shown with plows, musicians with musical instruments, lords or gentry at the hunt, etc. Smaller stones were primarily for children. Among them are “dynastic cemeteries”, groups of stones dedicated to a single family name.

Noratus holds the largest collection of the typical Armenian khachkars (cross stones). There are thousands of variations on the basic khachkar design, which evolved through its history from a simple cross on a plain background to a stone filled with elaborate and delicately carved patterns and symbols. Developing from the pagan tradition, khachkars borrowed symbols from the old religion and “baptized” them into the new faith. The basic symbol universal to all Khachkars is the central cross. Often the cross is set over a Tree of Life with its branches flanking the lower end of the cross. Flanking the upper end were other symbols: fennel seed pods, grape bunches or crosses, representing new life (as well as the blood sacrifice in the crucifixion). Early khachkars might even include a sun and moon on either upper side of the cross. Later khachkars showed the cross on top of a solar disc, the oldest symbol in Armenia. The disc might be filled with patterns of leaves, vines or eternity symbol (spinning sun). As time went on, symbols became more elaborate and less representative. The Tree of Life became more symbolic, its branches ending in hands clutching the cross, as crosses themselves, or, in the last period, represented by so many extravagant flourishes of geometric design so as to be completely hidden.

Newer parts of the cemetery show development in the more recent years; the typical soviet style grave monuments and the grave stones that depict the deceased in real life size! you also see modern versions of the stones that show the deceased’s occupation or hobby.

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Photos are taken on trips to Armenia in 2008, 2010 and 2011

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